Look Out! Holy Days Are Coming
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Unitarian Universalism is a living tradition that draws from many sources including the wisdom of the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life. This is an aspect of our way of faith that is both compelling and confusing to people who are not Unitarian Universalist. “Why are you promoting your own competition?” they ask. Simply put, this is a house of truth-seeking. Just as we honor the truth we find in science and modern prophets; so too, we honor truth that has been captured for ages in the words of the ancient authors and sages. Or, as Forest Church put it, “We draw inspiration from other religions as well as our own. … We celebrate a wide variety of festivals in an attempt to divine the essential meaning of each.
While I was growing up in the Unitarian Universalists Sunday School classes, I was taught the religions of the world in a respectful and engaging manner. I remember liking the Gods of the Hindus; they were so plentiful and seemed so full of color. Many were depicted smiling, which was appealing to me. I would like to believe in a smiling God. I remember learning about Buddha and Lao Tzu and Confucius; Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva; Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed. All of this was offered to me as a young person in the religious education program of my Unitarian Universalist congregation.
And perhaps you know (or have guessed by what I have said so far,) the Binghamton Unitarian Universalist Congregation also offers this information about the world’s religions to our young people during Sunday School. Our Sunday School program is designed in a four year rotation, each year focusing on either Unitarian Universalist identity, our Judeo-Christian heritage, World Religions, and Ethics and Social Justice. This year our children are offered the focus of World Religions. Each class approaches the topic in a way that developmentally appropriate for their age. For example, the Junior High class is using a curriculum entitle “Neighboring Faiths” which includes opportunities for the class to visit other places of worship. I remember doing this sort of thing one year, and anticipate the young people in our Junior High class finding this to be quite a unique experience.
In some ways it is too bad they can’t just jump in immediately. They need to do preliminary steps of choosing which religions to study and then make contact with each faith community to schedule a visit and then have a session where they learn about the tradition before finally going to visit. I certainly appreciate the careful necessity of these steps, but it’s too bad all the same because this weekend would have been a wonderful opportunity for our young people to experience the holiest days of both the Jewish faith and the Islamic faith. Every thirty years, roughly, Rosh Hashanah and the first days of Ramadan occur on the same day or within a day of each other. Most of the time, these two holidays are no where near each other in the regular calendar; but for this year they are.
Both the Islamic calendar and the Jewish calendar are based on the lunar cycle of months lasting 28 or 29 days each. The result is a 354 day year, which is 11 days off from the solar calendar year. The Islamic calendar makes no attempt to equalize the difference, thus Muslim holidays are about 11 days earlier on the solar calendar each year; over the years, Ramadan begins in the fall, in the summer, in the spring, and in the winter; and when it returns to fall the dates will, of course, not match up again with the dates from the last time Ramadan begin in the fall. In other words: a given Islamic date, say the First of Ramadan, will coincide with a given Gregorian calendar date, say September 24th, once every 32 or 33 years (depending on leap years.) The Jewish calendar, on the other hand, does make an effort to equalize the difference between the lunar and solar cycles. Several of the Jewish holidays hold seasonal significance, so ever three years of so, the Jewish calendar adds a lunar month, a leap month if you will. This means that for three years the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of Ramadan coincide. We are currently in the second year of this holy coincidence. For the fourth year, however, the Jewish Calendar adds its extra month, pulling Rosh Hashanah back into what we call October, while Ramadan continues its trek into early September and then late August and on. The two holy days will not coincide again like this until over thirty years from now. And the most recent time when this had happened in the past was the early 1970’s.
Rosh Hashanah, year 5767, the anniversary of the creation of the world, begins at sundown of what the Gregorian calendar calls Friday, September 22, year 2006, and which Jews call the first of Tishri, being the seventh day of the Jewish lunar calendar. The traditional greeting for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is “Shana Tova: (shah-NAH toh-VAH) Happy New Year!”
The holy month of Ramadan, the anniversary of when Allah started revealing the Qur’an to Muhammad, his prophet, begins on what the Gregorian calendar calls September 24, today; and which Muslims call the first of Ramadan, being the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar. The traditional greeting during this month is “Ramadan Mubarak: (RAH-mah-dahn moo-BAR-ahk) May God give you a blessed month.”
