The Eclectic Church of the Future

How many people here this morning are familiar with a contemporary style of music known as “country rap”? I’m talking hip-hop-style rapping blended with honky tonk guitar, fiddle, and vocal harmonies. Artists like Boondox, Bubba Sparxxx, Cowboy Troy. Know what I’m talking about? What’s especially fascinating for me is how this symbolizes larger social trends. Fusions of styles and cultures, leading to unexpected and unpredictable new forms, in all sorts of areas of life. Music, dance, film, literature, architecture…. Near where I live, there’s a Taco Bell that’s also a KFC, which is still strange for me. For years they’d always been separate establishments. Taco Bell over there, KFC over here. But now they’re together, following the pluralist, eclectic pattern of our world today.

And the same thing goes with religious identity. A recent poll showed that 82% of Americans affirmed the idea that there’s no such thing as one and only one right spiritual way, and in such a cultural context, fusions of religious traditions flourish. Experiments abound. People who are Christian-Buddhist. People who are Hindu-Jew (and here a book title springs to mind: The Jew in the Lotus). Fusions abound. Unitarian Universalists and others, who are happily responsive to the varied riches of the world’s great religious traditions and draw from them as they are led by reason and conscience as well as by background, personality type, stage of faith, and other similar factors.

Back in 1878, the Unitarian Lydia Marie Child once imagined “an eclectic church of the future which shall gather forms of holy aspirations from all ages and nations.” All these years later, here we are, and it just so happens that we are in step with larger cultural forces. Pluralism is in our DNA. But how did we get this way? How is it that, as a spiritual community we are about to enter into a year-long exploration of world religious traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism and Taoism and Islam and Judaism and Christianity and aboriginal, native spiritualities, and we don’t bat an eye? Today, this is what we’re looking at: our history as a religious people, together with its legacy to us in the present moment—gifts, but also blind spots, growing edges, challenges we must face if we are to remain a living, vital tradition.

One place to begin is at the beginning. From our earliest origins in the Christian tradition—heretics who argued for the classic Unitarian doctrine of God’s oneness as well as for the classic Universalist doctrine of God’s unwillingness to allow any person to be damned for all eternity—from these earliest origins, what we have is ultimately an affirmation that there are far more effective ways of knowing the truth than unquestionably accepting establishment dogma. Just because some church authority says it doesn’t automatically mean it’s true. Just because something may be unheard of in acceptable society—strange to what’s taken as normal—does not mean it’s wrong. Conscience and reason and intuition are better guides to the truth than authority or “what feels normal.” All through the many forms of our existence as a spiritual tradition, from the heresies of 1700 years ago to now, this affirmation, like a golden thread, has run.

I start here, because it’s critical you see this as we turn to the specific history of religious eclecticism in America. It’s the underlying logic. Scholars tell us that the very first serious inquiry into non-Christian religions published in America was by Joseph Priestley, whom you may recognize as the famous discoverer of oxygen. He was also no less than the founder of organized Unitarianism in England, who emigrated to America in part because his religious and political views got him into big trouble, got his house burned down by the mob. He came to America to start anew, and one of his gifts was a book published in 1799, entitled A Comparison of the Institutions of Moses with those of the Hindoos and other Ancient Nations. As it turns out, he comes off as a narrow-minded bigot, basically saying, “Look at all this weird stuff in other religions—Christianity is the one true faith.” But still, remember his context. Religious authority and social convention told him and told everyone in his day, Don’t even look at the other world religions. Nothing there to see. But, being the Unitarian he was, he said, Nuh uh, no way, I’m gonna look for myself. And he did. And in so doing, he started something amazing on American soil. One of his readers was yet another Unitarian, a guy named John Adams, second president of the United States. Says Carl T. Jackson, author of The Oriental Religions and American Thought, “He [John Adams] fumed at Priestley’s unevenness and catalogued numerous instances of omission, unfairness, and distortion; nevertheless, he learned a great deal.”

Two things I’m hoping you’re seeing so far are, first, a core aspect of Unitarian Universalism, which is to check things out for yourself, prove the truth of ideas on the basis of reason and conscience and intuition, not taking the word of authority or the status quo as gospel. Second is this: the remarkable historical insight that developments in Unitarian Universalist history had great impact on American culture as a whole. How our ancestors responded to non-Christian traditions led the way. When Henry David Thoreau, almost 170 years ago, saw ice cut from his beloved Walden Pond in the form of blocks, then packed in felt and sawdust and sent over to India, he intuited the ultimate religious consequences of this economic act, saying, “The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.” But what he did next not only distinguished him from Joseph Priestley (whose interest in non-Christian traditions was all head), but he also set a revolutionary example that millions of Americans follow today, whether they know it or not. He took what the sacred stories and rituals and symbols of many lands had to say personally. It became his regular spiritual practice to read the Christian scriptures alongside the Bhagavad-Gita, the Analects of Confucius, the sutras of Buddhism. Practically everyone else in his day went one way, but he happily went another, followed a different drummer. He mingled the sacred waters of many lands in his own soul. His spirituality was eclectic to the core. As we study the world’s religions together this year, remember, it’s the answer to this question: “What would Thoreau do.” WWTD.

