This sermon was first preached at First UU of Brooklyn on Sunday, October 28th, 2012. It seeks to define a central UU theology.
I was 19 when I found Unitarian Universalism. In some ways, I share the usual story for converts to our faith. In my case, I was a devout Catholic who had come to accept that there was no Hell, that God was loving, and that homosexuality was not a sin – but an expression of love. In other ways, my story was unusual. I found a UU Fellowship in northern NJ through a job. For a host of reasons, I dropped out of college in my first year studying environmental science. After getting laid off from a part-time job at a chain bookstore right after Christmas, I got word that a church was looking for a custodian. Over the next three years, that job expanded into their events coordinator (think weddings and art shows.) I was still pushing the mop, I was coordinating weddings, and I was back in college – this time studying religion and anthropology.
In many ways, the Morristown UU Fellowship was the last place I would have imagined myself joining. They were a staunch atheist fellowship that had severe allergies to theological language – and I very much believe in God. H forbid anyone use the G word. And the J word was right out! Buddhist influence wasn’t wide-spread enough yet in the mid-nineties to enhance the spirituality of the services. And yet there was a lot of heart in their meeting space on Sunday morning. There was a there – there – that I couldn’t exactly place at the time. If I’m honest with myself, my younger self appreciated the stark contrast to conservative Christian teachings that I hadn’t yet worked through. It was a community that was wrestling with the nature of being. And that was enough for me.
First UU of Brooklyn sometimes feels like a time warp from my first congregation. Morristown’s simple late 1900‘s Quaker-style meeting space with no decor is replaced with gorgeous 1844 neo-gothic architecture. Meeting hall announcements of joys and concerns for a few dozen people are replaced with ritualized candle lighting for just shy of 300 folks these days (Hurricane Sandy withstanding.) Longer 25 minute or more sermons with simple music and almost no ritual versus Brooklyn’s worships where ritual and music is the centerpiece of our Sunday expression – much to my delight.
Both settings are Unitarian Universalist. Both hold the same values. Both are seeking a faith path that is open to hope, possibility and joy. Both communities have religious humanists and religious theists among us. Trappings are the substantive difference, not content. All of our congregations have a central UU theology – in some locations it’s more clear and others it’s simply felt beneath the skin.
I identify as a sort of hybrid UU. Denominationally speaking, most of us are converts and some of us are life-long UU’s. I have converted to this faith, but I did so right at adulthood – so in many ways this feels like my life-long choice. By a show of hands, how many of you have been attending First UU for 2 years or less? How many of you have been a UU since childhood (prior to turning 18?) How many for 30 years or more? (I love watching the changing demographics!) Now I’m guessing that the folks that have been attending for 2 years or less are thinking – “Oh good! We’re finally going to hear someone tell us what the central UU theology is.” I think it would be safe to guess that the folks who have been UU for 30 years or more are thinking, “Oh good! We’re finally going to hear someone tell us what the central UU theology is.”
Being a non-creedal faith is both a strength and a challenge. Folks are reticent to assert theological claims when we have no test of belief. We don’t want to make any theological truth statement because we appreciate that we all see the world differently and that’s not what we’re about. Last Sunday, I missed our congregational meeting because I was attending an annual conference of 170 religious educators in Williamsburg, Virginia. Sunday evening I attended worship at their local Episcopal church – which was led by a dear friend of mine. They got to the point in the service where the community recited the Nicene Creed. For those who are unfamiliar, this is a minute or two long creed with some very specific theological details in it (just about none of which I actually agree with.) My UU colleagues next to me were visibly shocked (one actually jumped – and he’s not a jumper by nature) when I began reciting it from memory. For context – it’s been 21 years since I’ve attended a Catholic Mass, and left the Catholic church in my high school years. …We have nothing like that. Although I imagine we could begin the practice of reciting our 7 principles as a covenant and it would fit that role. Our principles are promises we struggle to keep with each other. But they’re action statements – not creedal assertions.
