Our Chosen Faith
Thought for Contemplation: “I proclaim that every person can follow the religion of their own choosing. No one shall be reviled for their religion by anyone else.” ~ King John Sigismund of Transylvania, Edict of Torda 1568
Reading I: “At the Liberal Barber Shop” - Robbie Walsh
I’ve heard about a beauty parlor where all the liberal customers made their appointments for Fridays, so they could talk about politics, religion, sex, and other topics without fear of hostile reactions. It reminded me of being young in the South in the early 1960’s, when I had a recurring fantasy of the Liberal Barber Shop.
At Brooks’ Barber Shop in my hometown, when conversation moved beyond the local high school football and basketball teams, it tended to be about segregation and states’ rights, and the possibility of dropping the bomb on the Russians. There was never a dissenting voice. Waiting my turn, I would bury my nose in an old Saturday Evening Post, keep my mouth shut, and imagine what Brooks might do to my hair if he suspected that I favored school desegregation or nuclear disarmament.
It wouldn’t be like this at the Liberal Barber Shop. It’s not that the barber and his customers would have “liberal” views on everything. They would be liberal. They would express their disagreements (about politics, religion, sex, etc.) respectfully, and treat each other with civility. Though they might believe passionately, they would speak with the understanding that they might be wrong. The customer would feel so safe at the Liberal Barber Shop that he could speak freely about abortion, free trade, the Iraq war, or same-sex marriage –even as the keen edge of the straight razor moved across his sideburns.
Maybe it’s just a dream. People are people. And yet we are capable of overcoming our destructive impulses. We can build institutions that hold up respect, and dignity, peace and reconciliation – institutions that keep calling on us, with all our brokenness, to live up to those values. I think we can even build a world like that, a little bit at a time.
Reading II: WILLIAM F. SCHULZ, the fifth President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, from Unitarian Universalism in a New Key
Hundreds of years ago Saint Lawrence asked, "Whom should I adore: the Creator or the Creation?" Most Western religions have answered back, "Adore the Creator!" and supplied an image (Zeus, Jehovah, Christ) to be adored. But our answer is far different. Whom should we adore? The Creation, surely, for whatever there be of the Creator will be made manifest in Her handiwork.
"God," said Mies van der Rohe, "dwells in the details." The Divine for us—whatever it in essence be—is not confined to a transcendent realm, its ramparts guarded by the scholarly elite. On the contrary, the Holy is made manifest to every one of us—not just those who can recite the catechism—in the transactions of the Everyday. It lies curled, in other words, in the very bosom of our experience.
This is a fundamental departure from religion's preoccupation with abstraction. It is not a distant, mysterious God to whom we make appeal or even the cold vagaries of Progress, Evolution, Creativity, or History. The gods and goddesses—or, if you prefer, the most precious and profound—are accessible to us in the taste of honey and the touch of stone.
And this in turn is why we love the earth, honor the human body, and bless the stars. Religion is not just a matter of Things Unseen. For us the Holy is not hidden but shows its face in the blush of the world's exuberance.
Sermon “Our Chosen Faith” Rev. Paul Sprecher
Once upon a time, a Unitarian kid was walking down the street pulling a wagon full of newborn puppies. As he passed the Catholic church, a pair of nuns emerged and began fawning over the boy and his adorable cargo.
"What kind of puppies are they?" one of the nuns asked. "They're Catholic!" the boy replied.
The nuns beamed. They were instantly impressed by the boy, and they thought his cute little puppies were irresistible.
A few weeks later, the same kid was going down the street pulling his wagonload of puppies, and he passed the Catholic church again. The same two nuns saw him going by, and they ran to the priest and said, "Oh, Father, go out and ask that boy what religion his puppies are! It's too cute!"
The priest went up to the boy and, in a stern voice barely covering his amusement, asked what religion the puppies were.
"They're Unitarians," the boy smiled.
"What?!" The priest was shocked.
"Yeah," said the boy. "They're Unitarians. They opened their eyes.
There are at least two problems with this story. First, it seems a little anti-Catholic. We are a religious tradition in which respect for each person’s search for truth and meaning is one of our seven principles; so mocking other religions – though popular among us and indeed characteristic – is actually a weakness. The story is also just a tiny bit arrogant. We Unitarian Universalists aren’t at our best when we mock and boast, when we deny those who follow other religious traditions their right to their own search for truth. Of course, this sort of self-mocking is part of how we distinguish our own traditions and practices from other paths, so perhaps – while dodgy – a little self-mocking of our arrogance is occasionally in order. There is, for example, the story of someone in a UU discussion group who said: “Yeah, we have a problem with thinking we're better than everybody. If only we could get rid of our arrogance, we'd be perfect!” The story is probably be apocryphal, but it does have a slight ring of truth about it.
