Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Searching for a UU Identity

a service presented by Doug Muder at First Parish Church of Billerica, Massachusetts on November 1, 2015
Opening Words
In the early days of Unitarian Christianity, William Ellery Channing wrote: 

It has been the fault of all sects that they have been too anxious to define their religion. They have labored to circumscribe the infinite. 
Christianity, as it exists in the mind of the true disciple, is not made up of fragments, of separate ideas which he can express in detached propositions. It is a vast and ever-unfolding whole, pervaded by one spirit, each precept and doctrine deriving its vitality from its union with all. 
When I see this generous, heavenly doctrine compressed and cramped in human creeds, I feel as I should were I to see screws and chains applied to the countenance and limbs of a noble fellow-creature, deforming and destroying one of the most beautiful works of God.
The Apostle's Creed. 
A few minutes ago in the Affirmation of Faith, we made a covenant, a commitment to each other that we are going to be together in a certain way: in peace, in freedom, and in fellowship. 
In the Lutheran church where I grew up, and probably in the churches where some of you grew up, that spot in the service was filled by a creed, a statement of the common beliefs that defined the community.
As I read the creed that I grew up reciting, I want you to imagine two things: First, how alienating it would be if you realized that you didn't believe some of the things that your entire community was pledging that it believes. And second, if you did believe the creed, what a sense of belonging and common purpose you would feel to be surrounded by people publicly announcing that they agree with you.
Our creed went like this:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Christian Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.
The UU Principles 
By contrast, Unitarian Universalists have rejected creeds ever since Channing. In particular, the UU Principles are not a creed. They were never intended to be a creed and, for reasons I'll discuss later,
they wouldn't work particularly well as a creed. While they describe some widely shared UU beliefs and values they don't define our faith. So we don't throw people out if they don't agree with all the UU Principles. 
But we do use the Principles in one way that resembles how my childhood church used its creed. Namely, if you find yourself in a discussion of what Unitarian Universalists believe, sooner or later someone is going to pull out the Principles. This is what they say:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community
with peace, liberty, and justice for all; respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
In 1822, a Dr. Cooper from Pennsylvania wrote to ex-President Thomas Jefferson, complaining about religious fanaticism in his state. In his reply, Jefferson pointed hopefully to Massachusetts, where “Unitarianism has advanced to so great strength, as now to humble [the] haughtiest of ... religious sects.”
Jefferson prophesied the ultimate defeat of religious fanaticism by more reasonable modes of thought. “The diffusion of instruction, to which there is now so growing an attention, will be the remote remedy to this fever of fanaticism; while the more proximate one will be the progress of Unitarianism. That this will, ere long, be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt.”
Well, it didn't quite work out that way, did it?
Again around the beginning of the 20th century, Unitarians were optimistic, because everywhere they looked, the myths of religion were being replaced by the evidence-based theories of science. Darwin had explained the origins of humanity. Before that, Pasteur gave us the germ theory of disease, Franklin explained lightning, and Copernicus and Kepler the motions of the planets. 
And in this dawning 20th century, scientists were doing or about to do things that religion could only tell stories about: fly through the air, stop epidemics, and communicate instantaneously across oceans. If you were a young person who longed to do miracles, then you belonged in a laboratory, not in a pulpit or a monastery.
Surely, in this bright and promising new century, the old-time religion would fade away, beaten at long last by what Jefferson had called “the diffusion of instruction”. Soon everyone would be educated, and they would have no need for ancient tales about six-day creation or the virgin birth or Jesus ascending above the clouds, where, after all, there is only the dark vacuum of outer space.
And who would pick up the pieces after the inevitable collapse of myth and superstition? Why, we would: the Unitarians, the Universalists, and the other liberal faiths that were welcoming science rather than resisting it. We would sift through the wreckage of the old religion and preserve those nuggets that were worth saving, like the Golden Rule or the Sermon on the Mount. The rest would blow away like dust, and a more enlightened civilization would rise above its ruins. 
