Our Cornerstone

A sermon about our Unitarian Universalist theologies

August 27, 2006

Rev. Douglas Taylor


I do believe one of these days I am going to get myself into trouble.  It is one of the longest and dearest-held principles among Unitarian Universalists that we are non-creedal.  We do not have a confession or statement of faith, no doctrine or creed that all must sign and adhere to before being considered a true Unitarian Universalist.  You don’t need to agree to or abide by a belief statement written hundreds or thousands of years ago to be here.  We are proudly non-creedal.  A point, I hasten to add, I personally have no wish to undermine.  But I do believe that one of these days I am going to get myself in trouble because I keep poking at that and saying things like, “Actually we do have a common belief that binds us as one faith.”

Last week, in preaching about our Common Story, I shared with you a reading from Unitarian Universalist minister and seminary professor, David Bumbaugh:  (from Unitarian Universalism a narrative history, 2000), which began with the sentence, “Unitarian Universalism is a peculiar religious tradition in that what binds it is not so much a shared theology, or even a shared response to the experience of the sacred, as it is a shared history.”  I then went on to agree with Bumbaugh saying that any rational onlooker would be flummoxed in trying to find the common element in the diverse list of theological stances taken in the name of Unitarian Universalism.  “Indeed” I had said last week, “it would seem we have, as Bumbaugh contends, a shared history rather than a shared theology as Unitarian Universalists.”

And now, please allow me to appear to contradict myself.  We actually do have a shared theology that binds us as one faith.  I know, I know!  We are non-creedal, we do not have a doctrine around which we all must adhere, we do not have a single belief that we are compelled to hold in common.  We’re all over the map, theologically speaking.  Even in this congregation today, there are folks among us who find the holy in nature and in rituals and call themselves Pagans.  There are others among us who believe in God and call themselves Theists and perhaps even call themselves Christian-UUs.  There are those here who do not believe in God and call themselves Atheists or Religious Humanists.  Then there are folks among us who don’t know how to define the holy from one day to the next if ever, and they call themselves Mystics or Agnostics or simply seekers.  And within each of these are nuances that spread us quite wide.  There are as many ways to approach the Holy as there are people to approach it.

And this we encourage.  We have a culture that encourages each person to have his or her own personal theology rather than one that asks anyone to bend to a corporate theology.  We have an adult curriculum called “Building Your Own Theology” in which participants are encouraged to craft a credo statement, an “I believe” statement.  Our “Coming of Age” program for youth is modeled in much the same way.  We recognize that faith is built not from doctrines, but from life.  Beliefs are borne from experience.  We certainly do not say, “You can believe anything you want,” rather we say, “You can believe as you must, as your conscience demands.”  It is a fierce commitment to the freedom of conscience.  This culture of personal theology, this loyalty to the freedom of the conscience is so strong as to make it almost a knee jerk reaction against any talk of a common theology or a shared belief among us.

But I assure you we do hold a shared belief.  The enduring theological cornerstone of our evolving Unitarian Universalist faith is our radical understanding of the human condition, our doctrine of human nature.  This theology of human nature is rooted in our Unitarian and Universalist forbearers from the seventeen and eighteen hundreds.  It is threaded through the evolving theological positions expressed throughout our history, and it is underpinning every theological perspective witnessed among us today.  Our theological cornerstone is our radical acceptance of every person as being of the same human family without segregating anyone out as saved or unsaved, clean or defiled, saint or sinner, worthy or unworthy; all we have are human beings: blessed, whole, capable of good and evil, fully part of the evolving nature of life.  Unitarian Universalism proudly insists that every person has inherent worth and dignity as a basic root element of their being.  Whether the source of this is due to a loving creator, freewill, evolutionary maturation, the Image of God, divine spark within, or simply the nature of all life, there is plenty of disagreement.  But the effect is the same: we believe that every person has an intrinsic dignity and worth.  And we have always said thus.

Roberta Finkelstein a colleague from Virginia, has said,

“We broke away from the liberal Protestant wing of American congregationalism, but the break wasn’t over what many people think. It wasn’t really over the doctrine of the trinity, though it is true that our first name, Unitarian, refers to the belief in the unity rather than the trinity of God.  And it wasn’t really over the question of salvation, although our second name, Universalism, refers to the belief that a benevolent God saves all.  It was really over the doctrine of human nature that we declared our independence.”

