Another Narrative Needed: Ours
A sermon delivered to the First Unitarian Society of Denver on July 17, 2011 by Reverend Betty Pingel
This is a truth in marketing announcement: I am not sure if this sermon is a history lesson, a call to arms, or a dream in the making. Maybe you can decide or maybe it doesn't matter. Whatever the message you hear, I hope you will hang with me.
A bit of relatively recent history will start. Many of you are new to Unitarian Universalism and may have no idea that there were once two distinct religious bodies that joined in 1961. The Unitarian Universalist Association is celebrating 50 years since the merger of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association. While merger was being debated a hymn was written with the first verse "As tranquil streams that meet and merge and flow as one to seek the sea, our kindred hearts and minds unite to build a church that shall be free." Actually there was nothing tranquil about either partner. Both groups were losing members and relevance in the American religious community and hoped for some sort of salvation in merger. Both groups had people with strong misgiving, some, still alive, may have them yet. Universalism had been strong and growing when it was the religious home for those who could no longer accept the Calvinist doctrine of human depravity and God's division into the saved and the damned. They preached a religion that said God was a loving God and not a judgmental one and that all people would ultimately be saved. The fact that by the early 20th century most mainline religious bodies had come to accept this concept or at least had ceased to preach about hell and damnation tended to made Universalism irrelevant. Their answer was to try to figure out a theology big enough to define a religion adequate to a global community. One leader said, "Universalism cannot be limited either to Protestantism or to Christianity, not without denying its very name... A circumscribed Universalism is unthinkable."
Unitarians at the time were struggling with how to dismantle a Boston hierarchy that was not working for the growing movement in the western part of the country. They were into growing churches and fellowships. A current leader of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. David Bumbaugh, who was a young Universalist minister at the time of merger, has sometimes summarized the two agendas by suggesting that Universalists brought to merger an important, but unfinished theological concern, while Unitarians brought to merger a set of highly questionable marketing plans. For 50 years as Unitarian Universalists we have worked to try to define who our potential clients are and how to reach them. I would suggest that what has hurt us most in this approach is trying to be everything to everybody while offending no one in that market niche.
Actually the merger did not much increase the membership of the combined group in 1961 and as we celebrate its 50th anniversary we have not grown much in those 50 years in spite of marketing surveys and many action plans. Some relatively large churches have been formed while smaller ones have been lost. And in the past two years we have lost both in membership and churches.
With this background, I am going to make a heretical suggestion that it is time to address the Universalist concern about a theology adequate to a global community. I am not suggesting a creed. I am, however, suggesting that we concern ourselves, not with Building Your Own Theology, but with building our collective theology. Struggling with this will help us develop and understand that narrative we need to tell and the need to put community effort before our prized individualism.
But, one might say, we have our seven principles and six sources that are found in the front of our hymnal and available as wallet size cards to pun out when someone asks us what UUs believe or what UUism is. These principles and sources were hammered out in meetings across our denomination and in consecutive General Assemblies before they were accepted in 1985 as a by-law to the rules governing our association. These principles are worthy of our attention and worthy of our promoting them in our interactions with each other and with the larger world -dignity of every person, justice and equity, world community, and the rest. But there is, for me, one overriding problem that makes them not enough. These principles could be accepted by most any liberal Methodist or Jew, Congregationalist or atheist. There is nothing specifically Unitarian Universalist about them except that we committed them to print. Besides, because we were into marketing, it was important that we be conscious of how our product was perceived. It was important those principles be bland enough not to offend anyone.
The theme for July at First Unitarian is sources and attached to the principles are sources which inform the "living tradition we share." These are mostly ignored in our churches and fellowships when we discuss the principles. There were originally five sources and a later General Assembly added a sixth, earth-centered traditions, as more Unitarian Universalists identified themselves as pagan. These sources are important as we agree to be theologically diverse personal experience, historic prophets, world religions, humanism, earth-centered, and a nod to Judaism and Christianity. I do not want anyone to think that I do not honor the fact that in our congregations a person informed by Buddhism can sit comfortably next to an avowed humanist next to a pagan next to a Christian. Such honoring of diversity allows us to realize and acknowledge that there are many ways to be religious and each has its value. But is there something, some foundation, some glue that holds all that diversity together? What is our collective answer to the theological question, "What do UUs believe?"
As some of you know, I take history seriously. I feel that listing all those sources causes us to ignore the source that has informed our faith for over 400 years. We give it a nod as source #4, Jewish and Christian teachings. To me this is our basic source and one we cannot continue to ignore if we want to be part of a viable alternative to the religious right. The religious right is very noisy about their take on Christianity. We cannot effectively enter the religious dialogue our country needs if we deny our Christian roots.
During the time of the Reformation, the volatile 15th and 16th centuries, our religious ancestors went beyond just ridding Christianity of the age old Catholic strangle hold. They held that each person could understand the Bible through one's own reading. Reading the Bible without a priest's interpretation led early Unitarians to question the trinity and see in the words of Jesus the concept of one God. Our history is long and deep. We need to learn it, to teach it, to pass it on to the next generation if we plan to celebrate another 50 years.
