The Promise and the Purpose
“It’s almost as if we’re using the same words, but they have different meanings.” 9/16/18Rev. Jude Geiger
Once a year, some Sunday somewhere, I try to remember to tell this story – about how I found Unitarian Universalism. On any given Sunday, we have between five and ten visitors. If you’re one of them, today’s sermon is especially for you. Our religious tradition, in some ways, can seem all over the map, but I promise you that’s only at first glance, and maybe for us in our early years as UU’s. As we go deeper into our faithful promise and our ethical purpose, the diversity of expression begins to reflect our covenantal purpose. And for all the big words I just said, I’ll make my way back to them as we go. But let’s begin at the beginning, or at least my beginning-years with UU.
I was 18 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 had 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. For those of you going through a tough time with school or work, try to remember that you never know how things will turn out. Some of the worst times of our lives, still find a way to end eventually, and there can be something new in store for any of us. I was a college drop out and now I hold two masters degrees from two top schools. You never know what will happen.
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 inform the spirituality of the services overtly. 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. I didn’t need an answer, I needed a space to find myself, and live into community.
The next congregation I was a member of, couldn’t have been further afield in style or expressed theology: All Souls in Manhattan. Largely toted as NYC’s only New England Style white-steeple church. Back then, it was a 1500 member churchy-church, with an organ, actual pews, multiple pulpits, and monthly communion services. I joined there while I was in graduate school.
Both settings are Unitarian Universalist. Both hold the same values. Both are seeking a faith path that is open to hope, possibility and joy. Openness, mindfulness, reverence – have become central in most of our congregations. All of our communities have religious humanists and religious theists among us. Trappings are the 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’ve long identified 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. And I realize today, that I’ve been a UU longer than not. By a show of hands, how many of you have been attending our Fellowship 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!) (Congratulations again to J.W. who is celebrating 55 years of membership here!)
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.” (I’ve made this joke once before, but I bet it still applies.)
Let me try out today a new metaphor: The parable of the Chili Bake. I hope this will explain all things. Social media this week was an odd place to be in my friendship circle. One mid-western colleague was talking about the sounds and looks of horror in a NYC deli when she asked to put Lox on a Cinnamon Raisin Bagel, and further out west, a bunch of my Texas friends and colleagues were talking half-seriously (but very half-seriously) about Texas state politics and a recent accusation that a certain candidate (who will remain nameless here) puts beans in his Chili. There were gasps, and comments of, ‘well this is getting dirty now isn’t it.’ Then enters the Jersey-boy/New Yorker and I slowly raise my proverbial hand and ask, “If you don’t put beans in your chili, what do you put in your chili.” Insert more gasps.
Two Texas colleagues came to my rescue and explained what their bean-less chili is – how to my Italian ear what they were describing was actually just spiced sauce – no,no, no, there’s too much meat in there for it to be sauce. Which then sounded like they were talking about hamburger helper, which produced more gasps and not a few sighs. No, no, no, it’s straight beef, not ground meat. And on, and on. I recall saying that, “Wow, it’s like we use the same words but they have different meanings.”
Then one saint stepped in and performed what I will call “Chili exegesis.”
She explained: “The Authenticity answer: chili is cowboy food. On long cattle drives, you didn’t have room to carry a lot of supplies. Certainly not beans.
Texan Foodie answer: a properly made chili has no need of beans. It is not like what passes for chili in other places just minus the beans. It is usually slow cooked for hours and is full of chiles, spices, and good meat (not ground beef, shudder) and you want to taste that without the “filler” of beans. In a proper bowl of Texas red, you can stick your wooden spoon in the middle of the pot, and it will stand up straight with no help, because it’s that thick.
Practical answer: in Texas, chili isn’t just one dish. Chili is an ingredient. It’s thinned and poured over enchiladas, thick and added to hot dogs, used to make frito pie, etc. You eat beans on the side.””
It’s almost as if we are using the same words but they mean different things.And they’re both still chili; just a chili that addresses the answers for the people in the place where they are (whether that answer be cowboy food, an ingredient in another more elaborate dish, or a entrée of its own.) As my theology professor, Dr. James Cone, would often repeat, “Theology is how we make and understand meaning in the world.” Each community, each people, is going to wrestle with the answers and questions before them in their own way. (And yes, it’s still wrong to put Lox on a Cinnamon Raisin Bagel.)
How do we usually frame the big theological discussions? 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. Some years ago, I was attending an annual conference of religious professionals in Williamsburg, Virginia. One Sunday evening I attended a worship at their local Episcopal church – which was led by a former professor of mine when I was studying in England, and who became a dear friend of mine over the years when he moved to the States. 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 had been over 20 years since I had 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. As if we were saying, “I prefer the course of cultural Christianity and a heavy dose of agnosticism please.” No. 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.) (And a friendly reminder, just because you may not yet have memorized them, doesn’t mean they’re not there. Hit the books, it’s not that many sentences. 😉 )
None of these sources answer whether we ought to believe in God or not, but frankly – that’s probably 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 once asked me, “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!) But that’s not the case.
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?In short, if a teaching helps you move into right relationship with individuals or communities, with hope centered in your heart, then its theologically sound.
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.
All this month we are reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of Vocation. These Sources, our principles, these five stones of religious liberalism, make up a religious vocation. We are called, as religious progressive people, to live into these values, to build our character around them, to write their words on the tablets of our hearts – so as the Jewish teaching goes – when our hearts break, these words fall into us.
All Glory to Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford for coming to my rescue.
3 Responses to “The Promise and the Purpose”
Is this what I missed this past Sunday? YIPES! Thanks so much for posting. Tough competition with rare opportunity to spend 1-1 time with daughter A while daughter B was away. Love this.❤️
Thanks! No, this was back from September and as I’m updating our Facebook Live stream here, I realized I missed one!
Okay, thanks. I saw the quote dated September but wasn’t sure about the rest. Nonethelesss, clearly I missed it so thanks again!