The Universalists believed in God as a loving father who will call all His children home.  To claim that there is a Hell, they said, where people are eternally punish for the single sin of the first man, Adam in the Garden of Eden, is to make of God a monster.  By reclaiming the goodness of God, the loving nature of the divine Creator, the Universalists also offered a profound shift in what it means to be a human being in relation to that God.  Instead of being sinners in the hands of an angry God, we are children in the arms of loving Parent.  Universalism rejected not only the eternal punishment of hell, but also the reason for such a punishment in the first place: the concept of original sin.  Hosea Ballou, an early leader in the Universalist denomination, said that the consequences of sin are manifest in this life alone; that “hell is not a place of punishment, but a state of rebellion against God and against the unity of humans and God.” (Robinson, David The Unitarians and the Universalists, p 65) The implication here for the doctrine of human nature is that we choose to make of life a heaven or hell.  This is not exactly free will as the Unitarians would see it, but it does leave in the hands of humanity the capacity to respond to the love of God by loving one another or by making of this life a hell.  We hold that power, and that responsibility!

Thomas Starr King, who held credentials from both Unitarianism and Universalism long before the two denominations merged into one said, “The difference between Unitarians and Universalists is that Universalists believe God is too good to damn them while Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned.”

William Ellery Channing, the father of American Unitarianism, indeed preached a radical theology of human nature.  This was a rebellion from the Calvinist theology of the day, a theology that spoke of humanity as being totally depraved and in need of God’s grace, of a humanity bound to sin and with now power by which to change the situation. Only though the grace of the all-powerful God above could a person be saved.  In his sermon, Likeness to God, Channing writes, “What, then, is religion?  I answer; it is not the adoration of a God with whom we share no common properties; of a distinct, foreign, separate being; but of an all-communicating parent.  It recognizes and adores God, as a being whom we know through our souls, who has made man in his image, who is the perfection of our own spiritual nature, who has sympathies with us as kindred beings …” He goes on to say, “Above all, adore his unutterable goodness.  But remember, that this attribute is particularly proposed to you as your model; that God calls you, both by nature and revelation, to a fellowship in his philanthropy; that he has placed you in social relations, for the very end of rendering you ministers and representatives of his benevolence…” Channing, here demonstrates how radical his Christianity was at that time, indeed it might still seem radical to most Christians today.  God is a model of goodness.  We are beings who do good because we have within us the image of God, who is “unutterable good.”  We are not disobedient sinners, flawed creatures, depraved souls bound to sin with no good in us.  We each have what Channing called the Devine Seed within.  He said, “I reverence human nature too much to do it violence.”

Channing didn’t claim we did only good deeds.  He saw in us the connection of God; he didn’t claim we were God.  That came later, through Emerson and others after him.  Channing and the other Unitarian Christians of that time were Arminians.  Arminianism is the doctrinal position that denies election and original sin, and supports the doctrine of free will.  It is basically anti-Calvinism, if you will.  Jacob Arminius was a Dutch reformed theologian from the 1500’s who said that people could respond to divine grace.  He basically said everyone could be saved.  John Calvin was saying, “No, only a select few could be saved, a pre-selected few in fact.”  My little dictionary of theological terms says “Many historians of doctrine see the significance of Arminianism to lie in its attempt to think through the relationship between God and humanity in personal terms.”

One could characterize it this way: Calvinists believed that every human being was born in original sin.  It is like saying you begin life on a train speeding toward hell totally depraved and unredeemable, and only a few have a chance of getting off.  Arminianism says you start your life on the platform and can choose which train you get on, and perhaps you can even change trains during the trip.  There is no limit to the number of folks who can get a ticket for the heaven bound train.

Unitarianism’s message of the innate dignity and goodness of human beings grew from the Channing Unitarians, through the extreme individualism of the transcendentalists, through the Free Religious Association and eventually into what became the Humanist movement.  In 1933 the Humanist Manifesto was written up, several of the signers were Unitarian clergy.  In a sense, Humanism is a direct inheritor of Channing’s vision.

