What I Would Be...If I Couldn't Be a Unitarian Universalist
River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, December 3, 2000
Scott W. Alexander
You know, I can't really explain why I speculate about such things in this busy little head of mine. It's not as though (as your minister who is almost always as busy as a one-armed paper hanger) I have a lot of extra time on my hands to dabble in esoteric, hypothetical questions. But nonetheless (for God knows what reason) I found myself (the other day) seriously pondering the question of my sermon title this morning: "If Unitarian Universalism suddenly disappeared (either because it was somehow banned or just somehow evaporated or died as movement) what in the world would I spiritually do with myself? Is there any other religious or spiritual tradition to which I could migrate that would give my life the kind of positive bearing, hope, meaning and purpose which I receive from Unitarian Universalism? Is there any other religious tradition out there in the world which I could comfortably settle into with spiritual, theological and ethical authenticity, passion and joy?"
Now, hypothetical as my question is (for I believe -- in this time when our movement is substantially growing -- the future of our UU faith is not only bright but secure) this is nonetheless no small question for Scott Wells Alexander. As most of you know, I am a rather rare breed in this movement of religious "come-outers." Whereas most of you discovered this liberal faith as adults (having left some other religious tradition which no longer met your intellectual, spiritual or emotional needs), I am a third generation Unitarian Universalist. I have never really known (or seriously considered) any other faith, for this liberal religious path has always felt like a perfect and natural fit for me. I have devoted my life and my career to this religion, and its hopeful vision for transforming both persons and our world in the ways of gentleness, decency, compassion and health. Being a Unitarian Universalist is CENTRAL to my self-understanding as a human being, and it is almost impossible for me, frankly, to imagine myself on some other spiritual path. Nonetheless, I asked myself recently, what if I had to look elsewhere?...what if?
Well, being a typical Unitarian Universalist, as I began struggling with the question of where I might spiritually go, I had trouble - real trouble -- settling on just one faith tradition. Hey...what can I tell ya?...Unitarian Universalists like me love to shop around in other religions for truths, traditions and meanings that work for us...we hate to restrict our spiritual search in one particular place or another...this may be, in fact, one reason we are substantially growing right now in the United States, a country where people like spiritual freedom of choice as much as they like economic, social, and political freedom of choice. In any case, in the end -- after a great deal of fuss and reflection -- I decided I could pretty comfortably and equally go either one of two ways. Any guesses from the house this morning about which two religions (again if I had, absolutely had to be something other than UU) I might comfortably migrate to?
[Scott takes guesses from the congregation - responding briefly to each -- until someone mentions both Quakerism and Buddhism]
Right, Quakerism and Buddhism! How perfect...one Western tradition, and one Eastern...see, you can have your spiritual cake and eat it too (at least that is what I am going to take the liberty to do this morning). I want to now briefly share, taking each in turn, why I feel I could comfortably become either a Quaker or a Buddhist - Quakerism first.
Although it's by no means a perfect fit for this Unitarian Universalist (more on that in a moment), I think I could cope (rather congenially) with being a Quaker -- that is if I, as the busy extrovert and Chatty Cathy that I am, could ever shut up long enough to quietly take my soul down this quiet, reflective and peace-loving spiritual path! The Quaker movement, although clearly a theistic Christian denomination in the Protestant tradition [and I must tell you right at the outset here that their singular historic focus on Jesus as a unique and superior religious teacher is a spiritually limiting factor for me, for I believe humanity has been blessed by many inspired and insightful prophets and teachers, all of whom I wish to regularly go to for spiritual wisdom] nonetheless the Quaker movement shares many (if not most) of the central spiritual attributes and attitudes of Unitarian Universalism.
First, and perhaps foremost in my mind, theirs (like ours) is a non-dogmatic, creedless, freedom-loving, faith, a tradition of SEARCHERS which invests in each believer a great deal of authority (indeed the obligation) to decide what is true and real and right in their living. No one, in Quaker tradition, can or will dictate to another what the voice of God (or the dictates of righteousness and goodness) are. As one Unitarian Universalist, I -- like the Quakers -- ultimately demand the right to decide for myself what is spiritually and morally true. Like any good Quaker, while I do value the authority of scripture, history and tradition, I can't imagine (as so many in other more dogmatic faith traditions do) ceding moral or theological authority to someone or something else in my spiritual life. So my soul comfortably resonates with this first pillar of Quakerism: each person must be on a disciplined path to discover (and then LIVE, live as best you can within the limits of your very real humanness and imperfectability) that which they individually, as a free agent in creation, find to be high and holy, loving and true.
Secondly -- and this is directly related to our first spiritual connection -- Quakers share our Unitarian Universalist belief (which can be stated in many ways) that within each person is an "inner light," a "divine spark," (or as we 21st Century UUs simply say the "inherent worth and dignity" each person carries within them)...an "inner light" through which every human being can both express and experience "the highest and the holiest" realities of living. Quakers believe each person (as they grow spiritually and morally, as human beings are designed to do) can find within them "the voice of God's Holy Spirit." Now while we modern day UUs might use slightly less God-centered language (for many of us are humanists or other types of non-theistic thinkers where as most Quakers clearly work out of some sort of a theistic worldview), we too believe that every person is naturally invested with the worth, dignity, clarity, discernment, and potential to discover what is ultimately true and right...compassionate and loving...meaningful and good. It is precisely because of Quakerism's egalitarian trust and confidence in the worth and holiness of every persons that their worship primarily consists of their sitting together quietly "in meeting," until the spirit speaks to someone. As Robert Lawrence Smith puts it in his wonderful little book A Quaker Book of Wisdom, "Because friends believe that each individual has access to God through the powerful illumination of the light within, they worship in silence, joined in waiting for God to speak to them directly and move them to vocal ministry." I believe that if Unitarian Universalism suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, I would be spiritually enriched by sitting quietly in Friends meeting each week, waiting for that which is holy and true and kind to speak to me and inform my living.
