Agreements and Tensions
Rev. Douglas Taylor
From: Stitching a Layered Faith – UU World Magazine, Spring 2022 https://www.uuworld.org/articles/layered-faith
Multiple Voices, One Faith. Nuanced, surprising, and beautiful, Unitarian Universalism joins together myriad sources and experiences. It’s right there in our name: Unitarian Universalism. But the layers go deeper than the consolidation of two American religious traditions. … Christians, Humanists, Atheists. Jews, Pagans, Buddhists, and Muslims. Spiritual refugees and lifelong UUs with multigeneration family histories. University scholars, ordained ministers, chaplains, and lay leaders. Religious educators, administrators, and music ministers.
Unitarian Universalism is not, as some may quip, a place where we can believe anything we want. It is a place to approach our growth as spiritual people with openness and curiosity, a place where multiple beliefs, multiple traditions, and multiple life experiences will enrich and inform our search. In community, we piece together a faith that seeks to make sense of the world and empowers us to create change. …
Our reading this morning is from our UU World magazine, the spring edition of this year: “Stitching a Layered Faith.” Following the opening paragraph we just heard, there are four short pieces written by four voices in our faith. The article reveals a portion of the many, many voices in our one faith. I’ve asked our worship associate to read the four sections from the four different authors for us as we work our way through the sermon this morning.
Many voices, one faith. This is important because this point about “many voices, one faith” is a central aspect of who we are, or maybe I should say of how we are together. We do not all believe the same thing. In our story this morning, https://www.uua.org/worship/words/time-all-ages/its-not-what-you-believe-how we talked about how “most religions define themselves by what they believe.” But Unitarian Universalism is different in that we define ourselves by how we believe, by how we carry our beliefs together. We have long kept a ‘freedom of conscience’ concept in our central definitions of ourselves. We do not insist we all believe the same; we instead allow each to believe as they must, as their individual conscience demands. We trust that faith cannot be coerced. I’ve long felt this to be one of our greatest features as a faith.
A Unitarian Universalists, we are “Christians, Humanists, Atheists. Jews, Pagans, Buddhists, and Muslims.” We are skeptics, seekers, and searchers; we are people who blend and balance a bounty of beliefs. And the best part of all that is how we have joined together – beyond belief – to be together in community. Our centering bond is not around shared beliefs; it is, instead, a covenant. We are not one in believing, but one in the values we share.
Now, usually I would pivot at this point to talk at length about the covenant that binds us as one. Usually this would turn into an elegant sermon about our agreements. But today I would have us dig into the differences. Today, let us consider not what holds us together, but the differences that create tension in our togetherness. Today, let us explore some of our glorious tensions.
Janice Marie Johnson
As a Jamaican child of the Caribbean, … My grandparents and parents were nation builders who taught me to notice and question “all that is our lives.”
Jamaica is home to churches, temples, synagogues, and many other communities of worship. As a child, my family encouraged me to ask questions about religion. I asked questions about everything around me: about God, Rastafarianism, the virgin birth, Catholicism, Jesus, sin, Judaism, and much more. Unlike my Sunday school teachers, my parents offered expansive answers and more questions for collective contemplation.
At home, I grew up with the undeniable success of reggae, which crossed borders of class, matters of conscience, and religion. Rastafarianism, the dominant religion of early reggae musicians, was often shunned by the Jamaican elite, but things were changing. My family developed dear friendships with reggae and Rastafarian musical families, including the Marleys. To this day, I consider my Rastafarian “bredda,” Peter Tosh, to be a modern-day prophet. In his song, “Equal Rights,” he urges us to strive to attain equal rights with justice, to honor our ancestors and ourselves. His prayer is my prayer for our faith, for our fragile world, for all the generations.
I was blessed to grow up knowing that “Children should be seen and heard.” It is reminiscent of the UU message, “The answer is to question.” Our voices matter. They are sacred. For this, I give thanks.
You may recognize the name Janice Marie Johnson. She is a Commissioned Lay Minister, or CLM, serving a UU congregation in New York City. She is part of a cohort of CLMs that includes our own Commissioned Lay Minister Jeff Donahue. Janice and Jeff are colleagues and friends. We have used material from Janice Marie Johnson in our worship services several times in recent years.
