Posts Tagged Liberal
This sermon was preached on Sunday, April 21st at the UU Fellowship of Huntington, Long Island. It wrestles with the tragedy of the 2013 Boston Marathon.
A week has not yet passed since the tragedy in Boston on Monday. Over 170 people injured. Many of whom may never walk again. Four dead – including an 8 year old boy, and later in the week, a 26 year old MIT police officer. An impossible end to a day that is otherwise a marker of human perseverance. Some run for sport. Some run as a sign they have turned their lives around. Some run for countless charities – dedicating their effort for good. The event itself is inspired by the fabled run from Marathon to Athens letting the Greeks know they turned back the invading Persian army. The Greeks would rise to influence the course of Western History – arts, culture, and the roots for modern democracy. They laid part of the path for the political experiment we strive to continue today. The Boston marathon is a modern global improbability – 96 nations represented in this act of peace; this tribute to the human spirit. For the families of those affected – it’s an immense, physical tragedy; one that I cannot fully grasp. It’s enough to lose hope.
And we can do that. We can hold onto the moment captured vividly on TV. The bombs exploding in perfect video capture, over and over. As if they are continuing to detonate into this moment. As if the story stopped right there… and there was nothing more to tell. But that’s not how the story ended. The human story went on to show police running toward the victims to help. The story went on to to hear about marathon runners going the 27th mile to donate blood at hospitals. The story went on tell how a well coordinated medical response saved countless lives – lives that would have ended if there were even minutes of delays – but there weren’t those delays. Our emergency responders were prepared. They were ready to give their time to save the lives of strangers – strangers from 96 different countries. It’s enough to kindle our hope once more.
The successes; the ongoing triumphs of the human spirit do not give us back those three lives. They do not heal the scars of the 170 injured and the countless friends and families who know them. But they do take us away from the stalled journalism that fixates on the moment of the explosion. The triumphs do teach us that our actions matter. They remind us that every story doesn’t end on the worst moment, but begins again – it continues throughout our life. And when our time comes to an end, there is another runner to pick up from where we left off. There is always someone there to say – We are not yet through. There is more that can be done. There are lives worth knowing, loves worth growing, and a depth to our purpose on this earth.
The great statesmen of Unitarian Religious Humanism of the early 20th century, the Rev. Curtis Reese, once wrote, “[Humans are] capable of so ordering human relations that life shall be preserved, not destroyed, that justice shall be established, not denied; that love shall be the rule, not the exception. It but remains for religion to place responsibility at the heart of its gospel. When this is done, science and democracy and religion will have formed an alliance of wisdom, vision and power.” Reese asks us to put responsibility at the heart of our religious mission. With all the randomness of life; with all the moments of chaos and pain; he asks us to take responsibility for our responses. He asks us to approach life with a love that is central to our nature, a movement toward justice despite its inconvenience to personal privilege or power, and most of all, that we bring order to a chaos that can overwhelm us. We seek preservation over destruction.
The mission of our liberal faith can be articulated in so many ways, but Reese’s message is central to it. We must center ourselves in a call that cannot be denied – to transform ourselves and our world through acts of love and justice. In the face of tragedies like the bombing in Boston,… or the bombings that continue throughout the middle-east with a frequency we would find numbing should they happen on our own soil,… we can not give into despair or inertia. We have a responsibility to this world, to our people, to our children. We may not be to blame for any one particular thing that happens to us – the 8 year old who died on Monday certainly has no culpability, no blame, for what was done to him – but we have a responsibility to live our lives in such a way that honors the memory of those who no longer have that gift. Will our lives be centered in our principles – promoting justice, equity and compassion in human relations? Will we strive to make sure everyone has a voice; that each life is sacred?
It’s not always a linear connection. Living a life with this type of integrity may reduce the violence in the world. It may inspire others to temper greed, or ego, or violence. Or it may not. For some it surely will inspire, for others it will go completely unnoticed. But it is a worthy ethic to live in response to a world of sometimes random violence. The chaos of terror is antithetical to the compassionate life. We can choose to live our lives centered so, as a form of public witness that there is another way. Those emergency workers running to the injured lived this way. The police whose gut reaction was to turn toward the bombs, not away, lived this way. The runners, running for a cause, or running to give blood – exhausted as they were, lived this way. We can too.
