More Than One Answer
Rev. Douglas Taylor
August 28, 2004
I’m taking an informal poll. By a show of hands I want to know which is your favorite Source. For this survey you will need to either flip to the principles and sources in the hymnal, (we were there last week, you may recall. The page is near the front, just ahead of the first hymn.) Or just glance at the back of the order of service where I’ve printed them out. The list of sources is about halfway down the page, they start with the line, “The Living Tradition We Share Draws From Many Sources:”
Most of this list of Sources were created in the early 80’s along with what is called “the Seven Principles” or “The Principles and Purposes.” This list of sources was intended to be viewed as a part of the seven principles describing of our faith tradition. As such, they are a part of our UUA bylaws. These Sources expand on what is stated by the Seven Principles by making explicit the plurality among us. I also like the way that section begins by speaking of Unitarian Universalism as a Living Tradition. That phrase implies that we do have a tradition, a history, but that we are open to change, growth, and movement.
The Living Tradition We Share Draws From Many Sources:
*Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life;
*Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
*Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical
and spiritual life;
*Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
*Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
*Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions, which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
If you were reading along in the hymnal, that last one may have surprised you. For about ten years (including the year these hymnals were published,) there were five Sources on the list. That last source was added by process of amendment in 1995. The delegates of the general assembly that year voted to accept this source into our bylaws. I mention this not only to clear on any confusion, but also to impress upon you that these words, these Principles and Purposes, did not just drop out of the sky. They were thoughtfully created and amended through the democratic process. (Because that’s the kind of people we Unitarian Universalists are. We’ll use dialogue and democracy to discern the sources of our living tradition, and if a couple of years later we find another one, … well, by gum, we’ll use Robert’s Rules of Order to the fullest to get it on our list!)
So, I’m taking a poll. By show of hands, which is your favorite Source? This is very informal, it doesn’t commit you to anything. I’m just curious. How many of you would say the first source, “Direct Experience” is the one you like best? How about the second source? …
(After this informal show of hands I noticed many hands for the first source, “direct experience” and the fifth, “humanist teaching.” Few hands were up for the second “Prophetic words and deeds” and the third “world religions.” Also, a number of people voted for more than one, indeed one person mentioned that he voted for all six because he felt all of them were valuable to him.)
Many of us make the ready connection of these six Sources and the various theological labels we sometimes affix to ourselves. Theist and Pagan, Mystic, Christian, Humanist and Jew all find themselves represented within this list of sources. This is, however, much more than just a list of possible labels you may latch on to, it is a statement affirming the variety of religious experiences accepted among us. It is a statement declaring the expanse of authority we can appeal to in our search for truth. It is a statement in favor of the plurality of beliefs, a statement declaring that, as one UU theologian put it, “Revelation is not sealed,” that more light and more understanding is about to break out in unexpected ways
It is a statement that recognizes there is more than one answer to the deep religious questions in life. Why are we here? Is there a purpose to life and if so, what is it? Is there a God and if so, what are the characteristics by which God is known? Why is there suffering? Can there be justice? How shall I treat other people? How shall I know what is good and right? What is evil and how can I stop myself from getting caught up with it? There is more than one answer to these deep religious questions in life. To pretend otherwise is to oversimplify life in dangerous and harmful ways.
With such a commitment to being open and allowing more than one answer, we do have difficulty defining ourselves to the rest of the world. Our reading this morning came from a book entitled A Chosen Faith. The forward of that book was written by author and Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Fulghum. The whole forward is presented as part of a conversation in a bookstore in which Fulghum tries to answer someone’s questions in good UU style:“Mr. Fulghum, I’ve read all your books. Is what you write a sample of what Unitarian Universalists believe?”
“Yes and no. I would expect, and hope, that most Unitarian Universalists would not agree with everything I think and write.”
“You mean there’s no party line – no dogma?”
“Yes and no. We agree that individuals must work out their own religious conclusions. We agree that we will disagree on those conclusions. We agree to respect those differences. We agree to learn from one another through dialogue about our beliefs. We agree on a process and the tools to be used in the process.”
“Give me some examples of the tools.”
“The principles of democracy, integrity, continuing education, and individual responsibility, to name a few,”
“It sounds more like NPR or PBS to me than a church.”
“Actually, the analogy is not far off. Public radio and public television are good examples of things that Unitarian Universalists support. We want to be exposed to a wide range of information and a broad range of viewpoints. We want each individual to have an influence on programming, and we want each individual to take responsibility for keeping the programs on the air. It’s not the easiest way to go about radio or religious community, but it’s the way we choose.”
“So if I’m open-minded and listen to NPR and watch PBS, I qualify as a Unitarian Universalist?”
“Let’s say you have Unitarian Universalist tendencies. There are, however, Unitarian Universalists who listen only to jazz or country-western music or opera, or those who watch only baseball on TV. I say again, we respect diversity in all things.”
“What about politics?”