In her piece just now, Johnson talks about blending Rastafarianism with Unitarian Universalism. Do you know the central beliefs of Rastafarianism? One aspect of that faith most of us would agree with is the emphasis on freedom and liberation of the community. The particulars of that, I imagine, most of us would disagree with of at least question. The particulars say historic slavery and current economic and racial oppression are simply the Jamaican people being tested by God; and that soon, God will deliver them from captivity back to their rightful place in Zion which is really Africa.
I don’t know if Johnson, in harkening to her Jamaican and Rastafarian roots, is proclaiming her belief in every part of that. Johnson talks about certain values and practices she still holds from her childhood. But she doesn’t say if there are particular beliefs. So let us step back from this exact example and notice a common tension that lives among us.
Many Unitarian Universalists grew up in a different faith tradition. It is common to have an appreciation of some of the aspects of your childhood faith while no longer subscribing to all the beliefs of that faith. And that can create a bit of tension for folks. Our practices and actions, how we behave in the world, are rooted in values and beliefs. There is a tension when we don’t really hold those beliefs anymore yet still hold strong to the practice and actions that were inspired by those old beliefs.
As Unitarian Universalists, we allow for the blending of our experiences to inform our living and our values. This is how we have people who say they are Unitarian Universalist as well as a second religious description. Our next section of the reading, for example, is from James Ishmael Ford who is American Zen Buddhist priest and a Unitarian Universalist minister.
James Ishmael Ford
The single most powerful source for my spiritual life has been silence. Discovering the place between words and ideas, tasting it, smelling it, listening to it, has opened me to the rhythms of life and death and to the heart of love.
I have a formal practice that invites the silence. Over the years, finding regular times to just sit with it has been critical. Taking a few days or even a week to sit with others in a practice centered on silence has been life-giving. …
Silence tells me where I come from. It points to where I will go. And it runs a wild current through my life today. Silence … shows me how I am connected to the rest of my human family and to the larger family of things.
I notice it as I inhale. I notice it as I exhale. I notice it on the turns, in and out.
My words, feeble things in general, attempt to recall what I’ve learned within those silent spaces where the universes are revealed. Sometimes I succeed.
These words birthed in silence, I’ve found, point to the great healing.
Rev. Ford’s blended beliefs lead him to certain practices such as silent meditation. That is a practice in line with both Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism. Mindfulness meditation, modeled after various Buddhist practices, is quite common in Unitarian Universalist congregations.
The tension I would lift up after hearing Ford’s piece is the tension between the individual and community. Some contend that the goal of a congregation is to support the spiritual growth of the individual. Others insist that our goal is to build a beloved community. Rather than trying to resolve the tension, it is worthy to let our congregations live in the tension.
Imagine a conversation, for example, between Ford and Johnson about the complimentary values of silence and speaking out, of inner work and outward engagement. Ford wrote: “Silence tells me where I come from. It points to where I will go.” And like a counter point, Johnson has written, “Our voices matter.” Both authors talk about the connection they feel with their community and how that connection draws them to serve the needs of the world. But they arrive to that conclusion from different paths – silence and speaking out, reaching in and reaching out. I often tackle this tension in my sermons, calling on us to do our inner work, to be gentle with ourselves; and in other sermons I lean more heavily on our call to build a better world together. But the answer is not one or the other. The tension allows amazing things to arise.
The next voice we will hear from the reading is Rev. Abhi Janamanchi. I know Rev. Janamanchi from our time together in seminary. I have reached out to him a number of times for counsel and advice. He is a good colleague.
I grew up in a Hindu household. Some of my earliest experiences of devotion came from watching my grandmother every morning … chanting Sanskrit mantras in front of the family shrine. She embodied the Hindu idea that the spiritual journey is something deeply personal, between oneself and the Holy, and that I need to find and follow my own path.
So, I became a Unitarian Universalist-Hindu.
My UU-Hindu faith declares that underlying and animating the human self is a reservoir of being that is infinite, all-pervading, and ultimate truth-consciousness-joy (sat-chit-ananda) known as brahman. The infinite brahman is present in all beings.…
My UU-Hindu faith focuses on life before death. It is about being awakened from our inertia to life, again and again. It proposes a way of being engaged in this world that is characterized by liberation from the many manifestations of greed and by a deep affirmation of abundance and generosity.
My UU-Hindu faith promotes the inherent worth, dignity, and divinity of all beings. It rejects any social, cultural, or political systems founded on inequity and injustice.
