"Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist Spiritual Humanist"
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, September 25, 2016
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
We have three readings this morning. Our first is from Chapter 21 of the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu and is translated by Dr. Ralph Alan Dale:
The Great Integrity is a paradox.
Our second reading is from Curtis Reese, early and Mid-20th Century Unitarian minister and a leader of the humanist movement:
It is inherent in the universe,
yet its form is so illusive.
It is the Vital Essence of every entity,
yet nothing announces its essential character.
The Great Integrity was apparent
before time, space and matter appeared to separate.
How can we re-mind and re-infuse ourselves
with this very touchstone of all essentialities and connections?
By refusing time, space and matter
with the spiritualization of our materiality,
and [By refusing time, space and matter]
with the materialization of our spirituality.
People are capable of so ordering human relationships that life shall be preserved, not denied;
Our final reading is a quote from William Channing Gannett, late 19th Century Unitarian minister:
that justice shall be established, not denied; that love shall be the rule, not the exception.
It but remains for religion to place responsibility at the heart of its gospel.
When this is done, science and democracy and religion will have formed an alliance of wisdom, vision and power.
Ethics thought out is religious thought;
ethics felt out is religious feeling;
ethics lived out is the religious life.
I was driving along the other day, when I passed a car with a bumper sticker that read, "Don’t worry: God has everything under control." If the many hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, volcanoes, fires and floods, if the many shootings, stabbings, bombings and other acts of genocide and terror, that have rained devastation on our planet just within the last few weeks, and if the psychosis, which is the manifestation of our current election season are any indication of God’s control, either God is a dreadful sadist or he/she is losing it completely. I don’t want anything to do with such a God as that, and it’s hard for me to imagine why anyone could or would.
In the locker room at the Y, a friend approached me. "I was hoping we could get together for a chat," he said. "My teenager daughter has been asking me some pretty tough theological questions. I could use some help."
"Sure," I said. "What did she ask?"
"She wants to know how God could allow all of this suffering to go on in so many places around the world." He went on to name a number of specific places in areas across the country and around the world that she had mentioned: Aleppo, Charleston, Charlitte, New Orleans and others.
"What did you answer?"
"I told her that I didn’t know. So, I’d like to talk with you to see if there’s something I could know, something that I could tell her, something that I might be able to believe, myself."
We agreed that we'd get together soon…
My sermon this morning is the first in what will be an occasional series throughout the course of the next few months. My intention is to view life as a Unitarian Universalist through a number of different theological perspectives, in ways that I hope will be of value to those of us who claim to be religious liberals embracing diversity of all sorts and freedom of conscience in religious matters.
The idea for this sermon came about with the realization that, though my religious base is securely anchored to Unitarian Universalism, the particular theological lens that I might engage at different times and in different situations is not always the same. I wondered if that might also be true for some of you. I think our faith tradition encourages us to look at our lives through different lenses.
Since the title of each of the sermons in the series will begin with "Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist…" I’ll begin there this morning. I am a Unitarian Universalist because here I am not told what to believe, but I'm asked what I do believe. Moreover, I'm asked how that belief matters, both in my own life and in the world. I am asked here to accept things on faith, but on my faith—not anyone else’s. I am a UU because I know my life’s path is a journey, a pilgrimage, and not just a means of getting from point A to point B.
I don’t know specifically what came before me (my genesis) or where my path may lead or end. But I do know that the content of my life consists of the experiences and choices that I make while I'm in it, in my life. And more, I know that the quality of my journey is closely related to the company I keep along the way.
I am a Unitarian Universalist because this faith tradition calls me – in community – to make the most of, to do the best with, and to love the most faithfully and fully I can with the life I have been given. I am a Unitarian Universalist because I believe in the potential for humanity to learn and to grow. And with that potential, I believe in the possibility for a better world, rooted more firmly in the ideals of truth and beauty, love and justice.
It’s probably important to say from the start that Unitarian Universalism is actually a humanistic approach to religion in general. Regardless of our cosmology – our ideas about the universe – the prism through which we see the universe, our tradition, is based more in human experience, both personal and social, than otherwise. A Jewish friend of mine once wisely surmised that Unitarian Universalism is more focused on the human relationship with creation than it is with any creator. Still, the particular theological lens that I most often look through in my religious experience is that of spiritual humanist.
