If ever there was a story that captures the religious predicament of humankind throughout time, it’s that of the blind men and the elephant. There is a great mystery called an “elephant” six people have heard a lot about, but because of the human condition (which the story symbolizes as blindness), they are incapable of ever seeing it completely and as a whole. One day this great mystery elephant comes near where they are, and each has the opportunity to put their hands directly upon it. They do that, and each comes away with a piece of the truth which is more like poetry than anything else. Metaphor. The great mystery elephant is like a wall or a spear or a snake or a tree or a fan or a rope. All true—but none capturing the whole truth.
At this point the story shifts to the issue of human relationships—what people do with their separate pieces of the truth. And here the story is less optimistic. Humans are simply built for community, but we also know that pieces of truth have a nasty tendency to make people quarrel. For my piece to be true, yours must be false. Six blind men who have somehow forgotten they are blind, and there is no indication in the story that the quarreling ever stops.
Not a happy ending. But if there is anything that Unitarian Universalism has faith in, it is that the story need not end like this. “We are here dedicated,” says the Rev. David Bumbaugh, “to the proposition that beneath all our differences, behind all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.” That’s what I want to talk about today: this unity which binds Unitarian Universalists together. A unity of understanding about the nature of sacred reality; and a unity of spiritual practice. Unity, in spite of all.
Start with the unity of understanding about the nature of sacred reality. Three main things to say here.
The first is this: our Unitarian Universalist conviction that the spiritual meaning of the universe is open. Part of this is due to the sheer BIGNESS of God. We put our hands upon God, in our blindness, and come away with images of walls or spears or snakes or trees or fans or ropes. More to the point, some people address a cosmic conscious personality in prayer and feel responded to; others meditate and experience nothing personal but rather a simple sheer unity of all things; still others experience a world in which there are many, not one, sacred forces with conscious intent. And on and on. Different people experience all sorts of different things—and this may very well owe to the fact that the great mystery elephant has lots of different places where we can grab ahold of it. A side, a tusk, a trunk, a leg, an ear, a tail. Where sacred reality is concerned, it’s both/and, not either/or. We must not underestimate its subtlety, its complexity, its paradoxicality.
Sacred reality is not one way—it’s open, ambiguous. And contributing to this is of course our own human diversity. We don’t all observe the world from the same place, or with identlcal understandings. Some of us can be up on the balcony; others of us can be on the floor. Unitarian Universalist author Kurt Vonnegut makes this plain in his book Breakfast of Champions, when he says of the main character, Kilgore Trout: “Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.” Now I have a feeling that the conversation between the pieces of yeast was fairly grim. But does this grimness lose its validity in the face of the ultimate champagne result? I say no—it faithfully reflects where the pieces of yeast were. Have to honor that. But the champagne result is important too, and lifts up the significance of it all, gives it a direction. On difficult days when we are feeling too much like the pieces of yeast, it’s healing and hope-inspiring to remember that there’s some kind of champagne in the making, though we may have no idea at the time what it might be!
We’re talking openness of spiritual meaning in the world, because of the sheer SIZE of God, together with the diversity of human perspective. And Unitarian Universalists celebrate this. People who are theistic, people who are atheistic, people who are agnostic—all kinds of people—are welcome in our congregations. This fact about us is nothing less then scandalous to some, to others confusing and perplexing, but for us, it flows out of our integrity. What is sacred is too big to be captured by any one creed or way. And one-size-fits-all religion makes for some mighty uncomfortable spiritual clothing for everybody.
This leads very naturally to the second Unitarian Universalist conviction about the nature of sacred reality. That sources of truth are many. We believe it. Even though no single religion or way captures the whole truth about sacred reality, still, each one has a piece of it. It’s just like a jigsaw puzzle. The more pieces we have, the more of the whole we can experience. “We receive,” says the Rev. Sara York, “fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts they are and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown.”
As Unitarian Universalists, we formally acknowledge the manyness of truth sources with our statement called, very simply, “The Six Sources.” Goes like this: “The living tradition which we share draws from many sources: (1) Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life; (2) Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love; (3) Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life; (4) Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves; (5) 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; and (6) 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.” I love it! We absolutely stand within a tradition of abundance. Ours is a spirituality of adventure!
