Our Sunday service theme for April is “Transformation”. So what might be transformative about Unitarian Universalism? I am delighted to give that a go and hope my answer to that will be helpful to you all and to KVUUC as we enter into this pledge season. What I think we have here in addition to a beloved community is a tradition that we almost take for granted but we shouldn’t because it is golden and precious and worth supporting, indeed, worth betting our lives upon. What is really transformative about our faith is summarized by a few word in our Fourth Principle: We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote: The free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
As a preamble to this subject I want to offer you a reading titled the “Kalama Sutra” which, I think, captures the spirit and essence of our 4th Principle pretty well. During the Buddha’s time, as now, people were confused by the myriad religious faiths and teachers who exalted their own teachings and denounced those of others. When asked whom to believe the Buddha said this, the Kalama Sutra, which will be read by our lay leader, Kristen Payton.
Rely not on the teacher/person but on the teaching.
Rely not on the words of the teaching but on the spirit of the words.
Rely not on theory, but on experience.
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything because it is written in you religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and it is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
To be a Unitarian Universalist is to have a sense of humor, even about ourselves. There are so many jokes about us. Garrison Keeler, of course, teased us constantly. The comedian, Lenny Bruce, said this about us:
“I know my humor is outrageous when it makes the Unitarians so mad they burn a question mark on my front lawn.” Somerset Maugham in his classic “Of Human Bondage” said
“A Unitarian very earnestly disbelieves in almost everything that anybody else believes, and he has a very lively sustaining faith in he doesn’t quite know what.” On a the M.A.S.H. episode the character, Col. Sherman Potter, said: “The General answers his own phone. Must be a Unitarian.”
Then there are the UU bumper stickers; there is lots of folk wisdom condensed into bumper stickers, by the way. One I saw said: “Honk If You’re Not Sure”. Another says: “We have questions for all your answers.”
All this humor pokes fun at our most defining characteristic. We are a creedless faith. A creed is defined as “A brief, authoritative formula of a religious belief.” But, we are not centered upon any required beliefs or dogmas about religious issues such as the classic five: Who am I? Where did I come from? How do I know what I know? What is the meaning of my life? What is the meaning of my death? Here we co-create sanctuary for religious practice by people who acturally think and who our mindfully, proudly, defiantly creedless. Here we are open to encountering ideas that may differ in style and substance from what we were taught to believe or spoon-fed growing up. Some call that “learning.” That is precisely what our Fourth Principle commits us to: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
Now, our most defining characteristic, creedlessness, is still in the experimental stage. The jury is still out as to whether it can succeed. But for me, I don’t think I could have it any other way. That, on the eve of our annual pledge drive, is what I am selling this morning.
Two other bumper stickers support my sales pitch a little better than the ones I’ve already mentioned. One is the title of this sermon:
“Unitarian Univeralism: A faith that puts its faith in you.” The other is one I would never put on my car because it’s a little sanctimonious, but I still like it. It says: “A church where you don’t have to leave your brains outside the front door.”
As you know I grew up in an Episcopal Church in Walla Walla. There and at most Protestant and Catholic churches, you start each service by standing and reciting a version of the 8th Century Apostles Creed that is a summary, so to speak, of the 4th Century, Nicene Creed. These are creeds not found in the Bible. They were formulated by vote at meetings of church elders to summarize the most basic tenets they deemed Christians must believe. So when you attend these churches you are called upon to stand and recite these words. Listen carefully to see what you can agree with:
I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead: He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty: From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost: The holy Catholic Church; The Communion of Saints: The Forgiveness of sins: The Resurrection of the body: And the Life everlasting. Amen.
A UU from Port Townsend, Joe Bednarik, dissected the Apostles Creed to determine where his current beliefs intersected with those words. He concluded that there were only 7 words he could honestly proclaim. “I believe in earth, forgiveness, life. Amen.” He found it is not religiously useful to mouth like an automaton, belief in such things as “resurrection of the body”, “born of a virgin,” “life everlasting.” These are “physical impossibilities’, he concluded, “that block the flow of my thinking which is core to my believing”.
So taking his cue, from now on whenever I find myself back in one of those churches, I will just stand and go “I believe in ….earth…..forgiveness….life. Amen.” And I will feel honest with myself.
At this point bear with me for a touch of history concerning how we so thoroughly departed from remaining a place where you don’t have to enter the doors and recite a creed that distant fathers wrote 13 and 17 Centuries ago. If you’ve attended my recent Thursday evening classes on UU history you would know that we have a long and proud history of being heretics rather than following the orthodox path. The word “heresy” derives from the root meaning “to choose” and the word “orthodox” derives from words meaning “the straight teaching.”
And one of our most revered heretics was Spaniard named Michael Servetus, who lived in the first part of the 16th Century at the height of the Reformation and the Spanish Inquisition. Servetus is credited with the first accurate description of the human pulmonary system but his main interest was theology. He was fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew and went to the original sources for the Latin Bible and found inconsistencies in the translations. This led him to conclude the Inquisition was all wrong to torture Moors and Jews in Spain for their inability to accept that Jesus was God incarnate. He found no support for that key claim in the original Hebrew and Greek texts and he argued that the God Jesus spoke of was one of love not of torture. For these teachings he was burned at the stake by another prominent Reformation figure, John Calvin, in 1553. He dared think for himself.
