Fourth grade students at Atlanta’s International School experience a unit entitled “Beliefs Around the World.” The central idea is that belief systems are an important part of who we are. The students investigate the five major religions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, as well other religious traditions and beliefs/values that are important to us (superstitions, respect, tolerance, caring, taking care of the planet, taking care of ourselves…). I was recently invited to share out of my religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism.

Here are my notes from that hour-long experience with almost 60 fourth graders. (Note that the notes are far more extensive than the actual presentation, so definitely everything did not get covered, or covered to the degree of detail that you might read here). I definitely made sure to run through a sample UU worship service with them…

**Start with a clapping & snapping game.

Glad to be here with you today! My name is Rev. David. I’m the senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta.

I know you are studying religion, and I want to share a couple thoughts with you about my religion of Unitarian Universalism: (1) Some main Unitarian Universalist beliefs, (2) some beliefs and attitudes we have in common with other religions, (3) some main Unitarian Universalist practices, and (4) what we do in worship.

I’ll use a story to help with this….

STORY (as told by James Baldwin)
THERE were once six blind men who stood by the roadside every day, and begged from the people who passed. They had often heard of elephants, but they had never seen one; for, being blind, how could they?

It so happened one morning that an elephant was driven down the road where they stood. When they were told that the great beast was before them, they asked the driver to let him stop so that they might see him.

Of course they could not see him with their eyes; but they thought that by touching him they could learn just what kind of animal he was.

The first one happened to put his hand on the elephant’s side. “Well, well!” he said, “now I know all about this beast. He is exactly like a wall.”

The second felt only of the elephant’s tusk. “My brother,” he said, “you are mistaken. He is not at all like a wall. He is round and smooth and sharp. He is more like a spear than anything else.”

The third happened to take hold of the elephant’s trunk. “Both of you are wrong,” he said. “Anybody who knows anything can see that this elephant is like a snake.”

The fourth reached out his arms, and grasped one of the elephant’s legs. “Oh, how blind you are!” he said. “It is very plain to me that he is round and tall like a tree.”

The fifth was a very tall man, and he chanced to take hold of the elephant’s ear. “The blindest man ought to know that this beast is not like any of the things that you name,” he said. “He is exactly like a huge fan.”

The sixth was very blind indeed, and it was some time before he could find the elephant at all. At last he seized the animal’s tail. “O foolish fellows!” he cried. “You surely have lost your senses. This elephant is not like a wall, or a spear, or a snake, or a tree; neither is he like a fan. But any man with a particle of sense can see that he is exactly like a rope.”

Then the elephant moved on, and the six blind men sat by the roadside all day, and quarreled about him. Each believed that he knew just how the animal looked; and each called the others hard names because they did not agree with him. People who have eyes sometimes act as foolishly.

As a way of getting into the first four beliefs, I want you to think about how this story talks about two things: how the elephant is REALLY big, and how the men are not able to see it in its entirety. What does this suggest about the nature of religious beliefs, or religion in general?

First UU Belief: The Sacred (God, Allah, Brahman, Tao, The Sacred, the Spirit of Life) is always bigger than our beliefs about it.
This is true, not just because Sacred Reality is really BIG, but also because it is fundamentally ambiguous in the sense that it does not compel people to believe one and only one thing about it. It’s just like these pictures:

This is where faith comes in. Faith is an attitude of trust, by which you establish a relationship with one of the meanings that the Sacred can have, and you allow it to shape your way of looking at the world, and your way of living. In the case of the first picture, for example, “faith” enables you to focus more on the faces than on the vase….

Without faith, our relationship with the Sacred can be flighty and superficial. On the other hand, we must guard against faith making our perspective narrow and closed to other ways.

Personal notes: The Universe does not command one and only one way of being experienced, or rationally interpreted. It does not compel like the force of gravity compels. It does not culminate, like “4″ culminates from “2+2.” The universe does not command like this when it comes to the fact of God’s existence, or what experience of the sacred is like, or the way to spiritual fulfillment. The Spirit of Life is one light, yes, but the appearance it takes depends a great deal upon the particular stained glass window that the light streams through. Come to it as a God-believer, and there are enough evidences to make belief in God rational. Come to it as an atheist, and there are enough evidences to make disbelief in God rational as well.

