Archive for October, 2013

The Church of Last Resort?

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 20th 2013.)

Back in the Spring I happened to notice that a newspaper article had been pinned to one of our bulletin boards.  Curious to see what it was, and knowing that I hadn’t pinned it there myself, I took a closer look.

The article was an opinion piece by journalist Lisa Miller, a prize-winning religion columnist for the Washington Post.  She began this particular newspaper article with the following paragraph.

The joke about Unitarians is that they’re where you go when you don’t know where to go.  Theirs is the religion of last resort for the intermarried, the ambivalent, the folks who want a faith community without too many rules.  It is perhaps no surprise that the Unitarian Universalist Association is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the country, ballooning fifteen percent over the past decade, when other established churches were shrinking.  Politically progressive to its core, it draws from the pool of people who might otherwise be “nones” — unaffiliated with any church at all.

Well, I experienced a number of emotions in response to reading just that first paragraph.  First, I felt a certain exasperated weariness.  After all, the joke about people who tell jokes about “Unitarians” is that they can’t get our name right.  I don’t know if it’s ignorance or laziness.  For the last fifty two years, we’ve been Unitarian Universalists, and the Universalist side of our heritage is as essential as the Unitarian side.

(And, as one person who commented on the Washington Post’s website put it, starting an article about another’s religion by joking about that religion is probably not wise unless the writer is already committed to the even greater folly of writing a series of articles beginning “The joke about Baptists …”, “The joke about Catholics …”, “The joke about Jews …”, “The joke about Muslims …” and so on.  The commenter concluded, “I will get a bag of popcorn to watch the responses you get to those articles.”)

The next emotion I experienced was, well, pride.  Let’s be honest.  It’s good that we’re here for people who can’t find a religious home elsewhere, and if we are growing because we embrace “the intermarried, the ambivalent”, the “people who might otherwise be ‘nones’”, then, well, bully for us.  There’s certainly a common idea that many mixed faith parents find their ways to Unitarian Universalist congregations for the sake of appropriately inclusive and respectful Religious Education for their children, and it’s no surprise that Beacon Press has published books for interfaith families and that UU World has run articles on the subject.  There’s also the fact that, though more and more people are coming to us with no prior church-going experience, there are still plenty of people who were treated badly by other religions and need Unitarian Universalism as a place where they can, after nursing their wounds for a while, find healing and spiritual wholeness.

But then, looking back over the article, I experienced annoyance.  I don’t want Unitarian Universalism to be, in Ms. Miller’s words, “the religion of last resort”.  I don’t want our Fellowship to be what’s left after somebody has checked out all the other churches that come before us in the alphabet.  I don’t want us to be the church of last resort.

And apparently Ms. Miller isn’t the only one who sees us that way.

In early August, the Southern Baptist Convention filed a brief with the Supreme Court concerning a lower court’s ruling that government meetings may not be opened with a religious act of prayer.  “Th[is] case is about a government seeking to establish a state-ordered civil religion that crowds out the most basic rights of freedom of speech,” the brief stated.  “That is not what our ancestors, and their allies among the American Founders, meant by religious liberty.  We shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Baptist church, [we] agree, but we shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Unitarian church either, and that’s what some are attempting.”

So, just like Ms. Miller, the people who wrote the brief apparently know something about us, but not enough to get our name right.  Maybe their only source of information is “A Prairie Home Companion”.

In any case, the Southern Baptist Convention does seem to be making explicit something that Ms. Miller only implies: that if you take “religion” and remove from it all of the actual religious “stuff”, then what’s left is Unitarian Universalism.

Now by “religion”, let’s be honest, what’s actually meant here is “Christianity”.  Nobody crying “freedom of speech” and “religious liberty” in this case is for one moment thinking about the possibility that government meetings might be opened by a Hindu swami leading a prayer to Vishnu or by a Pagan priestess calling on the spirits of the four directions.  In the Town of Greece, New York, on the other hand, a Christian minister has given just about every opening prayer and that’s why the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that the town had violated the First Amendment.

