Life is a journey of continual learning and growth: it’s a widely shared insight, across time and culture. But, can you affirm it while standing completely within the stream of your religion? Or does your religion go one way—does it safeguard and police and coerce—while your life goes a different way and demands a greater openness?
What I will explore today, in this third installment of my Unitarian Universalist Essentials sermon series, is how deeply this insight about the journey goes to the core of who we are as a religious people, and exactly what it means for us.
To help me in this, I’m going to draw on the story you heard from a moment ago, from one of the best selling books in history. It even set the Guinness World Record for being the most translated book by a living author. The Alchemist. I use it because it’s just a good story, first of all; the lifelong learning and growth journey is absolutely a journey towards happiness. But I also use it because, at times, the story has a distinctly Unitarian Universalist feel to it—as if the author, Paulo Coehlo, is a Unitarian Universalist and just doesn’t know it.
Thus the reason for sermons like this one. Less Unitarian Universalists who don’t know it and more who do!
So we begin. “A certain shopkeeper sent his son to learn about the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world.” Now that phrase, “secret of happiness,” can mean so many different things, and the story gives it a memorable meaning, which we’ll look at in a bit. But here, let’s consider another possibility. The “secret of life” can mean answers, or it can mean the way to finding answers. Very different. Which one would you choose?
An old Chinese proverb puts it like this: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Do you want the fish, or do you want to learn how to fish? What’s your focus: a day, or a lifetime?
Unitarian Univeralism’s focus is helping people find answers for themselves, for a lifetime. Teaching people how to fish. Or, more specifically, teaching people how to tell the difference between truth and falsehood. Jesus once said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” That’s the secret of happiness, from a Unitarian Universalist perspective. Being set free, by living into the truth.
So how does a Unitarian Universalist do that? By applying this general truth test: truth is not so much about where an idea or practice comes from, or who said it, so much as about its impact. Don’t tell me that the Bible says so; tell me what life according to the scripture does to people. Not origins, but consequences. 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.
We are a purpose-driven people. We seek truth wherever truth is to be found. And this is the context within which the most famous of all Unitarian Universalist denominational statements is best understood: the Seven Principles. The Seven Principles statement (from the UUA Bylaws, Article II, Section C-2.1 [trying to dazzle you with official-ese]) goes like this:
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.
Ultimately, what we have here is a truth test. We can know we are standing in the truth—we can know we are in possession of the secret of happiness—only to the degree that we are affirming and promoting the Seven Principles. Only to the degree that we are experiencing people’s inherent worth and dignity; only to the degree we are experiencing acceptance of one another in our congregations; only to the degree that democracy is working; and on and on. Only to that degree….
The Seven Principles is what living into the truth looks like, for us. Not necessarily the fish so much as how to fish, over the course of a lifetime. And note some interesting patterns. One has to do with how it all starts with the individual (“inherent worth and dignity”) but moves steadily outward to embrace all of creation (“interdependent web of all existence”). It means you won’t be in the truth if you ignore yourself and focus on everyone else; but you will be equally lost if you make everything all about you. There has to be a balance, for Unitarian Universalists. Self AND other; self is never isolated from other.
This answers a question some people have about the First Principle. If a person has inherent worth and dignity, shouldn’t they be able to express themselves however they like, even if it causes hurt to others? Again, we can’t lose sight of how the theme of balance is repeated over and over in the Seven Principles. Yes, the individual has inherent worth and dignity; but a significant part of that inherent worth and dignity is an ability to take responsibility for the times when we fail to act justly, fairly, and compassionately. It’s just one of the many ways THINGS are different from PEOPLE. THINGS can’t take responsibility, but PEOPLE can. I mention this because some people confuse the First Principle as a license to do whatever the heck they please, in the name of authenticity. Not so. Self AND other; self is never isolated from other. There has to be a balance.
The Seven Principles is Unitarian Universalism’s truth test. It is demanding and exacting and deep. It is for a lifetime. Conservatives think that because we have freedom of choice and open minds, we are a superficial and undisciplined people, we can just walk away whenever it gets difficult. They are completely wrong.
But now, on to the second insight about the journey of life as Unitarian Universalists experience it. Paolo Coehlo’s story tells us that it took the shopkeeper’s son forty days of wandering through the desert to find the castle where the wise man lived.
He enters, he comes face-to-face with a “hive of activity,” and the wise man is so much a part of it that he has no time for the young seeker just yet. “I don’t have time for you just now,” he says. “Why don’t you wander around my castle while I finish up my business?”
Now this is interesting. Not what the shopkeeper’s son expected, and not what we might expect when we enter a congregation. I mean, usually it’s like this: You enter the castle, and almost immediately you are anxiously met with faith statements that everyone says and you are to say them too. You are handed a list of answers to the Big Five questions in traditional American religious culture:
1. Does God exist? (YES)
2. Is Jesus God? (YES)
3. Is the Bible the infallible word of the Lord? (YES)
4. Is there an afterlife? (YOU BET)
5. Is belief in Jesus the one and only ticket to salvation? (YES, YES, and YES!) (Or as a bumper sticker puts it, which my Dad used to have on his car, which trades on the difference between two similar sounding words, “no” and “know”: NO JESUS, NO PEACE; KNOW JESUS, KNOW PEACE)
This religion is like the kind of parent who hovers, helicopter-like. The parent gets anxious when you ask the wrong kinds of questions. The parent gets anxious when you push a little too hard.
