Posts Tagged Humanism

The G-Word

I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 14th 2018.

I’m going to begin by asking for a favor.

We’re in the South, more or less, and there are a few foods that are known for being popular in the South. To pick a couple of them, one is fried chicken and another is watermelon. Maybe you don’t eat either of these at every meal, but perhaps you’d eat one or the other if they were served at a picnic or a potluck. So how many of you would eat fried chicken? Hands up if you’d eat fried chicken. And how many of you would eat watermelon? Hands up if you you’d eat watermelon. Okay, so that’s pretty much everyone, whether vegetarian or not, who’d eat one or the other.

Now I picked these two foods because there are parts of them that you can’t eat. In fried chicken there are bones and in watermelon there’s the rind. When you’re eating these foods, those are the parts you leave on the plate. So here’s something you might not have thought about, but it’s an important question: Do the bones and the rind stop you from enjoying the parts of fried chicken and watermelon that you do eat? No, they don’t. Much less would it make sense to get angry at the chicken bones and the watermelon rind because you can’t eat them.

The reason I bring up fried chicken and watermelon and the fact that there are parts of them that you can’t eat is because a lot of discussions about religion are the same way. A friendly discussion about religion is, in fact, a lot like a picnic or a potluck. There are parts that appeal to us, that we like, that we enjoy, and there are parts that are, essentially, inedible.

Now I want to stress the “friendly” part of “a friendly discussion about religion”. I’m not talking about somebody making religious claims that are actively harmful, that promote inequality or prevent injustice. That would be like bringing a plate of poisonous toadstools to a picnic: they’re not going to be good for anyone!

So imagine you’re in a group with other friendly people — such as the Sunday Morning Forum or a Fellowship Circle — and the topic is how we view and understand the world and our place in it. You’re sharing your answers to questions such as: Why are we here? How did reality come into being? Why do bad things happen to good people? What happens to us when we die? More importantly, you’re going to hear the answers that other people have to those questions.

Some of their answers you’ll like; they make sense to you, maybe even helping you to understand something that’s been puzzling you. Some of those answers will challenge you, but then you figure out they’re actually familiar ideas expressed in unfamiliar ways, or they use different words than you’d use; you’ll have to work at translating those answers into your own terms to appreciate them. And some of those answers will simply be unacceptable to you, with ideas that are clearly incompatible with your own experience; they make no sense to you no matter how you try to translate them.

Here’s the favor I’m asking of you, and why I asked you to think about fried chicken and watermelon: enjoy other people’s answers that work for you, with or without translation, but don’t get angry at answers that don’t work for you. For one thing, other people’s answers belong to other people; if you like them, if they make sense to you, great; if you don’t like them, if they don’t make sense, well, they’re not your answers anyway. For another, getting angry at somebody else’s ideas, experiences and feelings, that does more harm to you than it does any good.

So when it comes to discussions about religious matters between friendly and well-meaning people, please, do enjoy the fried chicken and the watermelon of the theological potluck that’s offered to you, and please, don’t get angry at the chicken bones and the watermelon rind just because you can’t eat them, too.

I asked for this favor up front because our subject today is God, and I don’t think there’s any subject about there’s more disagreement. For many people, it’s the most important part of their faith, and they don’t understand how any religion can exist that doesn’t put God front and center. Only, ask them and the person in the pew next to them how they actually understand God, and you’ll quickly find that even people going to the same church don’t really share the same theology.

Many religions got their start because of disagreements about understandings of God, and Unitarian Universalism is no exception.

Both Unitarianism and Universalism began with quite specific theological ideas that departed from Christian orthodoxy. For the early Unitarians, it was their belief that God was one — a unity, not a trinity — including the specific belief that Jesus was fully human and thus a viable role model for what it means to be human. For the early Universalists, it was their belief in God’s love as the strongest force in existence, stronger than the ability of any mere human to do wrong, such that every soul eventually reaches heaven.

Over the centuries, both Universalist and Unitarian belief systems evolved, growing much broader than their Christian origins. The Unitarians did this, as I see it, largely by accident, thanks to such spontaneous movements within Unitarianism as Transcendentalism and Humanism. The Universalists, on the other hand, did it much more intentionally, embracing the implications of Universalism as a religion that could truly be for all people. Either way, by the middle of the twentieth century the Universalists and the Unitarians found themselves in such similar places theologically that the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America joined together, consolidating to form the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961.

