Sources of Faith

February 29, 2004
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

This is the third sermon in a series on faith development. We talked a few months ago about tradition, and how traditions can be both blessing and curse. Last week we talked about being faithful people, faithful before we even have cause to be, being faithful as a prerequisite for finding the holy in the world.

And today we come to the question of where we find that holiness, where we dig for it, and where we find our authority to be who we are religiously. It is a sermon about being a Unitarian Universalist, yes, but I want to preface all of my remarks this morning by assuring you that a much as I want you to understand Unitarian Universalism, I deeply believe that the future of religion is not in denominationalism or sectarianism, but in cooperation, and sincere, mutual, appreciation among all people of faith. I hope that deeper knowledge of our own tradition will always lead us to outward vision and wider participation in the religious world, rather than to a sense of isolating uniqueness.

For this morning, though: how many of you have ever been asked, "What's a Unitarian Universalist?" Whenever we get that question, we know that it is being put to us on more than one level. The first, most obvious inquiry is simply because that the person may not ever had heard of us. But there is always a question beneath that question that asks, "Who are you, and what do you believe?" And because Unitarian Universalists believe a wide variety of things, it is a very challenging question to answer. You could simply say, "The Unitarians and the Universalists were two denominations that merged in 1961 and formed the Unitarian Universalist Association," including some spicy bits about the heretical theological foundations of both Unitarianism and Universalism, but that really wouldn't suffice. We should all possess a personal, working definition of our faith that we can share with interested people in a relatively short amount of time. I have a thirty second version and a ten-minute or so version. I use the first one at karaoke clubs, on the bus, and in elevators, and I indulge in the second one at weddings or dinner parties when I have a more captive audience.

My spiel changes all the time, but I usually say something like this: "We are a free faith tradition with roots in liberal Christianity and in the intellectual principles of the Enlightenment era. We are theologically diverse communities who find moral and spiritual wisdom from a wide variety of sources, including world religions, the arts, literature, and personal experience." And if they're still listening, "We are bound by covenant rather than creed, and each congregation governs itself according to the democratic process." But I always follow up my explanation by inviting the inquirer to a worship service, which I describe as having "pretty much a traditional Protestant structure" but with a wide variety of extra-Biblical references in our music, readings and sermon.

Knowing that I am a pastor, people almost always ask how it is possible to minister to a congregation that is all over the map theologically. I usually respond that it's very challenging, but that our congregations do a pretty good job of holding the tension of living together in one community while trying to remain truly respectful and appreciative of each other's differences. I tell them that ministers and lay leaders try to use language that includes everyone in the life of compassion, community, personal growth and service to which our religion calls us. I tell them that we hold ourselves responsible for communicating our own truths in a way that invites others to celebrate our spiritual discovery but that does not silence or belittle those who have reached different conclusions. I say that we try to hold a colorful variety of seekers and sojourners under one common roof, and that we like it like that even when it gets to be hard work.

And while I am thinking of it, right now might be a good moment to get a sense of our diversity of beliefs here at First Parish in Norwell. I am going to provide a list of some theological categories – it won't be a complete list by any means, but try to choose the one that best fits you. Let me read the list for you to think about first. Then I'll read the list again and you can raise your hand if you'd feel comfortable identifying with that particular theological label. (*I have included a very unscientific tally or respondents in brackets after each category. People were invited to stand more than once.):

Theist: You believe in a divine energy or being working in the world that you are comfortable calling God. [19]

Deist: God is the designer of this marvelous mechanism the World but whatever the Creator God is, S/He set the world in motion and let it go. This God is not present in history and is revealed through natural law rather than through miracle. [13]

Panentheist: You have a sense of the divine that permeates the entire natural world – God (or the gods) resides in nature as a more immanent than transcendent being. Wicca and New Age spirituality would fit nicely into this category, as would Native American and indigenous religions. For the panentheist, God is in all things and all things are in God. [23]

Humanist/ Ethical Religion: Your religious focus is very much on the human enterprise, and you generally feel that human beings are entirely and solely responsible for the fate of the world. [35?}

Atheist:: You would say that there is no transcendent or supernatural entity operating in the world and that we are probably the sole possessors of higher consciousness. The reason you go to church is for the community and for occasional intellectual stimulation and ethical challenge. [8 ]

Jewish: Although you attend or belong to a UU congregation, you still strongly identify as Jewish and observe Jewish holidays and holy days, and find it valuable to study the Hebrew Scriptures. [1]

Christian: Christian holidays and holy days are still important reference points for your spiritual journey throughout the year, you regard Jewish and Christian Scriptures as important sources for your spiritual life, and you regard Jesus as a central figure in your religious life. [20]

Non-western religious tradition: You identify as Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Other and you participate in the spiritual practices of one of those religions. [3]

Mystic: You are not concerned with external religious constructions, churches or creeds but with the interior life of the soul. I am certain that a spiritual Mystery exists because you experience it directly through moments of insight, ecstasy or sense of oneness with the universe, and that is all the proof or system you need. [9}

This is exactly why I am a Unitarian Universalist. And I stress this when I talk about our faith tradition with interested outsiders: we are a pluralistic people, yes, but many of us are personally eclectic in our search for truth and meaning as well as being part of a diverse community. I myself have used the hyphenate Transcendentalist-Jewishly-Christian-Witch to describe my own theological commitments, and only half-jokingly! As a Unitarian Universalist community I know am free to integrate those experiences into my religious life in a way that is not considered a threat to our existing tradition. Therein lies what I believe is our greatest strength: the wideness of our arc of interest is big enough to contain all of these rich resources. This is what it means to be a truly free faith.