Trying to respond to a particular thing isn’t always easy, or sometimes even possible. It’s further complicated that we don’t have all the information at this time. Perpetrators’ actions could be based upon any number of strained philosophies. With Wednesday’s journalistic debacle where CNN falsely reported a suspect, it’s hard to know what even to trust when information comes out. Or now that we know who the suspects are, we continue to hear from “Chechen experts” that may be going to Wikipedia for their info; or listening to people that confuse the country with the Czech Republic.
And sometimes, we’re responding to sound bytes that are more concerned with personal ideologies than facts. There’s a national tendency to assess the threat of Islam when mass murderers are from Islam. It’s the very definition of White Privilege to know that when a White person commits an atrocity we will not explore the political threats of Whites to the American Way. At this time, we don’t have any clear idea why these two brothers did what they did. By all current accounts, they did not live lives compatible with extremist militant anything. Yet their ethnicity and religion is assumed to be to blame.
“During an appearance on CSPAN’s Washington Journal on Wednesday, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) claimed that this week’s bombings of the Boston Marathon should give pause to immigration reform advocates who seek to reform the system….The Tea Party favorite said he feared people entering the country illegally or posing as undocumented Hispanic immigrants could carry out “copycat things.” “We know Al Qaeda has camps on the Mexican border,” he said. “We have people that are trained to act Hispanic when they are radical Islamists.”… On Tuesday, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) also argued that the Boston attacks should slow down the immigration reform effort.” Without giving any credit to the ludicrous “act Hispanic” line, let us remember that the police at this time had no suspects. No suspects. And yet, we’re already talking about a public policy implication that furthers a narrow political agenda of hatred – on the backs of the more than 170 injured, and the four dead. Now that we actually know that the suspects were immigrants from a former Russian provence, some politicians are arguing for more extensive background checks on immigrating children. In other words as one friend of mine put it, “The lesson of the Boston tragedy is that we need stronger background checks for immigrating children in case they someday grow up to perform acts of violence but no background checks for anyone actually purchasing a violent weapon.”
Lest we think these views only come from political extremists, think of the “…twenty-year-old man who had been watching the Boston Marathon (who) had his body torn into by the force of a bomb… he was the only one who, while in the hospital being treated for his wounds, had his apartment searched in “a startling show of force,” as his fellow-tenants described it to the Boston Herald, with a “phalanx” of officers and agents and two K9 units….” Why? Apparently, he was originally from Saudi Arabia….
Twentieth Century Unitarian Universalist theologian, James Luther Adams, once wrote, “In our day we confront also the impersonal forces of a mass society with its technological devices for producing stereotyped opinion. In this mass society the individual is always in danger of becoming lost in the ‘lonely crowd.’ One is attacked by a stream of prepared ‘ideas’ and ‘facts’ that issue from the endless transmission belts of radio, movie and press. These ‘opinion industries’ provide a poor substitute for a community of faith. Insofar as they provide a community at all, it is for the most part the community of support for special interests – the interests of nationalism, racism, and business as usual. In large measure this ‘community’ is an instrument manipulated and supported by central power groups. In short, it is a form of authoritarianism.” Adams crafts an odd explanation. Our freedom to say, or do, or think whatever we want with modern notions of secular liberty, have led us down a path where we’ve become indoctrinated by secular idols. Nationalism for the sake of nationalism; racism for the sake of small egos and addiction to privilege; consumerism, money and power as an end to itself – an end that goes nowhere. His words seem to speak directly to our times, yet he wrote this in 1953.
I saw a political cartoon this week that had a newscaster frantically crying, “What can we do to lessen the grip of fear from terrorism?” In the following panel we see a person at home turning off his TV and smiling. There’s an urge to silence the sensationalism. We want to know what’s going on, but we don’t need to see a bomb repeating over and over with our kids potentially in earshot. That’s not journalism. It doesn’t inform us beyond the most simplistic – “this tragic thing happened.” It doesn’t educate a new generation on how to build a community centered in justice, equity and compassion. This is left for us to do. This is our task.
