The Ungodly, Godly Principles

MARCH 9, 2003
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein

READING from William Sinkford, UUA President
" I spent some time in early November in Dallas with the President's Council, a group of staunch UUA supporters who serve as advisors to the Association. The evening keynote presentation was given by Marlin Lavanhar, the dynamic young senior minister serving at All Souls, Tulsa. In his talk, Marlin wrestled with finding a way to describe and talk about Unitarian Universalism.

The next morning, Jim Sherbloom, [who] led the worship… tackled the same subject. (. . . ) The interesting thing was that neither speaker drew heavily on our Purposes and Principles, which is where most of us turn when we are asked to describe Unitarian Universalism. So I went and reread the Principles and Purposes [and] realized that we have in our Principles an affirmation of our faith which uses not one single piece of religious language. Not one. Not even one word that would be considered traditionally religious. And that is a wonderment to me; I wonder whether this kind of language can adequately capture who we are and what we're about.

Our Purposes and Principles date to the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist movements in 1961, when the effort to find wording acceptable to all-Unitarian and Universalist, Humanist and Theist-nearly derailed the whole process. The current [version] of our Purposes and Principles dates back to 1984.

Given the differences of opinion that needed to be bridged in one document, it's really not surprising that the wording adopted completely avoided anything that smacked of traditional religious language. And the Purposes and Principles have become an integral part of our denominational life. Many of our congregations print them on their orders of service. They open our hymnal. They hang in our vestibules. Many of us carry them in our wallets.

They serve us well as a covenant [between our member congregations], holding out a vision of a more just world to which we all aspire despite our differences, and articulating our promise to walk together toward making that vision a reality, whatever our theology. They frame a broad ethic, but not a theology. They contain no hint of the holy.

Now, while Unitarian Universalists reject any hint of a creed, we do affirm the importance of the individual credo: we are all charged, individually, to pursue our own free and responsible search for truth and meaning. And I wonder whether the language of our Purposes and Principles is sufficient for that purpose. [Humanist] Unitarian Universalist minister Walter Royal Jones, who headed the committee largely responsible for their current wording, [once] wondered aloud how likely it is that many of us would, on our death bed, ask to have the Purposes and Principles read to us for solace and support. I fear, in words borrowed from former UUA President Gene Pickett, that "they describe a process for approaching the religious depths but they testify to no intimate acquaintance with the depths themselves."

I would like to see us become better acquainted with the depths, both so that we are more grounded in our personal faith, and so that we can effectively communicate that faith-and what we believe it demands of us-to others. For this, I think we need to cultivate what UU minister David Bumbaugh calls a "vocabulary of reverence." -- from " The Language of Faith" January 12, 2003

THE SERMON " The Ungodly, Godly Principles" The Rev. Victoria Weinstein

The Reverend William Sinkford preached this sermon, " The Language of Faith," at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth, Texas in January this year. What happened next was that a reporter from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran an article claiming that Mr. Sinkford believed that the Unitarian Universalist Principles should be changed to include the word " God" in them.

Then the phones started ringing at 25 Beacon Street, and I imagine they had a few very busy days there at the president's office. Reactions on the minister's internet chat line ranged from the outraged to the encouraging. Many of us assumed that he had been taken out of context or misquoted. And within what seemed like a few minutes, an official statement correcting the report was issued by the Association's Director of Communication, Deb Wiener, and the Dallas papers issued a retraction.

An ungodly tempest in a theological teapot, indeed.

It is in these moments that we collectively know, if we had ever forgotten, that our commitment to religious pluralism is a challenging one. And it is in these moments too that we learn that there is such a thing as liberal fundamentalists! Knowing that I would definitely want to speak on this topic to you, I informally polled some of my colleagues about their objections to adding God to the UU Principles. There were many thoughtful responses, including one that I found quite persuasive, which was a concern that if we include the word God, we will feel we have to define that word. And we know that that little project would take us the rest of our lives, and the rest of the lives of all those children and grandchildren to go after us.

Other responses were not so measured and reflective: some were downright reflexive or reactionary. " If we include God in our principles," wrote one irate woman, " we will have automatically excluded Jewish people, feminists and pagans from our congregations!!" I'm not sure how that works, and I certainly don't agree with this assessment, but this gives you an idea of the kind of vociferous objection to which Bill Sinkford was treated.

Mr. Sinkford was elected the president of our Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations in the summer of 2001 at our General Assembly in Cleveland. He must know by now that he is serving an exciting and vibrant continental religious community, and he must also know by now the special frustrations of attempting to speak for such a decidedly diverse group of individuals. Although most of us find it difficult to define our religious purpose and our theological foundations to those who ask, Mr. Sinkford has to do so not only for himself, but for the whole denomination. The Principles, inspiring as they may be, were never intended to define our religion; they were cobbled together by a committee of people in order to provide a kind of preface to our bylaws. It speaks to our hunger to know what unifies us as a religious people that so many Unitarian Universalists now treat the Principles as a pseudo-creed. They have achieved far too much prominence among us, say some of the original authors, and it would do us a lot of good to revise them right about now.

But back to our fearless leader, Mr. Sinkford. Part of Bill Sinkford's daily job to meet with other religious leaders and social justice advocates to make sure there's a place for us at the table of interfaith dialogue and the table of religious influence with national or local leaders. I can speak from experience that this is hard to do when many other religious leaders don't think that Unitarian Universalism " counts" as a real religion. Is this assessment fair or accurate? Of course not. It is, however, an unfortunate reality.

