Designing Your Own Religion

Rev. Douglas Taylor


A few years ago I was sitting in a Portland, Oregon coffee shop with an old friend catching up.  This was a friend who had grown up with me in the church, was my best friend, had been the best man at my wedding, and is the godfather of my two older kids.  We hadn’t seen each other in a while, and it was great that I was in town for some conference or another and we had this chance.  We talked about what has been going on for each of us over the past few years.  We talked about mutual friends and memories of younger days.  We had not really had a chance to talk like this since I began ministry.  He asked me how that was going and he said, “Yeah, I don’t know.  I’ve been thinking I might need to go back to church.”  He smiled, like he was suddenly embarrassed and this was confession time. “Why?” I asked, resisting the scripted part I was supposed to play where I encourage my friend strongly to return to church, he makes promises, we part company, and nothing changes.

So instead, I ask, “Why?  Why do you think you might need to go back to church?”  My friend hemmed and hawed a bit before saying something about how church would help him figure out how all the different stuff in his life fit together.  My friend grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, but he is still one of those vast number of souls out there who are hungering for something spiritual, but are uncertain how to get it or whether it is a hunger that can be served within organized religion, even within an organized religion as disorganized as ours tends to be.  But here we are and lots of people come searching.

There is a noticed increase nationwide in church attendance across denominations over the past ten years.  The Pew Research Council put out a survey on this recently and when compared with earlier data, we Americans show a marked increase in membership to religious institutions.  People like my old friend are longing for richer connections and yearning for deeper meaning.

Well, journalists and editors over at the local newspaper, Press & Sun Bulletin, picked up on this trend and ran a series of articles focusing on “how people approach religion, what they get from it, and how it affects their daily lives.”  Over the course of last year starting in September of 2002 there have been ten major articles touching on differing aspects of Southern Tier religious life.  We Unitarian Universalists were noted and quoted a few times.  There was an article on “Church Shopping around the Holiday times” and one on “Politics in the Pulpit,” both of which referred to our congregation and contained a quote or two from the Rev. David Leonard.  And then finally, in the last article of the series, we became the feature rather than just an additional perspective.  The headline was, as you can see in the order of service where I used this as the reading, “Designing Your Own Religion.”  The second page headline of the article goes a step further, it says, “Designing your own religion isn’t easy –“

It was a great article, I mean, from a public relations perspective, it doesn’t get better than having the new minister quoted in the paper on his first official day in the pulpit!  There was a big attractive picture of the church on the front of the Lifestyle section, the smiling face of one of our members featured prominently in that same picture as well as in the banner on the front page of the A section.  It was good publicity.  Now, that said, I will start to complain a little bit.  The point of an article such as this is to highlight something most people would find interesting, but have not likely ever heard of; something unusual.  I think we do seem pretty unusual to mainstream religious folks.  Most church-going people would find it remarkably unusual to read about a congregation where each person is not only allowed, but also expected, to have very different beliefs, which don’t conform to any of the regular creedal statements.  Most, non-church-going folks have some idea from television and movies what church is supposed to look like, and this ain’t it.

Now, we are different in some fairly significant ways from the mainstream religious culture.  A recent billboard and bumper sticker advertising campaign in the mid-west has characterized Unitarian Universalism as the “Uncommon Denomination.”  But I wonder sometimes if the ways in which we are different translates well or if we just end up looking like an oddity; a rare blip of weird on the radar screen of religions.

I imagine there were quite a few questions bouncing around in people’s heads after that article.  Questions like, “If you don’t have any sacred text or shared beliefs, do you each just make it up for yourself?”  Or, to word it as it has been phrased before, “Can you believe anything you want?”  Another question might be, “If you each believe your own thing, why do you bother being a group together?”  Another version of that might be, “If it isn’t beliefs or scripture, then what is at the center of your worship service?”  And I imagine many people wondered,  “Just what is a Mobius Strip?”

As best as I can explain it, it all rests on the freedom of conscience.  One religious leader once wrote that conscience is a gift from God and cannot be coerced.  When I talk of “Conscience” in this way, I am not talking about the “Jiminy Cricket” kind of Moral Conscience by which one is able to tell right from wrong morally.  Most people talk about conscience along those lines when they say some criminal has no conscience or when a child has a guilty conscience about having stolen a piece of candy.  That’s not quite what is meant by this phrase Freedom of Conscience.  I don’t mean freedom of Moral Conscience.

Religious Conscience is similar to that inner moral judgment, only broader.  It is an inner light, an inner knowledge of sorts, similar to intuition or reason.  It rarely has anything to do with guilt.  It has more to do with belief.  And so, with questions like “If you don’t have any sacred text or shared beliefs, do you each just make it up for yourself?”  And “Can you believe anything you want?”  We respond: no, we do not believe as we want, we believe as we must.  We believe as our conscience demands.  It is not that we totally ignore all the conclusions and answers ever arrived at and written down, it is simply that answers from the past are not the final arbiter of truth among us.