(By the way, of the fifty-two chaplains who have served the United States House of Representatives, guess how many have been Christian?  Methodists and Presbyterians count for more than half of them, and though there are actually two Unitarians and one Universalist amongst that number, they served back when both traditions were still pretty much Christian.  Oh, and there have never been any female chaplains, though some, as well as male clergy of other faiths, have been guests.  You might be interested to know that September 2000 marked the first time a guest chaplain was Hindu.  Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala opened the House session with a prayer that, in spite of invoking a generic “God” rather than, say, Shiva, resulted in protests from conservative Christians.  I don’t know if there’s ever been a guest chaplain who was Pagan, but I really, really doubt it.)

Closer to home, the Newport News City Council opens its meetings with an invocation by a local minister, though they’ve had to change how that’s done, perhaps as a result of the ruling against the Town of Greece, New York.  I’ve delivered that invocation twice: once before anything was changed, when I spoke facing the audience, and once after the change, when I spoke facing the members of the city council.  Either way, everybody in the room could hear me, thanks to the microphone, and I was even on television!

I guess the intention of the change in having the minister speak facing the council is that the invocation is then for them, rather than being for everybody.  That seems pretty flimsy to me, though.  Both of my invocations were much as you’d hear for a chalice lighting in this Sanctuary.  If I was actually praying to anything, it was to “the spirit of life and love”, but otherwise I was praying for the members of the city council, that they might speak the truth in love and listen to more than others’ words, and that their work on behalf of our town might be their prayer.

I suspect that that made my invocations rather different from those of most of my clergy colleagues.  On the one hand, the letter from the city council said that “The invocation must be generic and applicable to citizens of all faiths. Invoking Christ, Mohammad, etc., has been deemed by Courts to be improper in this setting.”  On the other hand, an attached document from The Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities included a recommendation that “Those who lead such prayers should make them non-denominational and respectful of the nearly universal belief in God, while avoiding language or images that are connected to any one tradition or practice of a particular faith or religion.”  I think my reaction when I first read that was something along the lines of “Huh?”  Let me read it again so that you can appreciate the glorious incoherence of it: “Those who lead such prayers should make them non-denominational and respectful of the nearly universal belief in God, while avoiding language or images that are connected to any one tradition or practice of a particular faith or religion.”

For starters, to talk about denominations is to pretty much frame this in terms of Protestant Christianity from the get-go.  To talk about Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy as denominations is actually nonsense, because the very idea of denominations is at odds with Catholic and Orthodox theology.  I guess some might consider, say, the different schools of Buddhism to be like denominations, if they insisted, but what would “non-denominational” Buddhism have to say about “the nearly universal belief in God”?  Theravada Buddhism is actually atheist while Tibetan Buddhism has thousands of deities, and with many of those gods depicted as wrathful and fearsome, I suspect the people at the The Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities would wet themselves if they actually knew.  (Or maybe they do know, but wrote in thoroughly sloppy language.)

So in the sense that a Unitarian Universalist invocation should be at least somewhat meaningful to everyone from theists to humanists, and from atheists to pagans, then yes, the perfect “non-denominational” prayer to open a government meeting would indeed be Unitarian Universalist.  But the Southern Baptist Convention is wrong in claiming that that’s only because what we’re actually doing is starting with something Christian and then removing all of the Christianity from it.

Now if you know anything about Unitarian Universalist history, you might at this point object by saying that that’s indeed what happened.  After all, just a few minutes ago I made reference to three ministers from our traditions, the Unitarians Jared Sparks and William Henry Channing and the Universalist Henry Couden, each of whom served as Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives sufficiently far back in the past that both Unitarianism and Universalism were, at those respective times, both still pretty much Christian.  So didn’t both traditions evolve by shedding their Christianity?

Well, I guess you could view it that way.  To my mind, though, that’s definitely a “glass half empty” way of looking at it, and rather misses the point.  And to try to look at it in a “glass half full” way is to still be stuck in the mindset that’s something’s missing.

I prefer to look at what happened in terms of a bigger glass, with more in it.  Yes, both Unitarianism and Universalism emerged from Christianity.  They were both viable schools of belief in that chaotic, frothy mixture we simplistically name “the early church”, present right from the start two thousand years ago, and a lot of politics took place before both the Unitarians — who believed in the full humanity of Jesus — and the Universalists — who believed that everybody would ultimately go to heaven — found themselves cast out as heretics.  And yet pockets of both Unitarianism and Universalism persisted in springing up again and again through the centuries.