The last day of the Ten Days of Awe on the Jewish calendar is called Yom Kippur. It is a day of reflection and repentance. One of the techniques used to enhance reflection and understanding of repentance is fasting. Many people celebrate Yom Kippur by taking no food or water from sunset to sunset. One author writes, “In ancient Jewish tradition fasting had two primary purposes. The first was to express personal or national repentance for sin. … The second purpose of a fast was to prepare oneself inwardly for receiving the necessary strength and grace to complete a mission of faithful service in God’s name.”
Muslims spend the entire month of Ramadan in daily fasts from sunrise to sunset. Each morning before the sun rises the family will eat together, and when they return home in the evenings they beak their fast with a family meal. They do this for the entire month of Ramadan. While fasting is beneficial to physical health, the purpose for Muslims is self-purification and self-restraint. One author writes, “By cutting oneself from the worldly comforts, even for a short time, a fasting person focuses on his or her purpose in life by constantly being aware of the presence of God.”
Fasting is a spiritual practice common to many religious groups. Many who fast do so with moderation and find it to be a significant time of reflection on that which sustains us spiritually in the way that food sustains us physically. Both Rosh Hashanah (with Yom Kippur) and Ramadan are times of fasting for the adherents of those faiths. It is also a time for deepening ones connection with and understanding of the faith tradition through worship, study and service. In particular, Muslims strive to be polite and respectful, and to put an end to past disputes during Ramadan. It is a month for Muslims to purify their bodies and their minds. So, too, with Rosh Hashanah, Jews are to repent of injuries they have caused, to seek forgiveness that they may begin the year with a clean slate, with their names inscribed in the Book of Life for another year.
I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me these wars surrounding Israel, Palestine, and now Lebanon violate not only a few of the specific restrictions, but also the spirit of these two holidays. I’m pretty sure putting an end to past disputes and repenting of injuries you have caused means not starting new disputes or causing new injuries! I’m pretty sure it means not killing each other!
There was a rather logical letter to the editor a few days back in response to the Popes unfortunate, though probably intentional, choice of quotes concerning violence and the religion of Islam. The pope’s use of the quote sparked a violent response among some Muslims in the Middle East. The letter to the editor from a few days back said, “We have “peace-loving” Muslims burning churches and committing other violent acts to impress everyone that they’re non-violent.” (Marge Christenson; Press & Sun, Thursday, 9/21/06; A10) And that is a cynical way of putting it, but it’s true. In yesterday’s paper there was an article about Ramadan featuring Imam Kasim Kopuz of the Islamic Center of the Southern Tier. Imam Kopuz’s comment about Pope Benedict XVI’s quote is that many Muslims found it offensive, but a proper Islamic reaction does not include violence. He didn’t say a proper Islamic response during Ramadan does not include violence. He said a proper Islamic response would never include violence. So, in response to that letter to the editor, ‘No, we do not have “peace-loving” Muslims burning churches and committing other violent acts, obviously! We have angry, aggressive groups using religion as an excuse to vent their anger and aggression in violent, destructive ways – undermining and perverting the fuller message of Islam.’ Oh, to be sure, the Qur’an and the Pentateuch, as well as the New Testament, each one of these holy books contains verses that can be lifted out of the fuller context and used to condone violence. Any tradition can be manipulated this way.
Indeed there is a madness that has taken over may people in that area, a madness cloaking itself as righteousness – believing itself to be truly righteous. Nations in the Middle East live in fear of each other and thrive on the anger and revenge the builds day by day as the violence continues. And one of the great casualties is religion itself. In too many situations the peaceful, forgiving, and repentant religions of Islam and Judaism are used as fuel for further violence. Just as Christianity is used as a tool for hate at times by extreme fundamentalists who are more concerned with a political or social or just plain bigoted agenda; so too other religions are used by those who would do harm under the guise of being righteous.