The Reverend Fred Muir, wrote an illuminating book called Heretic's Faith: Vocabulary for Religious Liberals. In this chapter called "Free Faith," Fred writes,

"There are those who fear falling in their religion, who fear falling from the path of faith. They think that religion is restrictive rather than liberating, confining rather than freeing, punitive instead of affirming. The Free Faith embraces us as we are and says there is no need to fear falling from the path because first, there are many paths to be tried and it's a matter of finding yours, and second, we are part of a strong web which, if you let it, will buoy and support you along your way." (p 83)

Over the years, the Unitarian Universalist community has done some good work to define what the web is that holds us up on this wide path of the free faith. In the early 1980's, after too many decades of grappling with the question of what unites us as a people and as an association of independent congregations, the General Assembly hammered out a list of principles that they crafted into a covenant. That covenant is found at the beginning of your hymnals, and I urge you to acquaint yourselves with it. The first principle calls us to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and the list goes on from there.

The drafting and passing of the Principles by vote was a pretty bloody process, hard won and therefore very worthy of consideration. Some folks argued, and still do, that the Principles are too close to being a creed for their comfort, while others criticize the Principles for being bland and failing to make any really compelling statement about our religion. You will have to draw your own conclusions, but the assumption is that by being here, you resonate with those principles and are committed to them. When I was coming of age as a young UU, we had no Principles. I think I would have found them a helpful ground to stand on, and I am gratified that our own youth will at least have that guide to help them strengthen their sense of UU identity.

I carry a little wallet card with our Principles on them to show interested seekers, and everyone I have ever showed them to has admired them as a compelling set of ideals. But, they ask, with all of this personal freedom to believe what you want, how do you stay on the right path? Where do you even start from in your journey? How do you know if you're finding Truth or just self-delusion?

In other words, how do we maintain our integrity as religiously liberal individuals and free churches? It is a question about authority. It is a legitimate question, to which the Sources of UU faith are an attempt to answer. These are the Sources:

(1) Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life;

(2) Words and deeds of prophetic women and men, which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.

(3) Wisdom from the world's religions, which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;

(4) Jewish and Christian teachings, which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;

(5) Humanist teachings, which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;

(6) Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions, which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Comments on the Sources
(1) This source comes to us from the Transcendentalist era, where men and women like Emerson and Margaret Fuller claimed that direct experience of the holy is a perfectly legitimate source of divine wisdom. Margaret Fuller's mystical moment on the staircase: "I remember how, as a little child, I had stopped myself one day on the stairs and asked, how came I here? How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it?" She later exclaimed, in a perfect expression of our first Source: "I accept the universe!" To which Henry David Thoreau waggishly replied, "By God, she'd better."

(2) Note in the second Source: " prophetic words and deeds of women and men," plural. Not just Jesus or church-accepted saints or masters. If I quote Fannie Lou Hamer and Shakespeare and John Lennon, no one recoils. We are free to let unusual heroes speak to us, inspire and guide us. Revelation is not sealed in one person at one moment in history.

(3) World religions. This is challenging, as it is tempting to skim over the surface of some traditions and see what we want to see, project our Western values and experience on all faiths, or unintentionally insult practitioners of that faith by using their rituals or scriptures in awkward or inappropriate contexts. We might like to claim that all religions are essentially teaching one great truth, but other religions don't wish to be seen that way! This is our challenge. However, the Source reminds us that we are eager to receive wisdom from non-Western peoples and traditions.

(4) Jewish and Christian teachings – teaming these two together in one sentence makes it clear our intention to always regard Judaism and Christianity as being intimately related. One could not have happened without the other. Someone once described Unitarianism as "a way of being Christian Jewishly." Worth mulling that one over! Note that we have emphasized the Jewish-Christian teachings on loving neighbor as self. Note also that this is the only place in the Principles and the Sources that contains the word "God." I find that very revealing of where most UUs locate the concept of "God."

(5) Note that Humanism here has a kind of gatekeeper or watchdog function. I find the idolatries piece very effective, although I wonder who is to guard against idolatries of science and rationalism. Hmm.

(6) This final Source was added amidst much controversy at the General Assembly in 1995. I think the concern was about the paganism that it suggests, and there were a number of voters who argued forcefully against its inclusion. The Source was added after winning by a very slight margin. There is quite a bit of contentiousness about the implications of how paganism can or cannot be practiced within the structures of the Unitarian Universalist congregational life. Some congregations have approached the problem by intentionally founding themselves as pagan communities. It has worked quite well for several groups.

You may find that you have sources of religious inspiration and wisdom that aren't included here. For myself I would add the transcendent aspects of music and the arts. My friend Mark might add fishing to his list, only partly kidding. How fortunate that an aspect of our free faith is that we are constantly evolving, able to redefine and reexamine our Sources of faith and our authority as a religious presence through the ages.

I hope you will find the Sources helpful if you have not yet taken time to reflect on them, and to consider where you derive your own sources of faith. And when you wonder how it is that we all co-exist under the same roof with so many different approaches to religious meaning, I give you these closing words by Phillip Hewett, a Canadian Unitarian minister:

"The bond of unity in a church is not shared belief but a shared worship. Worship (worth-ship) is an act of reverence for what is regarded as of great, or supreme, worth… Worship in a Unitarian [Universalist] setting becomes a shared act of celebration expression our love for things of worth – those values by which and for we live, in whatever picture-language they may be symbolized." (A Chosen Faith, 134)

May the freedom of our faith be always a blessing and an inspiration to you as you walk the path of the spirit. May this banquet always provide enough to nourish your soul. So may it be. Amen.