Now there was a habit, particularly within Universalism, of writing statements of belief, articulating who we are and how we understand the world not only for the benefit of other people but also for ourselves. Our Seven Principles and Six Sources are part of that long tradition. Such statements have been crafted in different ways at different times, but one of the favorite tools is, of course, the survey. And while a survey is rarely an effective substitute for getting people together and talking with them, it is an easy way to get a lot of people to answer simple questions.

So in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the UUA sent surveys to UU congregations. Somebody at the UUA deserves credit for having the presence of mind to include some of the same questions each time, to see if anything was changing. Specifically, there was a multiple-choice question, “Which one of the following comes closest to expressing your beliefs about God?” What’s striking is that, in all three decades, the distribution of responses was very similar and, though I don’t think there’s any more recent data, my own unofficial experience suggests it would be pretty similar today.

The first answer choice (out of five in all) was “God is a supernatural being who reveals himself in human experience and history.” We might consider that the traditionally theistic belief and, like it or not, such a traditionally theistic God is usually imagined as male. About three percent of UUs selected this answer choice.

The second answer choice was “God is the ground of all being, real but not describable.” If you’ve ever heard of theologian Paul Tillich, the phrase “ground of being” comes from him. This answer choice spans deism, mysticism and some agnosticism, and close to thirty percent of UUs selected it.

The third answer choice was “God may appropriately be used as a name for some natural processes within the universe, such as love or creative evolution.” This is the answer of choice for many humanists and neo-pagans, from physicists to pantheists, and it’s not surprising that almost half of UUs selected it.

The fourth answer choice was “God is an irrelevant concept, and the central focus of religion should be on human knowledge and values.” This is more hard-core humanism, as well as atheism, and a fifth of UUs selected it.

And the fifth and final choice was “God is a concept that is harmful to a worthwhile religion” and about two percent of UUs selected it.

As I said, this distribution of responses matches my own experience in talking with Unitarian Universalists over the years. A small number of UUs are pretty traditional theists, while about three-quarters of UUs have broader conceptions of divinity, even if they’d never apply the word “God” to them. About a quarter of UUs think that God is either an irrelevant concept or actively harmful.

Here’s a question, though. If a clear majority of Unitarian Universalists are at least okay with some concept of the divine, then why do we use the word “God” so infrequently? (To the point that we can joke about it being “the G-word”?)

In 2011, when the Unitarian Universalist Association was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, the Religion News Service published the sort of article that causes ministers to pull out their hair. It began:

A recent Sunday service at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore ended with an apology. Laurel Mendes explained that religious doctrine had been duly scrubbed from the hymns in the congregation’s Sunday program. But Mendes, a neo-pagan lay member who led the service, feared that a reference to God in ‘Once to Every Soul and Nation’ might upset the humanists in the pews. ‘I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by reciting something that might be considered a profession of faith,’ said Mendes, 52, after the service. ‘We did say “God”, which you don’t often hear in our most politically correct hymns.’

Let me get my pedantry out of the way. The hymn “Once to Every Soul and Nation” doesn’t include the word “God”. Just in case Baltimore was doing something oddly retro, I even looked it up in the 1964 hymnal, Hymns for the Celebration of Life, where it was called “Once to Every Man and Nation”, but still no “God”.

I should note that many of those hymns that went on to be in our current hymn book were indeed edited in the late seventies, but in most cases that was to remove unnecessarily gendered language that privileged men. When it came to the word God, there was no attempt to “scrub” “religious doctrine” to make hymns “politically correct”, whatever that much abused phrase actually means these days. We still have lots of hymns that refer to God— just not the one in the article. Rather, the problem identified in some of the old hymns was always referring to God as male.

By way of response to the article, here’s my colleague, the Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein.

