“Being UU” 2/12/2017

READING: from “The Unitarian Aim” by Charles Allen

Charles Allen was minister of this church from 1880 to 1889; as you will hear, his conception of faith was very much in traditional Christian terms.

[A]s long as “faith” is understood to mean correct belief, dogmatism and bigotry and even persecution are logically inevitable. … in true [faith], … belief is of less importance, but the right Spirit and life are vital. This has been the great aim of Unitarianism. It has been a protest against … dogmatism and bigotry [and] an earnest plea for … the only unity that history has shown to be possible, “the unity of the Spirit.” … Therefore it … has insisted on character as more important than creed or rite; on the spirit of loyalty and trust as the essence of “faith;” and on the filial spirit toward God … It recognizes also the importance of repentance, regeneration, conversion; but it cannot insist upon any particular theory of these great experiences, or require that all [religious] experiences shall be of exactly the same type. It is content, if it finds “the fruit of the Spirit.” … It would, therefore, include in the Christian fellowship all in whom is manifested the spirit of Christ, and who are sincerely trying to be Christlike, …For of such is the kingdom of God; and whom God accepts we cannot refuse.

SERMON: “Being UU”

The Rev. Peter Morales, current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, is known for saying that Unitarian Universalism is “faith beyond belief,” and that’s just what Charles Allen was saying over a century ago: “belief is of less importance [than] the right Spirit and life…” Allen, a Unitarian, also leaned toward Universalism when he said, “whom God accepts we cannot refuse.” From the beginning, the American Unitarian and Universalist movements leaned toward each other: Universalists adopted a Unitarian conception of God in the early 19th century, and Unitarians grew steadily more radically inclusive. Both denominations were open to explore inspirations from other religious traditions. Down the years a consistent Unitarian Universalist identity shines through the variety of forms of language used to articulate it, and different forms of practice used to live it, down to our current symbol, the covenant we call “the Seven Principles and Six Sources.” In that way, a collective identity is like a personal identity: we do change as we become more steadfastly ourselves. That’s what growth looks like.

What does it mean to “be a Unitarian Universalist”? What does “being UU” look like?

The journey of faith is different for different people. In her musical metaphor for it, Adrienne Rich said that “before we’ve even begun to read or mark time,” we “begin in the midst of the hardest movement, the one already sounding as we are born.” “We take on everything at once,” more improvising a life than composing one. Gradually, and occasionally in transcendent leaps, we find our part in the ongoing music, learn its rhythms and harmonies, and make our own original contributions to the ensemble.

For me, the journey began in the orderly cadences of the Presbyterian church. My improvisations took the form of gradually questioning myself away from those cadences, while retaining affection for the ideas and practices that had nurtured me in my youth and childhood. I had questioned my beliefs down to nothing by my college years, and as a young adult began to build them back up through experience, conscience and reason. And that pattern of questioning and reforming beliefs has continued, of course – in spiral form, with new experiences sometimes leveling or pruning back my ideas about things, and new insights and deeper understanding sharpening and strengthening my commitments. We do change as we become more steadfastly ourselves. That’s what growth looks like.

And through the changes came a gradual recognition of where my core spiritual experiences happened, a developing understanding of what they were, and a deeper appreciation of what they mean: not only what they meant then but since then, what they point to, and what they imply for my spiritual roots and compass. Out of the materials of my direct experience and the teachings of others, I fashioned my own set of lenses for looking at the world. One lens separates grace and works – those things that are beyond our power, and those that are within our power. Another separates inner life from outer life, recognizing two distinct, interacting realms of experience. Another lens separates the material and social worlds, each with its own physics and substance. Still another separates the language of reason and that of symbol, each with its own logic and means of clarifying experience and values.

It is in the nature of spiritual experience that there is a point – before understanding or interpretation or sharing – where experience remains something unnamed. Not unknown, just unnamed. At that point of wordless experience is our closest touch with reality. As much as by reason, we can learn something there about what to trust and what to become. So when we have that sense of learning, or insight, or revelation, we may begin to name it and interpret it, to tell the story and perhaps adopt practices in order to remember it, to refine the naming, to deepen the interpretation. And we decide and decide again what we can trust and what we should strive to become. We take our original unnamed experience and give it meaning.

