UU 101

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, September 21, 2014
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

Religion is the first and last – the universal language of the human heart… This is a sermon about one, specific religion – as well as a reflection, on the importance of language. The religion, of course, is Unitarian Universalism. The language, well … that’s where things get interesting.

Unitarian Universalism. Quite a mouthful.

Bill GuptonIt has been said that “God” is the biggest word in the English language, but to my mind, “Unitarian” and “Universalist,” aren’t far behind. In a moment, you’ll see why. And if you combine those two already large words – well, OMG! And don’t go thinking you’ll make things any better by condensing it all down to “UU.” Oh, that might help with pronunciation, or with that sticky issue of which of the two words should come first (after all, if you simply say “UU,” no one will ever be the wiser about which side of the family tree, you have cast your allegiance with).

But even when you try to crunch it down to just two letters – U . . . U – there’s no escaping the fact that Unitarian Universalism is hard to get not only your mouth, but your mind, around. It’s a mighty big concept. A large tent. We cast a wide, and widely inclusive net. The metaphors roll off the tongue much easier, than the name itself, because ours is a religion that is adamant, intentional, and explicit about the fact that it excludes no one. All are included. All, are welcome.

Talk about a big tent…

This morning – unless you came for the music, or the silence, or the community – or for lunch – and maybe even if you did, come for those things – this morning, you have signed up to audit a very short, introductory class, called “UU 101.” You’re here, at your desk – or at least, in your chair – whether as a first-visitor, a relative newcomer to Heritage, or a long-time church member – you are here in hopes of learning something about Unitarian Universalism. So let’s get started.

One good way to get a quick handle, on this large concept we call “Unitarian Universalism,” is to break it down into its component parts. Unitarian Universalism is the product of the marriage, if you will – the merger, a little more than 50 years ago – of two distinct and distinctive American religious denominations – and perhaps more importantly, two ancient (and each, in its own way, radical) theologies.

A “theology,” you might recall, is an idea about, or a description of, the nature of ultimate reality – what many people call “God.” So we naturally begin our discussion, with theology – with ideas about God.

Unitarianism, was the idea that God is one.

This seems like a rather straightforward claim – but let’s unpack it.

“God is one.” This concept is sufficiently important, that it appears in both the Old and New Testaments – first in the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy and later, in the Gospel of Mark, among other places. Yet somewhere along the way – as Christians evolved from being a mere fringe group within the Jewish tradition, to eventually become their own separate and distinct religion – somewhere along the way, things got a bit, shall we say, mystical with the math. So in the year 325, a new statement of theology – a creed, in fact – called the Doctrine of the Trinity, was codified under the rule of Roman Emperor Constantine. Thereafter, in order to be a Christian, one had to profess belief in the Holy Trinity – God the father, God the son, God the Holy Spirit. In short, Christianity became a Trinitarian religion.

“Hold on! Wait just a minute,” said one minority group of Christians. “What about this ‘the Lord thy God is one’ business, in the scripture?”

“Oh, we’ve moved past that now,” said the majority.

“Well not all of us have,” replied the minority. What ensued, then, was an important theological division – between Trinitarianism, on the one hand, and Unitarianism, on the other. I suppose you’re aware of who won that argument – and, as they say, history is written by the winners. But that doesn’t mean the losing side just disappears – and the important idea of the unity of God – that God is One – decidedly did not disappear. But those who held it went underground for a while. Twelve hundred or so years, to be precise. It was for their own good.

But with the printing press and the Protestant Reformation, this persistent if still dangerous idea that God is One, began to come out of hiding. Once again, there was a dissenting, minority theological opinion – first in Europe, and later in America. The debate continues, to this day.

So, Unitarianism. God is One…

Meanwhile, there was another group of unorthodox – “orthodox” meaning literally “right belief” … at least “right,” as defined by the majority – there was different group of unorthodox Christians who, once again, chose (and here, remember, the word “heresy” means “to choose”) – chose to build their faith around a single phrase in the New Testament, taken from the fourth chapter of the first epistle of John: “God is Love.”

Again, on the face of it, this amounts to a rather straightforward claim – yet it, too, bears deeper examination. The Bible, of course, offers notoriously contradictory descriptions of the Divine. There’s God the Creator, fashioning humanity from the clay of the earth. There’s God the inscrutable. There’s God the petulant child, demanding worship, obedience, subservience, even sacrifice – all the while raining destruction on those who don’t follow the ever-more-complicated and absurdly arbitrary rules.

