Today I hope to give a sense of where I see our movement—UUism—and where our congregation, Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, is within that movement. It’s my intention to point out a blind alley I see too many people barking up, and to offer and explain an alternative path which is fundamentally consistent with what our faith is about. I’m also offering a critique of our behavior and an appeal, an invitation, to begin to correct that.
Although this has begun to change in the last couple of years, for the past few decades the functional Unitarian Universalism motto seems to have been “Don’t rock the boat.” Well… hold on, because by that standard… I aim to misbehave. Lest you panic, I’ll remind you, it is customary for Unitarians and Universalists to rock the boat. Our movement’s heroic figures are people who were boat rockers. They critiqued their religion. They criticized each other’s failings. They expounded in print and in lectures against the errors, failings, and corruption of government, religion, and society.
And they won. They won. Over and over, people and institutions changed their ways.
How did we get afraid of having the boat rocked? I don’t know. If I figure it out, I’ll report back. But that’s not my objective today; I’m not offering an illuminating discussion of how Unitarian Universalists got afraid of rocking the boat.
First, I’m going to pop some popular balloons.
You may have heard at some point that here you could believe anything you wanted. Maybe you heard that when you became a UU—a Unitarian Universalist—or maybe it’s why you came in the first place. Or maybe you just heard it in conversation. I tell you, Nonsense.
We won’t tell you what to believe, but we really do expect that UUs will believe something; something they’ve worked hard at finding—something, in fact, that they find they must believe. However, it’s more than that.
If you didn’t believe the world could be changed, you wouldn’t be here. If, despite what sometimes seems like overwhelming evidence to the contrary, you didn’t believe that if we actually love and respect each other, the world will change, you wouldn’t be here.
Maybe you heard it’s easy to be a UU (if it were so easy, there ought to be lots of us!). Maybe you’ve heard that this is a comfortable little religion that won’t ask much of you; a faith that doesn’t care if you show up or don’t. No. We expect you to work hard, to search hard, to sweat bullets to figure out what it is that you believe, and we expect you to stand up for it. Easy to be UU? Baloney. It’s not easy, but it is profoundly liberating.
We won’t tell you that sleeping in on Sunday imperils your immortal soul. We won’t tell you that God is angry. We won’t lie to you to get you to act in your own best interest. But we are asking you for things that discomfit you. For starters—and this is the easy part—it takes money to run this place, to run our movement. Compared to almost all other religions, UUs are notoriously tight-fisted. Not simply frugal—that’s a good thing, but frugality has to do with not wasting money, not spending it carelessly… not with not providing enough to get things done. We’re notorious, despite the fact that most of us are better off than average, for not funding our religion. Just recently, I was looking at surveys done here three years ago. There were significantly fewer of us here then. Only some of the members returned surveys, and only some of them answered questions asking them to anonymously identify what broad categories their incomes were in (there is some awkward truth to the joke that the religious conservative will talk about money, but not sex, and the religious liberal will talk about sex, but not money). In playing with that data, I had the startling discovery that if just those members who answered that survey question were to pledge three percent of their incomes then (that’s the target that our national association has been encouraging), it would more than cover the entire pledge which we’ve budgeted for this coming year. That ignores the fact that there were many other members then, and it ignores the fact that there are even more members now.
How embarrassing. Our faith—what we believe in—is of such importance to us that we grudgingly provide enough money for it to scrape by. Not all of us; some are giving all they can afford. But not most of us; let’s not delude ourselves. Those great social justice projects we’d like to see supported? It’s rather hard to do when we have to strain—and beg—to get the bills paid. Are you squirming yet?
I know I am. I’m up here preaching this… and I am as much its target as you are.
The world could change—a glorious aspiration, and one we’re afraid of, or we’d put our money where our mouths are. Both here, locally, and in the nation, we could have vastly more impact. We could apply our wealth and energy and intelligence and have much more leverage in addressing social needs, economic justice and the problems of our political system.
To those of you who give generously—and that’s not a measure of how many dollars you give, but a measure of what you can afford to give—thank you. I am grateful for that, and I know that the board and others, laboring on all our behalves, are as well. To those of you who have dug deep and stretched to fund the needs here and all the urgent needs of social action and crises around the world, thank you. I do understand if you feel a bit weary.
I’m not done though; I’ve hardly begun (and I still have… oh, another 15 minutes or so). It’s not just our money that this movement needs. It’s our time and commitment. This fellowship survives because of a fairly small band of people who go out of their way to make it survive. Some have been coming for years, for decades, several days a week, to do the sexy jobs like being in charge of a committee or being on the board. (Yeah, if you’ve done those things, you know to laugh….) Those folks also come to do photocopying and folding and stamp-licking and mailing, to mow the lawn, repair the sprinklers, clear blocked sinks and toilets, and so on.
