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September 14, 2008: “We Have the Questions for All Your Answers”

The early Universalist preacher had to be somewhat defensive since they were often considered heretics, believing that God loved everyone and didn’t believe in predestination like the Calvinists. They seemed to have developed a quick and ready comeback There’s a story about John Murray, often called the Father of Universalism, that during one of his sermons, a stone flew through the window of the church where he was preaching- presumably thrown by an opponent of Universalism. Murray picked it up and said, this argument may be substantial and weighty, but it is not convincing.

    And I want to be remembered for saying that my idea of hell is to be in a heaven for eternity full of fundamentalists. Actually, of course, almost any talk of heaven or hell in most UU sermons is usually a sure sign that a punch line is coming. The original belief of Universalism was in Universal salvation that eventually, at least, all souls would be united with God, that a loving God, and a loving God was a central theme, would not even create a hell.  Universalists tended to be rural, blue collar, folk, often coming out of the Baptist or Methodist traditions. More spiritual, emotional, than intellectual
    Unitarians came out of the Congregational traditions and tended to be more urban, educated, upper class. More intellectual than spiritual and reason was valued highly, which was why the transcendentalist romanticism was originally suspect. They tended to see Jesus as separate from God, and therefore rejected the idea of the trinity. Salvation by Character. The old joke was that the difference between the Unitarians and the Universalists were that the Universalist believed that God was too good to condemn them to hell and the Unitarians believed that they were too good for God to condemn to Hell.

    I remember some 25 years ago when bumper stickers of today's title came out that said, We have the questions to all your answers. We all had a good laugh out of the, We still do.  Personally I like the bumper sticker that says, Jesus is Coming: Look Busy! or Please God:  Protect Me From Your Followers!

    As I have gotten older, and SO much wiser, at least perhaps, more humble, I now find myself feeling that they are, well, just a bit condescending. I'm more interested  in trying to find common ground with other religious folks rather than , if you'll pardon the terrible pun, Lording my intellectual superiority over their simple superstitious religious naivet'. I no longer see their religion as wrong, but see myself as having been turned off by traditional religion of my heritage. I left the Congregational church and no longer call myself a Christian, yet consider myself deeply religious and obviously involved in church!  So many people no longer are associated with church and indeed, even among ourselves hear folks call for the end of what we often call organized religion. I just want you to know that I can guarantee that while I am I minister here no one has to worry that we will become too organized!  But for so many people in today's world religion has become irrelevant to them and their lives until it is time for a wedding or a funeral. And not because they believe that they need a god or a religion, but because they know their family and society does!

    Most of us left other traditions and this tradition also left traditions! The 18th and 19th century were times of radical change of philosophy. religion, science, politics, a time of  revolution  in so many ways! From his book on UU history, Challenge of a Liberal Faith, George Marshall, writes In England during the 17th century, men like the poet John Milton, the philosopher John Locke, and the physicist Isaac Newton fostered the church's growth.  As the 18th century grew to a close, Joseph Priestly, a Unitarian minister and the discoverer of oxygen, was forced to flee to the United States to escape the attack of mobs protesting his liberalism.  Encouraged by Benjamin Franklin, he established the first Unitarian church in this country at Northumberland, Pennsylvania, in 1794.  Soon after Boston's famed Kings Chapel left the Anglican fold.  And, in 1802, the church founded by the Pilgrim Fathers, the First Parish in Plymouth, became Unitarian.

    The Unitarians evolved out of the early Puritans and Congregational churches in New England; many of the founding forbears were reluctant to even use the name at first, since it began as an epithet hurled at us, a derogatory description. In many cases, the minister and the majority of churches would consider themselves anti-Trinitarian, but just didn't mention it. Even in 1819, when William Ellery Channing preached an ordination sermon in Baltimore, far from New England, entitled "Unitarian Christianity", there was no desire to start a separate denomination. Yet that sermon hit a tremendously responsive chord; it was reprinted and sold widely in pamphlet form, second only in popularity to Thomas Paine's Revolutionary period piece, "Common Sense".

It was not until 1825 that finally the American Unitarian Association was formed in the Vestry, it is said, of Channing’s Federal Street Church in Boston, but no attempt was made to immediately issue a creedal requirement. Instead, the early leaders of the AUA said: “…We value our doctrines only so far as they evidently are of the revelation of the will and character of God and so far as they tend to improve the religious, moral and intellectual condition of mankind…The great end of this association is the promotion of pure morals and practical piety.” (Lyttle, 23) But this was not a denomination as we think of it today, and it did not have a creed or required doctrine of belief. As the century progressed and the coming of Emerson and Transcendentalism, for Instance, just before the Civil War, then the more radical Free Religious Association after the Civil War about what Unitarians believed, because it varied widely; some were considered Christian and some were not.