Our UU theology is rooted in our six sources. But our sources themselves are not strictly a theology. Our sources are not an interfaith smorgasbord, although we sometimes treat them as such. “I prefer the course of cultural Christianity and a heavy dose of agnosticism please.” They ground us in our religious meaning. Any theology would need to reckon with them to be true to our core. Here they are more simply put: Transcendent mystery and wonder moves us to a renewal of spirit. Prophetic deeds challenge us to confront systems of oppression with compassion. All world religions hold wisdom to inspire our ethical and spiritual lives. Love our neighbors as ourselves. Reason and science warn us against idolatries of mind and spirit. We are part of this world and ought to live in harmony with it. (Ok, maybe that could work as our Nicene Creed. I think I’m going to work on that.) None of these sources answer whether we ought to believe in God or not, but frankly – that’s not what our theology could ever look like again. But our Six Sources are rich in very different ways. They give us space to be true to ourselves, to learn how to live into community, and hold a rich depth in themselves. And we’d be hard-pressed to come up with a reason to disagree with any individual source – except for maybe how we apply them.
That’s a framework though, and not a theology. One friend wrote on Facebook yesterday regarding this topic, “but isn’t the central theology of Universal Unitarianism that there isn’t a central theology of universal unitarianism? Theological Switzerland, so to speak?” I won’t fault him on his placement of U’s in that sentence. And he’s right in a way. We tend to live with an explicit theological message that this is so: All are welcome. All can see the world the way they see it. The only really important theological question is the nature of God so let’s just say we don’t have a theology because we’re not going to touch that one!
Personally, I’ve been heavily inspired by the writings of James Luther Adams. He’s a mid-20th century theologian, minister and academic from the US who lived in Germany in the 1930s and was active in the clandestine resistance to the rise of Nazism. We often take our theologians out of context. And as I talk about his thoughts, keep his experience in Germany in mind.
After the breadth of his 40+ years of writing were complete, folks started pulling together bits and pieces of his thinking, jumbled them together, and came up with some pretty helpful combinations. One such is an essay on “The Five Stones.” It’s a metaphor back to David and Goliath. In the Jewish story, a teenager “David” manages to defeat the Giant named Goliath on the field of battle with a sling and five stones. It’s a violent story, but a course of action that prevented two armies from colliding. There was one death instead of thousands. For JLA, the five stones become a metaphor for how we can combat systems of oppression in the world. What are the five things we can do that will unbind the oppressed? In modern language – how do we end Racism, Homophobia, Classism and Misogyny – to name a few.
What does our liberal faith say about living? I will paraphrase the much longer piece, which itself is an edit of a sort, using language that might be more familiar to us: 1. Revelation is not sealed — in the unfolding of the human spirit we continuously experience life in new ways and so too does our experience of truth. 2. Relationships between people ought to be free — mutuality and consent are both ethical and theological principles 3. We have an obligation to work toward creating a Beloved Community — our faith inspires us to the work of transformational community that is centered in justice and love. The prophethood of all believers has a corrective effect on systems of oppression 4. Each child that’s born is another redeemer — we are all potential sources of good in the world and each have a role to play. Goodness happens in relationships with one another. 5. We choose hope — Our resources – both sublime and mundane hold all the capacity we need to transform the world.
This faith statement is central to our UU theology. If you are craving an affirmation or a negation of the nature or existence of God, I can only say again – that’s not how we do theology. Our kind of theology is like the scientific method. When we learn that Newtonian Physics is only correct at certain speeds and certain proximities to really big gravitational objects (like the Earth going at about the speed we happen to be going) we don’t throw out physics and say Science (I hope you can hear the capital S) is wrong. We say that there’s a process of testing and observation to follow. Likewise, our theology is one of testing and observation. When you have questions of purpose, belief, or values ask yourself – Does this thing or view leave room for the ongoing evolution of the human spirit? Does it draw me closer into a community that is mutually supportive? Does it seek to bring more harmony and more equity in those relationships – even if the work is very difficult? Does it falsely make me forget that I have the capacity to live into this holy work? Does it remind me to live with hope?
Our theology is both a faith statement and a process of reflection. Our faith teaches us that we can expect to continue to be inspired, to learn from one another, and to seek out that spiritual growth. Wheresoever we freely choose to enter into communities with one another we are doing sacred work – not easy work – not convenient work but holy work. In this we are obligated to vigilantly transform systems of oppression with acts of love and compassion. We all have the capacity to make this happen, and everything that we need to do so already exists. There is a reason to hope in this world.
 This is a paraphrase of James Luther Adams. Various sources include “On Being Human Religiously”, The Tapestry of Faith Online Curricula, The GOLDMINE Youth Leadership School and the 2012 Keynote address at the LREDA Fall Conference by Dr. Raser.