But History was actually headed in a different direction.
In 1910, conservative Christian theologians started publishing a series of books called The Fundamentals. And that was the beginning of a new movement called fundamentalism. Today's fundamentalists like to think of their movement as the old religion – Jerry Falwell called his TV program The Old-Time Gospel Hour – but in fact it was yet another new development of the 20th century. Fundamentalism is slightly younger than the airplane. 
The real old-time preachers and prophets had been innocent of science. They explained the world through myth because that was what they had. But fundamentalism wasn't innocent or ignorant, it was defiant. That was new. Fundamentalists knew that there were scientific explanations, but they didn't care. They would not listen, and they would not change.
And they succeeded. All over the world, in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and many other faiths, wherever modern society threatened a traditional way of life, a fundamentalist movement developed. In religion, that – and not the triumph of rational liberalism – was the big story of the 20th century.
So why am I telling you this? What does it have to do with my topic of Unitarian Universalist identity? I started there because I think it's important for us to understand why fundamentalism succeeded when so many voices in our movement were predicting the exact opposite. 
The answer is fairly simple, and it leaves us a lot to think about. 
You see, religion has always been about more than just who made the world or why there are seasons or even how to get to Heaven. Religion is also about identity, about who I am and who my people are and why it's important that we live the way we do. As change accelerates, those questions become harder and harder for individuals to answer on their own. So they come to church.
Think back to village life in pre-modern times. In those days, being your parents' child might be all the identity you needed. A man quite likely would grow the same crops on the same land as his father and grandfather,  or perhaps practice the same profession in the same shop. A woman would marry and raise children, sew clothing from the same patterns her mother and grandmother had used, and feed her family the same foods prepared in the same ways. The question “Who are you?” didn't require deep introspection; it was a public fact. In the village, everybody knew who you were.
Today, though, you might live in half a dozen cities in the course of your lifetime, with a different set of friends and co-workers in each one. They can't tell you who you are, because they won't know until you tell them
And what will you say? There is almost nothing about you that can be counted on to stay the same from the beginning of your life to the end. In your lifetime, you might practice three or four completely different professions. You might have more than one marriage, each with its own children. Your identification as gay or straight might shift from one decade to the next. You might even change your gender. Everything about you is potentially fluid; nothing is solid. 
So who are you? Why does it matter that you are alive now, doing … whatever it is you do? Today, those are the kinds of questions that bring people to religion. 
Fundamentalism succeeded because it has compelling answers to those questions. When you join that movement, you become one of the people who are preserving God's true revelation. You are a warrior in the cosmic battle of Good against Evil. That is a story that will get you out of bed in the morning. In uncertain times, it will tell you what you ought to be doing with your life, and build a strong bond with all those who share that mission.
As I was reading the Apostles' Creed, many of you were probably picking apart all the places where it is unreasonable, unsupported by evidence, or in defiance of common sense. But perversely, that's why it works so well to bond people together. The more outlandish a statement sounds, the more rejection it provokes from outsiders, the better it establishes the common identity of the people who say it. 
Think about it: If you sit next to a stranger on an airplane, and during the flight you agree that water is wet and chocolate is tasty and the airline should make these seats bigger, then you don't necessarily develop a sense that you have much in common. But if it turns out that you both believe the same bizarre conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination or 9-11 or the secret cabal that rules the world, then by the time you step off that plane you're practically family.
An outrageous creed is like a military haircut. It makes a statement that binds people together. If the boot-camp buzz cut were stylish, if everyone were imitating it, then it wouldn't mean anything. It wouldn't tell the other recruits: “I am one of you. I value being one of you so much that I am willing to look like this.”
By contrast, we UUs often struggle with our religious identities. Because we are all about freedom and the individual conscience we've never had a creed. And trying to write one now would violate something deep in our covenant with each other. Who would dare claim the authority to tell other UUs what they have to believe? It's unthinkable.