Eastern Unitarians at around the same time found their statement in James Freeman Clarke’s “Five Points of Unitarianism” (in contrast to the 5 points of Calvinism):

  1. The Fatherhood of God
  2. The Brotherhood of Man
  3. The Leadership of Jesus
  4. Salvation by Character
  5. The Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever. When the National Council of churches was formed by American Protestants churches at the turn of the 20th century, the three Unitarian delegates to the organization meeting in New York were denied admission as heretics who would not recognize Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The three heretics turned away were Massachusetts Governor John D. Long, Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard, and Dr. Edward Everett Hale, author of The Man Without a Country and then chaplain of the United States Senate. The Universalist General Convention of 1897 a new statement of faith: “We believe in The Universal Fatherhood of God;
    The Spiritual Authority and Leadership of His Son, Jesus Christ;
    The Trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a Revelation from God;
    The certainty of Just Retribution for Sin;
    The final Harmony of all Souls with God.” (E. Robinson, 157)

And in 1935, the General Convention meeting in Washington ratified “The Washington Profession”. As Hemstreet (9) writes: “As the Humanist-Theist Controversy raged within the Unitarian Churches, echoes could be heard in Universalism…The result was a document that supplemented rather than replaced the two earlier professions.

    Humanism became the predominant theology in both denominations, but both always contained strong Christian and theist groups as well.

    "The bond of fellowship in this convention shall be a common purpose to do the will of God as Jesus revealed it and to cooperate in establishing the Kingdom for which he lived and died. To that end we avow our faith in God as Eternal and All-Conquering Love, in the spiritual leadership of Jesus, in the supreme worth of every human personality, in the authority of truth known or to be known, and in the power of men of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the kingdom of God. Neither this nor any other statement shall be imposed as a creedal test, provided that the faith thus indicated be professed."  (E. Robinson,160)

    As late as 1949, Brainerd F. Gibbons, who would be president of the Universalist Church of America, wrote  "A new type of Universalism is proclaimed which shifts the emphasis on universal from  salvation to religion and describes Universalism as boundless in scope, as broad as humanity, and as infinite as the universe. Is this Universalism's answer: a religion, not exclusively Christian or any other named brand, but a synthesis of all religious knowledge which passes the test of human intelligence, a truly universal religion?"

    During WW II, A. Powell Davies, who would go on to become one of the famous Preachers in Washington DC in the 1950's, chaired a committee which listed 5 principles with which the committee felt most Unitarians would agree.
  1. Individual freedom of belief;
  2. Discipleship to advancing truth;
  3. The democratic process in human relations;
  4. Universal brotherhood, undivided by nations, race, or creed;
  5. Allegiance to the cause of a united world community.

` Several recent surveys of Unitarian Universalists have illustrated the diversity among members as well as some general trends. In 1997, the UUA conducted a nationwide survey of 8,100 of its members. One question asked members to choose only one label that best described their beliefs; the answers were as follows:
humanist (46%)/ earth/nature centered (19%)/ theist (13%) other (13%) Christian (9.5%) mystic, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim in ever-smaller percentages 6%.

    In 2001, a regional survey of UU members in the Midwest was conducted by Ohio University. This survey allowed respondents to choose more than one label for themselves. The researcher noted that "the typical respondent felt the need to circle three or four terms to describe his or her theological views." The results of this survey were:  humanist (54%) agnostic (33%) earth-centered (31%) atheist (18%) Buddhist (16.5%) pagan (13.1%)  Christian (13.1%).

    When the last full time minister, Nicole Kirk, left n 2006 to go back to Seminary for her Ph. D., the church has to go through quite a process of self evaluation before you can call the next minister. Those of you who were here, remember the many meetings and surveys. You hired an interim minister, Sarah Zimmerman to help you through the year until I got here. And in the theological survey taken back in 2006, this church said: Humanism is the most widely held stance within our congregation, with Naturalistic Theism, Earth-Centered Spirituality, Mysticism, UU Christianity, Theism, and Pantheism also widely identified sentiments. Spiritual and personal growth, family relationships and values, as well as philosophical and psychological ideas are well received as sermon topics. Buddhism and Theological Christianity are the other faith traditions principally identified by our members who stated some loyalty to a tradition other than Unitarian Universalism.

1.Beliefs and attitudes Top 5
1. Humanism 79
2. Naturalistic Theism 34
3. Earth Centered Spirituality 26
4. Mysticism 22
5. UU Christian 20

    Indeed, I have often said that I would really like to give a truth serum communion before giving those surveys, before the saying of the Apostles Creed in any of the Christina churches; I would wager rather a substantial amount that people don't really know what they believe. Or rather, it depends on what day and what mood they are in.!  Did you read the story about the great controversy that the memoirs of Mother Teresa caused when it was discover that she often doubted the existence of God! Mother Teresa was an agnostic? Is nothing sacred? No. That's the point! She was just being honest! Even the greatest of 20th century saints had her doubts!