Which is why the concurrence of these two holidays is an opportunity for hope. With Jews and Muslims who are seemingly always at war with each other in the Middle East, we have now a moment when both religions call on the faithful to purify and cleanse themselves, to repent and seek forgiveness, to set aside old disputes and not to start new ones! We have a moment when both sides are poised to engage in self-reflection. What an opportunity, think of the possibilities if people of faith were to stand up and say “it is time for us to have peace.”
Well, it would be amazing if we were to read in the paper tomorrow that peace broke out in the Middle East over the weekend. I am not going to hold me breath for it, though. It’s not that I’ve given up, but I realize this work takes a long time. I have been praying for peace and working for peace and striving with justice toward a world of peace since I could understand what that meant – and so have many of you. It is hard to see opportunities such as this go by while hatred and greed and cruel apathy keep a grip on the reigns of power and the hearts of people. It is particularly painful to see religion continually used to separate people; religion which is meant to bring people together, to provide hope, to help people reflect together and grow in understanding; religion which is meant to spread peace is used to fan the flames of war.
But I know that peace is built slowly, step by tentative step. I know that the world is built up by little deed after little deed done every day by regular people like you and me. I know that even the simple acts of you and I reaching out to people in our own community can lead us to fuller understanding in the world. While I see the world swept by greed and hate, the peaceful religions of the world co-opted into the structures of war, the hope for harmony among the nations lost and left behind; I also see possibilities that I know can serve to change a life. I see possibilities that I know can lead people into deeper understanding. When holy days appear together on a calendar and are honored; when children are taught about other faiths with respect; when people of goodwill gather, I continue to see possibilities that serve as the catalyst for new hope. At this holy time, when many millions of people are called on to reflect, repent and seek peace in the name of their God; there is cause for hope. May peace move through the people, allowing new life and renewed hope to again bloom within our hearts. May it be for people around the world and may it be among us now.
In a world without end, may it be so.
The Epic of Evolution
A sermon by Douglas Taylor
Each year in the spring, the 8th graders from our congregation have an opportunity to take the Coming of Age course which is designed to guide them through their search for understanding as they navigate the transition of becoming a youth. Each spring there is a Coming of Age worship service presented by these youth and their mentors, and without fail it is one of the highlights of our church year. The youth are encouraged to present a credo statement during the service, a statement of personal belief. Every year I hear at least once if not several times in these credos the statement, “I believe in science.”
I imagine that in some other houses of worship such a statement would be seen as at best an odd non sequitur or misstatement in need of correcting, “One does not believe in science. One believes in doctrines, in God, in love, but science? No.” Quite likely such a statement would be met with a good deal of resistance and possibly open hostility. I am afraid religion has largely continued to distrust and oppose science in general and evolutionary science in particular. Religion still today feels threatened by science. And, science has often returned the sentiment in kind!
Over the ages, there have been attempts to reconcile science and religion. To appease one or the other, to grant victory of one over the other, to declare one obsolete or meaningless when compared to the other. I wrote an article a year or two ago for the Press & Sun Bulletin advocating a view that is something of a compromise, but in effect sends each boxer back to his corner.
“Science and religion are natural allies,” I had written. “Science asking questions of what and how, religion asking questions of why and what for; together they lead us into deeper understanding of nature and human nature. The challenge is to not confuse the two and to understand the real limits of each. Science cannot explain suffering or hope or the mystery of existence. Religion, on the other hand, is a poor guide to understanding how old the earth is or how to cure disease. Science may someday find a way to explain it all, but don’t hold your breath waiting for science to explain what it all means!”
If I had it to do over again, I would offer something a little bolder and less mincing. I see now how entwined religion and science are. Sometimes I catch glimpses of very deep meaning from nature and science, rather than from what is traditionally considered ‘religion.’ I begin to see that the search for truth and meaning is the work of science, and therefore the work of science is religious work. I think it may be possible to approach concepts such as suffering, hope, forgiveness, and what it all means through the scientific study and understanding of the universe. The writings of Aldo Leopold and Annie Dillard; Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, Loren Eiseley and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd; the work of these and so many others leads us into a deeper understanding of the sacredness of our scientifically observable world.
