Rev. Douglas Taylor
Context is everything. Therefore it behooves us to speak for a time about the context in which we live and move and have our being. This can refer to our social or political situation, but not today. Today I wish to speak of our cosmology, our theological framework of everything, our cosmic context. Unitarian Universalism boldly claims a theological cosmology of interconnectedness: that at some level, we are all kindred.
Of course, I always feel the hesitancy of the typical Unitarian Universalist when I say anything about our common theology. Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal faith tradition. 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. Yet we actually do have common theology that binds us as one faith at our core.
To be sure, the common theology we share does not serve as a test. We’re all over the map, theologically speaking. We are Pagans, Theists, Humanists, Mystics, Agnostics and seekers. And within each of these labels are nuances that spread us quite wide. There are as many ways to approach the Holy as there are people to approach it.
This is how we gather as a people. Our congregation encourages each person to have his or her own personal theology rather than asking anyone to bend to a corporate theology. We have an adult curriculum called “Building Your Own Theology” we have offered from time to time in which participants work 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.
All this, I have said before. And I have said before that despite the truth of all this – we do have a common theology at our core. Not a creed, but a common theology. We have many things we hold in common at our core; shared theology is only one of them. We also have a shared sociology, a shared history, shared values, rituals, symbols, stories, songs, literature, and sources of authority and inspiration. There are many ways to name our core, today I again want to sift through some of the common theology at our core.
A few years back there was an effort to nail down our Unitarian Universalist theological core identity so we charged an independent committee with that task. Isn’t that so like us? So the Commission on Appraisal worked for four years and produced a document entitled Engaging Our Theological Diversity; after four years of study we wrote, not a one-page statement or a pampnlet, but a book. Isn’t that so like us? The document, sadly, did not answer the question with which it had been charged. Instead it proposed, among other things, a series of insightful questions to help illicit conversation. Isn’t that just so like us? But with careful reading, one can uncover remarkable findings in that report on our Unitarian Universalist common theology.
At one point near the end of the Commission on Appraisal’s report, they offer a big, long list of theological “tensions” where they outline for a variety general theological topics “here is where we agree and here is where we disagree.” Concerning our ideas of God, of Sin and Evil, of Spiritual Practice, and on and on – here is where we agree and here is where we disagree. (Isn’t that so like us?) Yet there were three areas where they did not list any disagreement! Noteworthy enough, perhaps, was the long list of agreements standing beside all our beloved theological disagreements; but stunningly significant are these three areas in the list for which there is no disagreement. And yet this is buried in the bowels of this book rather than dramatically featured for all to see. (Isn’t that just so like us!) Clearly there is major ambivalence around naming our common theology.
The first one they list is: Human Nature “We agree that all human beings have worth and dignity and must be respected. We are optimistic about the human capacity for goodness but recognize that every person is capable of evil.” And they also reported that in a survey on beliefs, around 90% of both ministers and lay respondents considered as “highly important” the statement: Humans are born with the potential to be good; we are committed to nurturing good through love and learning. 90% agreement seems fairly convincing to me!
And so, for the past half-dozen years or so, I have been talking about our common theology of human nature, our belief which we share as theists, humanists, pagans, mystics, and everything between and beyond, the theological notion of our human capacity to choose the good. This is part of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist: to have an optimistic outlook for our capacity to be good. But there where other areas in which we uncovered no disagreement in our list of ‘tensions’ in the Commission’s report. After all, our agreement on what it means to be human must acknowledge the context in which we are human.
The second remarkable agreement that was left unremarked in the report was about our theology of cosmology. “We agree that the natural world is a continuously evolving web of interdependence and mutuality, and that human beings must respect the impact of our actions on the whole.” And over 90 percent of respondents across all demographics considered as “highly important” the statement: The natural world is a web of interdependent connections, of which we are inescapably a part. The commission states that, in fact, this statement is the “largest piece of common ground” among all those who participated in the study. This, then, is the context in which we are human. And context is everything! Having a theology of human nature is meaningless unless we can state something of the context in which we exist.
One GA participant spoke of “the experience of the presence of life within me, within the present moment, within all people and creatures, and intuition that we all share this life and are intimately interconnected in a fragile and durable network of love.” Another wrote, “When we have a felt connection to the interdependent web of existence, we trigger a natural inclination to become our best selves. I call the fact of interconnectedness and our inclination to be our best selves God.” (p73)
Many of you, I am sure, have noticed a connection between these two theological statements and the first and seventh principles of Unitarian Universalism. If you want to refresh yourself they are written in the front of our hymnal just ahead of hymn #1. The first principle states that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the seventh principle says that we affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. It is interesting to note that what we call the seventh principle, the “interdependent web” piece, was not part of the original conversation in the early 1980’s as this iteration of our principles was in draft. It arose during the back and forth of amendments and compromises. And there is not a commensurate statement in any earlier document of our principles. It was new and it arose from the conversation about who we are. While the principles are not theological declarations, you can see hidden within them some deeply theological statements. Though it is not all that hidden in that seventh one, is it?
And again, this is not a creed this is 90% agreement. We’re not describing “the only way to be in the room.” We’re describing what it looks like in the middle of the room. There are individual near the edges that offered no “articulated” disagreements, but I don’t think that means we can ignore the 10% of unarticulated disagreement. But neither do I think it means we can’t go forward with talking about what’s in the middle of the room!