You tell me which makes more sense: believing only what an organization tells you is true, or believing what your conscience within you tells you is true.  If your deep personal beliefs are about the same as the statements of faith read out at the place where you worship, then all is well.  But if your conscience and the creeds of your congregation are in conflict then you’ve got an issue.  In too many religious groups if there is a conflict between traditional sacred beliefs and an individual’s conscience, the individual must either alter his or her conscience somehow or leave the group.  In too many religious groups if there is a conflict between beliefs and reality, all attempts are made to adjust reality to fit the beliefs.  Here, we fit our beliefs to reality.

This is what we mean by Freedom of Conscience.  Each person’s way of accessing that which is holy is as unique as a fingerprint.  There is not a “right way” to do it.  Instead, each person has her or his way to do it.  If your conscience leads you to believe in God in a way that is inconsistent with mainstream doctrines and traditional beliefs, you are welcome here.  If your conscience leads you to remain uncertain about God, you are welcome here.  If your conscience leads you to reject the concept of God in favor of other life-giving interpretations, you are welcome here.  If you are a seeker of a new faith, if you are coming home again, if you are a weary spirit in need of rest, you are welcome here.  As it was written in the opening words Debby and I read at the beginning of our time together, “Whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever you are on your journey, we bid you welcome.” (SLT, #422)  We pitch a large tent here, metaphorically.  (The tent outside this morning for the book sale is a pretty big tent, but our metaphorical tent is bigger.)  It is hard to be an extremist here because we contain such a breadth of theological diversity.

This leads into the next question I imagined might come from this article three weeks ago.  “If you each believe your own thing, why do you bother being a group together?”  Another version of that might be, “If it isn’t beliefs or scripture, then what is at the center of your worship service?”  Indeed this is a significant question.  Unlike the first question I imagined, which uncovered a basic misunderstanding about external vs. internal sources of truth, this question points to a very real struggle for us.

I’m reading a book now for an interfaith religious study group here in town.  The book is Beyond Belief by Elaine Pagels.  The chapter I’m in now is about the Gospel of Thomas, which is sometimes known as the Gnostic Gospel.  Specifically, this chapter addresses the differences between the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John, both of which were written around the same time.  I stumbled upon a few sentences that I thought were very helpful for this very question.  “Thomas’s gospel encourages the hearer not so much to believe in Jesus, as John requires, as to seek to know God through one’s own, divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God.” (p34)  This is where we’ve been already.  This is the spark of divine within each soul that the Quakers talk about.  This is the Kingdom of God within that theologians wrote about in the Middle Ages.  This is the new covenant written on the heart of which the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah spoke.  This is the freedom to hear God speak to you through your conscience.  This idea is far from new and it shouldn’t be all that radical, but it is.  Why?  Well, the next sentence in that book goes on with this:  “For Christians in later generations, the Gospel of John helped provide a foundation for a unified church, which Thomas, with its emphasis on each person’s search for God, did not.”(Ibid)  So, you can see a hint here as to why one version made it into the Bible and the other did not.

It is admittedly difficult to provide a foundation for a unified religious organization when we have this emphasis on each person’s individual search of the truth and meaning.  And yet, here we are!  Most religious groups, particularly most Christian groups, gather around particular beliefs.  Unitarian Universalists gather around a shared process of uncovering religious truth.  One way I have characterized us is to say we are covenanting seekers.  A covenant is a religious way of talking about the promises we make to one another, and usually to God as well, about how we will treat one another.  The seven principles from the Principles and Purposes statement are a covenant.  This is not a creed or a faith statement which all assent to.  It is a set of promises we strive toward.  We are covenanting seekers, spiritual pilgrims on the road together helping each other along the way with encouragement and occasional constructive criticism.

Our goal as a religious community is not to teach people the right answers or the correct interpretations.  Our goal is to provide opportunities for engagement with the issues of ultimate and intimate importance in our lives.  So we have a course every now and then, such as “Building Your Own Theology” where people can do the integrative work of drawing deep meaning out of the life experiences they have had.  The image of designing your own religion is not quite accurate because the religion is ours, not yours or mine alone.  Certainly we each have the freedom and responsibility to work out our own beliefs.  The “designing your own” part of that is right.

I have bandied about several metaphors this morning.  We talk about being religion designers and belief builders.  We talk about being seekers and pilgrims.  I even made references to fingerprints and big tents.  The image I like best is that of being on a journey.  I think my headline for us would read: Pilgrims on the Path of Faith.  We may not all be walking down the same path, but we are walking together, and that is what matters.

In a world without end,

May it be so.