My favorite route home from college used to take me through the small town of Ripley, Illinois. I always smiled when I drove past the sign for the Ripley Church of God. Because every time, the same irreverent phrase went through my mind: Believe it or not.
These days 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.
I suspect that’s not really 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, because I believe that’s what goes wrong when we try to explain our faith to friends and guests and newcomers. No matter how precisely we define our terms or state our principles, if people arrive at this church with the wrong metaphors and analogies in their heads, they’re not going to make much sense out of what we say.
Take that Marshall quote: develop your own religion. What could that possibly mean? Are you supposed to climb Sinai and meet God face-to-face? Proclaim yourself the Messiah? What?
I think that line works best if you interpret develop as what happens in an old-fashioned darkroom. Expose your religion to the right light and the right catalysts, and gradually its unique image will become clearer and clearer. In that sense, this church is good place to develop your religion.
When newcomers arrive with the wrong unconscious metaphors in their heads, they tend to ask yes-or-no questions where both answers are bad. Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one: Can UUs believe anything they want?
How do you answer that? Well, UUs have freedom of belief. No creed. No dogma. So the answer you want to give is “Yes. At this church you can believe anything you want.”
But that doesn’t sound like a serious religion at all, does it? “What do I want to believe today? I think I’ll believe … that I can fly! Wouldn’t that be nice? Yes, I think I’ll believe that today.”
And a newcomer thinks: “Maybe these privileged, white, suburban intellectual types can get away with that kind of religion. But my life is harder than that. I need a real religion, not something whimsical.”
So what went wrong there?
The question Can you believe anything you want? assumes a bad analogy. You see, freedom of belief is unfamiliar to people whose only experience is in creed-based religions, so they understand it through an analogy to freedom of speech. And there the either/or makes perfect sense: If no one is telling me what to say, then I can say whatever I want. Up is down. Two plus two is five. I haven’t changed a bit since I turned thirty.
I can say all those things; but I can’t believe them. You see, believing anything you want isn’t a religion, it’s a mental dysfunction.
That’s not what we’re doing. As UUs we have freedom from authority, not freedom from reality. Better to describe it like this: Your life – whether it has been easy or hard or somewhere in between – has taught you certain things. It doesn’t matter whether those things are in some creed or scripture, and it also doesn’t matter whether or not you want to believe them. You just do. And the freedom this church offers is that you can admit that you believe what you really do believe.
Here’s a metaphor I remember from growing up as a Christian: Church is where you study for your final exam. Judgment Day is coming. There will be questions. You’ll need answers. So you go to church.
Metaphors like that have a way of shaping your perceptions, even after you think you’ve forgotten them. And people who bring a final exam metaphor to a UU church are going to be confused. Because we don’t give them answers: Is there a God? Is there an afterlife? Should they be worshiping something or praying to somebody? “Those are good questions,” we say. “You should work on them.”
But if a final exam is coming, that response isn’t very helpful. Imagine coming to the cram session for your history final, and the teacher won’t tell you when the Civil War ended. And each student seems to have a different answer: 1820 ... 1865 ... 1910 ... Tuesday. And it doesn’t bother them. They sit there and contradict each other and everybody seems happy.
That’s how we look to a newcomer who’s thinking about a final exam. Afterlife? This person believes in reincarnation. That one expects to see her loved ones in Heaven. Somebody over there thinks death is final. And maybe we argue, but we’re not trying to enforce some agreement. We’re not looking to throw anybody out. We even teach each other’s children. How does that work?
We can’t address that kind of confusion purely on an intellectual level, with more precise definitions and clearer principles. If we’re going to communicate what UUism is really like, we need to make the unconscious metaphor explicit and challenge it.
So: If life is a class, what if it’s the kind of class where you work on a project rather than study for an exam? What if your life is something that you’re making, not something you’re going to be quizzed on? That changes everything. Now you don’t need a cram session, you need a workshop.
And if it’s a workshop where people use a lot of different ideas and different techniques – so much the better. When I get stuck, when something’s not working for me, I can wander around the workshop and see a lot of different ways of making a life. Humanists do it this way or that way. Christians have this extra tool. Here’s a little trick I picked up from the Buddhists.
Let’s push that metaphor a little further. If you’re an artist or a craftsman, only two things ultimately matter: First, the product, the actual thing that you’re eventually going to show the world. And second, the experience of making -- your sense of inspiration, the ecstatic feeling you get when you fall into your work and everything starts coming together.
Everything else only matters to the extent that it affects one of those two. For example, your beliefs about your craft have only an instrumental importance. If they don’t affect either the product or your experience of making the product, then who cares about them?
Follow that metaphor back to life. As you’re making your life, the two ultimately important things are: First, what you do, the objective actions that you take in the world. And second, how you experience your life. Are you just getting by, passing the time? Or is your life vibrant, exciting, meaningful?
Your beliefs about life – your theology and your philosophy – are secondary.
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 a newcomer all that may sound like a religion that I just made up. And certainly not all UUs would agree with everything I just said – that’s OK, they don’t have to. But these ideas are rooted an a long tradition.
The whole point of Universalism was to escape the final exam metaphor: Life is a class that everyone 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. 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,” Parker 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.”
Another famous Unitarian, President John Adams, 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.”
Let me sum that 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 to be a force for good in the world, then as UUs we are happy for you – whether we share your beliefs or not. We’re happy for you to belong to this church, and we’re happy for you preach from our pulpit, and we’re happy for you to teach our children. Because living comes first; believing is secondary.
Let’s do one more newcomer question: Could Hitler be a UU?
Now, the people who ask this question usually aren’t trying to compare us to Hitler. They’re just trying to find our boundaries. How far does our welcome go? Is anything over the line?
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 another 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 UU?” but “Could Hitler stay the way he was and be a UU?” After all, people with lots of different philosophies can be UUs. There are Christian UUs and Buddhist UUs and atheist UUs. How far can that go? Could there be Nazi UUs?
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 borders to defend. And if you give the easy answer, if you say that Hitler couldn’t be a UU because he didn’t believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, you’re ratifying that metaphor. You’re turning the Principles into a creed and using them to draw boundaries. But that’s not what the Principles are for. The Principles describe the center of UUism, not its boundaries. And we keep restating our principles because our center moves from one generation to the next.
Eighty years ago, L. B. Fisher was already rejecting the territory 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 during its Golden Age.
That’s not us. Unitarian Universalism never had a Golden Age. We aren’t trying to get back to Eden, or the days of the prophets, or the early Christian community, or even Emerson’s circle of Concord transcendentalists. Because UUism 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.
In every generation we’ve had great teachers like William Ellery Channing. And in every following generation we’ve had Samuel Mays to argue with them. That’s our tradition. It’s not a settling, boundary-defining, fortress-building tradition. It’s an evolving tradition, a tradition that keeps moving and changing.
And so, if you think of a religion as a territory with boundaries, Unitarian Universalism is going to confuse you. We’re not a walled city, we’re 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 line 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 UUs. 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? Should we keep them safe in our museum. No. 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 walls. 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.