Skip ahead to 1819 in America we come to William Ellery Channing articulating the nature of a new, Unitarian denomination. He said: ” We are astonished at the hardihood of those, who, with Christ’s warnings sounding in their ears, take on them the responsibility of making creeds for his church, and cast out professors of virtuous lives for imagined errors, for the guilt of thinking for themselves.” He went on to coin the mantra that religious virtue was a function of “deeds not creeds.”
Now, keep in mind that both Servetus and Channing confined their free thinking mainly to the topic of interpretation of Biblical scriptures. The major leap beyond that we credit mainly to a lapsed Unitarian minister named Ralph Waldo Emerson. For him the source of truth was only in oneself and inspiration is not limited to one age or one book. Religious sentiment, he said in 1838, “…cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.” And the floodgates were opened.
And that in a nutshell is how we got to be who we are—people who cherish with our whole beings the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I know that when I first became aware of Emerson it was like water in the dessert to me. I was confronted with the prospect of being drafted to fight in Viet Nam in a war I found immoral.
My father and other elders told me it was my duty to not question higher authority, in this case the politicians and generals who supposedly were wiser and had more information than me. But by then, I had been given the strength to say no by teachings such as by Emerson and The Buddha. My wish for every young person is that they grow up understanding that true freedom means that every so-called answer they have been handed should be questioned with the possibility of rejection. Most especially if it comes from this pulpit. But, as the Buddha says, if after observation and analysis, it is found to agree with reason and is conducive to the common good, “then accept it and live up to it.” If the answer doesn’t hold up, then, in the words of Jan Garrett, who composed the song you heard a few minutes ago “I Dreamed of Rains”, “We no longer have to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors.
But our commitment to a free search for meaning, of course, sets us up to jokes poking fun at us for being faddish, superficial and lacking in depth. And that leads to the ankle-biting charge that you don’t have to believe anything here. My reply would be that we are creedless but we certainly have beliefs that are grounded and principled. Our 4th Principle is at the center but it is surrounded be 6 other deep and sublime principles that guide us to lives of great meaning and purpose while encouraging us to think and to grow and to change. Again quoting Joe Bednarick: “These 7 Principles provide when put into active practice provide an effective, potent, positive, forward looking counter-narrative to many or most of the vast life-threatening, soul-sucking issues faced by the world.”
So, at this point I want to return to our time for all ages and Roy G. Biv, the double acronym that reminds us of a summary of our 7 principles. I want to salt them in our minds so who can give me an
R = Respect the importance and value of all beings
O = Offer fair and kind treatment to all.
Y = Yearn to learn and grow throughout life.
G = Grow by exploring ideas and values together.
B = Believe in your ideas and act upon them.
I = Insist upon peace, freedom and justice for all.
V = Value our interdependence with all that is.
Can anybody give me an “amen brother” for old Roy?
Lest you think our 7 principles are itself a creed, let me remind you that they are not handed down as a gospel, they are not tests for membership, they are not written in stone as they are automatically reconsidered every 20 years, and they don’t spoon-feed you answers to any of the 5 theological questions I previously mentioned. We don’t require you to believe in any particular god, or no god at all. We don’t require you to believe in heaven or hell. We don’t fault you for following teachings of the Buddha or honoring the Goddess by dancing naked in the light of the full moon.
Our principles are there to help us figure out how to become the best person we can be. And that is the primary object of this kind of faith. But along that journey whatever we come to believe must be inclusive, and ought to recognize the inherent worth of others and that we are all connected in some essential way.
And one other thing: Our search for meaning must be responsible as well as free. To me that means we ought not stray far from the disciplines of reason and science. Theories such as Phrenology which held that ones character and destiny could be discerned by measuring bumps on the head and was popular with some 19th Century Universalists, will not likely find a home with 21st Century Unitarian Universalist.
We don’t do all this alone. The love and nurturance, feedback and critique, found in a healthy congregation, are invaluable resources in the shaping of a responsible religious pilgrimage. And we are blessed to not have here a collection of people that robotically pledge allegiance to one set of beliefs. We would have it no other way, would we?
It was Socrates who proclaimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” So he and his companions examined, listened, and as they got closer to answers more questions arose. As you know the authorities of the time couldn’t stand that much uncertainty and put him to death. But Socrates bred Servitus, and Servitus bred Emerson and their philosophical practice of asking questions and dialogue is deeply imbedded within the principles of Unitarian Universalism.
In sum our precious premise is that the foundation of the moral life is thinking, questioning and dialogue. It is definitely not simply following orders from on high. Among other things that was the pathway of Adolph Eichmann, who claimed he was just following orders of superiors in commanding Nazi Death Camps. Just following orders of Big Brother was the foundation of the dystopian world of George Orwell’s 1984. And in 2018, we have leaders who habitually lie in order to mold a population that does not think for itself.
I hope you will bear that in mind when you consider your pledge to this congregation during the next month. Good old Roy G. Biv desperately needs your support. “We have questions for all your answers.” We think, we question, we dialogue. That’s us. That’s the good news, the transformative news we offer the world.