Bring a Friend to Church Sunday
“What Do You Say After You Say You’re a UU?”
September 21, 2014
Rev. Carol Rosine at The First Universalist Society in Franklin, MA
Reading: Born Again Unitarian Universalism by Forrest Church
In this passage we are transported to a dinner party in which the conversation eventually turns to religion. There is a lot of condescending laughter about the latest scandals involving a TV Evangelistic Fundamentalist and the gullibility of those who get caught up in that kind of religious fervor. Our dinner partners start talking about how long it’s been since they last attended church and how conspicuously bad, or comic, or revolting they remember it to be. Now usually, Forrest says, we just join in with the laughter or we sit in a “cowardly silence which will free us from the embarrassment of having to witness to our faith. But not tonight. Tonight we are caught a bit off guard. Somehow we let the cat slip out.
“You are a what?”
“A Unitarian Universalist.”
“Oh, I see,” he says, but obviously he doesn’t. He is rescued by
the woman to our right.
“I’ve never really understood just what it is you Unitarians
believe. You are Christians, aren’t you?”
“Not exactly.” I mean, we were and some of us still are but most
of us are not.”
“You don’t believe in Jesus?”
“Not in an orthodox way, certainly. Many of us value his
teachings but few, if any of us, believe that he was
resurrected on the third day or that her was God.”
“What about immortality?”
“Well, I guess you’d have to say that we’re pretty much divided
on that one.”
“But at least you all believe in God?” interrupts the man across
the table, betraying the familiar impatience of a non-believer
when confronted by a faith less cut and dried than that which
he abandoned years ago.
“Not exactly. Many of us do, if each in his or her own way.
Others of us do not find the concept of God a useful one.”
“What then do you believe?” our bewildered hostess politely asks.
Sing: “Where is Our Holy Church?”
Just yesterday a neatly dressed woman appeared at my door with a big smile on her face and copies of the Watch Tower in her hand. Here it comes, I thought. Someone proselytizing, wanting to save me. What I’ve learned over the years is that even when those at my door are told that I am the pastor in one of the local churches, they keep going, wanting to convert me to their world view. So I am not as patient, not as “Christian” as I might have been decades ago. I’m not rude, but I do cut off the conversation in a hurry.
I’m guessing that my response has become more and more common in our increasingly secular society. That religion doesn’t even come up that often in conversation because people just aren’t interested: for a lot of people religion is irrelevant, superstitious, and has no place in the modern world. Or they are anti-religion because it has been dangerous and destructive in their private lives and has become even more frightening and destructive in the world. Or they may simply be afraid that if we bring up religion it’s because we’re trying to convert them—like that woman at my door yesterday.
But every once in a while you may have had a conversation similar to the one reported in our reading this morning. Perhaps while standing at the water cooler or next to a fellow parent during a soccer game or trapped beside a seatmate during your latest flight. Perhaps it’s an old friend who is surprised that you’ve gotten involved in a spiritual community and wants to know more. If it’s a member of your family, especially a parent, the request for more information may be loaded: with fear or disappointment that you’ve strayed from the path, with relief that at least you are doing something, with confusion over why you would want to get involved in some fringy radical group like Unitarian Universalism. But then some people are just curious and want to know more. So what do you say after you say you’re a UU?
Those of you who are fairly new to Unitarian Universalism will probably manage to choke out some kind of answer, but let me assure you that even those who have been UUs their whole lives may still have trouble explaining this faith of ours to others. You know what you like about being part of this community: You’ve found some great people here and feel comfortable; You agree with most of the things you hear from this pulpit; The values expressed here are consistent with yours; You like the way the children are included and agree with what they are being taught. But how do you explain it so that someone else will understand? How do you translate your experience here for others?
The biggest problem in explaining UUism is that we define religion differently than do most people in our society. You see, for most people religion includes a belief in God, a belief in the authority of scripture, and, for Christians, a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. However we UUs define religion much more broadly than that. Forrest Church said that religion is the human response to being alive and knowing we have to die. Another way of saying that would be that religion is the response to the Big Questions that confront each and every one of us: How did it all begin? Where did I come from? What happens when I die? Is there meaning and purpose in the universe? Is there meaning and purpose to my life? Why am I here? What am I to be doing? And how am I to do it? How do we make sense out of all the tough and tender experiences in our lives? Or can we?
We UUs say that religion is that which grows out of the attempt to answer these questions, that religion is that which enables us to live sometimes without answers, to live with paradox and ambiguity, to marvel at the mystery. Religion is that which enables us to be more fully alive and to strive toward living lives of integrity and wholeness.
But how do we say all this to someone who casually asks what we believe? The thing is that most people who ask are expecting some kind of creedal response. They want to know if our God is the same as their God. If we consider the Bible to be God’s word. If we believe that the death of Jesus on the cross has saved us from our sins. So this is where we usually have to start. By explaining what we don’t believe.
I usually start out by explaining that we believe strongly in the freedom of belief. Not that we can believe anything that we want, but that we encourage people to form their own belief systems according to their life experiences. For example, we do not define who or what or if God is because it is our understanding that the concept of God is too big for any of us to understand completely. Because we experience God in different ways, we may have very different ways of explaining what God is or isn’t.