Our heroes of the early 19th century, William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker just to mention two, were Unitarian Christians who spoke out against slavery, oppression of women, debtor prisons, and other social ills from that perspective. Unlike the composition of our seven principles, they chose to speak truth as they saw it and were fully aware of whom they were offending and why it was important to do so. They knew who might withdraw their financial and physical support. Preaching abolition to a congregation including wealthy Massachusetts cloth manufacturers enjoying cheap cotton was quite brave. Many of these preachers speaking from their understanding of Christian principles paid a high price from losing congregants and pulpits to being ostracized by their conservative ministerial peers. Again do not get me wrong, I am not suggesting that we should be Christian, but I do believe strongly that we should know our roots and understand how they are part of our heritage.
So I am going to suggest that after 50 years we Unitarian Universalists need to finish the work the Universalists were starting by defining a theology adequate to a world community with all its diversity, troubles, hatred, racism, disappointments, but also with beauty, possibilitiesr creativity, and hope. I believe we need to know at a deeper level why we support certain social issues, why we march, why we gather on the capitol steps in September. Our religious, spiritual understanding must go deeper than supporting the cause of the day.
I have been reading A House for Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker. I want to quote from that book because they make my point much better than I. "America's liberals and progressives need greater awareness that at the core of social and political issues lie competing responses to the classic questions posed by theology. Effective work for social change requires people of faith who are theologically literate and engaged."
What are these classic questions? What does it mean that earth is our home and salvation is in this world? How do we respond to the gift of life, only individually or with concern for the common good? What is evil and from what source or sources does it come? What does salvation in this world look like? How do we speak adequately both of ultimate reality's (some say God’s) creative process and of the hope for liberation and wholeness of all God's children, not in the next life, but in the midst of this earthly existence? For what purpose do we join together in community? Can we be a community devoted to choosing life, practicing compassion, and loving this world enough to save it? Again I quote Parker and Buehrens, "It is clear that tremendous change must happen for U. S. society to end its attachment to a level of consumption that is putting the environment at risk. ... Good religious communities convert people to the way of life our society needs to move from believing that violence is redemptive to practicing justice and compassion; from going it alone to giving and receiving care from others; from isolating oneself in individualism to sharing work on behalf of the common good .... Religious communities can enable people to claim and deepen the values that the dominant culture is ignoring or denying. They can convert us from lifestyles that disregard the earth and are heedless of the environmental damage and danger we are courting; to lifestyles of reverence and gratitude that enable us to be less materialistic and more attentive to the goodness of life’s intangibles."
Yes, we have a message that needs to be heard, but it is a message that is not ours alone. We need to learn to work with other liberal religious folk who also believe that this planet and its people are sacred and very much worth saving. Our narrative is also their narrative.
The narrative the fundamentalist Christians have been telling us for years and which liberal religion has not yet confronted is that this is a Christian nation and that diversity and other religions are suspect. They say that The Bible tells us that the most important religious value is being saved when the end days come therefore it doesn't matter if we destroy the environment because the end of the world, as we know it, is fast approaching. This theology of doom believes the best years of our county are behind us; that God has spoken to his favorites to condemn homosexuality in all its forms especially same sex marriage and openly gay persons serving in the armed forces. We are told to believe that killing unborns is wrong, but killing those who are already among us with bombs dropped in war or through hunger or lack of health care is okay. One who is anti-war is not patriotic because it is God's will that this chosen nation of chosen people should correct other nations. If you are wealthy it is because you deserve it and if poor you also deserve that. The basic theology is one of scarcity so if you have something, best to horde it. It is as if there only three important books in the Bible, Genesis with proof of creationism; Daniel, and the Book of Revelation with the stories of the destruction needed for us to leave the world we are living in for the next world which will be perfect. I suspect that some of these theologians of doom believe that somewhere in the Bible is the injunction to "Drill baby, drill."
Another narrative is needed. I suggested that this narrative is ours, but it belongs to all those who believe in hope and in a theology of plenty rather than scarcity, of creativity and goodness. This story of ours says that this world will never be perfect, but it is worth saving and working to make it more welcoming to all of earth's creatures. We believe it is possible to love ones neighbor as oneself, the second commandment of Jesus and that all of the earth's people are our neighbors. We look for salvation in this world and work for it rather than dream of somewhere better. Our salvation may well be found in all manner of loving relationships. When one reads the Bible more open to the parables of Jesus and the many prophets who ask us to care for the poor, widows, children, the vulnerable among us, we find that God can have a very different agenda from that of the religious right. In this narrative we honor an interconnected world, the interconnected web of all existence. We stand amazed under a starry sky imagining the eons of time this earth has existed and grateful for the many changes that occurred to make it habitable for our lives and for those who share life with us. We can look at the world as it is and find hope rather than resignation or despair. Our theology of hope, our liberal narrative, tells us we can work together to create the world we would have of compassion and justice and beauty.
For way too long, religious liberals have left the religious field to the fundamentalists and their interpretation of our heritage, our future, who is in and who is out, and what God wants. It is past time to reclaim our future. Can current Unitarian Universalists do this? Could General Assembly and District meetings hold theology workshops? Could we recruit other liberal religious people to join us in the task? I believe that our hurting world is asking this of us. Can we respond? I believe that it is possible to construct a theology of hope and that we need to be about our work.