There’s God the shepherd. God the healer. God is compared to a roaring lion – and elsewhere, to a rolling river. And yes, God is both a mother, in Isaiah, and a father, in Luke.

The point is, there’s a lot to choose from, when it comes to how you want to imagine God – and you can back just about any of it up, with scripture. What’s important – what’s telling, about any given religious community – is which version of God you choose to lift up. The Universalists were the folks, who chose to cast their theological lot, with Love.

This is no insignificant choice. In fact, in the words of poet Robert Frost, it “has made all the difference.” Or as UU blogger John Beckett puts it, “If the primary focus of your religion is on how bad other people are, then you’re doing it wrong.” The early Universalists, as far as I’m concerned – and in fact, more modern Universalists as well – did it right. They chose to focus on a loving, rather than a vengeful, God. A tiny minority among Christians, the Universalists were the ones who wrestled with the cognitive dissonance, inherent in Christian orthodoxy, which presented, at the same time, God as loving (at least, somewhat) – but also as capable of (and occasionally downright gleeful about) casting people into eternal torture and torment.

The Universalists thought long and hard about this. They prayed about it. They read their Bible – and in doing so, they decided there wasn’t much evidence at all, of this place people called “Hell.” More importantly, they looked in their hearts – and when they did, they could not imagine a loving God – which, remember, is the God whose side they had chosen to stand on – they could not imagine a loving God sending even one person, to Hell. And that, was that.

Sure, the mainstream – the majority – made fun of them. Called them the “No-Hellers,” in fact. But they just smiled – agreed about the “no Hell,” at least – and went on their way, confident in their overarching belief that God is Love.

So let’s review. Unitarianism: God is One. Universalism: God is Love. Both faiths, espoused a minority viewpoint. They were the loyal, and sometimes not-so-loyal, opposition, within Christianity. But they were, still, within Christianity. At least, as far as they were concerned.

Yet over time, as orthodox Christianity hardened its borders, and an emerging scientific worldview softened other kinds of borders – first Unitarianism, and later Universalism, began to think of themselves as having moved beyond Christianity. As humans learned that other people, in other times and other cultures, had experienced different religious insights, and had followed different spiritual paths – and as we learned, too, the paradigm-shattering truth that humanity, and even the earth itself, are not at the center of the universe (far from it, in fact) the old ideas that God is One, and that God is Love, began to evolve.

God itself – notice I don’t say God him self – became much bigger even than the Yahweh of Genesis, or the Abba of Jesus. God became all that is. And that word “One” – God is One – suddenly summed up the complete, cosmic unity. Meanwhile, the reach and embrace of that other big word – “Love” – also came to include, quite literally, everyone and everything.

One of my predecessors in this pulpit, Rev. Albert Q. Perry, who served our congregation from 1952 to 1961, proved to be prophetic when he wrote in an adult education curriculum that even “the old Universalist and Unitarian theologies about universal salvation and the humanity of Jesus, are no longer vital issues, in our time. Neither [position], can effectively remain the total message of a modern, liberal denomination. Today,” he continued – and remember, this was during the final years of the Eisenhower administration – today “we have the ability to form a new religion, without pulling up the spiritual and emotional roots which link us with the past and provide us with an awareness of the naturalness and divinity of human emotions, human reason, and freedom.”

That new religion would come into being near the end of Perry’s tenure at our church, when the Unitarians and the Universalists at last, merged.

Over the past 50 years, the combined religion that is Unitarian Universalism has become much more than just two heretical – but ultimately very hopeful – ideas about God. As Albert Perry envisioned, we have a much different message now – a message relevant to the vital issues of our time. It is a message still rooted in our historic theologies, but it is no longer limited by them. Our generation has created – democratically, rather than dogmatically – seven principles that affirm our values, and articulate our message to the world. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the first and last principles, which many Unitarian Universalists hold most dear.

The first UU Principle affirms “the inherent worth and dignity” of each human being. This concept is firmly grounded in the Universalist faith that “God is Love” – for if each person, each unique human personality, comes from Love, and is loved by the Divine, then surely each has inherent worth and dignity. This awareness calls us to treat one another with respect and compassion, empathy and grace.

The seventh and final UU Principle celebrates “the interdependent web of existence.” This statement is also historically grounded – in the Unitarian declaration that “God is One.” Everything, is part of the whole. The seventh principle goes on to say that we are a part of that interdependent web; it weaves each of us, all of us, individually and collectively, into one, sacred unity.

