You’re a Unitarian Universalist? What’s That?
"It doesn't interest me what you do for a living," says Oriah Mountain Dreamer in her poem called "The Invitation." "I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing. I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it. It doesn't interest me how old you are. It doesn't interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. It doesn't interest me who you know or how you came to be here. It doesn't interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments." That's what Oriah Mountain Dreamer says. She's definitely not interested in small talk. Big talk is what she wants. Big things are what she wants to know, which all get to the juice and essence of our living.
And what I want to say is this: I wish that, when we are asked about Unitarian Universalism-what it is and what it means in our lives-the questioner asks with the sincerity of an Oriah Mountain Dreamer. That's what I wish. "What does Unitarian Universalism mean for you? How is it your path to the sacred in life? How does it enrich your world? What relationships has it brought into your life? What are its ideals and symbols that inspire you and encourage you? In what ways has it entered your days and shaped your sense of the seasons and time?" Oriah Mountain Dreamer questions, all. And hearing them, reflecting on them, we are ourselves deepened in our Unitarian Universalism. Talking things out helps us to integrate our experiences and own them. It's good for the questioner, and good for us. If to some questions we do not have answers, then we realize our growing edges and the growth opportunities before us. Above all, such questions remind us that our common faith is nothing less than a direction towards changing lives. A way of bringing more and more of the sacred into daily awareness. More knowledge, more creativity, more clarity, more resilience, more humor and humility, more hope, more acceptance, more graciousness. Unitarian Universalism, if it is anything, is a direction and a path towards the MORE.
I wish Oriah Mountain Dreamer came into our lives more regularly. And yet, very often, when we are asked about Unitarian Universalism, the motivation behind the question is not necessarily deep. Just simple curiosity. Not big talk, but small talk. How long has Unitarian Universalism been around? Who are some famous Unitarian Universalists? Or even, Do we have mutual friends? And then there is the questioner whose question is really this: a Trojan horse strategy by which they try to draw you out about your faith only so that that they can argue with you, declare you wrong, recruit you to their side. And, finally, there is the kind of questioner who will try the Trojan horse strategy on you because that is the only way they know how to talk about religion-it was how they were raised, how they were trained-but, if you stay in conversation with them long enough, you will come to see that they DON'T in fact feel like they are in possession of the whole Truth, that they have problems with their faith and may be realizing it only just then, right in the act of conversation with you….
These are just a few of the motivations that may lead a person to ask, "What is Unitarian Universalism?" So, as we think about what our answers might look like-how we might put our faith into words-we need to be mindful of this. Different contexts merit different strategies. Unfortunately, to do justice to them all would take up far more time than is available to me now. So, today we are going to imagine the question, "What is Unitarian Universalism?" as coming from a place of Oriah Mountain Dreamer sincerity and listening. Again, I know it is not always like this. Stay tuned for future opportunities to explore the other conversational contexts.
Oriah Mountain Dreamer comes into our lives. She asks the question, "What is Unitarian Universalism?" and immediately we might feel an internal discomfort, our stomachs tightening, our tongues tied up into a knot. Does that ring any bells? Why is that?
One reason may simply be this: we feel we don't know enough theology, enough history, enough facts and figures. The books and resources are available, to be sure-religious education classes and worship experiences and sermons like this one; lots of informational pamphlets available on our UUCA website or in the hall outside the sanctuary; books in our UUCA library like Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism by John Buehrens and Forrester Church, or Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History by David Bumbaugh. Information is abundantly available, but even if we take advantage of it, it still may not be all there at the tips of our tongues when someone asks the question, "What is Unitarian Univeralism?" It's in our heads, but it's in bits and pieces only and we can't necessarily present it with dissertation-like order and comprehensiveness.
Assuming we have taken advantage of opportunities to learn about Unitarian Universalism, then if we are still anxious about "not knowing enough," perhaps the solution here is to name the problem for what it is: perfectionism. So many of us struggle with this in our lives. I'll never forget what one wise person said to me about it. She said, "Perfectionism is an obstacle to improvement." What an irony, since perfectionism is supposed to be all about improvement! Yet there it is.