Sometimes I’ll attempt to make this a little clearer by telling the ancient story told by the Buddha: of the blind men who are allowed to touch only one part of an elephant and are then asked to describe the whole elephant. The man standing next to the tail describes the elephant as a huge snake. The man standing next to a leg says that the elephant is like a mighty tree. The man standing next to an ear says the elephant is like a fan. And the man standing too far away to touch, smell, or hear the elephant says there is no such thing as an elephant. Each man is able to describe the elephant only in terms of what he himself can experience. And this is how it is with God. God is too big for one person to apprehend or describe completely. Therefore each person will describe God in ways in which God touches his or her life. And some people will not experience God at all and therefore, God does not exist for them..
I will then usually explain that we do not believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, but that it does contain wisdom and truth that we can turn to as we try to make sense out of our lives. However, we also believe that there is wisdom and truth to be found in all of the great religions of the world and therefore we turn to their sacred texts as well. And not only that, we also turn to the poets, the philosophers, the mystics, even the novelists and op-ed writers in daily newspapers. There are so many wise souls who have spoken and continue to speak to us at the deepest level and help us to make sense out of the world—at least partially– sometimes.
If by this time the person’s eyes have not glazed over, I may explain that although UUism is deeply rooted in Christianity—that it goes all the way back to the Reformation in the 16th Century—we do not believe that Jesus is the same as God or that he was sent to save us from our sins. The concept of original sin, grounded in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, has no meaning for us because we believe that people are basically good and not rotten to the core as too many believe, in need of saving. Our understanding is that Jesus, although he was no savior, was a wise and prophetic teacher. We continue to hear and honor his message of love and compassion and his call for justice.
I have to admit that it’s not too often that even I will get into this deep of a conversation with a casual acquaintance. Most people are only interested if we believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible—as they define them of course. So usually I will say, “Yes…. But…” and then hope that I’ll be given the opportunity to explain. It’s really hard for those of us in a creed-less religion to explain what our religion is all about to those who are used to saying “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and in his son, Jesus Christ….” And some of you will be able to go on.
But it’s important for us to try to explain to others that we don’t have a creed and this, in itself, is one of the basic elements of UUism. We cannot state our religious beliefs in a fixed and final form because this does not allow for growth in our understandings. The creeds of the Christian church were written by men who spent a long time discussing, arguing, compromising, and finally making their decisions through majority vote. Is it right for us to take our religion less seriously than they did 1700 years ago?
I believe it’s important for us to think seriously about how their conclusions about what is true, fit in with our own experience—to see what computes and what doesn’t. I believe it’s important for us to use our reasoning capabilities and our modern knowledge as a way of evolving our own religious beliefs and spiritual truths. After all, we know a lot more about this universe than they did back in the 4th Century. We know the world isn’t flat. We know that this is not a 3 tiered universe. We know that the planets and the stars do not revolve around us. That we are not at the center of the universe. So how does this knowledge affect the way in which we see ourselves in relationship to the rest of the universe? We have experienced the shrinking of our planet and know in our guts that the old ways of tribalism and nationalism have to give way to a global consciousness if we are to survive. Several paradigm shifts have occurred since the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Gospels were written, my friends, and therefore we cannot accept a lot of what is written in these texts. Too much of it doesn’t fit with what we know and fear now.
You may be hesitant to share your Unitarian Universalist beliefs this fully even if you are given the opportunity. After all, what if folks think you are proselytizing or attempting to convert them. Well, relax. You’re not going to ram all this down someone’s throat. You’re not going to go from one house to the next and keep your foot in the door. You are not going to stop people on the street and thrust our UU Principles and Purposes into their hands. You won’t even be putting them under windshield wipers at the neighboring mall.
However, if you do get up the courage to say that you are a UU and if someone expresses interest I would encourage you to share what you know about this progressive faith of ours. There are a lot of people out there who need us, who already share our world view, who are longing for others like them, and don’t even know that UU churches exist. One thing that we keep hearing over and over again when people eventually find us is how relieved they are to find a spiritual community that speaks to their experience as fully as this one does. Another thing we often hear is frustration that we kept ourselves so well hidden—that it took folks so long to find us—that it would have helped to have had us in their lives when they were going through those tough and tender times.
If you are feeling on information overload right now, never fear, for these are the things that I keep preaching over and over again from this pulpit. Always approaching basic themes from different angles. Bringing in other voices. Attempting to respond to questions that people are voicing about what’s happening in their lives and in this troubled world of ours. So much of what we experience unfolds over time, my friends. Our understandings often become part of a process as life happens to us. But I believe so strongly that life becomes a bit easier when we are surrounded by a community. Not that our community is any more evolved or perfect than other community. We know all too well that this is not so. But we do try here— asking relevant questions; offering support and companionship; reminding ourselves and each other what our responsibilities and possibilities are within the larger world; and remaining grounded in the hope that, in the end, all will be well; that all manner of things shall be well. Amen.
Original content © Carol Rosine, 2014.