Unitarian Universalist minister Ken Patton wrote, “This house is for the ingathering of nature and human nature. It is a house of truth-seeking, where scientists can encourage devotion to their quest, where mystics can abide in a community of searchers.” Rather than separating science and religion, we should invite them both into the search for truth and meaning. Unitarian Universalism is an evolving faith. As new and better understandings of the world around us emerge, so our statements and beliefs adjust to match our new understandings of reality. Consider this: when all the world’s major religious traditions began the basic understanding of cosmology was that the earth was flat and stationary at the center of everything. There was a dome of the heaven where the sun and stars in an unchanging pattern moved around the earth. Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, all began before microscopes and telescopes could enhance our sight enough to see in detail the fabric of life. If the religions of the world can not adjust to the new understandings of the universe and our place in it they are doomed to fight a losing battle against reality.
The history that science tells about the origin of the universe and the origin of life has been seen as a cold recitation of fact and detail lacking beauty, awe, reverence: robbing nature of its awesome and inspiring beauty. What is called the “Epic of Evolution” or ‘The Great Story” tells the history of the creation of the universe in a way that is simultaneously scientific and sacred. The Great Story does reduce life down to details and simple facts, but it also lifts up the profoundly sacred elements of the story and the deeper meaning to be found in existence.
Ursula Goodenough, writes in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature about the trouble with reducing the Universe down to its base components: a series of chemical reactions encoded in DNA molecules. For a long time many scientists insisted there was “something else”, some vital force also present within or beyond the basic building blocks of life. “We are told that life is so many manifestations of chemistry and we shudder, a long existential shudder. … That does to life what astrophysics does to the night sky. Life reduced down to the component molecules is life demeaned.” But then she resolves that argument with what is called the Mozart metaphor. “A Mozart sonata,” she writes, “is a wondrous thing, beauty beyond belief, sonorous, resonant, transporting. But it is also about notes and piano keys. Mozart’s magnificent brain composed the work, to be sure, and then he translated it into black specks on white paper to be translated into strings hit by tiny hammers.” She says we can be deeply moved by a Mozart sonata without ever looking at sheet of music. But we can pick up the score, follow along, and perhaps even learn to play it ourselves, without the sonata being demeaned or diminished. So too, life can be reduced “to its most spare rendering.” We can look at the chemical responses – the tiny hammers and strings – and the DNA encoding – the notes on the pages if you will. We can look at the science within the natural world and still be drawn in reverence to its beauty. Indeed, perhaps more fully drawn than otherwise.
In the beginning, about 14 billion years ago, there was a Great Radiance, or a Big Bang as some have called it; a rapid expanding of space and everything with it, which at that point was pretty much just hydrogen. Hydrogen was present at the start it seems, and everything else grew from it, starting with stars. Stars form from hydrogen. As things heat up, the hydrogen is built up into helium, and over time, when the hydrogen is used up, the star of mostly helium explodes casting out stardust of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. When a star goes super-nova it spews out dust comprised of heavier elements like iron and zinc and gold. Brian Swimme sums up the Epic of Evolution like this: “Take a huge cloud of hydrogen gas and just leave it alone and it becomes rose bushes giraffes, and human beings.” So as stars form, grow, decay, and explode, the stuff that eventually becomes “us” is created. We exist only because stars die. We are stardust. We are stardust in a literally and scientifically accurate way; and also in a metaphorical and profoundly religious way.
To give an example of this, how many of you took your kids or grandkids to see the Lion King movie from Disney? I’ve seen that movie dozens of times on the VCR with Brin and Keenan over and over again and now with Piran. There is a scene during Simba’s exile, Simba is The Lion King. He is lying back in the grass with his friends Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog.
Pumbaa asks Timon “Ever wonder what those sparkly dots are up there?”
Well, Timon says, “I don’t wonder. I know. They’re fireflies that got stuck up on that big, bluish-black thing.”
Pumbaa then says, “Oh. Gee…. I always thought that they were balls of gas, burning billions of miles away.”
To which Timon says, “Pumbaa– with you, everything’s gas.”
Then they turn and ask Simba what he thinks and at first he says, “Oh, I don’t know.” But they press and finally he says, “Well… somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there, watching over us.” If you know the story, you may remember that it was Simba’s father who had told him this.
