Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Unitarian Christmas

As I've been learning UU history, one of the surprises has been how much Unitarians contributed to the traditions of Christmas in America. Unitarians wrote "Jingle Bells" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear". A Unitarian brought the decorated-Christmas-tree tradition to New England. And then there's Charles Dickens, who was so impressed with Channing and Emerson during his American tour that he went home and joined a Unitarian church there.

My December online column for UU World promotes the view that this is more than just a collection of did-you-know items. Christmas got substantially re-imagined in the 19th century, and Unitarians were right in the middle of it. What had been a sectarian birthday-of-the-Christian-savior (with some pagan holdover traditions) became a holiday about universal values like peace, compassion, and renewing the connection to family and friends. And not until then did Christmas really take off as a holiday, surpassing Easter to become "the most wonderful time of the year."

Dickens' A Christmas Carol is an obvious big factor here, but also look at Edmund Sears' "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear". The interesting question is: What came upon a midnight clear? Not the birth of Jesus, but the song of the angels: "Peace on the Earth, good will to men." That's a universal message, not a sectarian Christian message.

The lesson I draw from all this is that UUs shouldn't be shy about celebrating Christmas. It's our holiday as much as anybody else's; we did a lot to make it what it is.

I wanted to put these ideas across in some cute, non-preachy package, so I wrote the column as a tongue-in-cheek present-day Christmas Carol, where a UU learns the true meaning of a Unitarian Christmas. (My favorite character in this is Marley, a humanist who is clearly embarrassed to be a ghost. In Dickens it's Scrooge who is in denial about Marley's ghostliness, but in my version it's Marley.)

Anyway, UU World's site doesn't have a comment feature, so feel free to leave comments here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How Can You Stand Not Knowing?

I did a sermon of this title on November 23 at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois and then again on December 7 at First Church Unitarian Universalist in Athol, Massachusetts. I was going to put the full text here on the blog, but the Quincy web site does such a good-looking presentation that I might as well just link to it. They also have a podcast version, which I think is the first time I've been podcast (or podcasted or whatever the past tense is).

While I was preparing the sermon, friends would ask me what it was about. I consistently stumbled over the explanation. I referred to it as "my afterlife sermon", which set up the expectation that I was going to give my theory of the afterlife. That's not what it's about -- which is good, since I doubt that such a sermon would be all that meaningful or transformative, either for me or for the people who heard it.

Instead, "How Can You Stand Not Knowing?" explores why an I-don't-know position on the afterlife is so hard to sell as a genuine religious alternative. In general, even people who aren't sure what's going to happen when they die aren't all that eager to join a church that isn't sure either. Why is that? What are they expecting from religion that they don't think a church can deliver without a clear vision of the afterlife?

I start in the readings with two wildly contrasting views:
  • MacBeth's. Here the denial of an afterlife leads to the nihilistic conclusion that "Life ... is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
  • Forrest Church's. Church is a well-known UU minister who has terminal cancer. He doesn't claim to know what will happen when he dies, and yet he is facing death with an enviable serenity. The reading is from his talk "Love and Death" to the UU General Assembly in June. (In the sermon I also briefly mention another UU who died well without referencing a vision of the afterlife: Randy Pausch, whose "Last Lecture" has been seen by millions.)
The main point I make in the sermon is that a person's vision of the afterlife ripples backwards through his or her vision of life. The unreflective, it-goes-without-saying way of life in America today is based on a traditional Heaven-and-Hell vision of the afterlife. If you just drop that afterlife vision and don't change your approach to life, you're going to run into problems, as MacBeth does. But Church can have a more positive approach to death because he has been living with a different view of life.

The bulk of the sermon, then, is spent listing all the things that a Heaven-and-Hell view does for a believer, and describing how an agnostic vision of life has to be different if it's going to achieve comparable results. The key image here is the contrast between a worldview that is supported by guywires attached to Heaven, versus one supported by a foundation dug into the Earth.

Hope you like it. Love to hear your comments.