Actually, to be fair, it’s what our Transcendentalist ancestors would do. It’s Henry David Thoreau together with Ralph Waldo Emerson, together with Margaret Fuller, together with Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Convers Francis, Amos Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, and others. This remarkable circle of souls, who were the first movers in a series of generations of spiritual seekers, also including Reform Jews, Progressive Quakers, Spiritualists, New Thought optimists, Vedantists, and Theosophists. A whole host of people and groups, spreading the original Transcendentalist vision of many ways to God, until, today, we find it embedded in our DNA. The air we breathe. Country rap of the spirit.

Let’s take a brief look at some of the more outstanding moments of spiritual eclecticism across the years, before we turn to the issue of this legacy’s gifts and challenges to us, and the way forward.

The first comes from a letter, written in 1839 by first generation Transcendentalist Convers Francis to Theodore Parker. “We might have (might we not?) what I should call a World Bible, which if we had now our choice to make would be better than the Jewish and Christian Bible—I mean a combination of the essentially true and wise, which lies scattered among the sages of all times and nations…. Wouldn’t it be a noble, truly God-sent Bible?” I am personally not aware of an earlier mention of such an idea. A World Bible. The Transcendentalists came up with this! And, as a thought, what do you imagine would happen if we bought 10,000 world bibles and went into Atlanta neighborhoods, knocked on doors, gave them away free like the Gideons. What’s the message that people would get about who we are? And, what if we used a World Bible regularly in worship? I mean, had them right there in the pews, beside the hymnal? What then? Food for thought. It would be right in line with our history.

But now, a second moment to touch on. We jump thirty-one years to 1870, when the leading second generation Transcendentalist, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, delivered a signal speech entitled, “The Sympathy of Religions.” “Our true religious life,” he says, “begins when we discover that there is an Inner Light, not infallible but invaluable, which ‘lighteth every man that cometh into the world.’ Then we have something to steer by; and it is chiefly this, and not an anchor, that we need. The human soul, like any other noble vessel, was not built to be anchored, but to sail. An anchorage may, indeed, be at times a temporary need, in order to make some special repairs, or to take fresh cargo in; yet the natural destiny of both ship and soul is not the harbor, but the ocean.” That’s Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Our souls were meant to sail the ocean, not to be anchored at port. So we sail the ocean, steering by our Inner Light, and we go to China, we go to India, we go to Iraq, we go to the Middle East, we go to Greece, we go to Australia, and we encounter evidence everywhere of humanity’s encounter with the sacred—as expressed in story and scripture and symbol and ritual. And what we find, says Thomas Wentworth Higginson, is an “astonishing equivalence of insight among sacred books, a shared profundity and ethical awareness across religions.” “There is a sympathy in religions,” he says. “[E]very step in knowledge brings out the sympathy between them. They all show the same aim, the same symbols, the same forms, the same weaknesses, the same aspirations.” And then he declares, “I do not wish to belong to a religion only, but to the religion; it must not include less than the piety of the world.” “The one unpardonable sin is exclusiveness.” “Are we as large as our theory?” he challenges his hearers. “Are we ready to tolerate … the Evangelical man as the Mohommedan?” Remember, he’s writing in 1870, so his language will sound strange. But when was the last time you heard that soul-searching question in this place: “Are we as large as our theory?” Are we as inclusive as we say we are? Folks, everything has a history, and here’s the history of that challenging question.

Let’s jump to a third and final moment, 50 years later: the 1920s. Martin Kellogg Schermerhorn and his quest for “universal worship.” I had never heard of this guy before, until I encountered his untold story in a book by Leigh Eric Schmidt entitled Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality. Apparently Martin Kellogg Schermerhorn was a Unitarian minister from Poughkeepsie, and he was promoting various collections of hymns, scriptures, and prayers for “universal worship” services. He believed that peace would happen only when ethnic, racial, and religious tribalism were undone. He dared to imagine worship that invoked temple, shrine, and mosque as much as church—worship in which the prayer would bring people (as Islamic saint Rabia of Basra put it) “to an altar where no walls or names existed.” So he was busy working out the details. Busy figuring out liturgy. Envisioning new churches which would host universal worship–which he called “Cosmopolitan.”

These are all remarkable moments—and there are so many others. Moment upon moment upon moment, all building up a legacy that has impacted America tremendously, as well as our own spiritual tradition. And now, here we are, gifted by it, but also troubled too. Challenged. Let’s turn to this side of things now.

With regard to gifts: two come immediately to mind. One is that we are positioned to be in tune with our postmodern times. The ocean that Thomas Wentworth Higginson used as a poetic metaphor back in the 1870s has, by virtue of technology, become our constant reality. The swiftness of international flight, the instantaneity of communications across the world through the internet and through satellite—we sail the sea whether we want to or not. 9/11-style terrorism is how some groups want to stop it, how they want to anchor themselves and others in safe harbors, but modernization cannot be stopped. We live in a vast sea of multiple systems of symbol and belief, and we need a religion that acknowledges this fact and says to us, Yes, this is real. Don’t freak out. Don’t go back to the old mindset that says, There’s only one way, and my people have it. The wide blue boat ocean is before you, so sail it. Be creative. Be brave.