And because we don't insist that you believe unlikely things or submit to institutional authority, we have the reputation of being an easy, undemanding religion. Do you disagree with what you hear from the pulpit? Fine. Don't want to come every Sunday? Don't. You don't have to embarrass yourself by trying to convert your friends and co-workers. There are no onerous rules about what you can eat, or who you can love, or what you have to wear. You don't have to tithe, or give anything at all unless you want to. Make up your own mind about that. You are a free individual.
And yet, in this era when it is so hard to know who you are, the religions that grow are the difficult ones. Easy religions just don't create that sense of common challenge and shared hardship that builds a group identity. All that UU freedom and individuality often leaves us at a loss to explain what we stand for, what we have in common, or why we are here together at all.
In my congregation over in Bedford, in our Coming of Age program, one of the exercises we assign our teen-agers is to write what is called an “elevator speech”. The premise is that you are on an elevator when someone asks you what Unitarian Universalism is about. You have less than a minute before one of you gets off. What can you say?
Back in 1970, if my Lutheran confirmation class had been given a similar assignment, it would have been simple. I could have just said: “Because Jesus died for our sins, we can go to heaven.” Even in a short building with a quick elevator, that would have left plenty of time to move on to discuss the weather or the Patriots. 
But a UU elevator speech is very challenging, and I am always a little ashamed to admit that I've never come up with one I really like. I wrote a column for UU World about that once. It's called “Stop the Elevator, I'm Not Done”. 
Another project we assign the kids – which also appears in some adult-ed classes –  is to write a credo, a personal creed, a statement of your own beliefs, whatever they might be. 
A credo a marvelous exercise in introspection, and the service in May when the teens read their credos to the congregation is one of the most inspiring things we do. Not because they necessarily come up with such wonderful answers to life's big questions – some are always more thoughtful than others – but because the act of standing in the pulpit and telling us their ideas marks a commitment to begin a lifetime of thinking for themselves. 
And yet sometimes I wonder how much good it does to have a creed that no one will say with you, and that you yourself may change at any time. How does that give you a sense of identity as a Unitarian Universalist?
Now, some UUs might say that we don't need that. We're a loose association of individuals who enjoy each other's company, and maybe that's enough. 
But I have to say that for myself, it isn't enough, and I doubt that I'm the only one. I suspect a lot of Unitarian Universalists long to feel that we are part of something larger than ourselves, part of something that is big enough to go “forward through the ages” and grand enough to be worth singing about. 
So today I want to suggest a third kind of statement UUs might work on. Not an elevator speech to describe Unitarian Universalism in general,or a credo that states your personal beliefs, but something that brings the two together in a statement of your own identity as a Unitarian Universalist. 
I'm still working on the best way to phrase the question I have in mind, but it might go something like this: How does what I am trying to do with my life relate to what Unitarian Universalists are doing together? Or, more concisely: What am I doing here?
Rather than just read you a personal statement that might apply only to me, I thought it might be more usefulto walk you through some of my thought process as I tried to answer that question.
Now the individual side of the question is already fairly difficult, because it requires at least some notion of what you are trying to do with your life, or what you want to be doing. As I wrestled with that, I noticed two important shifts: First, unlike the elevator speech or the credo, this question is about doing, not believing. Deeds, not creeds.
And second, I found my focus shifting away from freedom and towards commitment. If the question is what I want to do with my life, then yes, I need to be free. But that's a prerequisite, not a goal. If I'm not free to look at the world with my own eyes and draw my own conclusions and choose my own actions, then someone else is deciding what I'll do with my life, and what I want doesn't really matter. 
But the point of that freedom is not so that I can live whimsically from one day to the next, doing whatever comes into my head. To me, the point of being free is that if a goal bubbles up inside me, I have the power to commit myself to it. My best days, the ones that I look back at with a sense of “Yes! That's the person I want to be.” are not my idle or whimsical days, they're the ones in which I have felt driven to pursue a vision that comes from deep inside. 