In the coming year, our congregation will review its mission and vision. This isn’t a bureaucratic task of paper pushing and language games. It’s a chance to reflect on our purpose; to identify what is utmost in importance; and speak why we do what we do. It’s a chance to ground ourselves so that when the horrors of the world repeat … we know who we are, why we are here, and how we will respond as a community of faith. Reflecting on this every five to the ten years is a healthy thing, and should come up from the congregation itself. It reminds us that we are not just a community that is everything to everybody, but a congregation that has a compass at its center that ever calls us, over and over, to transform ourselves and our world through acts of love and justice.
And this is not easy work. It is spirited work. It asks us to live our lives in such a way that it’s obvious to the world around us that we are here for something. We are here for the common good. There is meaning and value that transcends our individual egos. What goes on in the world may not be about us, but we must be ready to be about the world; to be relevant to the needs of our community. This is what a spirited life is about. It’s finding our compass and following it; even when the going isn’t easy – especially when it brings about little inconveniences. We continue to be blessed with life, knowing full well that others have lost their lives this week, and every week. We can not bring them back, but we can live with the knowledge that this life is precious, and should not be dragged down by the little boredoms, the small problems, the quaint naggings that sometimes attempt to steal our focus.
In the words of our offertory, “We are the flickers of yet unseen times. Life in its glory rushes on-ward. Longing itself into ever new forms. Finding the courage to burst from darkness.” We are what we have been, and what we will become. Life does not rest in the moment of pain, or loss. It draws us unceasingly forward; longing for new forms and new ways. May we be the stewards of our lives; caring for each moment with love as our guide.
 “American Religious Humanism”, by Mason Olds, p. 118. Revised Edition.
 The Essential JLA, p. 172-173. George Kimmich Beach
Opener of the Ways, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
We enter into the stillness of this hour,
Coming from many different places,
Holding with us all the stories that make up our lives.
Each sharing a glimpse of our heart in our passing,
A hope for a deeper connection,
An offered hand in our times of need,
A welcoming ear to lessen our burden,
A place to catch our breath when we are weary,
And a religious home to challenge us when we are complacent.
Mother of All, guide us on our journey,
In this life, help us to have the strength for the long road,
With love in our hearts,
Temperance in our words,
And the will to craft a world of justice and equity.
We know that we can not do all this alone,
That we are more whole when we are in community;
That a place of reflection and care reminds us of our humanity.
We welcome this day several new members to our community.
May they find with us the home they need,
And may we find in them,
The companions we need,
to continue along the road,
With grace and compassion.
#32 Small Group Ministry Session Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian, Brooklyn - Based on the sermon, “The Five Stones” preached by Rev. Jude Geiger at First UU on 10/28/12. This session offers an opportunity to reflect on our personal theologies and how they relate to our broader congregation. The sermon it’s based upon is found here: http://revwho.com/2012/10/28/the-five-stones/
Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting (Please read aloud) by Rev. Jude Geiger
May we find a spirit of endurance,
When all we need is the strength to carry on for one more day,
A view that makes space for hope,
When a way is hard to find,
And an inclination to love –
Ever knowing that the world needs such passion,
All the more when we find it lacking in our own hearts and minds.
Statement of Purpose: To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.
Brief Check-In: Share your name and something you have left behind to be here.
Reading: An Excerpt/Edit from the sermon, “The Five Stones.”
Our UU theology is rooted in our six sources. They ground us in our religious meaning. 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.
What does our liberal faith say about living? 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.
Discussion Questions: What jumps out for you? Do you agree with all of this? Where do you differ? How does having a “theology” help you? How do you live by this already, how is this a challenge? How does this apply to your daily living?
Closing: (please read aloud ) #683 by Theodore Parker
This podcast discusses gratitude, consumerism, and the holidays. It was first preached at the First UU congregation in Brooklyn, NY on 11/18/2012.
This podcast defines a central theology for Unitarian Universalism. It was first preached at the First UU congregation in Brooklyn, NY on 10/28/2012.
Check out my Huffington Post blog on UU Theology and God.
This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn, NY on 11/18/12.