And what’s especially cool about this listing of sources is how in it we can read our growth over time as a religion. It all starts with the fourth source, Judaism and Christianity. Originally Unitarianism and Universalism were beliefs that some of the earliest Jesus followers had and held dear. Unitarianism said that God is one; Jesus is not God but rather a man who lived a truly God-inspired life; Jesus saves not by virtue of his death but by the example of his life, if we live as he lived. Universalism, on the other hand, said that God is like the father of the Prodigal Son in the scriptures, and it does not matter what our sins are—God in the end will never turn a soul away. There is no such thing as eternal hell.
2000 years ago, this is what our religion was: two precious beliefs held by people who were in the end declared heretics. It was only with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and beyond that these beliefs started to take institutional form, and people called themselves Unitarians or Universalists. In America, the first Universalist church was founded in 1780, and soon after that, in 1794, was the founding of the first Unitarian church.
For these religious communities and the ones that followed, the overarching mandate was connecting with God’s truth which, for most of our history, took the form of applying reason towards the interpretation of the Scriptures. That’s where spiritual wisdom resided. Yet our communities were also connected to the larger world and to developments in scholarship, social conditions, and international relations. All these would eventually lead a Unitarian pastor named Ralph Waldo Emerson in the mid-1800s to go way beyond the sensibilities of most people in his time and say, “Live after the infinite Law that is in you, and in company with the infinite Beauty which heaven and earth reflect to you in all lovely forms.” Essentially, Emerson was saying that revelation can’t possibly be contained just within the Hebrew or Christian Bible. The wellspring is fundamentally within each of our souls; revelation bubbles up out of the spark of the Divine in our depths. Add to this the revelation of nature, as well as the revelation embodied by the Bibles of many times and lands, such as Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita. This is what Emerson said, as well as his circle of friends and colleagues whom history calls the Transcendentalists. Transcendentalism would come to infuse many of our congregations in the later 1800s, such that it became regular practice for Unitarians and Universalists to aspire to direct experience of the Mystery, to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature, and to read the Hebrew and Christian scriptures side by side with the Bibles of many lands and times.
Beyond all this, add Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species: publication of this in 1859 hit our congregations like a meteor; and subsequent progress in science and technology taught us that we could not in all good conscience say we were a truth-seeking people unless we added science as one of our formal sources of knowledge and wisdom.
Finally, the early 20th century saw the rise of humanism, which envisioned the healthy and responsible spiritual life as one without conceptions of God or an afterlife or anything smacking of the supernatural—one that relied upon humanity and human efforts and our usual five senses alone.
All our Six Sources are evident in this whirlwind tour of our history of growth over time; and whereas from the 1950s to the mid-1980s humanism was our central and main source, today we are a fully pluralistic people and aspire to draw from all sources in robust ways. Individual Unitarian Universalists will have their favorite Sources, for sure (you know who you are!); but as a community, our proper and right commitment is to welcome them all.
Now let’s pause for a moment and see how far we’ve come. What started us off was that lovely quote from the Rev. David Bumbaugh: “behind all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.” So far we’ve been exploring part of what makes up this unity—a unity of understanding about sacred reality. The spiritual meaning of the universe is open. The sources of truth about the sacred are many. Now we turn to a third conviction, that the test of an idea’s truth is how it changes lives. Also very much a shared Unitarian Universalist conviction. We’ll look at this, and then finish up by exploring some of the ways we Unitarian Universalists put all this into personal and communal practice. Are we blind men fated to never get to champagne? Fated to get stuck in that miserable phase that comes right before? Let’s see!
But first: the test of an idea’s truth: how it changes lives. Doesn’t matter who says it, where it comes from, how respected or rarified the pedigree. Not origin, but consequence. 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. “In the end,” says the Rev. John Morgan, “it won’t matter how much we have, but how generously we have given. It won’t matter how much we know, but rather how well we live. And it won’t matter how much we believe, but how deeply we love.” That’s it! Truth takes us into the Spirit of Life, which is a Spirit of richness and creativity and love and forgiveness and compassion and activism. That’s where we want to go!
And this is the context within which another major statement of our faith tradition needs to be understood: our “Seven Principles.” We use the Seven Principles as a yardstick with which to measure the degree of truth in us. Here’s what it sounds like:
Unitarian Universalist congregations seek to affirm and promote (1) the inherent worth and dignity of every person; (2) justice, equity and compassion in human relations; (3) acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; (4) a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; (5) the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; (6) the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and (7) 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 and TRUTH. This is what we believe. Individual Unitarian Universalists will disagree on the question of whether an actual afterlife exists, or an actual, literal heaven. But as for whether we want to bring heaven to earth, and make this world a better place now—we believe!