We don't talk a lot about vision in our churches. Visions tend to be those things that aren't there that crazy people see. But vision is also how freedom turns into commitment. When you have seen something beautiful in your mind and had the thought, “Yes, this can happen. I can do this.” then nobody has to push you or goad you or make you feel guilty. When you are possessed by a beautiful vision, you don't resign yourself to tasks and say, “Oh, I suppose I ought to be doing that.” It's more like, “Look! It's right over there! Come on!”
That's the personal side of the identity-statement process, the what-do-I-want-to-do-with-my-life side, but what about the community side? In other words, what kinds of visions can I hope to have in a Unitarian Universalist congregation? What visions can I hope that other UUs will share and get excited about?
And that brought me back to the UU Principles. When I started asking those questions, suddenly the Principles began to sound very different to me. 
If you think of the Principles as beliefs, then they quickly become nice ideas that it feels good to nod your head to. That's why they make such a terrible creed; reciting them is too easy. Run the Principles past somebody who would never in a million years become a UU, and they're likely to say “Yeah, sure, why not? Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations? I mean, I'm not for injustice, unfairness, and hard-heartedness. So sure, why not?”
But if you think of the Principles as visions, as things that we are trying to see now in our minds so that we can bring them into reality in the future, that becomes a lot more challenging. For example, it's easy to nod your head to the idea that every person has worth and dignity. But when you're alone on the T, and somebody gets on who is so different from you that you find them scary or disgusting, do you see that person's worth and dignity? Is it present to you, like a physical reality?
Developing that kind of vision is not just a nice idea, it's a challenging spiritual practice.
That's the whole point of Black Lives Matter. Of course you believe as an abstract principle that lives matter. But can you look specifically at African Americans, who have been demonized and stereotyped for centuries, and see their value?
Similarly, it's easy to nod your head when someone says that everything is connected. But the interdependent web of all existence – is it real to you? When Boko Haram wipes out an entire village in Nigeria, or when refugees stream out of Syria with nothing but the clothes on their backs, do you feel that vibrating down the web until it shakes something inside you?
When you're trying to envision rather than just believe, suddenly this isn't such an easy religion any more.
Justice in our relationships – of course we believe in that. Who doesn't? 
But what about all those relationships we don't usually think about? What about your relationship with the people – probably poor people living somewhere like Bangladesh or Indonesia – who made the clothes you're wearing, or the phone that's in your pocket? What about your relationship with people all over the world whose lives are affected by the government that represents you? Can you bring those relationships into your mind at all? Can you envision a world where those relationships are all just and equitable and compassionate? How would that world come to be?
So for me, the community side of the question, the part about what Unitarian Universalists are trying to do together, boils down to this: We're not just trying to believe in these seven principles, we're trying to make them real, first to ourselves, so that we actually see them rather than just nod our heads when we hear the words – and then, having seen in our minds a world where the principles have become reality, we are committed, maybe even driven, to push the real world in that direction.
Is there anything in that project that echoes what you personally want to do with your life? Does any of that reverberate in your soul and make you say “Yes, that's what I want my life to be about.”? 
It may not. It doesn't have to. You are free. Free to see the world through your own eyes and draw your own conclusions and set your own goals. 
But if some part of that vision and that mission does overlap with what you want your life to be about, then I believe that a Unitarian Universalist congregation is a good place to work on it, and Unitarian Universalists are good allies to have. If that is true for you, as it is for me, then I believe this is a place you can belong, and Unitarian Universalists can be your people.


Bob Lee said...

Thank you, Doug. That made some things more clear to me.

Unknown said...

Very thought provoking.
I believe it was Rachel Naomi Remen who said, "Freedom is like money -- it isn't worth anything until you spend it."