But Unitarian Universalism? Not that kind of parent. Not a helicopter parent. You come into Unitarian Universalism’s castle, and naturally you have questions. Let’s say you’ve heard about the Seven Principles, and you’ve thought about them, and you want to know:
Just HOW do we “affirm and promote” any of the Principles? What does it look like in concrete specifics?
And what exactly do all the abstract words mean? Take, for example, “justice.” Are we defining “justice” as “fairness in the distribution of social goods”? “Fairness” in what sense? Or are we defining justice more in terms of “receiving what you deserve as a result of your efforts”? (The two are very different, by the way. One will make you a political liberal, the other makes you a political conservative. At least in America.)
Point is, the Seven Principles in themselves don’t say! Unitarian Universalism doesn’t hand us any up front answers. Not about this and definitely not about the Big Five questions.
So what does this mean? Is this evidence of absentee parenting? Neglect?
Absolutely not. The rationale is simply this: no one can take the journey for us. Parents can’t live their children’s lives for them, and Unitarian Universalism doesn’t want to live our spiritual lives for us either. Our religion holds itself back from defining everything or dictating specific theological conclusions because it knows that all such specifics are way too important to be answered for us by someone else or something else. We must come into our own detailed answers, in our own good time. The most meaningful beliefs are the hard-won ones. The ones that last are hard-won.
Consider the huge difference between two assignments: one is to copy an existing painting, another is to create your own. Conservative religion basically gives a person a full painting and says that your job is to copy that painting down to the details. Repeat, recreate, echo. Make THAT your spiritual life. Liberal religion, by contrast, gives you just enough ideas, images, and tools to face down the blank canvass of your world and paint the picture that is true to your experience. Not orthodoxy, but flexidoxy. Don’t merely repeat, recreate, echo. Create something new! Build your own theology!
For some people who aren’t Unitarian Universalist, the challenge is believing stuff you know ain’t true. For us, in our religion, the challenge is trusting the journey of one’s experience, conscience, reason, etc, even as you try to keep an open mind for future insights that may alter what you know; the challenge is dwelling in ambiguity without being overwhelmed or paralyzed by it; the challenge is maintaining deep commitments but never allowing yourself to get closed-minded. Unitarian Universalism is not for the faint-hearted! But we believe that this makes for a healthier spiritual life for people who are ready for it.
But now, on to some final insights about the spiritual journey as Unitarian Universalists understand it. The wise man in the story gives the shopkeeper’s son an assignment: “Wander around, get to know the castle.” And then he hands the boy a teaspoon that holds two drops of oil, says, “As you wander around, carry this spoon with you without allowing the oil to spill.” So what happens? Of course, the boy ends up observing nothing, because his only concern was not to spill the oil. He’s afraid to make a mistake.
Now let me ask you this. How many of you know people for whom religion is a fear-based thing? One mistake, and you’re going to Hell? Conversations around the kitchen table with relatives who love you and are concerned for the state of your soul. Conversations in the playground between your kid and other kids. “Are you saved? No? Uh oh….”
Talking about parents, it’s almost as if the God here behind the scenes is a cruel parent God just waiting for an excuse to pounce. One wrong move, and WHAM! It is said that “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering” (Parker Palmer). It must be that the cruel parent God who lingers behind the scenes is suffering mightily, and doesn’t know what else to do with it but inflict violence on His error-prone children who are but the children of Adam and Eve.
Compared to this, Unitarian Universalists live in a completely different universe. Our God, if we happen to believe (and some of us do not), is a completely different God who evidently DOES know what to do with His suffering. In the journey of life, we have permission to make mistakes, and God says AMEN. In the journey of life, we know that things change, and what we might have fully embraced at one time later turns out to ring false for us. We also know that the journey is surprising and takes us down roads we never could have anticipated. We don’t take the journey; the journey takes us.
And everything is grist for the mill. From everything, we can learn. “The useless days will add up to something,” says the amazing Cheryl Strayed. “The [crappy] waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.” The journey of life is messy, and there must be a willingness to tolerate confusion, a willingness to be imperfect and evolving. Unitarian Universalism is willing. Its spirituality of the journey is fall and then get back up again and then fall again and then get back up again. Just keep on getting back up. Keep walking. Keep on keeping on. Your life has inherent worth and dignity. Is does.
So don’t be so afraid of making mistakes that you miss out on living. Let not fear, but forgiveness and trust and gratitude be the foundation. The spiritual journey is safe.
On the other hand, let’s not forget about the drops of oil, either. ‘The secret of happiness,” says the wise man in the story, “is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.” See the whole, but don’t lose touch with yourself and your inherent worth and dignity, your inherent right to exist exactly as you are even if you are not feeling particularly marvelous. Explore the castle, observe all the works of art on the ceilings and the walls. See the gardens, the mountains all around, the beauty of the flowers. But as you do this, be sure to stay centered in yourself and stay connected to the still, small voice inside. Remember that the most profound journey of all is the journey within.
That is what Unitarian Universalism gives us. That’s what it says. The lifelong learning and growth journey is a journey towards truth, a journey without and within. We are supported in this journey by the Seven Principles, which is our yardstick for measuring truth. We are encouraged to build our own theology and not simply copy someone else’s work. We are going to make a lot of mistakes and at moments feel like we are wasting time but that is ok: the journey is safe, and from everything we can learn.
The secret of happiness: right here.
The story before the sermon is available here: http://paulocoelhoblog.com/2013/02/09/the-two-drops-of-oil-2/