And Timon says “You mean a bunch of royal dead guys are watching us?” and he and Pumbaa burst out laughing. And Simba goes off thinking about his father, and then has an experience of his father in the stars which sets in action the rest of the movie with Simba going back to challenge his uncle and reclaim the throne.
Well, if you ask anyone which of the three had the correct answer, they will tell you the warthog had it right: stars are balls of gas burning billions of miles away. How many think that’s right? Yeah! Well how many here think Simba was right? Simba was right! You and I have a common ancestor, and it is not just the ape, but back through the ages you and I and the oak tree and the meerkat and a gold band and little Pluto the ex-planet; we all have a common ancestor. We are stardust; our bodies and our earth and everything are a result of generations of the birth – death cycle of stars. The stars are our ancestors watching over us. And they serve as our guides in more than just the obvious ways. As we learn more about the life of stars and their place in the story of the universe, we learn more about ourselves and our place in the universe.
Sometimes we use metaphors to describe what is going on. Sometimes we speak in scientific fact. Stars are balls of gas burning billions of miles away and stars are our ancestors. Both are important ways of passing on the information. To say that God took dust from the earth and breathed life into it, as the account in Genesis reports, is a wonderfully dramatic metaphor to describe what really happened. We grew out of the earth the way peaches grow out of a peach tree. Carl Sagan wrote “We are the local embodiment of a cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: star stuff pondering the stars.” When we first launched probes and people out into space and we took pictures of the Earth, the blue green ball floating in the vast dark of space, you could think of it as the earth sending forth a small bit of itself to look back and say, “Ahh, so that is what I look like.” We are the universe becoming aware of itself.
The UU World magazine recently published a feature article on the work of Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd, two Unitarian Universalists who have a mission to bring the Great Story to the public, to raise the awareness of this sacred and scientific story of evolution. Much of what I’ve offered this morning is based on their work. I have a very nice DVD I’m thinking of using for an adult Religious Discussion course. And I am trying to get Michael and Connie to visit Binghamton in the spring or next fall. I think a key understanding of the mix of faith and fact, of the sacred and the scientific, is in the way they describe a new metaphor of the universe. An old dominant metaphor is the mechanistic one, usually using a clock as an analogy. The old bit about the pocket watch found in the field implies that there is a clock maker out there somewhere who created this complex thing of beauty we call a pocket watch. Science refuted that theological proposition, but in many ways bought into the mechanistic concept and began taking the pocket watch apart to discover how all the complex pieces fit together. The new metaphor sets the mechanistic idea aside and says the universe is organic. Where the mechanistic metaphor rested on dualism, the organic metaphor is thoroughly monistic, which appeals to me. The universe is a living dynamic whole made up not of many little parts, but of many sub-wholes. Forget the pocket watch.
A better metaphor for the universe, Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow say, is a set of Russian nesting dolls, made up of levels of what they call nested creativity: subatomic particles within atoms, within molecules, within cells, within organisms, and so on. Each level is uniquely creative, that is, has the power to bring something new into existence. Stars create atoms; atoms create substances like the oxygen we breathe; human cultures create art, religions, and technology.
You, yourself, are a whole and complete creative entity. You are made up of organs, cells, molecules, atoms, each of which is whole at each level. And you as an organism are a part of organizations, nations, planets, galaxies, and more. Each level, like Russian nesting dolls, is not simply a part of the next higher level, but a complete whole with creative capacity. This sort of begs the question: how small do the nesting dolls get, and how large? What do we call the largest nesting doll? Michael Dowd offers this:
The largest nesting doll is God—or Allah, Adonai, Source of Life, Ultimate Reality, Nature, the Universe, whatever name describes the divine whole for you, the ultimate creative reality that includes and transcends all other levels of reality. God is not outside of creation. God is an integral part of it—in fact, is it.
Starhawk, in her book entitled The Earth Path, writes, “We are not separate from nature but in fact are nature.” I absolutely love the theological implications of this line of thinking. And the concept of ‘nested creativity’ is scientific fact. No one refutes it. Atoms form molecules; molecules form cells; DNA is encoded to create protein; peach trees form peaches; we’re on an orbiting planet among other planets in an intertwined solar system; the Sun creates helium from hydrogen. Again and again, the creative whole at each level contains and is contained within a creative whole at another level – all the way down and all the way up.