The spiritual meaning of the universe is open. Unitarian Universalists must assume this, else it is hard to explain to ourselves or to others that aspect of our religious diversity which is, perhaps, the most surprising of all to Americans: that we welcome theists of all kinds, as well as atheists and agnostics. For we assume that the universe is a Mystery; and we know that, because it is a Mystery, the spiritual journey each person takes and the conclusions they will arrive at will naturally be diverse and various.

Second UU Belief: The sources of truth about the Sacred are many.
Even though none of our ideas and beliefs capture the whole truth about Sacred Reality, still, they can reflect SOMETHING. They are each like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle….So, if we are to learn as much as possible about the Sacred, we need to collect lots of jigsaw puzzle pieces…. That’s why UUs draw from many sources of wisdom. We symbolize this to ourselves with the phrase, “The Six Sources.” Here they are:

*Direct experience
*Words and deeds of prophetic women and men
*Wisdom from the world’s religions
*Jewish and Christian teachings
*Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
*Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and
instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Third UU Belief: 3. Drawing from many sources is a good thing.
Brings to mind a story about Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK Jr. discovered the power of peace through the works of a Hindu saint, Gandhi; and his eyes were opened to the New Testament’s message of love when he read a spiritual classic of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita.

Stories like this say, to me, that a spiritual life which draws wisely from multiple religious traditions can change lives and change the world. It also says that if you want to be enriched in your home religious tradition, don’t be afraid to explore other voices and other ways.

Fourth UU Belief: The spiritual life is best seen as a lifelong journey in which we never stop learning. We can make mistakes and believe things that later turn out to be false, and this too is progress. There is never a point where we can say, “I’ve arrived!”
Personal notes: Human nature is not hardwired for destructiveness and evil, and neither is it hardwired for virtue and good. Life is thus a process of learning to love and do what is good. Life is a process of carefully developing the positive potentials we are born with, so that they are not tragically left unrealized. Character is key.

As for how this helps make sense of Unitarian Universalist diversity: if we truly believed we were hardwired to do destructive things—if we truly believed that the internal compass of conscience and intuition was fatally flawed—then we would be fools indeed to espouse religious diversity, since the free choice that our diversity presupposes would often if not always get us into trouble, take us into falsehood and error. A broken or flawed internal compass, one that is unreliable, can’t be expected to do anything else. And so we would be far better off unquestioningly obeying the commandments that some God or other, some tradition nor other, imposes upon us. Free choice would simply be disastrous.

One the other hand, if we truly believed we were hardwired for the good, again, our practice of religious diversity wouldn’t make any sense. For us, diversity is a spiritual discipline that helps us uncover blind spots in our thinking and our being; it can get us out of ruts and back into the fullness and flow of life. It can also be this: a positive opportunity to discover other forms of thought and spirit that speak to us in ways that ones nearer-to-hand might not. But consider how all such things would be irrelevant if we were hardwired for the good. If that were so, we would not ever have to worry about such things as blind spots, or ruts, or boredom. Such problems would never even arise.

[Transition to the next three beliefs]
Now, think back to the story. Earlier, we focused on the bigness of the elephant, and how none of the men were able to see it in its entirety. Now, let’s focus on how the men were fighting. What does THIS say about the nature of religion?

This takes us to the next three Unitarian Universalist beliefs.

Fifth UU Belief: The best way to support the soul’s growth over time in community is through covenant, not creed.
Covenant vs. creed reflects a disagreement on how best to organize healthy spiritual communities. Some communities say that everyone believing the same things is the best way to organize (that’s creedalism). Unitarian Universalists, on the other hand, say that we should emphasize something very different, namely, people promising to behave well towards each other, as they share the spiritual journey together (that’s covenant).