    But, and here is what I might call the Unitarian Universalist message, she went right ahead and was religious anyway! She did not need a belief in a particular brand or type of Supreme Being God to continue to give her life to the saving of the world one person at a time. She was playing God, you see, only not in the egotistical way we usually use that term. There is a saying in Judaism that if one acts if there is no God and only you to save the world then you must act, and even atheism can be hallowed!

    What I have come to value, yea even worship, in Unitarian Universalism, is not doctrine, is not whether I am a card carrying humanist, but whether I am connected spiritually, as well as social justice wise, to the unity and the universal of the sacred dimension of the universe.  What I have felt called to is the ministry of the beloved community of that unity and that universal that resonates with me, that not just makes sense to me, but moves me, motivates me, nurtures me, calls me, makes me do things to help one other, love one another that I would not, could not,  do by myself.

    My dear friend and colleague, Dennis Hamilton, who serves the church in Carrolton, Texas, outside of Dallas, once said that ministry had made him a much better person that he ever intended to be, and I understand that so well. It's like the child that defined sharing as what you do when you have one of something and there's two of you, but the teacher is watching.  And I don't even believe that God is watching! You act good because you think you should long enough and it becomes natural, real!  Or as they say in recovery, fake it until you make it.

    Until I went away to college, church had always been important to my family and to me, either in Sunday school, vacation Bible School or sitting with the family at church from as far back as I can remember, church has been part of who I was. I always loved to sing, so the hymn singing was a favorite part. But I also loved the going as a family that there was a beloved community that I was loved there, valued. That there was a minister, that was the liaison between God or what I know call the sacred dimension or the spirit of love and the beloved community or the church and the wider denomination. And who seemed to care about me and my family. That is still important to me.

    When Cathie and I were invited by a friend to our first UU fellowship, as I've said before, it was like coming home again, and of course, we never stopped coming since 1981! Some of our friends from that time have, partly due to distance and partly due to changed life circumstances, and of course we are here now instead of there!

    I've spoken before of the religious relationship, the You, me and the universe, the religious or sacred dimension, more than being saved or seeing God. let's say, but I'm not sure that it's not all really similar. Just a different experience or a different metaphor. As a liberal thinker, I am liberal religiously, politically and therefore find myself more comfortable with other liberals, but not just political liberals, not just democrats, say. or just liberal intellectuals or liberal artists. No, I need more than that, I need a spiritual, a religious dimension as well, and that's what I seek in my religious community.

In my worship I want to elicit the spiritual, I want to almost play the shaman calling forth the power of love to be present among us as if it could be summoned by certain words only in certain places. Yet I have felt it here at times and I think of the words of Jesus when he said that when two or more are gather in my name, I will be there as that idea of the holy spirit dwelling among us when we gather in love.

    And if we all took a good swig of that truth serum communion and then I passed out the pen and paper and asked you to write down what you really believed, then what? Here's what I think. It might be interesting- no, it WOULD BE INTERESTING!-but it wouldn't matter. Because we don't take theological attendance here. It simply shouldn't matter whether you say or think that you are a humanist or a pagan or a Christian or a Wiccan o whatever. Do you think it mattered to the people in poverty that Mother Teresa saved that she had doubts whether God existed? Or do think that what mattered was what she did?

    Now granted, that's a belief in itself, of course. It's the old theological argument about which is more important faith or good works? And I guess you can tell which side I would be on, except that I'm saying there are no sides! There is only us. The Unity and the Universal. Love is the answer. Help one another Share. Do Justice. Find out what it is that you were meant to do.  My sages are those in all religions who I find have universal wisdom that resonate with me, I especially value my UU colleagues writings and often treat those writings like scriptures which inspire me.

The more I study religion, the more I realize how intertwined it is with psychology, how we project onto religion our own hang-ups, our own baggage. So we bring many names for the w god. Imagine how confusing and how incredibly liberating it is for someone who knows nothing about UUism to come here and find that it doesn’t really matter how you answer that ridiculous question that you won’t BE ASKED here, do you believe in God or especially ARE YOU SAVED? I say ridiculous, not to be disrespectful, but because here it DOES NOT MATTER! We ask instead, things like- What religious tradition did you grow up in? Do you feel comfortable here among us? Have you felt at home? Have the sermons been meaningful? Have you learned about our history? Do the purposes and principles of UUism make sense to you? Do they resonate with you? How can we help you? Would you like to become a member by supporting this beloved community with your talents your time and your treasure?