In this season of Thanksgiving we hear so many competing stories of gratitude and self-interest; of plentitude and scarcity. My home back in Manhattan, hard hit by the Hurricane, is completely back to normal while neighbors in the Rockaways and Staten Island are still without gas, heat, or power – or even a home. The makers of Twinkies is going bankrupt, and chief executives are blaming Union pay as the reason – even though they gave senior managers and executives 300% pay increases while simultaneously declaring bankruptcy. We’re rapidly coming up to Black Friday – the day where Americans go crazy buying things we don’t have after spending 24 hours expressing gratitude for the things we already do have. Petitions have been sent to the White House from almost every state (including New York) seeking to secede from the Union in response to the re-election of President Obama — not getting what we want, some of us want to take our cookies and go home. Whereas, prior to the election, many a liberal considered moving to Canada should things go differently. (mmm hmm.. that’s right.. I heard you…).
What are we doing? Collectively, I mean? Has the spiritual center of our country fallen away? Or have we just strayed from the path? Where exactly did we give up our identities as Citizens for the role of Consumers? Where did politics shift from differing philosophies to differing identities? I can’t answer all these in the space of a sermon, but combined they resonate with an existential angst that frames the scope of our spiritual short-comings as a people. Whether there’s an actual need – like those in crisis in the Rockaways and Staten Island, or there’s a perceived crisis – “they got the last widget on sale at the store,” there’s a question of a balance that’s off. Collectively, we’ve lost our center, we’ve lost perspective, and we have to find our way back.
There is such a sense of emptiness that many of us experience. Sometimes it’s severe and obvious. Depression, addiction, a break-up, the loss of a loved one. All are ways that we legitimately feel less whole. They’re not easy to fix, and we’re off-kilter to say the very least. Sometimes it’s fickle, and small. ‘I just bought that new iPhone and two weeks later they announce the latest model is about to come out.’ (Not that that’s happened to me before…. twice.)
Our Hunger Communion this morning ritualizes this challenge. Representing the world, some of us get all the bread we want, and others are grabbing a nibble. Taken out of the metaphor, some of us are eating for survival and some of us are eating to excess – and this truth is a spiritual crisis. The goal must be shifted away from survival and excess and to a discipline of eating for fullness.
Our reading by Thich Nhat Hanh this morning prays, “…let us fill our hearts with our own compassion – towards ourselves and towards all living beings.” He asks for us to fill ourselves, not with things, or desires, or excess but with compassion. It can sound like an airy-fairy wish that’s easy to make. But if we go deeper, it’s neither silly nor easy. There are clear, concrete ways in which our excesses cause, directly and indirectly, the strife others must face. Anyone that has lost their home to Hurricane Sandy, appreciates the depth of crisis our planet faces regarding Global Warming. National commuting choices, manufacturing choices, waste disposal choices all have direct and indirect impacts on anyone living near a coast. Our eating habits, and our food transportation systems, impact hunger in the world. We have all the land we need to produce all the food we need to feed all the people in the world. And yet souls go hungry. Some of this is tied the economics of supply, stocks, and transit. Some of this is tied to huge proportions of land being devoted to animal stock – something far more taxing on land usage than fruits and vegetables. What we choose to eat, adding up with all the choices of all the other people around us, impacts world hunger.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s prayer is not easy either. If you’re a huge meat eater, reducing your intake is probably not something you really want to do. If you have a family of 5, taking the subway rather than a car to church in the morning, is probably not convenient. And returning high real estate value coastline to its original use – marshland and swamp – is clearly not going to happen.
But religiously, focusing on filling our hearts with compassion – for ourselves and all living things – is the spiritual answer to the crisis. That mixed with the responsible search for truth. If we know what needs to be done, and compassion is at the heart of our actions, the rest will follow.
Knowing our priorities, however, is a huge challenge in eating for fullness – not eating for excess or for survival. I want to share with you an old story that found its way back as a meme on Facebook this week.
“A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.
The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full.. The students responded with a unanimous ‘yes.’
The professor then produced two Beers from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.
‘Now,’ said the professor as the laughter subsided, ‘I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things—your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite passions—and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car. The sand is everything else—the small stuff.