So right away we come off as bizarre-o. This isn’t just a word I’m throwing out there to be funny; it’s one Unitarian Universalist’s reminder to the rest of us that when it comes to our image in the broader culture, we appear to be so far off the beaten track of what constitutes religion [that] the wheels have fallen off our truck. That first paragraph reveals us at our weirdest and worst: irrational, ‘pre-offended’, entitled, immature and quarrelsome. […] I’m not sure if the reporter edited Mendes’ remarks or not, but there is the further issue about why a profession of faith is in the least objectionable in a [UU congregation]. It is not: we recite them all the time[.] But someone has taught this conscientious lay woman well: she is on red alert for offense and is obviously walking on eggshells, the hallmark of a highly anxious system.

Weinstein does acknowledge that the rest of the article almost redeems itself from what she calls “the wackadoodle impression made in the first paragraph”, though she notes that, in contrasts to the five ordained men quoted in the article, “the one woman interviewed is also the only lay person the reporter talked to, and she is portrayed as being insecure and apologetic.” Clearly there are bigger problems than whether a hymn uses the word “God” or not.

In short, and this is why I asked up-front for a favor about not getting angry at things that don’t feed us, we need to get over ourselves when it comes to “religious” language.

Actually, we are doing better in that regard than we were fifteen years ago, when then-recently elected president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. William G. Sinkford, suggested that UUs should reclaim a “vocabulary of reverence”. The uproar only calmed down when Sinkford issued an open letter promising that he wouldn’t make anyone use the word “God”.

Now, I have to say that I stopped using the word “God” back in high school when I realized I was an atheist. A decade later, I learned about pantheism, and I was okay identifying the Universe as God on the basis that it didn’t say anything about the Universe but rather said something about us and our emotional response to existence. Then, in the UU congregation I joined, it was clear that “God” was not a helpful word because so many people had been hurt by churches and people with unhealthy ideas about God, particularly in how God has been used to justify oppression and suffering. And going to seminary, I learned the art of theological translation: Could I simply accept what someone else said? Or should I translate it into my own terms, such as replacing “God” by “Universe”? Or did I just need to set what they’d said aside and leave it?

I still don’t use the word “God” without good reason, but I am realizing that there is a time and a place for it. For instance, I reject male-centered ideas about God, but I have found that I am quite okay with — and even enjoy — the lifting up of female divinity. Did you hear, for instance, that Roy Moore was actually correct when he said that the election in Alabama was in God’s hands? Only, what he doesn’t know is that God is a black woman.

Aside from the delicious subversion, there can be a playfulness that nonetheless delivers an important message. Consider this poem, for instance, by Oklahoma poet (and preacher’s daughter), Kaylin Haught:

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

So let me finish with this.

During the debate over Bill Sinkford’s call for Unitarian Universalists to reclaim a vocabulary of reverence, the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker wrote an open letter. Parker was president of the Starr King School for the Ministry, our UU seminary in San Francisco, and when it came to the word “God”, she noted that

over the course of the past two hundred years, in the name of justice and liberation, religious liberals have hastened the death of God. We have presided at the funeral of God the King, God the Father, God the Unmoved Mover, God the Old White Man in the Sky, the Able-Bodied God, the Straight God, the All-Knowing God, the Leave-It-All-to-Me-and-I’ll-Take-Care-of-It God, and more. In place of God, we have emphasized human responsibility. We know it is in our hands to create justice, equity and peace.

I will qualify this by saying that the problem was never God. The problem was that God was too small. The problem was that God was made in man’s image — and I do mean “man” because the problem was that God was imagined as a man, a supposedly powerful man, the sort of being that men imagine themselves to be if only they had all the power (and none of the responsibility) in the world, a justification for men to act as they please in the cult of toxic masculinity. Have you ever noticed that whenever someone declares that something is what God wants, it’s also what that person wants? Amazing! That’s how you know that their God is only a small god, and is no bigger, in fact, than their own ego. And not only is such a small god an excuse for selfishness and greed, but it’s also an excuse for failing to act when there’s a real need.

So, with respect, I’m going to edit Rebecca Parker’s words: “In place of a small god, we have emphasized human responsibility. We know it is in our hands to create justice, equity and peace.”

