A sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth, Unitarian Universalist Congregational Society of Westborough, MA
1. From William Ellery Channing, “Unitarian Christianity,” 1820.
Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as all books. … Now all books, and all conversation, require in the reader or hearer the constant exercise of reason. … We profess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible.
From Rebecca Ann Parker, “The Challenge of Unitarian Universalist Theology,” Quest, Vol. LXIX, No. 8, September 2014:
Some among us are asking, “Is there a center to Unitarian Universalism?” Or is it like the old story of blind persons describing an elephant, with a twist: One of us touches the side and says, “It’s a wall.” Another feels the leg and says, “It’s a tree.” Another grabs the tail and proclaims, “It’s a rope.” After all our surveying, is the one thing UUs can say for certain only that There is no elephant?
My sermon today, “Why I’m a Unitarian,” is the first of two sermons, the second of which, “Why I’m a Universalist,” will be given in early October.
A well-meaning Methodist Sunday school teacher accidentally converted me to Unitarianism, probably when I was 12-years-old in 1960, or so. It happened in a Sunday school class in Detroit, Michigan. We had an all-boy class. Hoping to get the attention of a group of twelve-year-old boys, Mr. Rowe, our teacher, decided to teach us the story of Samson, the great biblical super-hero.
According to the Bible (Judges, ch. 13-16), Samson was given supernatural strength by God. In one story, Samson was tied up with ropes when he faced an army of Philistines. Flexing his muscles like the Incredible Hulk, he broke free of the ropes, and armed only with the jawbone of an ass he slaughtered the entire army of 1,000 Philistines. One man, tied up, broke free and managed to kill a thousand well-armed soldiers. Even Superman never did that!
Because the Philistines couldn’t beat Samson in battle, they bribed his girlfriend, Delilah. She discovered that the secret of Samson’s strength was that he never cut his hair. So Delilah shaved his head while he slept, and then turned him over to the Philistines. Samson, now bald, was just like a normal human. The Philistines bound him, blinded him, and put him to work turning a great grindstone, grinding wheat.
But the Philistines were slow to learn. Foolishly, they let his hair grow back! And as his hair grew back, God gave him his strength back. So, one day, when the Philistines were in their Temple, praising their god, Dagon. They brought Samson into the Temple in order to mock him. But Samson pulled down the pillars of the Temple, killing himself and the Philistines as well.
I’m sure Mr. Rowe thought the story of Samson would get the attention of our group of twelve- year-old boys. And it got my attention. Fifty-five years later, I still remember the details.
But I had a question. In public school we were studying Greek mythology, and had learned the story of Herekles, who the Romans called Hercules. And so I asked, “My teacher at school said that we don’t have to believe that Hercules really did all those things. It’s a myth. How is Samson different from Hercules?” Mr. Rowe said, “The story of Samson is true because it is in the Bible.”
And it was at that moment I became a Unitarian! Well, I didn’t have a word for it. I had never heard of Unitarians, and to my knowledge had never met one. But I could not accept Mr. Rowe’s literal interpretation of the Bible. I didn’t know much, but I knew that our strength is in our good health in general, and our muscles in particular, not in our hair.
After questioning the story of Samson, I started questioning other biblical stories: God creating the universe in six days. Adam and Eve, the magical fruit, and the talking serpent. Baalam’s talking donkey. Joshua making the walls of Jericho fall down by blowing on a horn. Moses parting the Red Sea. The Virgin Birth. Jesus rising from the dead. Did any of it happen that way?
As I learned in science class, nature follows natural laws, and the laws of nature are the same everywhere in the universe, in all times and all places. Your strength is always in your muscles, never in your hair. So, if Samson didn’t really do the things the Bible said, was any of it true?
I wanted my beliefs to make sense. I had started to use reason. One hallmark of Unitarianism, is that Unitarians have historically wanted religion to make sense. In 1568, in Transylvania, present-day Romania, the great Unitarian preacher David Ferenc (Francis David, pronounced DAH-vid), rejected the Doctrine of the Trinity – that God is three persons who are all one person, and that Jesus is one person who is two persons, one divine and one human – because it didn’t make sense! For his troubles, David died in a Transylvanian dungeon in 1572.
Much later, in 1820, as we heard in one of today’s readings, the great Boston Unitarian preacher, William Ellery Channing, declared that we must use our reason when reading the Bible, just as we would any other book! He said that Unitarians use reason to understand the Bible in the same way that citizens use reason to understand the Constitution; and if we weren’t allowed to use reason, and put biblical teachings in their historical context, we would have to abandon the Bible altogether, and agree with those who say it is nonsense. Think of how radical that sounded in 1820!
Channing’s teachings still resonate with us, and Unitarianism has grown to be a religion that emphasizes three important points: reason, freedom, and moral living.
We know that reason is not perfect, of course. What one person thinks is reasonable, and another person thinks as reasonable, may not be the same. Our human reason is, well, human. But it is more dangerous to ignore reason, to accept blindly, and fail to question authority.
When I was in my twenties, I was a Conscientious Objector to the Vietnam War, and had to do two years of “Alternate Service” in a hospital. In order to perform my Alternate Service, I moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. There, the Unitarian Universalist Church was running a draft-counseling center. I went to that church because I wanted to know who the people were who cared so much about peace. I found a church where I was allowed to use my reason and think for myself. And, after throwing out the baby with the religious bathwater for a while, I gradually started reclaiming the parts of my religious upbringing that still made sense. Rather than saying what I don’t believe, I wanted to be able to say what I do believe.