Personal notes: Our emphasis on covenant comes from the 16th century Radical Reformation, a movement in Protestantism that sought to separate church from state, as well as to affirm that the individual’s connection with God did not need any human interceders, in the form of church or priest. Church and priest help the believer to strengthen the sense of connection, but the connection is always already there and does not need church or priest to create it.

A key quote comes from a remarkable man known as King John Sigismund of Transylvania, the first and only Unitarian king in history. In 1568 he said, “In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve.”

That’s what King John Sigismund said, a radical statement in a time when preachers were supposed to preach only the company line, and congregants were supposed to take it in, without question. But King John disagreed. King John said that ministers must be free to communicate their Gospel, whatever the particular topic: religion, politics, where the congregation is going, where it needs to go. As for freedom of the pew, that’s every congregant’s assurance that they belong even if they disagree with what the minister says. It’s their reminder that though what’s communicated in the pulpit always comes with force, and can feel like a summary of what every good Unitarian Universalist is supposed to believe, it’s just not so. Congregants are ultimately accountable only to the dictates of personal reason and intuition and conscience; they are free to believe as the Spirit leads them. Souls need to be satisfied. “We need not think alike to love alike,” said King John’s religious advisor, who was none other than the great Francis David.

Sixth UU Belief: The test of an idea’s truth (or a religion’s value) is in practice.
Unitarian Universalists measure themselves against the yardstick of what is called “The Seven Principles”:

Unitarian Universalist congregations seek 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.

To the extent that we do this, and empower individuals to do this wherever they happen to go, our faith has power and validity.

Personal notes: The test of the true value of an idea or practice is not where it comes from, or who, but what its impact is likely to be. Not origin, but consequences. Not roots, but fruits. Sometimes we are talking theoretical consequences, as in, does the idea or practice extend existing knowledge? Does it help us connect the dots more simply, or more comprehensively? But all the time, we are talking practical consequences, lifestyle consequences. Truth allows life to flourish and brings people and planet together in harmony; whereas falsehood denigrates life, violates our relationships, destroys our world.

James Luther Adams: “By their groups ye shall know them.”

Seventh UU Belief: People are called to both savor and save the world.
This brings to mind a saying by one of the most famous UU ancestors: Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is a crack in everything God has made.” What do you think this means?

Part of our call is to “save the world,” meaning to heal it of hurt and suffering and injustice. There’s lots of it out there. Evil is real. Nothing is perfect.

But at the same time, if we get so busy trying to fix everything, we will miss out on all the ways in which the world is absolutely wonderful and beautiful. We can get exhausted, turn cynical, turn hopeless.

That’s why we have to live spiritual lives of balance. Work hard to bring more love and justice into the world; but also appreciate the love and justice and beauty and goodness that is already there…..

Personal notes: We definitely need to BOTH save and savor the world. But doing both together can be tricky, and this is illustrated by our own history.

Start with writer E. B. White, who once said, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” (A variant quote puts it this way: “I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”)

In saying this, E. B. White admits (without knowing it, perhaps) that’s he’s torn between Unitarian and Universalist ways of being in the world.

The old saw about the difference between the two spiritual paradigms: “Unitarians believe that humans are too good to be damned by God, and Universalists believe that God is too good to damn humans.” Mark W. Harris comments: “Either way we end up saved, but the process–indeed the reason for salvation–could not be more different. The Unitarian emphasis is self-referential. It asks what I can do about my own salvation. It is about my striving for success on the road to moral perfectionism. The Universalist perspective … emphasizes our common relationship to the whole of creation, to a loving God who redeems all.”

More from Mark W. Harris: “[Universalism] tells us that God is a mysterious fountain of love from whence we have sprung. This is a gripping relational power that allows us to turn to the creation and feel trust and comfort; to know that our fears are held by this love, which increases in power as each of us opens to it. There is a completely egalitarian concept of salvation at work in this Universalist gospel. It is not our individual acts that will save us, nor is it the class we belong to which unites the universe. […] This theology affirms that all of us are good and just as we are, and so there is a kind of divine acceptance or grace in each of our very beings. No matter what we do with our lives, no matter what befalls us, there is still a love which embraces us.”