    What we believe is important, of course. But how we live our belief is even more important, and how we love one another and ourselves and yes, the world is more important, so let love be our guide in all things big and small.  Amen, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapdted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. Vaya con Dios is SPanish for Good-bye, but literally is Go with God, SO I adapted it to say Vaya Con Su Dios, Go with your idea or interpretation of God.


The Seneca Indian Chief, Red Jacket, replied to a missionary trying to convert the Indians: “You have got our country, but you are not satisfied; you want to force your religion upon us…Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it?”

From The New American Spirituality: A Seekers Guide, Elizabeth Lesser

The Old Spirituality

  1. Who has the Authority? The hierarchy has the authority. The Church authorities
  2. What is spirituality God, and the path to worship Him, have already been defined. All you need to do is follow the directions.
  3. What is the path to God. There is only one path. It is the right way and all others ways are wrong.
  4. What is sacred? Parts of yourself-like the body or ego or emotions-are evil. Deny or transcend or sublimate tem or they will lead you astray.
  5. What is the truth? The truth is like a rock. Your understanding of it should never waver. Therefore ask the same questions and receive the same answers at all stages of your life.

The New American Spirituality
1.Who has the Authority? You are your own best authority. As you work to know and love yourself, you discover how to live a spiritual life.

  1. What is spirituality? You listen within for your own definition of spirituality. Your deepest longings are your compass on the earth.
  2. What is the path to God? Many paths lead to spiritual freedom and peace. You have a rich array of gems from which to draw illumination; the world’s religious traditions, mythology, philosophy. psychology, healing methods, scientific wisdom, your own experience. String a necklace all your own.4.
  3. What is sacred? Everything is sacred- your body, mind psyche, heart and soul. The world is sacred, too, with all its light and darkness. Bring the exiled and unloved parts of yourself back into the fold.
  4. What is the truth? The truth is like the horizon- forever ahead of you, forever changing its shape and color. Let your spiritual path change and diverge as you journey toward it. You live many lives in one lifetime. The truth accommodates your growth;.

Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the Twenty-first Century. By
William R. Murry.
Religious humanism is a life stance that exults in being alive in this unimaginably vast and breathtakingly beautiful universe and that finds joy and satisfaction in contributing to human betterment. Without a creed but with an emphasis on reason, compassion, community, nature, and social responsibility, it is a way of living that answers the religious and spiritual needs of people today. A new humanism is emerging among Unitarian Universalists, a religious humanism informed by cultural developments and recent discoveries in the natural and human sciences and grounded in the larger context of religious naturalism, a religious humanism that offers depth, meaning, and purpose without sacrificing intellectual honesty or the spiritual dimension.
Religious naturalism is a perspective that finds religious meaning in the natural world and rejects the notion of a supernatural realm. In recent years, religious naturalism has been enjoying a resurgence. Most religious naturalists are theists who understand God as belonging to the natural universe rather than as a supernatural deity.

    I espouse a non-theistic faith, a perspective that I call humanistic religious naturalism. Like traditional religious humanism, it rejects the supernatural and maintains that there is only one reality, the natural universe. Traditional humanism, however, has historically been too anthropocentric, whereas for humanistic religious naturalism it is nature rather than humankind that is ultimate. This lays the foundation for a strong environmental ethic, a necessity in a world threatened by environmental destruction. Further, integrating religious humanism with religious naturalism results in a greater spiritual depth and a language of reverence, both of which many find missing in traditional religious humanism. This emergent form of humanism also provides a meaningful story, the epic of evolution. The differences with traditional religious humanism may seem subtle, but they provide a foundation for a more open, less rationalistic, and more inclusive humanism that speaks to the heart and the soul, not just the intellect.

    "But the whole circumference of religion is infinite," wrote Friedrich Schleirmacher, the 19th century German theologian, "...and is not to be comprehended under one form, but only under the sum total of all forms."

    One of the great Unitarian ministers and social activists of the past, Theodore Parker (1810-1860)  wrote prophetically, yet timelessly:  "The church that is to lead this century will not be a church creeping on all fours, mewling and whining, its face turned down, its eyes turned back.  It must be full of the brave spirit of the day, keeping also the good of times past...
    Great truths, moral and political, have come to light.  Our age demands, as never before, freedom for itself, usefulness in its institutions, truth in its teachings, and beauty in its deeds.  Let a church have that freedom, that usefulness, truth     and beauty and the energy of this age will be on its side.  But the church which did for the fifth century, or the fifteenth, will not do for this.  It must have our ideas, the smell of our ground and have grown out of the religion  in our soul...
    Let us have a church for the whole person; truth for the mind, good works for the hands, love for the heart and for the soul...