In the United States, both faiths thrived thanks to the Constitutional guarantee that the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.  And both faiths continued to be Christian well into the nineteenth century, differing only from “official” Christianity in their specific theological points.  It wasn’t even until the 1820s that the Unitarians started calling themselves by that name, setting themselves apart from Christians who believed in the Jesus of the Trinity, but apparently that started a ball rolling that nobody saw coming.

First, there was the Transcendentalist Movement, which featured many Unitarians.  That made the glass bigger by refusing to accept the Bible as the only sacred text.  The scriptures of Eastern traditions became accessible in English translations and Nature itself became a source of religious inspiration.  The Transcendentalist Movement eventually disappeared, but the Transcendentalists themselves were absorbed back into Unitarianism.

Something similar happened a century later, when Humanism appeared on the scene.  That made the glass bigger again by refusing to accept theism as the only valid theology, and it opened the way to add pantheism and atheism into that bigger glass.  Humanism, too, at least in that original form, also disappeared, but the Humanists were, like the Transcendentalists before them, absorbed back into Unitarianism.

And along the way, social movements from the abolition of slavery to women’s suffrage made the glass bigger too, not just for the Unitarians but for the Universalists as well.

The Universalists were exclusively Christian well into the twentieth century, but while the Unitarians had grown bigger and more inclusive in an organic fashion, or at least by repeated happy accidents, the Universalists actually made a conscious decision to make their glass bigger and more full.  They chose to aspire to be a truly Universal religion, and in this realized they had natural partners with the Unitarians.  Both faiths agreed that together they would make the glass even bigger and even more full, and so in 1961 Unitarian Universalism was born.

In other words, Unitarian Universalism is far from the result of starting with Christianity and then removing everything Christian.  Rather, it’s what you get when you make, to switch metaphors, a big enough tent for people of different religious beliefs and different spiritual practices to gather under the same roof.  To talk of what’s left is to miss the point entirely.  To talk of what’s left is to somehow think that the process of growing that tent and becoming more open and inclusive to more people has actually diminished us, when in fact it’s quite the opposite.

Now don’t be misled by the regrettably persistent strain of anti-Christian sentiment that occasionally pops up amongst Unitarian Universalists.  As I mentioned earlier, some people find themselves here because they’re seeking healing from the hurts inflicted upon them in other churches.  Not that I want to justify bad behavior, but a certain amount of appropriate venting can be cathartic, so long as it eventually leads to wholeness.  And not to make excuses but there’s also the inevitable stress of being a member of a minority religion within a culture that clearly doesn’t understand us.

But then, we’ve contributed to some of that problem ourselves, too.

Unitarian Universalists went through a long phase of describing ourselves, as a faith, in terms of what we are not, what we don’t believe, what we don’t do, and so on, leading to ridiculous ideas that we’re the religion where you can believe whatever you want or that we’re the faith community with no rules.  No wonder we’re seen as the church of last resort!

It’s only within the last decade or so that we’ve started talking about Unitarian Universalism in terms of what we are, which is an authentically religious embodiment of the ideals of the original motto of the United States: “E pluribus unum”, or “Out of many, one”.  Let me say that again, in case you ever want to use it as an “elevator speech”:  Unitarian Universalism is an authentically religious embodiment of the ideals of the real motto of the United States: “E pluribus unum”.

So I don’t want us to be the church of last resort.  And, in fact, we’re not.  It’s only the ignorance and laziness of others that lets them label us that way, aided and abetted by our historical inability to clearly identify ourselves as a religion.  But fixing those things doesn’t mean we automatically become the church of first resort.

But we could be.  We could be the church of first resort.

Unitarian Universalism could be at the top of the list of religions where people who have not yet joined us know they can find uplifting worship and music, where they know they can participate in outstanding religious exploration for all ages, where they know they can engage in faithful witness for progressive values, where they know they can support tireless advocacy for justice, and where, above all, they know they can be supported by a loving community where we tend our own souls by caring for one another.  Unitarian Universalism can be the church of first resort … but that’s my topic for next Sunday.

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