Transcending Mystery and Wonder: Unitarian Universalism Essentials, Part 1

Unitarian Universalist Essentials I: Transcending Mystery

Rev. Anthony Makar

Nov. 17, 2014


We begin a new sermon series today (six sermons in all, and this is the first) in which I invite you to think with me on the nature of Unitarian Universalism. Getting clear on fundamentals, getting clear on essentials. Being able to connect to the religion with our minds even as, with our bodies, we’re already busy with it—worshipping, studying, serving, giving, meditating, changing lives in here and in the larger world, all this and more. We’re already busy with our bodies, but then our minds can still ask, Why? And to what end? What is the Unitarian Universalism that calls us to deeper engagement in life?


The thought that instantly came to me when I began considering how to illuminate the essentials was Brownian motion. Brownian motion is what you see if, for example, you were to look through a microscope at tiny grains of pollen in water, how they don’t sit still, they’re moving and dodging and dancing in that water but you can’t see what’s doing that to them, you can’t see the invisible mechanism that’s causing the visible motion. That’s Brownian motion.


It’s what immediately came to mind. And maybe to you that’s the signal that your Senior Minister is one strange guy. But the analogy is actually quite good. We’re a lot like those particles of pollen. We’re bouncing around, we’re busy—so of course the question becomes, what is the invisible mechanism that is causing the visible motion? With regard to Brownian motion, the answer came from Albert Einstein in 1905. He explained in precise detail how the motion of pollen particles in water is caused by individual water molecules bumping up against them. What was momentous about all this is that, while people had theorized about the existence of atoms and molecules for thousands of years, here, with Einstein, we had the very first definitive confirmation of their existence.


Now I am not saying that I’m trying to recreate Einstein here—although I’d look a lot like him if I let my hair grow our reaaaally reaaally long—but I am saying that we are going to adopt his method. We are going to pay attention to visible behaviors among us and then infer from them the invisible animating beliefs and commitments that are the cause. We’re going to proceed from the visible to the invisible … and in this way come to understand the visible far better than ever before.


One of the reasons I like this method is that it touches on something that some Unitarian Universalists—perhaps many—struggle with. The worry that our busy Brownian motion has no depth, no invisible animating cause and order, to it. We see how individual Unitarian Universalists are all over the map with regard to personal beliefs about spiritual reality; and we see how the larger congregation only encourages this sort of freedom and loves to promote an increasing diversity of groups: Christian groups, Jewish groups, Buddhist groups, Pagan groups, Humanist groups, and on and on. We seem all over the place, and therefore we may feel tempted to conclude that we ARE all over the place.


But as the Brownian motion analogy suggests, such a conclusion is a mistake. We have confused appearance for reality. Just as Brownian motion on the surface is a result of an orderly process at bottom, so is our Unitarian Universalist diversity and doing and busy-ness on the surface a result of animating essentials at the depths. There are things all Unitarian Universalists believe. Yes there are.


Of course, I say that, and it might set off an alarm. What? you say. That sounds a whole lot like a creed. And we Unitarian Universalists don’t do creeds.


And to you I say, Absolutely, you are absolutely correct. A creed is a body of beliefs that a person must subscribe to in order to belong. There is no test of right belief that anyone must take in order to belong to this church.


However, I want you to bring to awareness right now the relief that you experience in being with like-minded people. The comfort we feel here, which allows us to let down our guard in a way that we may experience nowhere else. That IS the sign of the existence of common ground beliefs, beliefs we all hold in common. No one says you have to believe, but if you don’t you, you probably won’t stick around. The place just won’t ever feel comfortable to you.


So that’s the preliminaries. Let’s go deeper now, pull out our microscopes, and take a closer look at the Brownian motion of this place.


Exhibit A: our responsive reading from a moment ago:


Worship is the mystery within us reaching out to the mystery beyond;

It is an inarticulate silence yearning to speak;

it is the window of the moment open to the sky of the eternal.


Note how this language of the Mystery resonates with an even more important and defining document for our religious tradition: The Sources Statement, which is an article in the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Bylaws and was adopted in 1984. Now you can’t get more central than that: a statement in an organization’s Bylaws. Here’s what it says: “The living tradition which we share draws from many sources”—and then here is the first: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” That’s our first Source, as a faith tradition. There’s five others, but note very clearly how the Mystery is mentioned first.