But how exactly does that happen? What does a Unitarian Universalist’s personal practice look like? And how do we come together as community, pull together and not apart?
Unitarian Universalism envisions the spiritual life as a lifelong journey in which people never stop learning. We have permission to make mistakes. We have permission to believe things that later turn out to be false. This too is progress. There is never a point where we can say, “I’ve arrived!” June Bell, a Unitarian Universalist activist in Scotland puts it like this: “I believe not just what I like, nor what I am told is true, but what I can. That truth I see is not necessarily the same today as yesterday, nor tomorrow, but part of my spiritual journey through life.” I love this quote, especially because it illuminates how Unitarian Universalists come to their personal beliefs. Our religion itself holds back from dictating specific theological conclusions (about God’s existence and the like) because it knows that all such specific beliefs are way too important to be answered for us by someone else or something else. We must come to our own detailed answers, in our own good time, for them to be truly meaningful. And the genuine answers we come to, which are truly ours: hard won. It’s a true spiritual discipline, not for the faint hearted. For some people who are not Unitarian Universalist, the hard part about religion is believing stuff you know ain’t true. For us, in our religion, the hard part is listening to our lives and getting unstuck from hardened attitudes and prejudices; the hard part is dwelling in ambiguity without being overwhelmed or paralyzed by it; the hard part is maintaining deep commitments which are also open-ended. Not for the faint-hearted! But we believe that this makes for a healthier spiritual life for people who are ready for it. It’s the journey. It’s the process, says the Rev. Timothy Haley, “of becoming more whole—of living more fully, of giving and forgiving more freely, of understanding more completely the meaning of our lives here on this earth.”
And we journey together. That’s something else to take special note of. We journey together, but in a way that we believe is best for supporting the individual’s growth in community. That way is called covenantalism, in contrast to creedalism. Now creedalism basically says that the best way to organize as a group is everyone believing in the same things, down to the details. To this way of thinking, you can’t really have a religious identity otherwise. Identity means uniformity. Covenentalism, on the other hand, is when a group organizes itself around shared values and purposes and practices, and leaves the details of particular beliefs to individuals themselves. Through covenentalism, we learn that we need not think alike to love alike. Through covenentalism, the six blind men can find a way to talk about their separate pieces of the truth and to do it in a way that leads not to quarreling but further learning and growth. Building more and more of the cosmic puzzle. Champagne! “The religious community is essential,” says the Rev. Mark Morrison Reed, “for alone our vision is to narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength is too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens, and our strength is renewed.”
One aspect of our Unitarian Universalist covenantal way is called “freedom of the pulpit/freedom of the pew,” and a key quote on this 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….” It means that if you saw my statement in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week decrying House Bill 87, which was co-signed by practically every Unitarian Universalist pastor in the entire state of Georgia; which pulls no punches and describes the bill (which Governor Deal is probably going to sign) as racist, neither workable nor fair, as bad for business, as reflecting Georgia politicians acting far beyond the bounds of their proper jurisdiction, as potentially costing millions of dollars in litigation fees, as reflecting fundamental spiritual blight—is you saw all this—how I am calling that bill straight out a WALL—and you said to yourself, Nuh-uh, I don’t agree—guess what? You get to. To be in this place, you don’t have to agree with the preacher. You are on a spiritual journey, and so am I, and as I speak out of the integrity of my experience and understanding, I can only hope that there will be many points of meeting. But sometimes we won’t meet. And that’s OK. I’m still your pastor, and we are united by a larger spirit of love. I say wall, and you say spear, and Rev. Keller here says snake, and Don over there says tree, and on and on. But our covenantal way makes it all work. We can go straight to champagne.
There is just so much beauty in this world. There is so much pain and sorrow. Unitarian Universalism wants to create a Love and Justice people, a Spirit of Life people, who can witness it all faithfully, and live courageously and creatively. So we say, The spiritual meaning of the universe is open. We say, There are many sources of truth. We say, Truth is known by how it changes lives. We say, The spiritual life is a journey. We say, The best way to support a person’s growth over time in community is through covenant, not creed. We say all these things. This unites us, in spite of all. In spite of time and death and the space between the stars. It gathers us every Sunday, and all through the week, and we love it. We want it. It energizes us. Fires us up. “Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere.” This is what we say, with the Rev. Theodore Parker. “Be ours a religion which … goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.” We are a Spirit of Life people!