at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
Like most people who grow up in Quincy and move far away, but keep coming back, I’ve probably driven from here to Chicago every way there is. One of those ways goes through the small town of Ripley, where there used to be a little sign on Highway 24 – I don’t think it’s there any more – directing you to the Ripley Church of God.
One of my character flaws is that I lack a proper sense of reverence. And so, every time I passed that sign, the same irreverent phrase went through my mind: Believe it or not.
Something similar happens whenever I pass an Assembly of God church. You know what phrase pops into my mind then? Some assembly required. I picture a bunch of people with a God kit and an enormous set of directions, trying to figure out how to make the omnipotence fit together with the benevolence.
That’s probably not what they do in Assemblies of God. But it’s not a bad metaphor for what Unitarian Universalists do. Our religion doesn’t come to us as a finished product; some assembly is required. As George Marshall wrote: "Don’t come to a Unitarian Universalist church to be given a religion. Come to develop your own religion."
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphors for Unitarian Universalism. For the last year and a half I’ve been writing a newcomer’s handbook for one of the UUA publishing houses. Trying to look at our faith through the eyes of a stranger, listening to the questions newcomers ask, and thinking about the things they typically misunderstand, has given me a new appreciation for the importance of metaphor. We sometimes think that if we just defined our terms with absolute precision and stated our principles exactly right, then everybody would understand.
But no, they wouldn’t.
Because someone who walks in the door with the wrong metaphor, someone who tries to stuff us into the wrong box … well, they ask the wrong questions. And after you’ve asked the wrong questions, even the best answers might not help you.
Here’s an example. When you tell people that Unitarians are free from creeds and dogmas, they inevitably ask – I’m sure you’ve heard this one – “So, can you believe anything you want?” It’s a reasonable question from a certain point of view. Because if nobody is telling you what to believe, well then … you can believe anything you want, right?
Unfortunately for us, it’s one of those have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife questions. Because if we answer “no, you can’t” then it sounds like Unitarianism really does tell people what to believe. But if we say “yes, you can believe anything you want” then our religion sounds whimsical and not very serious at all. “What do I want to believe today? I think I’ll believe … that I can fly!”
A religion like that might be amusing, but how is it going to see you through hard times in your life?
When yes and no are both the wrong answer, that’s a clue that some misbegotten metaphor is hiding in the background. What’s hiding in this question is an analogy between freedom of belief and freedom of speech. In speech, the either/or really works: If no one is telling you what to say, then you can say whatever you want. But belief actually doesn’t work that way. I can say whatever I want, but I can’t believe whatever I want. No one can. I want to believe that I haven’t changed a bit since I turned 30. But I can’t.
What Unitarianism offers is freedom from authority, not freedom from reality. Our beliefs don’t come from our wishes, they come from our lives. Your life has taught you certain things. Maybe those things aren’t written down in a book or stated in a creed. Maybe no one has ever given you permission to believe them. But you do. And the freedom of this church is that you can admit that you believe what you really do believe.
Here’s a metaphor I remember from growing up in a different religion: Church is where you study for your final exam. Again, there’s a logic to it. Judgment Day is coming. There will be questions. You’ll need answers. So go to church. They'll tell you the answers and keep repeating them until you have them down.
Metaphors have a way of sitting in your unconscious and influencing how you perceive things, even if you don’t realize that you’re using them. And if you come to a Unitarian church with the final-exam metaphor in your head, it’s not going to make much sense. Because we don’t give you the answers: Is there a God? Is there an afterlife? Should you be worshiping something or praying to someone? A Unitarian church will tell you that those are good questions and encourage you to work on them. That’s about what you should expect from a church where you have to develop your own religion.
But what good is a church like that? Imagine coming to the cram session for your history final, and the teacher won’t tell you when the Civil War ended. And the other students give all kinds of different answers: 1820 ... 1865 ... 1910 ... last Thursday. And it doesn’t bother them. They sit there and contradict each other and everybody seems happy.
If you bring the final exam metaphor to a Unitarian church, that’s how it looks. Afterlife? This person believes in reincarnation. That one expects to see her loved ones in Heaven. Somebody over there thinks death is final. But they all seem happy here. They don’t try to get each declared heretics and thrown out. They teach each other’s children. How does that work?