So the ancient truths of Unitarianism and Universalism are still embedded in modern Unitarian Universalism. Yet we have broadened our vision to encompass and embrace much more. By nature, and by definition, there are many ways to describe the more modern understanding of religious and spiritual freedom that has evolved into this unique faith we often refer to simply as “UUism” – perhaps as many ways as there are Unitarian Universalists themselves. For you see, we do not have one, single, prescribed, official statement of who we are and what we believe. That is not our way.

For my part, I like the words – the language – used in a recent blog post by Victoria Mitchell, a 23-year-old from Memphis, Tennessee who currently serves on the UU Association’s Youth Ministry Working Group. She writes:

“Unitarian Universalism is a non-judgmental religious home that will accept and support you, wherever you may be, in life’s journey. It is composed of diverse communities – operating without a common belief about God, the Universe, [or even] death. Instead of a creed, we share a spirit – and a vision of radical inclusivity, individual agency, and social justice. It is a safe place to stand out and stand up – [even to] change your mind… We embrace personal discovery and growth… Our only doctrine is love.”

As far as I’m concerned, that’s about as good as it gets when it comes to describing this big thing – this large-as-the-Universe, all-encompassing thing called Unitarian Universalism. Listen once again, perhaps more carefully now, to some of the specific language Mitchell uses:

Radical inclusivity. The story of Gail Geisenheimer that I told earlier is just one example of the radical inclusivity that is Unitarian Universalism at its best. This idea of inclusion is the very essence of our Universalist roots.

So too non-judgmental. Having historically posited a non-judgmental God – source of unconditional love – we seek, ourselves, to live and love in that way. But being human, we will inevitably miss the mark, falling short of our ideals. This, too, is an opportunity to practice being non-judgmental – in this case, forgiving ourselves.

Acceptance and support. Mitchell highlights these characteristics of our communities. It has been my experience that a Unitarian Universalist church offers acceptance and support in almost limitless supply. I think this is one of the main reasons, most of us are here.

And she goes on to say that we operate without a common belief about God. This is one of the most important things you can learn, in UU 101. Yes, we talk about God here – but there is no assumption that we all mean the same thing when we use that word. Language does matter – and here, in a Unitarian Universalist church, language about God, and about other religious questions, acknowledges the sometimes inconvenient truth that they are, indeed, simply questions – and does not presume to tell you what answers you must have.

What you won’t find in a Unitarian Universalist church – and this frustrates the hell (pun intended) out of those who come with more restrictive understandings of what religion is or should be – what you won’t find, here, is a statement of what “the church believes.” I’ve always thought of it like this: People have beliefs. Churches do not. Being a community of people – being composed of many different and diverse people – there is no way, with integrity, with honesty, that we can claim we all believe the same thing.

Furthermore, statements of belief – creeds and dogmas – divide people, rather than unite them. They create a “right” group, and a “wrong” group. They create insiders, and outsiders. By now, I’m sure you understand that Unitarian Universalism is all about being just the opposite of that. It is about inclusion. About finding common ground. About respecting one another’s beliefs, rather than seeking to change them.

Peter Morales, who is the elected President of our Unitarian Universalist Association – notice I said “elected;” we get to choose our own religious leaders in UUism – Peter Morales puts it this way: In Unitarian Universalism, “we don’t ask you to believe what you find unbelievable.” Or you might remember Victoria Mitchell’s words: “Instead of a creed, we share a spirit.”

I am thrilled that you have come here, today, to share in that spirit. In the course of little more than an hour, I hope you have been able to experience something of Unitarian Universalism – the language, and the silence – the compassion and the community – the history and the hope – the traditions and the promise – of this very unique faith, and in particular this very special congregation, that I have now been blessed to serve, for a dozen years.

Today’s reflection was the first in what I’m structuring as a three-part sermon series. Next Sunday, I invite you to come hear my thoughts about the current, sometimes strained and awkward, relationship between Unitarian Universalism and Christianity, in a sermon that was bought-and-paid-for during last spring’s Auction fundraiser. And then in two weeks, I’ll share with you my own theology – because as we have seen today, each individual Unitarian Universalist has – and is encouraged to keep developing and growing – his or her own unique and distinct ideas about God.

I hope these three Sundays will get you thinking about your beliefs. In the end, that’s one of the main reasons we gather, in this type of religious community – a place where our fourth UU Principle, the “keystone principle,” encourages us to share in a “free and responsible search, for truth and meaning.”

May it ever be so. Blessed be. And amen.