What do Unitarians believe? A 19th century preacher, James Freeman Clarke, tried to explain Unitarianism in five points. His five points were, “The Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.” His five points led to the joke that Unitarians really believed in, “the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston.”
Clarke’s Five Points don’t adequately explain Unitarianism today. Some of us are comfortable with the word God, ans some are not, but we wouldn’t limit God to the male gender. Nor do we call humankind “man” anymore. And, after two world wars and the holocaust, we abandoned the idea that humans are always progressing onward and upward.
I was an atheist in my twenties, but since then I’ve gone back and forth between agnosticism and a tentative theism. Most days, there is something I am willing to call “God,” although it’s not the God I learned about in Sunday school. It isn’t that old, bearded, white man up in the sky. And it isn’t a supernatural God who rewards the faithful in heaven and punishes the heretics in hell.
Yet I am comfortable using the word, God. Somehow, with what we call the Big Bang, time
began and the laws of nature were set in motion. And evolution was set in motion. Something, we might call it the Cosmic Creative Process, brought everything into being. To me there is a sacredness at the heart of the universe, a holiness. We have been given the gift of life, and that holy gift that continues to sustain us. Whatever it is, that cosmic creativity feels sacred to me, and so I call it God. No other word seems sufficient!
In the 1600s the great Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, said that God and nature are essentially the same thing. His religious philosophy is called pantheism, and I’m essentially a pantheist. Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other Transcendentalists like Bronson Alcott, also saw divinity in nature. Scratch a Unitarian, and you’re likely to find a pantheist.
Here in this church, you don’t have to agree with Spinoza or Emerson, and you don’t have to agree with me. You might think that I go too far, because there’s no such thing as God. Or you may think that I don’t go far enough. Surely God is more than simply the creative process of the Cosmos! We can disagree and still come to church together. That’s because we’re not a creedal church. Most churches gather around a creed that says what they all agree to believe. When I was Methodist we said the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday, and it began “I believe.” But we’re not creedal. We’re covenental. We have a covenant. Covenants are about how we will treat one another, not about doctrine. We can believe different things as long as we support one another in our spiritual journeys together, and our actions are those of peace and goodwill. Our church is about behavior, not belief.
And so that brings me to another principle of Unitarianism. If our first principle is reason, the second is freedom. We promote religious freedom, including freedom of belief. The preacher has freedom of the pulpit. She or he gets to say what she or he believes to be true, necessary, and helpful. And you have the freedom of the pew. You can think for yourself, and agree or disagree, or partly agree and partly disagree! Freedom of the pulpit, and freedom of the pew. The two go together.
A way of life ~
What do today’s Unitarian Universalists believe? Well, “believe” may be the wrong word. For us, religion is a way of living, not a doctrine, not a belief. And that was always the Unitarian emphasis. James Freeman Clarke spoke of “salvation by character.” We’re not terribly worried about individual salvation. We seek to live lives of character, the the kind of ethical moral lives that help save the whole human enterprise. The word, “salvation,” is related to the word “salve,” a balm for healing. The task of our religious path is to be on the side of healing the world.
So if 1) reason is our first principle, and 2) freedom is our second, then 3) our third principle is moral living, a way of life, not a set of beliefs. What you do is more important than what you say. As Jesus taught (Matt. 7:16), “You will know them by their fruits.”
But just because we we see religion as a way of life, and have covenants rather than creeds, doesn’t mean we have no beliefs. So, if someone asks, “What do Unitarian Universalist believe?” please don’t say, “We can believe anything we want.” Because first, it doesn’t answer the question. If I ask, “Where do you live?” you wouldn’t say, “I can live anywhere I want,” because that doesn’t answer the question. And second, it isn’t true to say that we can believe just anything at all. You can’t be a dedicated Nazi and be a good UU at the same time.
UU theologian Rebecca Parker says there are limits to what we can believe and still be Unitarian Universalists. We may define salvation many ways, but we never say that some people are eternally damned. “UUism is clear that all souls are of worth,” she says. “We hold that salvation is universal.” Nor do we believe that salvation is to be found solely beyond this world. Unitarian Universalism is “clear that the ultimate is present here and now, and can be grasped and experienced, even if only partially, within … our mortal existence.”
Some of us practice Christian prayer, some of us practice Buddhist meditation, some of us practice yoga – and some of us don’t. But none of us claim that there is only one true religion, not even Unitarian Universalism. No person, no preacher, no guru, no book, no church, has a monopoly on all
religious truth. All religions are human attempts to deal with the dual reality of being alive, and knowing that some day we will die.
And we love life. Parker says, “We are devoted to the sacredness of this world, this life here and now. We do not look to a world to come as more valuable than this world.” We cherish and respect our planet, Earth. We appreciate and celebrate the fact that all life is interconnected.
Because we want life to flourish, we are committed to compassion and justice. Because we are imperfect people, we sometimes fall short of our ideals. Yet, on the whole, we think we have a pretty good record of advocating for fairness and justice, and doing our best to live up to these values in our own lives. We critique any theology that favors the strong over the weak, or the privileged over the poor. We reject the idea that God blesses the unjust status quo. We accept our human responsibility for social evils, and do not pass the buck to “God’s will.” We are responsible for our lives and our planet.
Reason. Freedom. Moral living, compassion, and justice. A faith that is rooted in this life, this world, and lets the mystery beyond this existence remain a mystery. Covenants that are about how we will treat one another, not creeds that expect us to always agree on the fine points of theology.
I am a Unitarian Universalist because I am welcomed in spite of my flaws, and respected in spite of my doubts. This tradition is my home because I can no longer see myself anywhere else.