You can’t explain it without changing the metaphor. What if life isn’t the kind of class that has a final exam? What if it’s more like an art class? What if your life is a work of art that you are constructing day by day? Picture it. Here we have a work in progress: A Life. By … you.
How’s it going? You want to talk about it? If you get stuck you might wander around the studio and see what the other artists are doing. Their projects are different, but something might strike you. You might pick up something you can use.
And let me show you this other work in progress: Humanity. By – all of us. What do you think? It needs work. It’s still pretty ugly in some places. But I think it’s got potential. You want to pick up some tools and help out?
That change in metaphor changes all kinds of things. In art – or in any class where you’re trying to make something – only two things really matter:
The product. The actual piece of art that the world gets to see.
Your experience as an artist. The sense of inspiration. The ecstatic feeling you get when you fall into your work and everything starts coming together.
By contrast, your beliefs about art are not nearly so important. Unless they affect the product or your experience, why do they even matter? Imagine walking into an art class where nobody is making anything, they’re just reviewing answers for the multiple-choice final exam. What good is that?
Follow that metaphor back to life. The two really important things are:
What you do. The objective actions that you take in the world.
How you experience your life. Are you just getting by, passing the time? Or is your life vibrant, exciting, meaningful? Are you finding that place of fullness that we were meditating about?
Your beliefs about life – your theology and your philosophy – are secondary. They matter to the extent that they affect what you do and how you experience it. But in themselves they aren’t important.
Let me say that again, because I think that it’s sufficiently unorthodox to be worth repeating: Theology, by itself, doesn’t matter. You believe in God or you don’t. You believe in an afterlife or you don’t. But the important things are what you do and how you experience it.
Now, to some people this may sound like a religion that I just made up. And certainly not all UUs agree with what I’ve just said. But these ideas are well rooted in our heritage. The whole point of Universalism is that life has no final exam – everybody passes. Great Universalists like Hosea Ballou didn’t preach to gain converts for Heaven, but to spread the experience of God’s love here on Earth. And one of the most important sermons in Unitarian history, Theodore Parker's “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity” placed the whole scaffolding of orthodox theology – the Trinity, the atonement, the infallibility of scripture – in the transient category. What was permanent? The Christian experience: “Religious doctrines and forms will always differ,” he said. “But the Christianity holy men feel in the heart, the Christ that is born within us, is always the same thing to each soul that feels it.”
President John Adams, that good Unitarian from First Parish in Quincy, Massachusetts, said, “I do not attach much importance to creeds because I believe he cannot be wrong whose life is right." As far back as the 1600s, Spinoza was picturing a congregation in which each person believes something a little different from his neighbor. He wrote: “Each person – seeing that he is the best judge of his own character – should adopt whatever beliefs he thinks best adapted to strengthen his love of justice.”
To sum up, if you have beliefs that let you live with your eyes open, give you an enthusiasm or a deep satisfaction with your life, and inspire you to live kindly and be a force for good in the world, then as a Unitarian Universalist I am happy for you – whether I agree with you or not. I’m happy for you to belong to my church, and I’m happy for you preach from our pulpit, and I’m happy for you to teach Unitarian children. Because living comes first; believing is secondary.
Let’s do one more newcomer question: Could Hitler be a Unitarian?
Now, the people who ask this question usually ask it very nicely. They aren’t comparing us to Hitler. They’re just trying to find our boundaries. Is anything over the line? (Of course, Hitler is dead and even if he were alive he wouldn’t be walking around free. But let’s ignore that and take Hitler as a stand-in for anyone who has done some great evil.)
The most superficial version of this question is whether Hitler could attend a UU church. And there I think that as long as he behaved himself, the answer is yes. I’m sure having Hitler in the room would make a lot of us uncomfortable. It would make me uncomfortable. But we’d be balancing that discomfort against an idea that comes out of our Universalist heritage: We don’t give up on people. We don’t assume that anyone is irredeemable. The likelihood that a Hitler could turn his life around may be very, very small. But to the extent that Universalists believe in miracles, those are the kinds of miracles we believe in.
The challenging question, though, isn’t “Could Hitler change into a Unitarian?” but “Could Hitler stay the way he was and be a Unitarian?” There are, after all, Christian Unitarians and Buddhist Unitarians and atheist Unitarians. Could there be Nazi Unitarians?