I keen on saying “note this.” I keep on talking about “exhibits.” I feel like I’m wearing a white lab coat and conducting an experiment. It’s all about being scientific! We’re getting to the bottom of our Unitarian Universalist Brownian motion!


Take Exhibit B: Our openness to always learning more. Our sense that no single religion or book or tradition or philosophy or way can ever say everything that is to be said about sacred reality. Our sense that there’s always more to be known, more to be revealed.


One of our preeminent theologians of the 20th century, James Luther Adams, said it like this: “Religious liberalism [that’s what we are folks, religious liberals] depends on the principle that ‘revelation’ is continuous.’” It means that the only kind of Bible a Unitarian Universalist could believe in is a Wikipedia-type Bible. It means that, when Unitarian Universalists read the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible in a way that is faithful to our theological tradition, we never read it literally and in a way that assumes the ancient message—the meaning of it—is frozen in the amber of time. Always, we are finding ways to value the old insights in the context of their time, and to evolve the old insights so that they can serve new understandings and new needs. We believe in evolution.


It’s just as an old Universalist saying puts it: “We don’t stand, we move.”


Finally, Exhibit C: and here, we get into what’s really and truly straaaange about us. (Strangeness is always relative, I know—I mean, just being a religious liberal is strange enough. But even the more artsy and liberal types: they possess certain stereotypes about what a church has got to look like to be a church, and one of those stereotypes is too often the idea that there must be a shared belief in the existence of God, or Jesus has got to somehow be central to the picture. So even these more artsy and liberal types: when they encounter us, they might not know how to respond. Because, well, look at us: we got atheists and theists sitting side-by-side in the pews! I read in the paper how we have atheist mega-churches popping up here and there, and while that is pretty good news, I say that the even more incredible thing is what’s unfolding among us here and now. Simply scandalous! Or at the very least, confusing and perplexing…. Is it a sign of insanity? Or apathy, in that we have simply stopped caring? Or stupidity, in that we are misunderstanding the meaning of words? What can possibly make sense of atheists and theists worshipping together—and (why stop there?) goddess worshippers and Buddhists and Jews and agnostics and New Agers and Christians and on and on and on, all together?




And there you have it: Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C: three instances of behaviors that are distinctively Unitarian Universalist kinds of Brownian motion, and now we want to understand the underlying mechanism that explains it all.


And here it is: our shared belief in the Mystery. Sacred reality is a Mystery. The responsive reading, again:


Worship is the mystery within us reaching out to the mystery beyond;

It is an inarticulate silence yearning to speak;

it is the window of the moment open to the sky of the eternal.


To be a Unitarian Universalist is to sense the Mystery. Death happens, birth happens, love happens, illness happens, sex happens, beauty happens, failure happens, war happens, cruelty happens, pain happens, forgiveness happens—all these things of life happen—and with each one, we encounter a face of the Mystery that is larger than we can possibly know.


There’s a reason why the ancient story The Wise Men and the Elephant is so popular, so beloved, among us. It never fails to speak to our depths. Every time I tell it, the eyes of Unitarian Universalists light up. It’s definitely a passage in our UU Bible.


You know the story. One day a great elephant comes near to a group of blind men, and each has the opportunity to put their hands directly upon it. They do that, and each comes away with a different piece of the truth. The elephant, says one, is a wall; another says it is a spear; a third says it is a snake; a fourth says it is a tree; a fifth says it is a fan; a sixth says it is a rope. Each has grabbed hold of a different part and takes the part for the whole. None realizes that the whole truth is simply too large, too big, to be captured completely.


They don’t realize it, but we do. That’s what makes us who we are. Some of us address a cosmic conscious personality in prayer and we really feel responded to; others meditate and experience nothing personal but rather a simple sheer unity of all things; still others experience a world in which there are many, not one, sacred forces with conscious intent. And on and on. Different people experience all sorts of different things—because the great sacred mystery elephant has lots of different places where we can grab ahold of it. A side, a tusk, a trunk, a leg, an ear, a tail. Where sacred reality is concerned, it’s both/and, not either/or. It’s complex enough to invite and justify even contradictory experiences. Quantum mechanics reveals our physical world to be strange beyond imagining. And if this is so, how much more so the nature of God.


God is a Mystery. The sacred is fundamentally Mystery.