Humanism’s scandalous claim that religion had outgrown the concept of God certainly grabs the attention of most people.  If, however, that were the whole story, that we would simply apply the label Atheist to this set of beliefs and leave it be; but that is not the whole story of Humanism.  Indeed Humanism says more about the human condition and human nature than it ever says about God or the lack thereof.  And not all Humanists are atheists, because the larger statement of Humanism says the primary focus of our attention is humanity.  It says, “We are born, we live, and we die. This much we know; this much we can talk about.” Curtis Reese, Unitarian minister from 1920’s and 30’s, wrote, “The Humanist regards the universe as the given and is not likely to speculate unduly on either the beginning or the end of things cosmic.”  Reese explained further “the primary concern of Humanism is human development.”

As an exemplar of Humanist thought within Unitarianism in the 1920’s Curtis Reese is one among several outstanding pioneers.  I particularly liked the way he articulated the human condition.

Reese viewed humans as an organic part of nature, a result of the evolutionary process.  But because humans possess self-consciousness and insight, they are not a fixed part of nature but highly plastic and flexible, with potential for development.  … Because humans have self-consciousness, they tend to separate themselves from the other forms of nature, even other animals.  Reese objected to such a tendency because it perpetuates a dualism of the spiritual versus the physical.  (Olds, Mason American religious Humanism, p113-4)

As Unitarian Universalism evolved and grew, we recognized another perspective among us that articulated the earth as holy, and humanity to be fully part of nature.  This perspective arose from the Native American spiritualities, from the environmentalists, from the feminists, and from the pagan communities.  An Earth-centered perspective’s understanding of the human condition begins with an understanding of the Sacred; from there we move into an understanding of our connection as human beings to that which is sacred and our place in the universe.  Starhawk says, “Earth mother, star mother, you who are called by a thousand names, May we all remember we are cells in your body and dance together.”  A statement which is not that far different from that of a Indian mystic, Rabindranath Tagore, who writes, “The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.”  Or the American Indian called Seattle who said, “This we know.  The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth.  All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.”  Starhawk explores the connection of humanity with nature in the first chapter of a recent book entitled The Earth Path.  She writes,

One view sees human beings a separate from and above nature.  Nature exists as a resource bank that we are entitled to exploit for our own ends. …This philosophy is held by many religions, but also by both capitalists and classical Marxists.  It has resulted in unprecedented destruction of ecosystems and life-support systems all over the planet. … But there is a counterpoint to this view, one often held by environmentalists and even some Pagans, that is more subtly destructive.  That’s the view that human beings are somehow worse than nature, that we are a blight on the planet and she’d be better off without us.  …  A corrective view might arise from the understanding that we are not separate from nature but in fact are nature.  (p8-9)

Many of the Pagan and other people within Unitarian Universalism who identify with an Earth-centered spirituality find their beliefs well articulated by these voices like Starhawk’s from outside our particular tradition.  If I had been able to find my copy of Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon I could have offered a Pagan perspective from within Unitarian Universalism, but it was not to be.  The point, however, remains, that Paganism and other Earth-centered spiritualities hold a radical perspective of our human condition based on our place in the world.  When we human beings uncover our true nature we will find that we are neither a separate dominating power nor mere interloping destroyers of the good earth.  We are of the earth.  We are nature.  And this sounds quite similar to what the Humanist Curtis Reese was saying, don’t you think?

Ours is an evolving faith.  We grow as a people and who we are grows with us.  We do, however, have a cornerstone theological belief from which we build all that binds us together.  Is it a creed?  No.  Will every Unitarian Universalist agree with me that in general we have a theological cornerstone and specifically that it is our radical understanding of human dignity?  No.  And they need not because the cornerstone of Unitarian Universalism binds us by respect.  It is more than simply agreeing to disagree, or covenanting to walk together but on different paths.  Yes, there are many paths found among us.

You are probably sitting next to a Pagan, sharing a hymnal with an atheistic Humanist, entering silent meditation with a prayerful Theist, sipping coffee with Mystic, or sharing communion with Agnostic.  And so too, there are UU Buddhists, and UU Jews, Deists, Panentheists, and evolutionary transcendentalists; it is confounding and perhaps disconcerting to some onlookers to see us worship together as one.  Our unity is not found in a shared theology of God or the person of Jesus or Buddha, or the nature of enlightenment, salvation, or reincarnation.  Our unity is not found in a shared understanding of the source of human goodness.  We do, however, all hold to the general theological cornerstone of our tradition which is our theology of human nature: that all human beings have a basic worth, an essential and innate dignity. This is the ground of our trust by which we accept our significant differences. This is the foundation from which we build our covenants.  This is the root of all that we are together.

In a world without end,

May it be so.