There is a reason that Unitarian Universalists have not been allowed to join the National Council of Churches. There is a reason that we are missing from countless biographies and history of religion books (including, I'm appalled to say, Karen Armstrong's wonderful work The History of God, where her long sections of religious rationalism, the dissenting tradition during the Reformation and religious humanism should absolutely include a mention of Unitarians and Universalists). Unitarian Universalism at this moment in time does not look to many critical outsiders like a real religion. A real religion, they argue, requires doctrine or at least common belief, and it certainly, by definition, includes some kind of God.

It's tempting to say, then, who cares what the neighbors think? and go on our way doing our good works and living out our sacred story of mutual care and striving for righteousness. And on most days I do say just this. Who cares what the neighbors think? Should we care what the neighbors think?

When and if you should be asked, by a neighbor or friend or co-worker or in-law, how we can be a religion without a profession of faith and without an assumption of God, I hope you will reply that we are a religion nevertheless, and that we are a religion of doing rather than believing. We are a religion that welcomes people who are in a process of spiritual formation that they, and we, don't necessarily ever expect to end. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that what we believe in common isn't a concept of the Divinity, but a concept of humanity: and that is that humanity is best lived out in a community of accountability, spiritual nurture and intentional personal growth. One of the truths about us is that we are an alternative religion, not an alternative to religion, as some mistake us to be.

Jesus said that by their fruits shall ye know them. Unitarian Universalists are more committed to the fruits of our common endeavor than to establishing one common seed by which all our fruits are grown.

A little story: there was a man who regularly attended a synagogue and faithfully participated in the life of the temple although he didn't believe in God. His neighbor asked him why, saying, " Why do you go to temple every Friday night? You are not like your friends, who all go to talk to God." And the man replied, " Yes, my friends go to talk to God… and I go to talk with my friends."

My friends, it is clear that it makes the mainstream religious world anxious that we are here doing what we do, bonded by a fierce and tender commitment to one another's freedoms to believe, or to not believe, as he or she will, rather than by a common deity or common Scripture. I have come to understand religions as a series of practices created by a people who are all claimed by one sacred story: the Jews have a sacred story that begins in the giving of the commandments at Mount Sinai. The Christians have a sacred story that derives from the life and ministries of Jesus of Nazareth in the region of Galilee. Buddhists, all of the many kinds of Buddhists, have a sacred story woven around the teachings and enlightenment of one Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince. The Muslims walk in a sacred story that flourished after a man named Mohammed had a vision and a revelation of Allah, blessed be he. And so on.

The story that claims us may contain elements of those other sacred stories, but our overarching and common story is one about the inalienable and absolutely perfect freedom of each to worship and to know the Ultimate according to his experience, conscience and discernment. The story that claims us has not arisen around one prophet at one moment in time, but is a one woven from the experiences and stories of many men and women across all of time. This is our quiet miracle; this is our revelation. It may not be as sexy and exciting as the ones you read about in the Bible or the Quran, but it's sacred nonetheless.

Someone once said to me, " Unitarian Universalism. It's a great idea but it's kind of lackluster, don't you think? I mean, no one dies and comes back to life." And I said, " Oh, you'd be surprised. A lot of us die and come back to life."

We come back to life when we wake up to the potential of our own unfolding personal knowledge of the sacred. I've seen it a lot. It's not as dramatic as the parting of the Red Sea, but it looks like a legitimate miracle to me.

And what about the vocabulary of reverence promoted by President Bill Sinkford? I'm for it! This should come as no surprise, as you are certainly aware by now my deep appreciation and love for much of traditional religious language, and my hope that we will all be adept translators of that language and claim it for ourselves. But the language of reverence isn't only about how we describe our ultimate commitments, it is in how we invite each other to safely share what is within our own hearts. During our Bible study class last Wednesday night, a member of this church carefully and considerately asked me what being a Christian Unitarian Universalist means to me. Her respectful invitation for me to share my spiritual path with her was, to me, a perfect example of the language of reverence. Similarly, someone shared with me a card that a member of this church sent to her while she was in the hospital: again, I read a vocabulary of reverence in those words of concern, honest acknowledgement of suffering, and promises of support and help when she finally returns home.

Our UU Principles, our letters to each other, our conversations, our prayers and our promotional materials may or may not explicitly mention God; and this omission may make outside observers anxious or feel they have the right to treat us in a condescending manner. However, we know when we are speaking of holy matters whether or not God is mentioned. This is part of our way of being together, a cherished way, a way that gathers in those of us who believe in God with those who desire the blessing of freedom to be religious without the requirement that they believe in God. We are big enough to hold both. We love that we dare to hold both, and all, and every.

As St. Exupery said, " what is essential is invisible to the eye." What it is that binds us as one people cannot always be spoken. But nevertheless, we walk on together, faithfully supporting one another on our shared journey, waving a friendly invitation to any of our critics who seem so worried that we're not a religion. We most certainly are, we have managed to be so in freedom for hundreds of years, and as far as what we will have read to us on our deathbeds, how nice to know that we have a whole world of beautiful literature to choose from, and such beautiful friends to have shared this precious time with. What more could you want?

This closing song is one of my favorite expressions of our more playful spirit. If you feel like dancing while we sing, by all means do.

Let it be a dance we do
May I have this dance with you?
In the good times and the bad times too,
let it be a dance.