“No exception. Full spectrum. Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Socialists, and a few who are either Anarchists or just confused – it’s hard to tell. We share only the conviction that one ought to be active in the affairs of the world. We don’t dictate which particular party one ought to join.”
“Are Unitarian Universalists Christians?”
“Again, yes and no. Some are and some aren’t, and some haven’t decided. Same answer if you ask whether Unitarian Universalists are Buddhists. In fact, most of the specific questions you might ask have this kind of answer. Yes and no. Some are and some aren’t. Some do and some don’t. We’re known for respecting diversity of opinion and belief.”
“I’d like to come take a look at a church like that…”(by Robert Fulghum, from the Forward to A Chosen Faith by J. Buehrens & F. Church; 1998)
Yes and no. Yes, no, maybe and even sometimes! We uncover more than one answer if we ask any specific questions. Everyone is different. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to life. Yes we can make some generalizations about life and its troubles as well as about faith and how faith helps, but it is very rare for those generalizations to be directly applicable to your life. Everyone is different. Your answer is not my answer. But that is OK because we know there is more than one answer. We uncover more than one answer if we begin with the raw experiences of life. Some wise theologian once said “All theology is biography.” Which is to say that all theology begins with life experiences.
I love it when someone wants me to read a particular book or listen to a particular piece of music or visit a particular workshop or conference center. Usually the person is saying something like, “I just had this amazing experience and I think you should experience it too because it was so wonderful.” For that person, the book, the place, the piece of music, the idea, or the event is suddenly sacred because it was transformative. It lifted her or him into a new or renewed position in life. That is one of the central purposes of religion: to give focus and understanding to those experiences in life.
Look, I remember reading the opening chapter of Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek at least five times. I could not get past that story about the frog being eaten by the water bug. I was amazed. Other people might read that chapter and think, “Ewww! That’s gross.” Or, “Ho-hum. So, Annie saw a frog die. Big deal!”
But I was transformed. I was caught by a new or renewed understanding of life and of myself and of how this crazy amazing world is stuck together! I had to read it over and over again before I could turn to the next chapter and continue the book. You guys need to read this book! But I can’t make you experience the same thing I experienced when I read it. And that’s OK because my answer is not your answer. And that is OK because here we allow more than one answer.
Sometimes when someone asks me to read a book I am tempted to say, “Thank you, but first tell me, what happened to you when you read the book. Tell me what experiences it touched in you and how you have been changed by this.” Reflecting on the raw stuff of life is the root of religion. The raw stuff of your life is not the raw stuff of my life or anyone else’s life. Where that leads you is your own, and it
may be my job to support your search for that and to help you along that journey, but it is no one’s job but your own to tell you where you are going!
Imagine if our health care system worked on the premise that one answer and one answer only fits every situation. It certainly feels like the health insurance companies would like it to work that way: If you’ve got symptoms x, y, and z than we’ll only pay for the preset treatments that match up. But good doctors and nurses know that each body is different and will respond differently to situations and symptoms. If you’ve ever visited a sick friend or family member you probably heard something about how this person recovered so quickly or that person’s body reacted negatively to some medicine. Different bodies heal at different rates.
A stroke can effected you in one of so many possible ways and the medical responses vary and your bodies reaction to that medical response, be it chemical or surgical or something else, differently from the reaction of another person’s body because we are all different. The more we understand about science and biology and medicine the less we are able to easily predict because we are seeing that there are as many variables as there are people.
There are as many variables as there are people. You know what they say, if you have two Unitarian Universalist in a room together you are guaranteed at least three opinions. That is where the medical analogy connects to our way of doing religion! (I’m not saying religion is like a medication, or, at least you shouldn’t think of it that way. If anything religion is more like vitamins you take before you get sick. But that is another analogy for another day. Today I am just saying every body is different and thus responds differently to life.) It shouldn’t be that radical to insist that beliefs be built from the variety of our experiences rather than the other way around.
Allow me to add one final thought to this mix. The fourth Principle of Unitarian Universalism (which leads us into the six Sources) calls for the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Lest I over emphasis the “free” side of that, I will say this: Our acceptance of differences and our openness to a plurality of beliefs is by no means a statement that what we believe is unimportant or that we can choose to believe in practically nothing. G. K. Chesterton said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut is down again on something solid.”
In one of the pamphlets we give to newcomers, the red one titled “We Are,” there is a paragraph that reads, “We uphold the free search for truth. We will not be bound by a statement of belief. We do not ask anyone to subscribe to a creed. We say ours is a noncreedal religion. Ours is a free faith.” I would add that we also uphold the responsible search for truth. No one here is free to not care, or to give no thought for the complex questions of faith. We do not ask anyone to subscribe to a creed, but we do ask that everyone believe something. Here we are each asked to make an effort to search for the answers to life’s religious questions. By reason, conscience, and experience, we search out, test, and affirm each for ourselves what is true.
In a world without end,
may it be so