There I think the answer is no. But explaining why takes us into another set of unfortunate metaphors.
The point of asking about Nazi Unitarians is to find a boundary. The questioner expects us to say “No, that’s over the line.” And then we’ll have to explain where the line is.
The underlying metaphor is that a religion is a territory with frontiers to be defended.
Eighty years ago, L. B. Fisher was already rejecting this metaphor. “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand,” he wrote. “The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move. Or we are asked to state our position. Again, we can only answer that we are not staying to defend any position. We are on the march.”
A related metaphor is that a religion is a kind of museum. Certain divine truths were revealed to our ancestors, told to us by our parents, and now we preserve them unchanged for our children. And if our parents and grandparents have let those truths get corrupted, then we need to reach even further into the past to recover the purity that our faith had in some earlier age.
That’s not us.
There never was a Golden Age of Unitarianism. We aren’t trying to get back to Eden, or the days of the prophets, or the early Christian community, or the Caliphate, or the Reformation, or even the 1950s. We have had some great teachers in our movement, people like William Ellery Channing and James Luther Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But none of them gets to have the last word. Because as brilliant as they were, their words were human words, just like ours. The conversation goes on.
You see, Unitarianism is not a museum, it’s a laboratory. We’re not preserving the truths of our ancestors; we’re using them, experimenting with them, and trying to make them better.
And Unitarianism is not a walled city whose borders you can trace on a map. It’s a caravan. We move; we are on the march. We aren’t defending lines in the sand, we’re traveling. We have all joined the caravan at different points. We carry different baggage. We progress at different speeds. But we’re on the road together, and we’re doing our best to help each other along the way.
Now, caravans don’t have borders. There are scouts running ahead, and some will be followed and some won’t. There are stragglers. There are outliers. Some people will turn in a different direction, and some will wander into the desert and get lost. You can’t draw a boundary around a caravan and say exactly who’s in and who’s out. But one thing you can say with some certainty is that the people you meet coming the opposite way are not part of the caravan. And while some of them may turn around and decide to join you, the ones that don’t turn around are not joining.
And that’s how I respond to the idea of Nazi Unitarians. We may not be able to say exactly where this caravan is going, but it has a history, it has a direction. For centuries, for as long as we’ve been on the road, we have been traveling in some very un-Nazi directions: towards greater freedom, more acceptance of difference, less violence, and an ever-wider circle of compassion.
Are those divine, unquestionable truths? Not at all. We continue to test them. We continue to experiment and improve and elaborate. And we keep moving. But if you want to undo that whole history, you’re not just pointing in a new direction. You’re asking us to go back and start over. It would be a new caravan then. It wouldn’t be Unitarian Universalism.
I’d like to close by coming back to a point I touched on earlier: the misperception that there is something whimsical and insubstantial about this faith. That it’s whatever you want. That we make it up fresh every morning, and maybe tomorrow, when you really need it, you won’t find anything at all.
Our history shows that we are anything but insubstantial. Look at the people who have lived and died in this movement. Look at the lives they have led, the causes they have fought for, the people they have helped. Theodore Parker used to preach with a gun in his desk, in case someone came to collect the fugitive slaves he was hiding. This is not a tradition of whimsical, indecisive, insubstantial people.
The illusion that there is nothing here comes from looking for the wrong things. If you come here looking for a museum, you won’t find it; this is a laboratory. If you come looking for answers to the final exam, sorry, we’re working on our projects. If you’re looking for boundaries and fortresses to defend them; we don’t have any. We’re a caravan; we’re on the march. If you’re looking for the Church of Believe It Or Not, look somewhere else. This is the Church of Some Assembly Required.
We are the heirs to a long and proud tradition, but it’s an evolving tradition. We come from a long line of people who refused to accept what they were taught and pass it down unaltered. All the great names in this tradition – Channing, Ballou, Emerson, Parker, and many others – we would dishonor their memory if we turned this caravan around and went back to the places they discovered.
And future generations of Unitarian Universalists would dishonor our memory if they stopped here and built a fortress and started defending its boundaries. Half a century ago, Brock Chisholm put it like this: “Unless we are very careful, very careful indeed, and very conscientious, there is still great danger that our children may turn out to be the same kind of people we are.”
And Theodore Parker said, “Progressive development does not end with us.” May that be as true in our generation as it was in his.