Perfectionism is an obstacle to so many good things in life, including the joy of being able to talk confidently about the religious path that we love. Here's what I recommend. When you bring up something about Unitarian Universalist theology or history, don't try to say everything. And don't remain dispassionate, clinical, a spectator to things. Oriah Mountain Dreamer wants to know if, for one thing, you will stand in the centre of the fire with her and not shrink back. So tell her about how our Unitarian Universalist practice of life in covenantal community has helped you stand in the fire with others. Tell her about how it empowers the miracle of a group of people who don't necessarily think alike but strive to love alike. Tell her about a time it personally challenged you to listen respectfully to a point of view that you fervently disagreed with. Tell her about how it led you to be more thoughtful about how you treat families and children in worship, or about the challenges that the differently-abled face when they come here. Tell her about how it strengthened your commitment to be compassionate and forgiving in your relationships. Our practice of life in covenantal community is about all this and more-it is a spiritual discipline that is part and parcel of who we are as a religious people, and if we give ourselves to it again and again, every day and every month and every year, it will transform our relationships here at UUCA and it will trickle down into the fabric of our families and lives away from the congregation. We will stand together in the fire. So tell that to Oriah Mountain Dreamer. Show how your life is being changed. Show passion. That's what she wants to know. That's what she wants to hear. Not an abstract dissertation, but specific ways in which Unitarian Universalism is making you courageous and strong for your life.
But now we turn to another reason for why the question, "What is Unitarian Universalism?" can make us feel anxious and awkward: our diversity. It is a truly wonderful thing about us, but then it naturally raises the issue: Where's the beef? Is there anything that holds us together besides and beyond our commitment to living within the bounds of our covenant of healthy relationships? When Unitarian Universalism draws from so many sources-mystical traditions, words and deeds of prophetic women and men, wisdom from the world's traditions, our parent traditions of Judaism and Christianity, the teachings of religious humanism, the teachings of earth-centered traditions, science-when Unitarian Universalism draws from all of these, it can make a person wonder if there is any distinctive content to our faith tradition that grounds all this variety, that is more than the sum of all our sources, that is uniquely and wonderfully Unitarian Universalist. ]It can make people walk away, thinking, You know, Unitarian Universalists borrow other people's religions because they don't have any of their own. The Emperor has no clothes. That's exactly the impression people can get.
And here, I would say two things. One has to do with the unspoken assumption-which prevails in Western religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (or in at least broad strands if these traditions)-that any religion worth its salt must teach exclusive loyalty to only one image of God or one set of scriptures or one way of life. This unspoken assumption is so widespread where we live that it can feel like absolute and unshakeable truth, the simple way things are. And yet, consider the very different pattern of religiosity in East Asia, as in China, or Japan, or the Koreas. There, the family of major religions is Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism, and people relate to them all. Everyone, except for religious specialists such as priests, "belongs" to all the religions, calling upon each one for different needs. In East Asia, to most people, the idea of exclusive loyalty to one religion is incomprehensible.
I mention this so as to expose the hidden assumption underlying the joke that Unitarian Universalists borrow from other people's religions because they don't have any of their own. Borrowing suggests some kind of weakness. Borrowing suggests some kind of flaw. And yet it is no weakness or flaw at all from the perspective of East Asian religiosity. It is not weakness but wisdom. It is not a flaw but the norm. We are not ugly ducklings after all, but swans. Somehow, our 500 year-long history has led us-Unitarian Universalists smack dab in the middle of a Bible Belt which is as wide as all America!-to a style of spirituality that is perfectly at home in the East. It's just amazing.
There is more to our diversity than meets the eye. It has a significant and legitimating precedent in the religions of the world, and then there is this: it has its underlying reasons. Our diversity expresses a hidden, underlying unity of conviction about key things which gets at the essence of Unitarian Universalism.
I'm talking about widely-shared assumptions which make sense of what we do. One of them is this: That the test of the true value of an idea or practice is not where it comes from, or who, but what its impact is likely to be. Not origin, but consequences. Not roots, but fruits. Sometimes we are talking theoretical consequences, as in, does the idea or practice extend existing knowledge? Does it help us connect the dots more simply, or more comprehensively? But all the time, we are talking practical consequences, lifestyle consequences. Truth allows life to flourish and brings people and planet together in harmony; whereas falsehood denigrates life, violates our relationships, destroys our world.
This is an assumption we hold in common as Unitarian Universalists, when we say that "service is our prayer," or when we talk about prophetic vision and action. This assumption is a must; otherwise, our practice of drawing from many sources-without regard for who is speaking, or what scripture it comes from-makes little rational sense.
Another assumption that Unitarian Universalists share is this: That the religious meaning of the universe is open and capable of being experienced and interpreted in significantly different ways. It does not command one and only one way of seeing it or interpreting it, in the way that a speeding car commands that you look both ways before you cross the road, and your interpretation of this physical aspect of the universe spells the difference between immediate life or death. The universe does not command like this when it comes to the fact of God's existence, or what experience of the sacred is like, or the way to spiritual fulfillment. It is one light, yes, but the appearance it takes depends a great deal upon the particular stained glass window that the light streams through. Come to it as a God-believer, and there are enough evidences to make belief in God rational. Come to it as an atheist, and there are enough evidences to make disbelief in God rational as well.