In other words: The Unitarian feels like one’s salvation and the salvation of the world depends on one’s works; the Universalist knows that there is nothing one can do to earn salvation, and so he or she focuses on opening up to God’s loving presence in each moment, and living out of that. The Unitarian experiences scarcity, and, anxiously, plans on being busy to fill up the emptiness and remedy the lack; the Universalist experiences abundance, and, gratefully, plans on extending and magnifying it.

So: how does a Unitarian Universalist plan for the day?

I would say that all seven UU beliefs are shared in some respect by some communities within many of the world’s religions. What makes UUism special is its history full of fantastic stories, as well as how this history culminated in a unique combination of elements. And then there’s all the ways it changes the lives of people in UU congregations and beyond.

Take the first three UU beliefs:

*First UU Belief: The Sacred (God, Allah, Brahman, Tao, The Sacred, the Spirit of Life) is always bigger than our beliefs about it.

*Second UU Belief: The sources of truth about the Sacred are many.

*Third UU Belief: 3. Drawing from many sources is a good thing.

These definitely resonate with Asian religious traditions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism (as well as with mystical traditions within the Western traditions, like Sufism…)

Personal notes: There is an unspoken assumption—which prevails in Western religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (or in at least broad strands of these traditions)—that any religion worth its salt must teach exclusive loyalty to only one image of God or one set of scriptures or one way of life. This unspoken assumption is so widespread where we live that it can feel like absolute and unshakeable truth, the simple way things are. And yet, consider the very different pattern of religiosity in East Asia, as in China, or Japan, or the Koreas. There, the family of major religions is Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism, and people relate to them all. Everyone, except for religious specialists such as priests, “belongs” to all the religions, calling upon each one for different needs. In East Asia, to most people, the idea of exclusive loyalty to one religion is incomprehensible.

I mention this so as to expose the hidden assumption underlying the joke that Unitarian Universalists borrow from other people’s religions because they don’t have any of their own. Borrowing suggests some kind of weakness. Borrowing suggests some kind of flaw. And yet it is no weakness or flaw at all from the perspective of East Asian religiosity. It is not weakness but wisdom. It is not a flaw but the norm. We are not ugly ducklings after all, but swans. Somehow, our 500 year-long history has led us—Unitarian Universalists smack dab in the middle of a Bible Belt which is as wide as all America!—to a style of spirituality that is perfectly at home in the East. It’s just amazing.

As for the fourth and fifth beliefs:

*Fourth UU Belief: The spiritual life is best seen as a lifelong journey in which we never stop learning. We can make mistakes and believe things that later turn out to be false, and this too is progress. There is never a point where we can say, “I’ve arrived!”

*Fifth UU Belief: The best way to support the soul’s growth over time in community is through covenant, not creed.

These are beliefs that resonate with religious traditions that emphasize “orthopraxy” over “orthodoxy.” Traditions like Judaism in the West, and also the Asian traditions I mentioned above.

As for the final two beliefs:

*Sixth UU Belief: The test of an idea’s truth (or a religion’s value) is in practice.

*Seventh UU Belief: People are called to both savor and save the world.

I would imagine that all religions espouse this—although this does not prevent them (or UUs!) from falling short.

But now, what about shared ATTITUDES? I’ll focus on just one: sincerity. UUism shares an attitude of sincerity with other religions.

Personal notes: I mention this because there is a widespread misunderstanding about what it means to be religiously open-minded. In an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, writer Lorraine Murray equated respect towards many sources of wisdom with an “anything goes” mentality. But the two are quite different. People with an “anything goes” mentality really don’t care about testing their beliefs to see if they are actually true or helpful in their lives; but people who respect many sources of wisdom think about what they believe and go in search of truth no matter where it comes from. An open-ended search for meaning has nothing to do with “anything goes.” Open minds DO have a limit—and that limit is the test of reason, conscience, justice, and love.