Now, the idea that we are interconnected in this way, that, as John Muir put it, “when we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe;” this idea is not a something that has been in our theology all along. I can make a case for our theology of human nature as having been a part of the perspective of early Unitarians and Universalists. But the cosmology of radical inconnectedness is relatively new in comparison. There are hints of the concept in Emerson when he talks about the Oversoul. When UU singer/songwriter Peter Mayer, in the song we listened to this morning, “My Soul”, writes:
So we live this life together, my giant soul and tiny me
One resembling forever, one like smoke upon the breeze
One the deep abiding ocean, one a sudden flashing wave
And counting galaxies like snowflakes, I would swear we were the same
Peter Mayer, when he sings lyrics like these, evokes something of those old transcendentalists with their romantic Vedic overtones. Yet we must allow that our understanding of the universe is more informed by science than by the luminaries in our history. If we had hung our understanding of the universe on even the most forward thinking visionaries of the early 1800’s we would not yet be where we are today in terms of our understanding of the universe and our place therein.
Unitarian Universalism grew out of the western religious tradition which continues to hold a rather dualistic view of the universe: splitting heaven and earth, body and spirit. Yet our cosmology stands in contrast to the Abrahamic faiths on this count. Our theological cosmology is borne of an honest recognition of the insights of science. Science tells us that the earth is roughly spherical in shape – perhaps more accurately it is slightly pear-shaped. It rotates on its own axis while revolving around the sun while both earth and sun gently revolve around the galaxy. This is not in keeping with the pre-scientific views of the earth as flat with a dome of heavens as the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures understood. This is not in keeping with the notion that the round earth was at the center with moon, sun, and stars imbedded in external spheres. This is not in keeping with the notion that the earth is like a two-storied house with heaven on the top-floor, earth on the main level, and hell in the basement. In fairness, however, how else could earlier eras have understood the universe? They had not telescopes to aid their sight. They had not rockets with which to break away from the gravitational pull and look back at earth. Unitarian Universalism grew out of the western religious tradition yet stands in sharp contrast to it in terms of our theology of the universe. We hitched our wagon to the unfolding science and hung on for the ride. While western religious tradition struggles to match up traditional teaching with reality as we now know it, Unitarian Universalism affirms and promotes the interconnectedness of all life.
Indeed Eastern religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism have an easier time merging their cosmological statements with the teachings of science than Western traditions do. In his book Interbeing, Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh writes about interconnection, using your experience as the reader of his book to convey his message. He writes:
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.
One translation of a passage in the Upanishads, a Hindu sacred text, is rendered this way:
As is the human body, so is the cosmic body.
As is the human mind, so is the cosmic mind.
As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm.
As is the atom, so is the universe.
As science continues to uncover new and better understandings of the universe, we as people of faith are able to deepen our commitment to our cosmological view that everything in connected. Ours is an evolving faith and we have hitched our cosmology onto the ever-evolving scientific search while allowing poetry and metaphor to enhance the beauty and meaning to the picture. We remain willing to look toward many sources for insight and understanding. However, if we read Robert Fulghum and the Bhagavad-Gita to uncover the context of our living we will still weigh what we uncover against the light of science. When we say that we are interconnected we judge the poetic and metaphorical readings of that statement against the empirical scientific understanding of physics and biochemistry. Delightfully, there is both scientific and poetic truth to our understanding of the cosmos. Delightfully, there are implications for our ethical living in this truth, implications for how we care for our earth and for others around us. Our Enlightened self-interest can expand to a sense of self akin to Emerson’s Oversoul, Peter Mayer’s Giant soul, the whole of creation of which we are a part.
Clearly, there is a deep theological commitment to the Freedom of Conscience among us, a commitment to what I see as our theology of human nature. It is our central theological statement, our “first principle.” I mean that as something bigger that the first among our seven UU Principles, although our first UU Principle does refer to our deep central theology of human nature. But when I say it is our “first principle” I mean that it is the primary idea, the first centering concept at the beginning of our organization. Lord Acton said “Every institution finally perishes by an excess of its own first principle.” We Unitarian Universalists would do well to heed this axiom. I see the balance offered by our seventh UU Principle, our theology of cosmology, as a saving possibility for the institution.
And I think that hope is not unfounded because of the third and last statement of tensions among us for which there was no disagreement. Remember those theological ‘tensions’ in the Commission on Appraisal’s report, Engaging our Theological Diversity? And I mentioned there were three areas of ‘tension’ for which there was no tension, no disagreements – only agreements! There was our understanding of human nature and our sense of how we fit in the universe. Well, our hope in being able to balance the individual and the universal in our institution is found in that third area of agreement in the report: Knowledge and Revelation. We agree that revelation and knowledge come from many sources and that truth is always incomplete and evolving.
Ours is a message of blessing and acceptance, that every person has an innate value and worth. Ours is a message declaring that the earth does not belong to us, but that we belong to the earth. Ours is a message of power and action, as we affirm that new light and new truth is ever waiting to break forth into our lives. It is a message that calls us through the hurt and the promise to treat one another and indeed our whole world with care and with justice.
In a world without end,
May it be so