This basic human process of spiritual growth is not only the context for developing one’s personal spiritual practices; it is the context for making use of that symbol we call “the Seven Principles and Six Sources.” Expressed as a covenant between our congregations, the principles and sources lift up our tradition’s core values of love and justice, and its emphasis on conscience and universal interdependence. More than that, this symbol gives an account of our collective commitments – the consistent identity that shines through the many symbols we have used before. Every faith has some kind of symbol like this, because life teaches us that wisdom is in the collective as well as the individual, and that there is more wisdom among us than within any one of us, and we make such symbols to keep in touch collectively with what life has taught us.

Many years ago, the sociologist Robert Bellah was invited to speak at a UUA General Assembly, and he devoted part of his talk to a critique of the Seven Principles. His most memorable comment was that he thought it was a problem that the worth of the individual was our “first principle.” He said that because the foundation of his view of human beings as a sociologist is that we are social creatures, that our social nature is more significant than our individual natures. But his statement represented a misreading of the Principles. He saw them as a list, given in order of priority. That’s not what they are. They are not a list, they are a unit. They’re seven statements arranged to give a portrait of the nature of life and human experience. On one hand, we do have original experiences as individuals, and those are first in the sense that they are the most immediate and accessible to us. On the other hand, there is the cosmos, a complex material and social and spiritual reality in which everything is connected. And the lens of these seven statements gradually shift our focus between these poles. Somewhere in the middle, between our immediate experience and the remote cosmos, is the truth that we can know. The Seven Principles move from the individual to the cosmos, with truth at their center. They offer seven categories for reflecting on, naming and interpreting our experience.

The Six Sources are similarly a lens, not a list. They are a lens that acts as a filter. At one end of the lens is inward experience; at the other, outward experience – the rhythms of nature. Being an even number, there is no central Source. And the sources are arranged to articulate the basic human process of spiritual growth: direct experience, followed by words and deeds, and preserved in wisdom and teachings. The form of each statement in the Six Sources is:

  • this kind of resource
  • from this tradition
  • that has been useful in this way

So it’s:

  • experience, affirmed in all cultures, that moves us to renewal and openness
  • words and deeds, of prophetic individuals, that challenge us to stand for love and justice
  • wisdom, from the world’s religions, that inspires us
  • teachings, Jewish and Christian, about loving our neighbors
  • teachings, Humanist, that counsel us to heed reason and warns us against idolatry
  • teachings, of Earth-centered traditions, that put us in touch with the rhythms of life and nature

Not indiscriminately anything from any religious tradition or individual or even our own experience, but certain kinds of experience, words, deeds, wisdom and teachings that we collectively have found valuable in these particular ways. The important thing is not how many specific traditions we have enumerated, but the things we know to be useful for spiritual growth: renewal of the spirit, openness to the forces that create and uphold life, standing for love and justice, finding inspiration for our ethical and spiritual lives, loving our neighbors as ourselves, heeding the guidance of reason and the results of science, avoiding idolatries of the mind and spirit, celebrating the sacred circle of life, staying in touch and in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

So what does it mean to identify as a UU?

I think it means that, in your own experience you have found that some or all of these same things have been useful for your spiritual growth. I think it means that the personal faith you are trying to build – faith, remember, is a way of moving and being in the world: what ways of moving and being in the world have you found best, are you striving to be true to? – the faith you are trying to build and the spiritual practices you are trying to follow to keep you moving and being in the world in the ways you have found best – if you identify as a UU, you’re saying that the personal faith you are trying to build lines up well with the collective wisdom expressed in this symbol of the Unitarian Universalist tradition. It means you feel that this tradition is good rootstock to graft yourself onto.

You might know that all wine grapes have to be grafted. You can’t just plant a grapevine, because if it doesn’t have rootstock from certain American vines, it won’t have a defense against a particular aphid-like pest called the Grape Phylloxera. These bugs eat at the roots and leaves of the vines, cutting off the flow of nutrients that makes the vine bear fruit. To identify with a religious tradition is like that: you are grafting yourself onto roots that will withstand the threat of blight, and feed you so that in your life and spirit, you bear fruit.

There was a famous marketing campaign in the 1950s and 1960s: “Are you a Unitarian and don’t know it?” Many of us begin grafting ourselves onto good rootstock without having a name for those roots. Being UU means having a name for that good rootstock you’ve found, and having the lenses of this tradition to explore those roots and strengthen your graft to them, so as to be fed even more.

May we each have a strong graft to these good roots. May we help each other to explore them. And may we, as UUs, collectively, in this congregation and beyond, be alert to what feeds us, find it named or add its name in our collective symbols of this faith, and hand down a tradition rich in nutrients for the spirits of each and all. So may it be. Amen.

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