UU writer Doug Muder touches on this when he distinguishes between “commitment” and “commandment” styles of religiosity. For religious liberals, freedom is at the core; for religious conservatives, what’s at the core is obedience. For liberals, religion is mostly about right behavior; for conservatives, religion is mostly about right belief. With this basic difference in style, it can seem that there is absolutely no common ground. And that’s why it becomes critical for religious liberals like ourselves to articulate why freedom and choice are spiritually central to us, and not some cop out. After all, we don’t want to be guilty of bad communication habits ourselves, as in requiring our relatives to read our minds. We need to say who we are. Say, along with Doug Muder, that “We give our members the freedom to doubt and encourage them to question their beliefs not so they will see all beliefs as whimsical and contingent, but quite the opposite: We find that hard-tested and hard-won beliefs are more likely to withstand the challenges of modern life. A marriage whose every assumption and duty has been freely negotiated is not a house of straw, but rather a house whose every brick has been carefully laid. The freedom of liberal religion is an invitation to engage with the most significant issues of human life and society, not an excuse to fall into a shiftless and vacant hedonism.” In other words, what we share with our fundamentalist relatives is exactly this sense of the religious life as rigorous and not easy. We share with them “loyalties that go beyond self and the convenience of the moment. [We share with them a rejection of] the materialism of popular culture. [We both] seek something more substantial than the momentary satisfaction of desire or the endless striving after status” (Muder).


Core Practices
*Worship (building spiritual muscles)
*Service (walk the talk)
*Evangelism (radical hospitality in congregations; beyond them, it’s about talking the talk)
*Covenental community (how we treat one another; how we make decisions; how we envision; how we change, evaluate improve)

**As I change into my preaching clothes, ask kids to snap fingers…. and then when I reappear (in my robe), ask them to go oooohh! aaaahhhhh!

**Ask, why do ministers wear robes?

On Sunday morning, here’s some of what happens….

**Sing “Come Come Whoever You Are”

Come come whoever you are
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair
Come, yet again come

**Ask, what’s a caravan? (a group of travelers journeying together)

UUs believe there are many paths to the sacred in life. We are each travelers on our own unique spiritual journeys, and we find strength, enrichment, and courage in traveling together. Incorporating teachings and practices from many sources helps us develop an authentic, generous, and mature spirituality.

**Light the chalice

**Ask: How is light a great symbol of religion? What thoughts or images come to mind?

The chalice lighting words we use (written by UUCA’s children):

We light this chalice for the light of truth
We light this chalice for the warmth of love
We light this chalice for the energy of action
We light this chalice for the harmony of peace

**Ask, what do you know about meditation and prayer? What’s the difference between them?

Here’s how I start meditations at UUCA:

I invite you now to join me for our community meditation.
Please settle in a little more comfortably…
Close your eyes if you wish…
As I strike the singing bowl,
allow the sound to take you into an inner place of stillness
where we will together rest for a few moments….

[Strike singing bowl—pause for a minute]

Sometimes I pray, too. Here’s a cool prayer from one of my spiritual ancestors, Theodore Parker:

“Creating and Protecting Power, our Father and our Mother, may we join the human race in daring to live in the prophetic spirit: seeking inspiration like the seers and sages of this and other lands, judging the past as they, acting on the present like them, envisioning a new and nobler era of the spirit. May our doctrines and forms fit the soul as the limbs fit the body: growing out of it, growing with it. May we have communities for the whole person: truth for the mind, good works for the hands, love for the heart; and for the soul that aspiring after perfection, that unfaltering faith in life, which like lightning in the clouds, shines brightest when elsewhere it is most dark.”

We also pray for each other. We call out the names of people who are hurting and need our good thoughts and wishes. Here’s what this sounds like:

And now, we turn our thoughts
to this congregation that sustains us.
We pause to remember the joys
and struggles and sorrows among us.