‘If you put the sand into the jar first,’ he continued, ‘there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness.
Spend time with your children. Spend time with your parents. Visit with grandparents. Take your spouse out to dinner. Play another 18. There will always be time to clean the house and mow the lawn. Take care of the golf balls first—the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand. One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the Beer represented. The professor smiled and said, ‘I’m glad you asked.’ The Beer just shows you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of Beers with a friend.” Now, I imagine that beer could be replaced with coffee or tea if you’re so inclined, but I know you get the meaning.
When our lives become fixated on the small stuff, the iPhones, the tiny grievances of strangers, the hunger for more, then our jars are filled with dross. They may be filled, but they are not full. All the little things still can find their way, but fullness comes when we craft the space for the more important things in our lives first. When we don’t allow work to take precedence over our family and friends. When we pause to enjoy our home, and not just to use it as nightly hotel. When we set our priorities for religious community, raising our children, making connections with those from other generations and serving the world’s needs from our place of giftedness. These golf balls all make the jar full – first.
For some of us, this will fit hand to glove. For others, family and community are places where we’ve known pain. I have a favorite line from the Marge Piercy poem, “To Have Without Holding.” “Learning to love differently is hard, love with the hands wide open, love with the doors banging on their hinges, the cupboard unlocked, the wind roaring and whimpering in the rooms rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds that thwack like rubber bands in an open palm.” Filling our hearts with compassion, means this too. It sometimes means pain. Living our lives with an openness of reach; with the wind making crazy all through our lives; with the sting of the rubber band – is uncomfortable. And it is necessary. Openness is sometimes a discipline.
The love, the sting, the possibility, the self-restraint, the attention to those we care for, the hands wide open – can all be expressions of eating for fullness. Apathy, scarcity, gluttony, vocational distractions, grasping – can all be expressions of eating for excess. Intuitively, we know how they feel different. And each of us are known for both at different points in our lives.
Let us end this service with where we began. The Hunger Communion bread that we shared this morning was baked by our families at our Fall Retreat at Murray Grove, the birthplace of Universalism in the US. When they started the bread baking they began it with a prayer. The prayer ended with these simple words, “May we treat this blessing as the gift that it is. And may we have fun along the way!”
Fullness is a blessing, a gift, and a cause for joy along the way. Whether we have much, or have little, fullness is just as near to us.
#31 Small Group Ministry Session Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian, Brooklyn - Based on the sermon, “Beyond the Limits of Love” preached by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons at First UU on 11/4/12. This session offers an opportunity to reflect on the effects of Hurricane Sandy to our community. It is found here: http://www.fuub.org/home/clergy/sermons/?sermon_id=84
Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting (Please read aloud) #539 In Singing the Living Tradition by Maya Angelou
Statement of Purpose: To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.
Brief Check-In: Share your name and something you have left behind to be here. If the group agrees, more time can be spent this month sharing our stories of Hurricane Sandy.
Reading: An Excerpt/Edit from the sermon, “Beyond the Limits of Love.”
Unitarian Universalists tend to not like the idea of religious laws and requirements. We like to think that we’ll do the right thing out of love. But love doesn’t always result in people doing the right thing… or even the sane thing. Part of the tragedy of moments like this is that they expose the sad truth that love doesn’t take us far enough. We’re generally myopic when it comes to making hard choices on a large scale. Progressives talk about loving and caring for the earth. We can love the beautiful sunsets and mountains, the flora and fauna we encounter, but this kind of love is sentimental. Love is really bad at abstractions. It’s no good at acting on cause-and-effect at several levels of remove. It’s lousy at reading climate charts and calculating statistics and probabilities and running computer models to connect our actions with their indirect impact on the most vulnerable among us. And yet that is exactly what we need right now.
Discussion Questions: Looking back on the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, how does Rev. Ana’s words regarding the utility of love resonate with you? When does kindness fall short? How do you see the world differently as we begin to get back on our feet as a city, with so many people now homeless? What would sustained change look like in the world at large? What would it look like in your – particular – life?
Closing: (please read aloud – responsively if you have several copies) #576 “A Litany of Restoration” by Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley (In Singing the Living Tradition)
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.