My UU-Hindu faith teaches personal responsibility and accountability. It reminds me that the consequences of our actions extend beyond our individual lives.
To be a UU-Hindu is to do the daily work of investing my time, my gifts, and my life in service of a Life larger than my own.
It is here I would lift up the most obvious and most recognized tension in our faith: the tension around God. This tension has a long history among us.
Over the years when I have checked, I have reliably found that more than half of this Binghamton congregation does not believe in God. Others here believe in something greater but do not call it God. Janamanchi speaks of the infinite brahman, for example, as well as Life with a capital “L.” But he does not, at least in this article piece, speak of God by that name. So it is with some of us here in this congregation. Others among us will speak of God and use the word God, but often find it necessary to clarify what they mean by the word God rather than to let an incorrect assumption of what is meant to occur. And some among us practice a faith that calls on many names for many Gods and Goddesses.
And yet we are all still here in the room together; many voices, one faith. We disagree about this question about the existence of God. A point that is usually a central belief in Christian congregations. For us, it is not a problem; it is a rich tension.
I was recently reminded that a few decades back, the word “God” was considered controversial in our sanctuary. Part of what changed from then to now is a healthy recognition of how valuable it is to allow the tension of our different beliefs to inform who we are as a community.
I am a theist. I use the word God to talk about that power and grace that pervades our living. But I don’t need everyone to agree with me. Differences in our beliefs can be approached with curiosity rather than confrontation. Tell me more about your values and what inspires you to be a good person. God is often part of such a conversation for people who believe in God. But lean in and listen – not only for your own voice but for the voices of others. We have much to learn from each other. It is an enriching tension and it leads us deeper.
When it comes down to it, my faith comes from the amazing, against-all-odds, courageous, beautiful resilience of the human heart: the way that people find joy after grief, courage after fear, liberation after oppression. I never fail to be awestruck by those stories. But every faith needs a wellspring, a source, that can be continually renewed—and that’s why I read romance novels. No, really. This minister is telling you to read romance novels—well, if they help you remember that love is always possible. Or to watch children’s fairytale movies, which so often have at their heart a message of redemption after mistakes. Or to collect the stories around you, the heroes of resistance in a broken world, who keep on fighting or loving or simply surviving even when the system seems (is) stacked against them.
So often we imagine that our moments of spiritual insight have to come from the “right” kinds of places, from beautiful poetry or the woods. And listen, I love poetry! And the woods! But what I want to say today is that the spiritual is all around us, that our faith can be replenished in the silly, the sexy, the sacred: that these may just be one and the same. I once knew someone who found themselves in a deep valley of sadness, struggling to understand how to continue forward. They found their way out through episodes of Care Bears. So be exuberant with your faith-sourcing! Allow wisdom in from every source! Perhaps, like me, you’ll find a reminder of the heart’s resilience in the least likely of places.
Rev. Poppei is an atheist. You’ll notice perhaps there is no reference to a deity in her piece. She served for a decade at the Washington Ethical Society in D.C., an intentionally non-theistic community. But in her piece, she leads us to consider different sources of inspiration. Indeed, all of the voices from this article lead us to consider our difference sources of inspiration.
As a congregation we talk about resilience and grace, love, peace, and faith. We draw from many sources leading us to actions and practices in the world. Those sources of inspiration are many and sometimes surprising. This summer we had worship services about walking the labyrinth and baking cookies as practices that can lead us to greater wholeness and connection. We heard about poetry and caring for the earth. Lay members of this congregation stepped into this space to share with us what nourishes and inspires them.
And no one was required to agree with everything that was shared. Maybe poetry or baking is not your thing. It doesn’t have to be. But maybe there is still a requirement revealed here. Maybe we do make a commitment – not to all believe one thing or another – but to listen to and encourage one another along the way as we grow in spirit and understanding. Maybe the value of experiencing the tensions is a way for each of us to learn to remain true to our own beliefs. To listen to and encourage the search for ourselves and others. The tensions are worth it. They help keep us true.
May we continue to abide together in the rich tensions of our different beliefs.
May this ‘abiding’ be revealed anew as one of our most potent agreements together.
May this time we share lead you into deeper understanding
and may it strengthen the connections you have to your own faith
and to the people around you in this community.
And may we go well into the coming days and weeks ahead.
In a world without end,
May it be so.