To those who’ve been doing this work, thank you. Thank you for your time, energy and devotion. To those who didn’t realize, there are plenty of opportunities to help carry the load, to help make all this happen. I invite you to volunteer.
So, we want a faith that’s going to change the world? Well, I will be blunt; it’s impossible to do on a little time and a little money. To change the world, we need more people to step up, to help make things happen.
Don’t rock the boat. Where that idea came from, why it took root, I have no idea. But the Unitarians and Universalists who were bedrocks for abolitionism rocked the boat, and they didn’t do it on modest donations and convenient commitments of their time—of their lives—to their faiths. We’ve rocked the boat so successfully that other folks have changed to get us to stop doing it.
The wildly heretical Universalist idea that everyone would be saved scandalized America when it was preached as doctrine. Today, according to a Pew research study, three-quarters of Americans say that many religions can lead to eternal life, and only 18 percent regard their own religion as the “one true faith.” Do you hear that? A message our movement proclaimed for generations is now held by most Americans—and it’s held despite the fact that some of the churches those people attend actually teach otherwise. Most Americans adhere to this Universalist teaching, despite the fact that their faiths reject it, and despite the fact that they don’t even know where that teaching came from.
We know that the world can be changed, and changed radically. Our tradition—our rich traditions, for we inherited more than one tradition—tell us this. Our histories offer us examples of thriving in hard times, and under oppression, surviving. Our histories show us that we can reach out and inspire others; we can reach out and find other hands, attached to other minds that share our concerns and goals, and we can change the world. But we can’t do it by not rocking the boat.
Right now (this is my considered opinion), our movement is caught up in the most annoying navel-gazing—not that a little reflective navel-gazing is a bad thing. But we’ve done it for too long. Everywhere among UUs in conversation, and in the deep, weighty, ponderous considerations of our national association’s independent appraisal body, there’s this question. It’s “that question.”
That question—the one that we’re afraid of being asked—is “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” I believe many of us are so afraid of it that it’s a key reason we’ve stopped evangelizing (yeah, I saw some of you cringe. That’s one of those words many UUs don’t use comfortably). But all evangelizing really means is spreading good news. And as uncomfortable as I am with the word… we do have something that I believe the world needs to hear.
That word. Belief? We stop dead in our tracks. Egads. Deer-in-the-headlights looks and stumbling for some explanation. Too long we’ve defined ourselves in negative terms… “We don’t believe that…”. Guess what? No one much cares what we don’t believe, and that’s not the question they ask. They want to know what it is we believe. What makes us tick? What’s the fire of our faith? What makes those of us who get it—even if we’re unable to articulate it—open our wallets and spend our lives to make this continue? What’s it all about, why is this faith so important?
The answer is that we’re being asked the wrong question, and so we can’t answer it—not unless we understand that the real answer is bigger, because what’s crucial about UUism is not what we believe. I’m not talking about the seven principles. I’m not talking about the values that we share. We know them, and we can articulate them. But when we go to answer “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” we look in… and can’t find anything.
There’s a reason. It’s not that we can’t put a finger on it. It’s not even that we’re incompetent and can’t figure it out. It’s that there really isn’t any “there” there. This faith is not like the others. It’s not about what we believe in.
Society in the West—and I mean “the West” in the broadest sense—has long been caught up in belief. Religious wars are fought over belief. The defenders of orthodoxy have massacred heretics and infidels and hunted unbelievers… all in pursuit of upholding orthodoxy, which means nothing more (or less) than “right belief.” So when we’re asked “But what do you believe?”, people are asking us what our orthodoxy is, what positions are we bunkered in, what theological fortresses are we defending, and who are the enemy? It’s not an unreasonable question. They’d like to figure out if they are the enemy, so that they can back away slowly, their hands on their scriptures…
Almost all of us grew up in that society. We’re so used to the idea of orthodoxy that we assume it, too—despite the fact that liberal religion developed in reaction to oppressive orthodoxy. There must be something we believe.
But we don’t. There. There’s the secret; I’ve revealed it. There is no UU orthodoxy. There is nothing that we, in that profound religious sense, believe. Not that individual UUs don’t. But the movement as a whole doesn’t. We have credos, individually; things we believe, but there’s nothing left of creed.
Scary, huh? Can you imagine the look on the face of the person in the elevator or grocery line—or your co-worker or family member—when you tell them that? “Oh, there’s nothing that our religion believes in.” I assure you, they will be utterly baffled; you’re not the enemy, you’re some kind of bug-eyed alien.