A bit of humanist history might be helpful. The 16th Century Dutch theologian Erasmus is commonly held as the father of classical humanism. Though he was an ardent Christian, he held that the only understanding of God that humans could perceive was a human understanding – acquired through human experience. He believed that if we were to know, love and honor God, it would be through our human relationships.
Two hundred years later, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker planted the seeds of a Social Gospel into the religiously fertile soil of 19th Century America. He, too, held that the expression of God could be known only in human relationships. His life was one of service through the promotion of justice and the advancement of the rights of all people, regardless of race or gender. It's often said that Parker spent all his life energy on the issues of the abolition of slavery and of women's suffrage.
In 1933, the Humanist Manifesto was signed by 43 individuals, mostly academics, but also some Unitarian and Universalist clergy. Preceding the Manifesto, the world had just experienced WWI, the war to end all wars. Humanity's inhumanity against humanity had been experienced by the world at its very worst and on its very largest scale. The Manifesto recognized that no God had caused this enormous debacle; it was human-made. It recognized that no God could have stopped the madness, or God surely would have; humans would have to stop their own folly. The Manifesto recognized that with continuing advancements in technology, humanity could be saved from itself – only by itself.
God was not seen as irrelevant so much as existing outside the realm of human responsibility. In the early days following the signing of the Manifesto, Unitarian ministers such as John Dietrich, Curtis Reese, Charles Potter and William Channing Gannett preached compelling sermons on ethics and responsible human relations. That was really the birth of modern, popular, or what came to be called secular humanism. That movement came to fruition with the 1966 Time Magazine cover that read, "Is God Dead?" in bold block letters. Fed by the same energy of the Enlightenment, which gave birth to the political impulse of democracy, two centuries before in this nation, religion was continuing to evolve into a more open field where pilgrims, prophets and pioneers forged ahead into areas where a new sense of natural cause and effect replaced old paradigms of either sinister or perhaps benign deities.
Interestingly, and unlike the direction taken by the popular movement of secular humanism, those early modern humanist ministers did not, at least for the most part, rule out the existence of God. They chose rather to focus on the way in which individuals live their lives as the expression of their religion. Dietrich, Reese, Potter, Gannett and many of their contemporaries were more agnostic than otherwise. Charles Potter wrote poetically beautiful sermons about the mystery of life and of the human longings that are engaged and assuaged (or not) by one's relationship with that mystery.
For me, that’s the glue which holds spirituality within the context of humanism. It’s the mystery that holds it together. It’s impossible for me to believe in an all-knowing, omnipotent God. Such a God could never allow religious fanaticism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, or oppression of any kind that would favor any people over any others. It’s impossible for me to believe even in the God of the deists, the super-intelligent master craftsman who (through some sort of intelligent design) created the world and the universe, set them in motion, and then left them to spin of their own accord. It’s impossible for me to believe in a god that is utterly, anthropomorphically human, even to the extent of being superhuman. Just doesn't work for me.
And yet it is just as impossible for me to believe that this – everything, the universe – is here as the result of some kind of cosmic accident. Such accidents have not been a part of the experiences in my life, not in what I’ve experienced personally nor in what I’ve learned about the world. So I can’t believe that an accident is the cause of the universe. I don't believe that things happen by accident. They happen as the result of other things that precede them. We may not always be aware of the antecedents, but experience tells us that they are there.
So, the basis for my spiritual humanism has two parts. The first is an observation. The other is a matter of faith, in which that observation has encouraged my belief. The observation is this: life will continue; being will continue. From the slightest micro-level of existence to the grandest cosmic level of being, life supports the continuation of life; being supports the continuity of being. In the world of science, this process is called homeostasis, the process by which every spinning atom, every living cell, every existing being and system of organisms, all the way through to the whirling super-systems of the greatest galaxies, all constantly adjust to inner or outer conditions in order to balance the forces of life... so that life and being can continue.
Shouldn’t that mean that we could live forever? No, but it does mean that during our brief moment we will contribute – for good or for ill, and probably for both – to all life that will follow us.
Theologically, the process of homeostasis often leads us to the question – why? Why does all life support the continuity of life? Where did it come from the first place? How did it all begin? Of course, the answer to these, and many questions like them, is a very simple one: it is a mystery. I've gotta think that's the perfect answer!