So what does it all mean? It means we are kindred with all of creation. It means we are not the pinnacle of creation; rather we are one current expression. We are not only for ourselves; we are here as a participants in a greater dance. Annie Dillard says, “We are here to abet creation and to witness to it, to notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.” We are nature uncovering its own nature. We are the universe becoming aware of itself. What is the meaning of life? I think the Great Story, the Epic of Evolution tells us that we are one with the good earth and that we are here to take part in the creative process. We are here to create. We have a supporting role to play; to aid and abet creation – to ensure its furtherance. Indeed, when I see science infused so with sacred meaning, how can I but testify: I believe in science.
In a world without end
May it be so.
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.
Our Common Story
A sermon about our Unitarian Universalist History
August 20, 2006
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Rev. David Bumbaugh wrote in his book
Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History
“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.”
Unitarian Universalism is an evolving faith. Who we are and what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist has changed over time. Many individual Unitarian Universalists tell a story of breaking away from an old set of beliefs; this rejection is perhaps an echo of the broader story of Unitarian Universalism. The pattern for our tradition began by breaking away – rejecting old ideas and practices, casting out useless and worn out creeds – breaking away, then struggling with a new identity based on a minority opinion of conscience, followed by eventually joining together with others in a community based on religious freedom, acceptance, and shared discovery. Not every person shares that pattern, not every step in our long and diverse history can be fit into that pattern of breaking away, struggling with a new identity, and eventually joining together as a community in religious freedom, acceptance, and shared discovery. But this pattern is common enough and holds largely true on almost a mythic level for Unitarian Universalist. The themes of rejecting the old, identifying as a minority, struggling to be understood, and finally finding a place of acceptance and shared freedom and encouragement, are themes that are familiar to many.
In short, ours is a chosen faith. People choose to be Unitarian Universalist. Even one such as me who comes from a long line of Universalists chooses this faith. That I am a Unitarian Universalist is not merely an accident of birth; though to be sure that played its part. That I also grew up attending a Unitarian Universalist church shaped the possibilities, but that too was not in itself the determinant in my being a Unitarian Universalist today. I made a choice to be a part of this tradition; I stepped forward and pledged myself to this faith. I had considered other options. But I saw that this faith was big enough for me to change and grow. This faith is big enough for me to evolve in my personal faith and understanding because Unitarian Universalism as a whole is an evolving faith. This means each person experiences this freedom to mature in understanding and faith on a personal level; but it also means that the whole tradition evolves over time, shifting, changing, growing, and maturing! Ours is a forward-looking religion, not shackled to the past. Our hymns speak a lot about trusting the dawning future and facing the beaconing future.
I say that not to discount our history or to proclaim it unimportant. Indeed, my sermon today is to highlight our common story, our Unitarian Universalist history, and the power which this story bequeaths to us.
Unitarian Universalism began as two separate traditions that joined together as one in 1961. Universalism as a tradition dates back 1770 in the United States (or what would in a few more years become known as the United States.) It began based on the doctrine of universalism or universal salvation: the belief that all souls would be united with God in heaven. Unitarianism as a tradition dates back through several lines, the oldest of which is over 400 years long in Transylvania, which was a region in modern Hungary. Another line is traced briefly through Poland, also during the Reformation time. A third line arises through England in the 1600’s. And the line, through which we in this room are most strongly connected, comes from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s New England Congregational tradition. Unitarianism is based on the doctrine of the unity of God rather than the trinity of God, rejecting the divinity of Christ.
A complete telling of our common story, even one that merely skims across the surface, would include an exploration of the three lines of European Unitarianism beginning over 400 years ago, more than 200year of American Universalism, nearly 200 years of American Unitarianism, and of course our current Unitarian Universalism of the past 50 years. So let me give that a try.
