A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, March 22, 2015
THE MIDDLE WAY OF LIBERAL RELIGION
A Meditation on Unitarian Universalism's Fourth Principle
As a faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism makes sacred the right and responsibility to engage in this free and responsible quest as an act of religious devotion. Institutionally, we have left open the questions of what truth and meaning are, acknowledging that mindful people will, in every age, discover new insights
— Paige Getty writing in Ellen Brandenburg, ed, The Seven Principles in Word & Worship
I would be surprised if there is anyone who has been around Unitarian Universalists for more than two weeks who isn't familiar with that joke. It's really old, I think probably the third or forth joke to be created after the one about the chicken crossing the road. And I'm pretty sure it's the very first joke I ever heard about being UU.
Here it is: If a Unitarian Universalist comes to a fork in the road (It looks like the really old jokes often have roads in them) and there are two signs, the one pointing to "heaven," and the other to "a really good conversation about heaven," well, the UU would invariably head down the path to the conversation.
Now for a joke like this to work there has to be a smidgen of truth to it. I suspect for it to be repeated almost endlessly, there has to be a substantial reality behind it. And, in fact there are a cluster of jokes like this. There's that question mark being burned on the front lawn, with a couple of variations. Sometimes the lawn belongs to a UU, sometimes UU vandals are burning it on some one else's lawn. And there's that shaggy dog about the person who gets a fancy new car, think of one of those handmade limited edition things like a Lamborghini, and goes in quest of someone to bless it, going from one clergy person to another because they don't recognize the car or how special it is, only to come to the UU minister who understands what the car is, but doesn't get what a blessing is.
What these jokes share in common is a tweaking, sometimes generous-hearted, sometimes not, about how we are not as a general rule religious, certainly not conventionally religious. Which, I find puts us interestingly close to those now called "spiritual but not religious." Since we actually have churches, congregations, fellowships, ministers and Sunday services, but with a wildly open spirituality, where each of us has near absolute freedom of opinion, I've heard us called the "barely religious." Actually, I like that term "barely religious." Kind of works for me, anyway. And, really, I get the jokes about us, and I get the challenge within them.
Some aren't worth much of a bother. For instance those who don't see us as a religious community because we don't have a creed, have way too parochial a view of religion. Only the religions of the so-called west have any sort of creed as a test for membership, Christians and Muslims foremost of these, and actually its barely so for Jews. But no other world religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, or Taoism has anything more than vaguely looking like a creed. And even those only came into being in response to Christian missionaries who thought they were critical to a religion being a religion. For instance there have been some very interesting reflections on how Buddhism's Four Noble Truths appear to be just such a reaction to Christian missionaries. And so, in that regard, being covenantal rather than creedal, bound by our agreement of presence each of us to the other than by a religious formula is way less odd than one might think, if we weren't surrounded as we are by people who assume creedal faith.
Perhaps foremost among the questions that I find worth addressing is if we're not like other spiritual communities, if we're not conventionally religious, if we're the barely religious, what is it that makes us a spiritual community worth belonging to? Of course there's that word, as well. Spiritual. A complicated term that to this day some of us UUs are uncomfortable with. We have more than a streak of rationalism within our tradition, one could say justly it is one of our major markers, and so among the critiques we bring to conventional religion is how that word "spiritual" can be pretty vague, and often is used for interests that are rather unlikely.
Over the years, and particularly throughout much of the Twentieth century, we Unitarian Universalists have wrestled with words like "spiritual," as well as pretty much all of traditional religious language. And for a time many of us within UU congregations took something of a vacation from their use. What we've come to today as a near consensus, at least among our younger generation, is to use this traditional "language of reverence," as Bill Sinkford a past president of our Association phrased it, drawn mostly from the Western tradition, but to hold it lightly, knowing these are metaphors, at their best pointing to something.
So, out of that the way many UUs use the term spiritual today, maybe most of us, I think most, while allowing for the unexpected, think of the scriptural admonition, the spirit rests where it will; for us we notice how that word "spirit" derives ultimately from the Latin and means breath or breathing, and seeing how that points to something fundamental about us. We have reclaimed the word to stand for that which is most meaningful for us, for that profound and deeply human quest for meaning and purpose in life. So, I suggest spiritual is a worthy term, and that spirituality is a worthy project. It is the heart, if you'll allow another metaphor, of what we're about.