No one can know for sure. We can imagine all kinds of things. And the things that we imagine inform us about how to act and what to do as we go about living our lives. What I imagine, what makes the most sense to me, is that the antecedent, preceding cause for being was some kind of universal Want-to-Be. First there was a wanting to be, what Ralph Alan Dale translates from the Tao as "The Great Integrity;" and then… there was being. And ever since, that motivating drive, that Want-to-Be, that Great Integrity, has been a part, if not all, of the manifestation of... What Is. We can call it homeostasis; we can call it the Spirit of Life; we can call it the Spirit of Love or simply Love; we can call it God or not-God; or we can just call it the Mystery. What we call it doesn’t matter. It’s what we do with this life force that's in us that matters.
I said that those things that we imagine about the Great Mystery inform us about how to act as we go about living our lives. So, if I imagine and believe in a Want-to-Be, how does that guide my behavior? How does that put me in relationship with our planet and with my fellow travelers on it? Here’s where the mystery gets even more mysterious, as it interacts in our lives. If I can get my ego and my self-limiting ideas out of the way, the mystery – of which I am a part and which is always moving forward in its fulfillment of being – the mystery invites my participation in that fulfillment.
I believe that we are each a manifestation of the mystery, of the Want-to-Be, and that we are a part of the process that continues to lead toward being. We are an essential part of What Is Becoming. Somehow, as human beings, it is our birthright to make choices and so it is our choice whether or not to be in harmony, or in disharmony, with the causes of being – even though harmony is the greater part of our nature. It is as though the universe is a hand that is holding us in the balance of being, and we are free to support or to antagonize that balance.
If the Want-to-Be is the cause of my being, then I owe to that Want the service of my life’s energy. In the words of 19th Century, Unitarian minister William Channing Gannett, that means: "Ethics thought out is religious thought; ethics felt out is religious feeling; ethics lived is the religious life." In the words of our Unitarian Universalist Principles, it means that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, that we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.
Do I always live up to such a calling? Not on your life. But it is the vision, and it is the aspiration. And it does come so naturally from what I can observe, and from what I can invest my faith in. I wonder how it is for you.
Spiritual humanism informs us that the gift of human experience is a gift from the Spirit of Life, the Mystery, The Great Integrity, or whatever you will. If we value our own lives, we are called by them to recognize that same value in all other life. And because we are of this religious community, we are especially called to recognize that value in all other humans.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said it this way: "For all things proceed out of this same spirit, which is differently named love, justice, temperance, in its applications, just as the ocean receives different names on the several shores which it washes. All things proceed out of the same spirit, and all things conspire with it. Whilst a person seeks good ends, that person is strong by the whole strength of nature." (Slightly adapted)
So I was thinking about my friend in the locker room at the Y, about the conversation that he’s having with his daughter. Here are the things that I would want him to know, that I would want her to know, and that I would want you all to know, as well: We don’t know if there is another side to all of this. We don't know if there is a supernatural that exists somehow beyond the natural. And, if there is, we don’t know who or what it is made up of.
John Paul Sartre once noted, "Life has no meaning a priori. It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose." What we do know is that we exist (perhaps, even as I perceive, as the result of life’s longing for itself). And I hope that we do experience life as a most precarious and precious gift.
We know that life comes with separation, suffering, and pain. We know that these difficult and sometimes tragic experiences are not inflicted on us by any wrathful super-being, but that they are part of the very natural course we take as we enter and exit the stream of life. We know that we can choose to serve only ourselves by imposing suffering, separation and pain on others. Or we can choose to serve life itself by attempting to mitigate those very conditions and experiences.
As a humanist, I know these things are left up to me to choose. As a spiritual humanist, I know why I feel compelled to choose in the direction of service to the larger good. As a Unitarian Universalist spiritual humanist, I know that I am in good company on the journey. Not just company that is pleasant, which it is, but company that reminds me that I am here on this earth to appreciate, to be inspired by, and to serve the Spirit of Life, even as it holds me in the balance of this most precarious, most precious gift of being.
Another thought from yet another Mid-20th Century Unitarian preacher, Eustace Haydon, who wrote: "What the Gods have been expected to do, and have failed to do through the ages, people must find the courage and intelligence to do for themselves. More needful than faith in God is faith that humans can give love, peace and all their beloved moral values embodiment in human relations. Denial of this faith is the only real atheism."
I am so grateful to exist. I am particularly pleased that, for now, my journey includes all of you. I am grateful and honored to have been invited into and included in your journeys. It is so very wonderfully human!