To begin, the oldest Unitarian tradition is from Transylvania where Francis David became the court preacher in the mid-1500s to the only ever Unitarian king in history, King John Sigismund of Transylvania, (which is now known as Romania and Hungary.) I suppose it must be admitted that about a generation before David and Sigismund, a book entitled On the Errors of the Trinity by Michael Servetus, was circulated throughout Europe, but the majority of these books were collected and destroyed and its author, Servetus, was burned at the stake in 1553. No tradition or community grew up from Servetus’ work. Which leaves the community in Transylvania with the designation of oldest tradition.
Francis David was educated as a Catholic priest, but converted to Lutheranism, then Calvinism, and finally to a form of anti-Trinitarian belief later known as Unitarianism. His rigorous commitment to truth and reason compelled him through this succession. Through a series of open religious debates, David so ably defended the Unitarian position that it persuaded the then-Catholic King Sigismund to become Unitarian. Sigismund issued what is known as The Edict of Torda, which is the first law of tolerance from that time. The Edict simply said that the people did not need to all convert to the religion of the king. Instead, it allowed that “each person maintain whatever religious faith he wishes, with old or new rituals, … just so long, however, as they bring no harm to bear on anyone at all.” This was a most remarkable decree seeing how much intolerance was on display throughout Europe. This edict allowed diverse beliefs, protected minority opinions, and kept the peace. When Sigismund died, and a new king (not in sympathy with Unitarian beliefs) took the throne, the old court preacher, David, was tolerated only so long as he advocated no innovations in doctrine or thought or practice. Francis David’s conscience, of course, could not be contained. David was committed not to a particular doctrine, but to truth and his unfolding understanding of it. He eventually died in the dungeon of Deva for the crime of heretical innovation in 1579. Unitarianism survived through that time and subsequent persecutions, plagues, famines, crusades, and the Soviet totalitarian rule that threatened all religious communities. And now there are 400-year-old Unitarian churches in Hungary.
A generation or two later, John Biddle, who has been called “the father of English Unitarianism,” was born in 1615. Biddle new the New Testament by heart in both English and Greek; and through his study and research, concluded that the doctrine of the trinity had no scriptural support. When he was 29 years old he was called before a magistrate to defend himself against the charge of heresy. He wrote a satisfactory confession of faith, was released, felt dissatisfied with his confession of faith and began writing a new essay entitled Twelve Arguments Drawn out of Scripture refuting the doctrine of the trinity. He was again taken in, imprisoned, bailed out, his trial was postponed, and he was then held under house arrest for five years – during which time he finished his Twelve Arguments. Promptly following its release it was burned by the public hangman, which may have contributed to it being run for a second printing before the end of the year. Meanwhile, Charles the 1st was executed, Oliver Cromwell took over and Biddle was released. However within three years, he was back in prison by rule of a London judge. In 1652, Cromwell issued the Act of Oblivion granting amnesty to all those accused of crime, thus freeing Biddle once more. Biddle published a catechism in which he rejected the doctrine of the trinity and the deity of Jesus. Needless to say, he was promptly imprisoned, and his books were seized and burned. After a few months, he was released and he set to work organizing a debate with a Baptist preacher focusing on the deity of Christ. When word spread of the debate, the authorities immediately arrested John Biddle. Finally Oliver Cromwell, felling pressure to deal with Biddle’s case, banished Biddle to the Scilly Isles. Undeterred, John Biddle secured his return across the channel and began meeting with his friends and supporters again. In 1660 Cromwell, who had generally been seen as tolerant in religious matters, died and Charles the 2nd was enthroned. Biddle tried to keep his non-conformist worship quiet, but he was found out, arrested, fined, and imprisoned. This time, however, he was unable to pay the fine and remained in prison for quite some time. While in prison he became ill, and died two days after he was finally released in 1662 at the age of 48. But the seed had been planted and tended. The ideas took root and the community grew.
Indeed, one of the interesting things to note is the relative lack of interaction between what was happening in England and what was happening in Transylvania. A Unitarian community in Poland flourished for a time, but eventually the community was suppressed until it ceased to exist. There were certain connections between the Transylvanian and Polish Unitarians, but the English movement knew little of either. And likewise American Unitarianism, while experiencing a few undercurrents form the English movement, developed independently from New England’s liberal Congregationalism.