It matters what we believe. It also matters how we believe, and how we respond to how others believe. Tolerance is fundamental to our identity as people of faith. Indeed, tolerance was written into our religious DNA just over 450 years ago when King John Sigismund, the only Unitarian king in history, declared tolerance for all religious belief in the Edict of Torda, 1568. King Sigismund convened a debate between Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist and Unitarian leaders, and declared that the people of his kingdom would adopt the religion of whichever combatant won the debate. Unitarian bishop Francis Davíd and Calvinist bishop Peter Melius prepared to address the question of the trinity, with the king in attendance. Naturally, each man had strong reason to succeed.
Melius was in little doubt that he would triumph. "If I win this debate," he told David, "you will be executed."
Davíd responded, "If I win this debate, you and everyone else in this country will be given complete religious freedom, and the tolerance due to every child of Man."
Fortunately, Davíd won the debate and King Sigismund – the only Unitarian king in history, by the way – declared an edict of toleration that allowed everyone to worship according to their own conscience – including not only all the varieties of Christians but Muslims as well.
The Edict of Torda in 1568 said, “I proclaim that every person can follow the religion of their own choosing. No one shall be reviled for their religion by anyone else.” If such a policy of tolerance had been adopted across Europe, the bloody religious disputes that led to the immensely destructive European Wars of Religion that raged in Europe for two hundred years might have been avoided or at least lessened in ferocity and as many as ten million lives lost in those bloody doctrinal debates might have been saved.
Unitarianism in Transylvania survived centuries of persecution at the hands of leaders of other faiths less committed to tolerance and also by the Communist regime in Romania. We Unitarian Universalists here were largely unaware of our brother and sister Unitarians in Transylvania until after the fall of the Communist regime in Romania. Since then, our UU Partner Church Council has worked to establish relationships between our congregations here and Unitarian churches in Transylvania. The Bridgewater congregation which I serve, for example, is partnered with the Haranglab congregation there.
This foundational belief in tolerance is written into our 7 Principles; our 4th principle declares that we affirm and promote “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and our 5th principle goes on to affirm “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.” We believe that each of us is engaged in a lifelong search for what is most important to our own living at different points in our journey, that we must each be true to our own conscience, and that everyone’s voice must be heard. So freedom, reason and tolerance are among the fundamental components of our chosen faith. These aspects of our faith, these beliefs, are in particular part of our heritage from the Unitarian side of our tradition. It matters what we believe.
These traditional Unitarian commitments, as opposed to beliefs, guide us in particular in speaking of the method of seeking truth and meaning, but they don’t provide as much by way of content. Religion in its many varieties is one of the fundamental ways in which we not only seek but also embody answers to the big questions, the mysteries of how we find ourselves here on the earth at this place in this time. Religion helps us approach questions like these: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (to borrow from the words on the frame of Gauguin’s famous painting at the MFA – and embodied in one of our hymns). Do I have a purpose here on this earth? What will happen to me when I die? How, then, shall I live my life? All of us are affected by the religious traditions in which we were raised, many of us as Catholics, others as Protestants, some with no religious tradition at all. Reason is certainly one tool in our search for truth and meaning, but I do not believe that every question – especially every question about how to live in the here and now – can ever be completely resolved by the tools of reason. Besides, we have to make choices based on some beliefs or other about life now, not in the distant future when our knowledge will be complete. So there is also an element of the unknown, of mystery, that we must also conjure with.
The Universalist side of our tradition brings us a belief not arrived at by means of reason, the fundamental assertion that “God is Love.” We can find that emblazoned on many historically Universalist pulpits, including the one at Ferry Beach, our Universalist heritage camp and conference center in Saco, Maine, which my wife and I attended for a number of years.
Universalism’s distinctive doctrine was the insistence that no one will be condemned to eternal damnation – that salvation is universal, that God is Love. Robert Ingersoll, the famous agnostic, says of Universalists that “They believe in a God who leaves the latchstring out until the last child comes home.”
Thomas Starr King served both Unitarian and Universalist congregations and was credited by Abraham Lincoln with keeping California from seceding from the Union with his tireless preaching and speaking up and down the state at the start of the Civil War. He summarized the difference between our two ancestral traditions by saying that Unitarians believe that they are too good for God to condemn them to hell, while the Universalists believe that God is too good to condemn anyone to hell. Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary offered these definitions of our traditions:
Unitarian: One who denies the divinity of a Trinitarian.
Universalist: One who foregoes the advantage of a Hell for persons of another faith.
William Sinkford, a past president of our Unitarian Universalist association, took as his personal credo this expression of our twin traditions: “One God, no one left behind.” Together, we are stronger. Together, our combined religious traditions call on us to respect both head and heart, to listen to reason but also to listen to the spirit, whose expansiveness can never be captured in words no matter how sophisticated.