The spiritual meaning of the universe is open. We must assume this, else it is hard to explain to ourselves or to others that aspect of our religious diversity which is, perhaps, the most surprising of all to Americans: that we welcome theists of all kinds, as well as atheists and agnostics. For we assume that the universe is a Mystery; and we know that, because it is a Mystery, the spiritual journey each person takes and the conclusions they will arrive at will naturally be diverse and various.
So: assumptions that we Unitarian Universalist hold in common: the test of truth and value is in practice; the religious meaning of the universe is open. And here is a third assumption: that human nature is open, too. It is not hardwired for destructiveness and evil, and neither is it hardwired for virtue and good. Thus life is a process of learning to love and do what is good. Life is a process of carefully developing the positive potentials we are born with, so that they are not tragically left unrealized. Character is key.
As for how this helps make sense of our diversity: if we truly believed we were hardwired to do destructive things-if we truly believed that the internal compass of conscience and intuition was fatally flawed-then we would be fools indeed to espouse religious diversity, since the free choice that our diversity presupposes would often if not always get us into trouble, take us into falsehood and error. A broken or flawed internal compass, one that is unreliable, can't be expected to do anything else. And so we would be far better off unquestioningly obeying the commandments that some God or other, some tradition nor other, imposes upon us. Free choice would simply be disastrous.
One the other hand, if we truly believed we were hardwired for the good, again, our practice of religious diversity wouldn't make any sense. For us, diversity is a spiritual discipline that helps us uncover blind spots in our thinking and our being; it can get us out of ruts and back into the fullness and flow of life. It can also be this: a positive opportunity to discover other forms of thought and spirit that speak to us in ways that ones nearer-to-hand might not. But consider how all such things would be irrelevant if we were hardwired for the good. If that were so, we would not ever have to worry about such things as blind spots, or ruts, or boredom. Such problems would never even arise.
What I am saying is that our practice of diversity holds important clues for us. If we look beneath it, we can find the common ground that is distinctively and essentially Unitarian Universalist. The rhyme and reason justifying who we are and why we are as we are. The test of spiritual value is in practice. The religious meaning of the universe is open. Human nature is open. These and other ideas as well. That community is essential to the healthy spiritual life. That the search for meaning is not hopeless, or absurd. Ideas like this.
And, I will readily admit, such core, common ground ideas are of a very different type than what you find in many other religious traditions. In the tradition I grew up in, the Church of Christ, our common ground was defined down to the details as (1) belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, (2) salvation through Jesus' substitutionary atonement on the cross, (3) the necessity of full-immersion baptism for salvation, (4) the infallibility and completeness of the scriptures, understood literalistically; and (5) the necessity of the church to practice only that which can be traced back to the Christian scriptures. At least this. And notice, again, how these are all detailed theological conclusions to larger questions, such as, What is the nature of the sacred in life? How do we achieve true spiritual fulfilment? What sources of wisdom and truth can we draw from to guide us in our journey? How best can we organize ourselves into communities that empower individuals to connect with the sacred? The Church of Christ gave me detailed conclusions to these questions. It gave me closures, terminations, endings, none of which allowed any elbow-room. None of which opened me up to further discovery and exploration.
These are just not the kind of core convictions which Unitarian Universalism offers us. It holds back from dictating specific theological conclusions (about God's existence, the best way to true spiritual fulfilment, and the like) because it knows that all such specific beliefs are way too important to be answered for us by someone else or something else. We must come to our own detailed answers, first-hand, for them to be truly meaningful. So what Unitarian Universalism does instead is provide a broad framework emphasizing main points only, and these main points are all openings, they are all invitations, they are all beginnings. The test of spiritual value is in practice. The Universe is a Mystery. Human nature is free. These and other ideas create a space for the spiritual journey, in just the same way that a frame creates space for a painting. Unitarian Universalism frames the canvass of our spiritual lives, and we paint the painting, and this is how our community enjoys its unity-in-diversity.
Oriah Mountain Dreamer comes to us and asks the question: "What is Unitarian Universalism?" And we can answer her. We can find something in our experience of Unitarian Universalism that has made a difference in our lives, and we can tell a passionate story about that. We can share our excitement about our spiritual diversity, and how-though it may be different from what people are used to in traditional American religions-it resonates with a style of spirituality half-way across the world. And then we can go beneath our diversity, to the reasons that ground us, to our shared common ground which is so very easy to take for granted-so very general, so very basic-and yet it is nothing less than the magic that makes our faith possible. Amen.