Furthermore, while we have hastened the death of a small god, we have also midwifed the birth of a God who is a working mother, a God who is gay, a God who is black or brown, a God who is transgender, a God who is disabled, a God who is sick, a God who is imprisoned, a God who is poor, a God who is in recovery, a God who rejects toxic masculinity and white supremacy, a God who sides with the oppressed and downtrodden, a God who is begging us to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

And that’s the place where, no matter what we mean by the word “God” or even if we choose not to use it, we can find common ground. I have long said that it doesn’t really matter what each of us believes; rather, what matters is how we behave. Sure, our beliefs determine our behaviors, but we are judged by our behavior. When someone works for justice, equity and peace, when they are kind and charitable and generous, maybe they don’t believe in God and they’re doing good because it’s the right thing to do, or maybe they believe in God and they’re doing good because that’s how God manifests in the world. Such beliefs are not incompatible when it comes to making the world a better place, because what matters is making the world a better place.

May that be the true measure of our beliefs, now and always.

~)<

I am grateful to the Rev. Michael Piazza, in whose “Future Church” workshop I was privileged to participate a few years ago, for the fried chicken analogy. (I added watermelon as a non-meat option.)

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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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Impressions of a Renaissance

One of the highlights of my Summer as a Unitarian Universalist is General Assembly.  This “meeting of congregations” brings together thousands of people representing hundreds of congregations around the country as well as members of other liberally religious traditions from around the world.  I go for many reasons: to reconnect with friends and colleagues; to worship with thousands of other Unitarian Universalists; to hear inspiring sermons and stories — and the Ware Lecture; to sing in the ministers’ choir; to enjoy workshops on useful and motivating topics; to be a part of the public witness for justice; and much more!

This year, of course, was the fiftieth General Assembly, a full half-century since the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association consolidated.  We spent some of our time together looking back over those fifty years, remembering the highs and the lows — how we stood up to the FBI following the publication of the Pentagon Papers, how we failed to embrace racial diversity and power-sharing, how we led the way in advocating for civil marriage equality — as well as the hymns we’ve sung and the people who’ve served us.  We spent more of our time looking ahead, considering the continued challenges of our non-creedal theology, of race and class, of generational changes.  Since we were meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, a significant thread addressed Unitarian Universalism in the South, celebrating our vitality and projecting a hopeful vision for our entire denomination.

My primary impression is that Unitarian Universalism is enjoying a renaissance.  From superficial indicators such as membership numbers this may be hard to tell, but it’s clear from the culture itself.

For one thing, there’s a wealth of new music being created right now.  Singing the Journey was, in 2005, the first supplement to Singing the Living Tradition in over twenty years; since then, a Spanish-language hymnal, Las Voces del Camino, has also been produced.  The 2008 General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale included the premiere of “Sources: a Unitarian Universalist Cantata”; based on the six Sources that inform our living tradition, it was created by Jason Shelton, a former Franciscan and composer of many of the new hymns in Singing the Journey, and Kendyl Gibbons, one of the leading Humanist ministers within Unitarian Universalism.  This year’s General Assembly saw specifically commissioned pieces by music professor Tom Benjamin and by rock guitarist Bob Hirshon.  There’s all sorts of new UU and UU-friendly music being created by plenty of other people, too, from Judy Fjell and emma’s revolution to Wally Kleucker and Amy Carol Webb.

At the same time, there’s an increased willingness to take another look at Universalism, the half of our faith that was often overshadowed by the louder, more argumentative Unitarian half of the last century.  Modern Universalism seems to be finding its expression in a greater tolerance for poetry and metaphor and ambiguity, recognizing that reason and spirituality are not at odds with one another, but are in fact each other’s essential partner if we are to avoid “idolatries of the mind and spirit”, as our Fifth Source puts it.  Literalism is, after all, a form of extremism; whether religious or anti-religious,  literalism is the enemy of compassion.  Universalism reminds us that salvation — in this life, on this Earth — is something we must all achieve together, or not at all.

Next year’s General Assembly will take place in Phoenix and is intended to focus almost exclusively on issues of justice.  Given the anti-immigrant sentiment expressed in Arizona and elsewhere, a large part of that will be in terms of advocacy for humane immigration reform.  More generally, though, we’ll look at why and how Unitarian Universalists engage in justice work, both here in the United States and overseas, as well as within our congregations and within ourselves.  I know there’ll be lots of great music and singing; my hope is that we’ll also approach this work while remembering that, no matter our disagreements and the range of petty human hatreds, there is room for all of us at the well of life.

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