That’s the first gift: simply to acknowledge the ocean. The second gift is how our habit of eclecticism has put us on a distinctly prophetic path. “The person who knows only one religion knows none,” said the great scholar of religions Max Muller; this means that as we draw from various world religions, our sense of perspective grows. We’re better able to stand back from the place and time we find ourselves in, and see both limitations and opportunities more clearly. We also discover the main themes and imperatives of religion, as we see them repeated over and over again in different traditions, as we hear their echoes across the ages. It’s Martin Luther King, Jr., discovering the power of peace through the works of a Hindu saint, Gandhi; it’s Gandhi, discovering the power of peace, when he read the works of a Unitarian Universalist saint, Henry David Thoreau. All these instances of cross-pollination, and there’s nothing self-indulgent and escapist here. A spiritual way which draws wisely from multiple religious traditions can change lives and change the world because it takes you into the heart of things. Compassion. Peace, Love. Humility. Forgiveness. A sense of humor. A sense of awe. Beauty. Bigness. The vision that God is too big to be contained by any single tradition, and that this is good.

This is the gift of our spiritual heritage, from Priestley, The Transcendentalists, and beyond.

But now, some thoughts regarding challenges. As with the gifts, there are far too many to discuss in the time allowed. But here is a big one to consider.

It comes up in connection with Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s conviction that all religions are ultimately the same. “There is a sympathy in religions,” we heard him say a moment ago. “[E]very step in knowledge brings out the sympathy between them. They all show the same aim, the same symbols, the same forms, the same weaknesses, the same aspirations.” To this, scholar Stephen Prothero, in his hot-off-the-presses book entitled God is Not One, says, absolutely not. “This is a lovely sentiment,” he says, “but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue. For more than a generation,” he complains, although from what I have said today you know that it’s for far more than a single generation, “we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into fantasy world in which all gods are one.” “Pretending that the world’s religions are the same,” he continues, “ does not make our world safe. Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous. What we need on this furiously religious planet is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate.” And there’s the critique, from Stephen Prothero. Now, I don’t think that the “all religions are basically the same” idea is necessarily Unitarian Universalist dogma. In fact, it’s just as misleading as when people say, “Hey, I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and I can believe whatever I want.” Nonsense. However, this doesn’t stop individual Unitarian Universalists from saying it. Thomas Wentworth Higginson—a key historical figure for us—said it. And we need to be more careful than that. Across the different religions, there are indeed similarities and echoes and repeating themes, and this is important.  But the differences matter too, the details matter too, and we need to know about them as well.

An analogy to music might be helpful here. The sound of a piece of music—and the effect it makes—is integrally tied to the musical instrument that creates it, and how it is played. A piccolo creates a sound very different from a violin, or from a banjo, or from our the amazing voices of our Phoenix Choir. Similarly, the specific and unique experience that is Buddhist enlightenment relies on Buddhist practices which are different from Christian practices or Taoist practices. The details matter. The forms, the symbols, the scriptures, the rituals, matter. They are the vehicles that help to create life-changing, empowering experiences unique to given traditions. So you can’t say that all religions are the same. That’s like saying all music is basically the same. No way. Different religions rely on different instruments to create different effects in our lives—and this is true even if (as I believe) the most exalted forms of the world’s religions lead to mountain-top experiences of “all is one,” of “God’s oneness,” of the “altar where no walls or names exist.” I want to go there. I want to experience this. But there are no short-cuts to the mountain-top. We have to start at the bottom.

As Unitarian Universalists, it means that the way forward for the heritage of religious eclecticism we’ve been given, is to develop forms and vehicles that symbolize and celebrate and empower and extend this. World Bibles in our pews and World Bibles in the streets.

Or how about this. People come into our congregation, and we say to them, Here is the wide ocean: Start sailing! And they say, But I don’t know where to begin. There’s a thousand possibilities, but which one’s right for me? Then there are people who’ve been here awhile, and perhaps they feel stuck. They say, Where do I go now? So, what if we did this. What if we set up a spiritual coaching system for every member within these walls, available to them if wanted. You meet with a coach and go through an assessment process: get a clearer sense of your spiritual autobiography, where you are, and what are some next steps that are sure to address the needs of one’s whole person: Mind, Spirit, Heart, and Body. Then, periodically, you check in with your coach. He or she asks you, How’s it going? What’s working? What’s not? At some point, you train to become a spiritual coach yourself, and the overall result is a system that is ever expanding and growing, one which takes very seriously the difficulties as well as the opportunities of spiritual eclecticism. A system which is a vehicle to spiritual growth that is distinctively Unitarian Universalist. The instrument that helps us play beautiful music that is Unitarian Universalist. Country rap of the spirit. What if?

If our future is to remain vital, we need to know our past. We need to keep on asking What if? And then we need to take the leap. Be bold.