Now, I suspect that some of you will cringe at the invocation of “God” in Bill Sinkford’s credo. One of our particular Unitarian Universalist problems in discussing theology – the content of our chosen faith – is the fact that we have allergies to some words, and that some of us want to eliminate from our language any words that we can’t completely define. For many of us, “Spirit of Life” works better as a way of referring to the ultimate, the transcendent, the mystery. It helps me to think of words as having the power only to point toward the ultimate, the unknown, the unknowable. So that fundamental Universalist credo is a way of saying that whatever God may be, God is Love – and love is of God – however we understand those words. Many Unitarian Universalists who have found Alcoholics Anonymous helpful in managing their lives stumble on the 3rd step, “Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God [or, our higher power] as we understood Him.” My favorite gloss on this step was provided by an old alcoholic in an AA meeting we attended with our son; he said: “I don’t know what God is; all I know is that I’m not God.” However we choose to name it, we know that we did not create ourselves, and that we are only one small part of this whole astonishing and mysterious universe. This sense of mystery is embodied in our 7th principle, which says that we affirm and promote “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
We are marvelous and we are puny. We can use our reason to answer many questions and still we live in the middle of mystery. We must have the self-assurance and the faith to make decisions, but we can never be certain of all of the consequences of our actions. To use the more traditional religious language of the Psalmist, we were made, we live a little lower than the angels, suspended between heaven and earth. Rabbi Toba Spitzer provides this image of how we ought to live in this state of suspension:
Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pershyscha… carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: Bishvili nivra ha-olam—“for my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote: V’anokhi afar v’efer”—“I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder to himself.
Our unity is expressed in our seven principles. In summary, we affirm and promote a commitment to the dignity and worth of every person everywhere, and to the web of all life of which we are only a part; to justice, equity and compassion in human relations and to a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; to the acceptance of one another and encouragement in each others’ spiritual growth, while respecting the right of conscience and the democratic process. We call on everyone to embark on a free and responsible search for truth and meaning or, as the words of our unison affirmation put it, “To dwell together in peace, [and] To seek the truth in love.”
We often disagree with one another and we’re not afraid to say so; thus, as one wag put it, “Unitarian Universalists approach every subject with an open mouth.”
We are not all of one mind when we bring forth our visions for the future.
We do not all speak the same language to name what is holy.
Different teachers and words of scripture speak our hearts’ truth….
And yet we gather ourselves to worship,
and in our gathering we name and honor our differences,
by which we are made rich and complex and lovely.
It matters what we believe. It matters if in our arrogance we believe that we know better than everyone else how to live lives of integrity and purpose. It matters that we believe that we can make a difference in this world. It matters that we regard every person everywhere as having inherent worth and dignity. It matters that we believe that we should not unduly disrupt this sacred web of life of which we are but a small – but vitally important – part. It matters what we believe.
More than belief, our chosen faith also calls us to engage in spiritual practices that enable us to stand back from the preoccupying stream of our everyday lives and learn to simply be in this wonderful, sacred, generous web of life in which we find ourselves. We need to open ourselves to the mystery of Being – of Unknowing – to live well. Some of us pray. Some of us meditate. Some of us practice yoga. All of us need to take times of quiet, to let go of the quests of reason and to get in touch with something deeper, to feed our spirits, our souls. We need some ways of finding a balance between doing and being. We need to have ways of finding peace for ourselves so that we can bring more love into the world. As some of our Universalist ancestors put it, our job is to “love the hell out of this world” – and spiritual practices are one way for us to find the peace that enables us to find and share that love. As our hymn puts it, “When I breath in, I breath in peace, when I breathe out, I breath our love.”
I invite you to practice that for a moment right here. Breathing in, breathing out. [Silence]
We Unitarian Universalists are content to live without a creed, a fixed form of words that must be affirmed by all; to tolerate and honor the beliefs of others; to disagree in love; to speak out and work against injustice and oppression; to give generously to help those in need; and to walk together, through thick and thin, joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures. We are Unitarian Universalists.
And, of course, we examine critically whatever particular expressions of belief we encounter; but it would be difficult for any of us to disagree with David Rankin’s expression of his faith, “Believing,” from his mediation manual, Dancing in the Empty Spaces:
I believe in the Holy, lifting, sustaining,
among us, within us, around us.
I believe in Living,
with a song to sing,
in awe, in adoration, out of joy, out of praise.
I believe in Loving,
in intimate communion, of gentle compassion, and the giving of roses.
I believe in Seeking,
daring to explore, doubting without fear, cautious in certainties.
I believe in Prophecy, the spirit of outrage, clapping like thunder, healing the world.
Blessed be, and amen