And that, I feel appropriately, brings us to our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes. While not a creedal statement, that is no one must sign off in order to become a UU, the Principles are descriptive, an attempt to capture a picture of what we look like at this moment in time. We are in fact charged by our Association bylaws to revisit the document periodically. And, the last communal review, interestingly, led to no changes. Most of us agree it is a pretty good picture of what most of us feel that we're about today. So, again, while no one individual needs affirm these principles, they continue to be a pretty accurate snapshot of what's important to us within our spiritual community.
That said, let me make a confession: For the most part I find the principles and purposes mom and apple pie. That is there's nothing to disagree with, but one can also feel when hearing them, so what? Where is the prophet with the stone tablets? Where is the angel descending with a burning coal? Where's the fire? Where's the passion? Here we begin to see the challenges to us as being lukewarm, of being perhaps more interested in that good conversation rather than heaven and the path to heaven.
However, as I consider it, among the pleasant enough truisms in our principles and purposes, there is some fire, some real burning coals. They are not conventional Western religion with its rules and its destination someplace on the other side of the grave; they are practical and look at our lived lives, and how to make them something profound, and worthy. For me, there are three.
I'm deeply fascinated with, and some might opine, maybe even some in this congregation, that I'm obsessed with taking the first and seventh principles together as two sides of a spiritual coin, as necessary complements and corrections for each other, in their totality pointing to a dynamic reality. In short each individual, I'd say all living things, are unique and precious as they are, and only exist within a radical intimacy, a dance of co-creation, where each of us is manifesting as part of a whole that is the web of creation. This perspective, while held one way or another by many people in many spiritual camps, and is an insight shared by many people with no religious affiliation at all, is nonetheless in its explicitness, and in its being given theological primacy as it is among us, is near unique. And, it is a spiritual stance that is healthful, helpful, and has the additional advantage over many spiritual claims of actually standing up to close examination.
The other principle, the one that sits in the middle of the list, the one that I would like to reflect on for the balance of our time here today, is the fourth: our Unitarian Universalist call to "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning." I think of it as our call to a Middle Way, our liberal religious middle way.
Let's unpack. "Free and responsible." I love that term. It is the living spiritual in that lovely "spiritual but not religious," or, for us, the living spiritual as the barely religious. So first "free." There is something to get, to catch, but we, each of us are free to choose whether we even want to pursue it. Hence free. Truthfully, I think most of us punt on this. And that's the real barb in many of the jokes about and by us. It's very easy to take our tradition lightly, that's the shadow of radical freedom. The choice is yours. The choice is mine.
But if we really care about meaning and purpose, I think we're making a mistake when we pass on the opportunities we are being offered. Because the need for truth and meaning is as profound a human need as eating and sleep. And we have a way, something uniquely ours that is very much centered in the assumption we have within our human lives everything we need to achieve joy and peace, truth and meaning. To draw on another tradition, all we have to do is turn our light around and look within. It's all there. It's all here.
And, so, with that comes "responsible." No one is going to give it to you. More to the point, no one can give it to you. "Truth and meaning" is actually a perspective, a stance in the world that we can find; it is waiting within your heart, within my heart. And, it is found in our presence to our own hearts, and in our presence to each other. I think of that lovely line in scripture that in the King James translation has Jesus telling us the kingdom of heaven is within us. More contemporary translations today say that kingdom is among us. I think it's both, like precious individual within a web of relationships. We have to look within. And we have to reach out.
My colleague Ed Piper once recounted the story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan and that famous water pump where Helen discovers language. In Helen's own words, "Someone was drawing water, and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed out over one hand, she spelled into the other the word 'water,' first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers... I knew that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful, cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy set free! Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As I returned to the house, every object seemed to quiver with life."
Another colleague and dear friend, Ken Collier, who served our congregation in Santa Barbara for many years unpacks this, how that story of Helen Keller coming to language, and the heart of our way in free religion. Ken tells us, "This truth is not something that someone else can give you; it is something that you have to discover for yourself."
This is the call of the free and responsible search for meaning and truth.
Search for truth and meaning.
To use another spiritual term, this is a holy project that we're about. No doubt. Our middle way is a walk to something that only begins with that conversation about heaven.
It is wonderful.
And, it is ours.
If we choose.