It is generally agreed that American Unitarianism began with a sermon preached by William Ellery Channing in 1819. In this sermon, which Channing preached in Baltimore for the ordination of a colleague, Channing basically said, “Yes, we are Unitarians and here is what that means.” Prior to that there were a good many liberal Congregationalist who had been accused for years of being Unitarian in their beliefs. This is why we claim the presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as Unitarians, despite that fact that both served their terms well before 1819, and indeed both died in 1826 (as an interesting aside, they both died on July 4th 1826 – having been political rivals, they reconciled and maintained correspondence over the years which included discussing there differing views of Unitarianism.) But let me get back to that sermon delivered one hundred and eighty-seven years ago. Channing declare that God is one rather than three, that Jesus is fully human rather than fully divine and fully human, and that humanity has the freedom and capacity to choose between right and wrong rather than being predestined and held in the bondage of the will…radical stuff. Channing based his arguments on the authority of scripture and the use of reason. At one point in the sermon he said God had given man the capacity of reason and we would be held accountable to use it. Channing’s sermon gave the Unitarians a strong platform on which to organize and grow. The American Unitarian Association was formed six years later in 1825.
Well, before I get carried away and start on about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Octavious Brooks Frothingham, and Margaret Fuller from the American Unitarian tradition, let me tell you a few stories about our Universalist heritage. Universalism began as, and largely continues to be, a uniquely American religious tradition. The churches in Transylvania are not Unitarian Universalist, they are Unitarian. The churches in Canada are also Unitarian churches. In the Khasi Hills of India there is a Unitarian community. There is a rather large and indigenous Universalist church in the Philippines, which serves as the huge exception to my generality.
Universalism in America, like American Unitarianism, marks its beginnings with the preaching of a sermon. John Murray was ordained as a Methodist minister in England, converted to Universalism, was ejected from his Methodist pulpit, suffered a series of devastating personal losses, and finally decided to quit the whole business. He booked passage on a ship going to the new world, leaving behind his pains and trouble, as well as his ideas of ministry. Things did not go as he had planned. Instead of arriving in New York harbor, Murray ended up stuck on a sandbar off southern New Jersey. Murray is sent up to find provisions for the ship while it waits for the winds to change; something bound to happen within a day or two. Well, the farmer Murray meets is Thomas Potter who has built a church on his property. He says to Murray, “Are you the preacher whom God has sent to preach in my pulpit?” Murray says, “No, I’m here to get provisions for our ship stuck just off the coast.” Potter presses, and Murray admits to having been a preacher before, but now he is just a traveler whose ship will be leaving in a few days, and could he please have provisions for the crew. Potter presses again, and Murray agrees to preach in Potter’s church on Sunday IF he is still here, which is unlikely as the wind would likely change any day now. And Potter said, “The wind will not change, and your ship will not leave the sandbar until you have preached in my pulpit.” Well, you see where this is going, don’t you? The wind did not change, and Murray preached a ‘no-holds-barred’ sermon of universal salvation entitled “Give them not hell, but hope and courage.” Murray went on to found a church in Gloucester, MA and helped create the denomination that at one point was reported to have been the sixth largest denomination in the United States.
And I want to tell you about Hosea Ballou and Clarence Skinner, Clara Barton, and James Luther Adams, and Humanist movement, and the Social Gospel movement, and the influence of German Higher Biblical Criticism on our Children’s Religious Education curriculum, and the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists in 1961. But all those stories must wait for another day. For now I must leave with just one story, our common story; the story of our evolving faith that binds us together as a people.
As David Bumbaugh wrote in the opening line of our reading this morning (from Unitarian Universalism a narrative history, 2000), “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.” The diverse list of theological stances taken in the name of Unitarianism, Universalism, and Unitarian Universalism over the years leaves any rational onlooker flummoxed as to what might be the common element. Indeed it would seem there is, as Bumbaugh contends, no shared theology among us. Rather we have a history, a common story, which speaks of a journey. Our story is a journey with a breaking away from the old, a struggle toward deeper understanding even though that understanding be a minority view, and finally an arrival home in a faith community of acceptance and shared discovery such as the one you now find yourself.
To be a Unitarian Universalist is the share in our common story. Welcome home.
In a world without end, may it be so.