So, I hear you start to ask… “if there’s nothing that this movement is about, then why are we here and why is this so very important?”
That’s not what I said. I didn’t say there wasn’t anything we’re about, I said that there’s nothing that, as a movement, we believe. And yes, I’m repeating that, because it’s such an alien thought that I suspect that if it’s not repeated, it will leak out of our heads and you won’t quite believe that you heard it. There is something that we’re about. But it’s a case of religion, after a fashion, coming full circle.
The great monotheistic religions have all been caught up in questions of orthodoxy. Judaism, because of its roots, has been less so. But even so, the larger culture and its history has certainly created large movements within it and counter-movements about what is orthodox. Christianity is a posterchild for the study of obsession with orthodoxy, and Islam’s hardly been any better, as anyone can affirm if they understand something of the Shi’ites and Sunnis (just to name the largest sects).
But ancient religion usually wasn’t caught up in orthodoxy, in believing the right things. It was caught up in orthopraxy—in case that’s your new word for the day; it means “right practice.” It was perfectly acceptable, if a shade risqué, for a Roman to express disbelief in the gods of Rome. Others might chide him for saying things that would scandalize the lower classes, but that’s as far as it would go. What wasn’t acceptable, and was in fact criminal, was to refuse to participate, to not practice the religion. Roman religion bound their society together and provided critical underpinnings for the Roman state. As long as one participated and scrupulously observed the practices of the religion, all was well. One was, in fact, pious; even if one didn’t believe—and yes, I’m going to urge piety here too. You know what’s right; I want us to do it, each and every day.
Now, I’m not about to encourage you to undertake practices that don’t mean anything to you. But I wanted to help you understand how religion can be all about practice, and not about belief. In actual practice, the two are almost always somewhat mixed.
For us, as with the ancients, practice is what matters. Only we’ve got a religion that is sparing of ceremony and ritual, and there’s no pantheon we worship whose rites need to be observed. So… what is UU practice?
The axiom says… follow the money. People fund what’s important. Perhaps a reason we’ve not been rocking the boat and been so tight with our time and money is that we’ve lost sight of what’s important, particularly as our movement gave up the last trappings of being a Christian denomination, as we gave up our last tie to being a religion of belief.
Where is it we put our time and money? One place is into Social Justice work. We firmly believe that we can change the world, that we can fix it… somehow… one painful step at a time. This is not instant gratification work; whether we are feeding the homeless or walking for peace, these are things we do to—at some distant, unseen day—help heal our world. When the call comes for money to provide relief, or assistance, to feed the hungry and help them feed themselves, we step up. We step up and we commit amounts of money that amaze us. We commit time. We commit ourselves.
The other place we put time and money is here—into the intangible thing that we call community, that thing we believe is becoming the Beloved Community. I’ll remind you that it’s just a seed for that, because the Beloved Community that Martin Luther King, Jr described will be “a world whose people and nations had triumphed over poverty, racism, war and violence.” And we are not there yet. We’re not there, and we haven’t even met our pledge target this year.
(By now you’ve noticed that I’m urging you to stretch a little farther, if you can. I don’t want you to think that “you” doesn’t mean “us”—Barbara and I already made our pledge, as have most people here. We’re increasing our pledge by $1000… and the sound you just heard was our pledge chair going “ka-ching!”)
This place, this sacred place, is where we come to remember, to renew our hopes, to light our dreams anew. It’s where we plan. It’s where we work to overcome poverty, it’s where we try to understand racism and other oppressions, and move beyond them. It’s where we strain to understand how to make peace and live peace. It’s where we reaffirm our opposition to violence as a means and as an end. It’s where we find our community, where our children are raised and nourished. It’s where we challenge our beliefs. It’s where we come with wounds needing healing, where we come with sorrows that need holding, and with joys that demand sharing.
That is our practice; no small thing, because it demands attention every day. That is the heart and soul of our faith. It’s coming together and living the principles that we affirm, the ideals that almost all religions proclaim. But they don’t need to be proclaimed. They need to be lived. So we UUs undertake to live them, without imposing any additional baggage or complications that might get in the way of anyone else practicing with us.
That, I tell you, that is our common ground. That is our sacred practice. At our inmost core, Unitarian Universalism is about our bonds and ties to each other and to the rest of the universe; it’s about our commitment to saving ourselves—and all humanity, the whole world—from ourselves. We work out our own salvation, all of us, together.
That’s what we’re called to. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we must rock the boat, even when it feels very, very scary. It’s what justifies giving, and giving, and giving again of our time, our money, and our commitment. That’s the demand that this faith really makes of us, it’s nothing more—or less—than your soul and your life. We just expect you to have a damned good time while doing it.