As is our custom, I will call out the names
of people who have asked to be remembered.
Then I will invite you to call your names.

Then we do an offering…. Most of our offerings go to various groups in the Atlanta community
To help them do their work. The offering is a way to symbolize our intent to be good stewards of our money and talents and resources, in making the world a better place….

Then there’s a sermon. My sermon today is about Christmas….

**Ask: What comes to mind when you think about Christmas?

UUs have had a lot to do with the evolution of Christmas—it’s “our” holiday

The Christmas Tree
Back in the 19th century, many people believed that children were born perverse, and that the main goal of child-rearing was breaking the will. But Unitarians and Universalists believed that children should be trained rather than broken. Children were not perfect, but they were not fundamentally corrupt either, and so the emphasis was on positive training and education.

That, in fact, is what the Christmas tree was all about. The ritual of the Christmas tree in America was about emphasizing small, handmade gifts to go on the tree, especially gifts from children to their parents. The Christmas tree thus served as a way for parents to train their children to detach from the rampant commercialization surrounding them, as well as to develop their sense of gratitude through the habit of giving.

It was Charles Follen, a Unitarian minister, who had one of the first Christmas trees in America, in 1835; and even more important than this was how two Unitarian best-selling authors popularized the Christmas tree ritual, as they experienced it at the home of Charles Follen. Through the writings of these two women, Harriet Martineau and Catharine Marie Sedgewick, the Christmas tree ritual spread across America—as well as the Unitarian and Universalist faith in human nature. Louisa May Alcott is another name that is relevant here. She is another American Unitarian author of that era, who wrote an extensive Christmas scene into her most famous novel, Little Women. In that scene, the four girls voluntarily give their Christmas presents to a poor neighboring family. Again, the message is that children can be trained to be generous and giving—that Christmas need not spoil anyone.

What Santa Claus looks like, and where he lives.
This was determined by political cartoonist Thomas Nast, a Unitarian whose 24 years of Christmas drawings gave us the image of Santa Claus as we know him today. This includes introducing the idea that Santa’s home was in the North Pole. Essentially, this meant that no one people or country owns Santa; Santa belongs to the world.

The focus of Christmas being on giving, and goodness.
This comes in large part from the English Unitarian, Charles Dickens, and his classic story, “A Christmas Carol.” It’s important how Dickens, in the story, focuses more on the religion of Jesus rather than the religion about Jesus. The difference here amounts to focusing on a life in keeping with the Christmas spirit, rather than a focus on venerating images of Christ. “A Christmas Carol” reminds us that what’s central and bottom-line to Christmas is not so much theological beliefs as it is actions of love and service.

Modern Christmas carols.
No longer do the songs come with threats…. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Christmas in America was a time of excess—more like Mardi Gras than anything else. It was a time to blow off steam and flaunt social conventions. You had cross-dressing, public lewdness, and role reversals of all kinds. People would choose a Lord of Misrule, and he and his court would act like sacred clowns mocking social conventions and those in power. People would also come to the homes of the prosperous and sing songs. Not out of piety, but to demand food and drink or else. The songs that we sing at Christmastime today are all very different, expressing reverence or cheer as their central message. But not so with the songs in the past. In the past, if you were rich, you would have heard threats like this sung at you:

We’ve come here to claim our right
And if you don’t open up your door
We will lay you flat upon the floor.

Now, the central message is reverence and cheer and wonder. And many of these modern style carols come from Unitarians and Universalists, such as “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and, finally, “Jingle Bells.”

And THIS is the little-known story that begs to be told. In large part, today’s
Christmas is what it is thanks to the vision and efforts of Unitarian Universalists
over the past 200 years. It’s our gift to the world.

**Ask: what do you think worship is supposed to do? How do you know that a worship service has been a good one?

At the end of every worship, my hope is that people have been able to connect with the light that is within them. Think of the chalice flame….

The sacred is inherently present in nature and in human life. In the act of mindful connection with this essence, we find that we are changed: our relationships are healed, our creativity is unleashed, and our possibilities are expanded