Therefore, we atheists and theists and all sorts of others sit side by side in the pews. Of course. It flows out of the integrity of our spiritual vision. It’s not evidence of insanity or apathy or stupidity. It’s integrity.


Actually, what’s even more accurate is to say that, within the individual Unitarian Universalist is a part which is atheist, and a part which is theist, a part which is Buddhist, a part which is Christian, a part which is agnostic and questioning and wants to believe but isn’t sure how to get there.  Forget about sitting beside someone who has a completely different view than you. You yourself encompass all sorts of differences; you yourself are complex; you yourself believe in God Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays and disbelieve on Tuesdays and Thursdays and then who knows what else on the weekends! It’s our Brownian motion of the spirit!


And it’s tempting to call it irresponsible, or sloppy. But there’s another way of looking at it. Call it holy ignorance instead. Educated ignorance. Knowing that sacred reality is bigger than any single theory and single formulation. They say that your mind can be so open your brains fall out. Perhaps. But it can also be that your mind is so open the Mystery falls in. And that’s something we DO want. A gateway to awe.


We believe in the Mystery. If I should ever preach a one way, one truth, one life message, you’d throw me outta here. I can even screw up a political message like I did a couple months back, when I got real intense over the Trayvon Martin case and said some things that, in retrospect, were unfair—and you didn’t send me packing (although you did send me emails). But: should I preach one way, one truth, one life: there’s no forgiving that. It’s just un-Unitarian Universalist. It’s opposite. It’s illiberal. It’s antichrist!


I want to close with a thought on behaviors that might extend even further our essential Unitarian Universalist belief that sacred reality is a Mystery. How to live more deeply into our UU faith.


One is this: to be intentional in being more aware of the Mystery in one’s life. Sometimes the Mystery breaks in upon us in ways that aren’t so fun: the loss of a love, or a job. An illness. A divorce. A breakdown of some sort or another. In times like this, the best we can do is realize we are undergoing an initiation into the deeper mysteries of life. We can stop resisting and start being more curious about what’s happening. My personal prayer is to


Stay curious

every moment

the mystery unfolds.


Other times—indeed most times—the task is to make room for the Mystery. I believe that the Spirit really is like a shy animal, and if we don’t stop and become perfectly still, we scare it off, it runs away. But we want it to come close. We want to know it. So we have to learn how to be still. We have to turn the phone off, let the email go for a time. We have to let the house stay messy a little while longer so we can grab some meditation time. Let one’s partner or friend take care of the kids for a bit so you can get away. Right before your family devours the meal, take a moment to offer a blessing. So many ways to make room for Mystery. For myself, I love to take walks. It soothes my body and allows my thinking to become more fluid and creative. It opens up my mind—and sometimes, the Mystery falls in. That’s the hope.


Yet another thing we can do to extend our Unitarian Universalist belief in Mystery is expand our imagination about ourselves and the world. My specific behavior around this—and again, you will do it differently, you get to—is in boldly saying to myself that my life is God’s. Or that we are God’s, this moment right now is God’s, this crisis I am facing is God’s. Imagining things this way came to me at a recent Atlanta area minister’s meeting, and our program leader for the day asked us to answer the question, “Why is life important?” And instantly I went to the thought that life is learning, that life is an opportunity for the soul to expand into all its potentialities and powers. Then I found myself thinking about love, how love is our true home, but we get lost all the time, and so life is an opportunity to find our way back home. And while it all meant so much to me, it still felt (how shall I say this) too ego-filled, like I was that smart third-grader whose hand eagerly shoots up like crazy in the air every time the teacher asks a question. Yes, life is important because of learning and love. But life is always so much more. Life is the elephant in the ancient story. Life is BIG. That’s when I found different words on my lips: I am God’s. It has nothing to do with divine intervention. It has nothing to do with giving up personal responsibility. It has everything to do with snatching my life out of my own judgmental hands and putting it in the hands of something far more profound and subtle. It’s about seeing myself as participating in a life that’s larger than I can imagine, a life that is ultimately worthwhile and meaningful and, all things considered, good. Death, birth, love, illness, sex, beauty, failure, war, cruelty, pain, forgiveness, on and on. All faces of the Mystery, all entry points, all initiations into deeper knowing. I am God’s, and so are you, and so are we, and so is the world.