It is this Quaker conviction that God and goodness are quietly residing in each human person that has led them to be (like us UUs) a social justice and human service religious tradition, working tirelessly for peace, justice, equality, and decency for all (which is the third connection I feel with them). Again, Robert Lawrence Smith: "The concept of Quaker service starts with the belief that there is that of God in every person, and that all people in the world are therefore members of one extended family of equals [This is pure, historical Universalism, friends] ...True service, Quakers believe, responds to needs wherever it exists in the [extended, global] human family." I was fascinated and proud to recently read this from David Wyman's scholarly treatise on The Abandonment of the Jews, during World War II: "The major religions of the U.S. did nothing great to relieve Jewish suffering [during the holocaust]. However the Quakers and the Unitarians did 100% of what they could, despite small service units." Over the last couple of American centuries, Quakers, Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists have regularly found themselves side-by-side in public struggles for civil and human rights...world peace and disarmament...social, economic, global and racial justice. You may be interested to learn (as I was recently) that our moral and social simpatico with the Quakers even led (earlier this century) to an organized effort at direct coordination, collaboration and cooperation between these two faith traditions. In 1908, Unitarian Charles Wendt organized the National Federation of Religious Liberals, which (while it regrettably didn't last terribly long as an organization) did for a time bring together the Unitarians and Universalists and Quakers (as well as the Central Conference of American Rabbis) for mutual support and coordination of political and humanitarian work.
The final way in which Unitarian Universalism and Quakerism comfortably dovetail (at least for my purposes this morning) is our shared commitment to participatory democracy. Not only are Quakers in the United States vigilant and vociferous (as are we Unitarian Universalists) in defending American democratic freedoms, they further insist (as we do) that the democratic method always be followed in their own Meetinghouse proceedings. As Robert Lawrence Smith puts it:
Quakers come to Meeting for business not to promote an opinion but to join in the search for truth...Decisions and actions take place when the group's discussion has resulted in a "sense of the meeting," when the clerk, with careful and sensitive discernment, finds that the meeting is "clear" about the matter at hand. This nonvoting process is often slow, but Quakers believe that clearness can be found in the group's patient search for answers, through careful listening, and through speaking from the heart. In reaching a sense of the Meeting, everyone present shares in the result. For Friends, the process of reaching a decision is as important as the decision itself.
The same thing can be said about Unitarian Universalist congregations. Right now (for example) this congregation, River Road Unitarian Church, is in the middle of a very long and open DEMOCRATIC PROCESS to decide the future of our mission, ministry, and building (next Sunday, in fact, there is an open forum between the two services to hear the initial report of the Program Planning Group...come and be a part of it!). Like any Quaker decision making process, our River Road process is going to be blessedly slow and careful, as we strive to hear every voice and take into account every opinion and need. The process, of course, will not be perfect, but it will be proudly and purposefully democratic, and in the process we will work hard to consistently affirm the inherent worth and dignity (and I would add inner light) of every person.
So, except for their rather singular emphasis on the compassionate teachings of Jesus (which I also highly value, but do not wish to spiritually and ethically limit myself to), I could pretty comfortably settle into Quakerism -- this reflective, people-centered, justice and freedom and peace loving Protestant tradition. But in the end I suspect my spirit would feel truncated and incomplete if I could not somehow enrich and expand Quakerism's gentle and responsible path with some of the parallel wisdom of Buddhist and Eastern teachings. Despite all its wisdom and depths, Western spiritual traditions lack some wonderful spiritual understandings and sensibilities that can only truly come to us from the East. So if I couldn't be a Unitarian Universalist, I'd want to be some kind of Quaker/Buddhist hybrid (Hey, this is my sermon, I can do what I want!)
My spirit would want to also regularly visit Buddhism to pick up (and be guided in my daily living) three (of what are to my mind) wise and wonderful aspects of what one expert in world religions has called not so much a distinct faith as a "vast synthesis of teachings [that is] now 2,500 years old." This Unitarian Universalist would want to learn from and live by these three interconnected pillars of Buddhism's teachings:
- First, DAILY MINDFULNESS (which would hopefully help me to discover more attentiveness, inner peace and enlightenment in my living)
- Second, a vital sense of SPIRITUAL CONNECTION AND INTERCONNECTEDNESS WITH ALL OF LIFE (which would hopefully help me to find and live with more practical compassion for the other persons and living things who share this amazing creation with me)
- And third, PATIENT STOICISM (which would hopefully help me to accept and understand (and find greater peace and strength amidst) life's inevitable turbulence and tragedy)
Let me briefly take each of these three spiritual gifts in turn, and tell you why I could be personally comfortable on Buddhism's enlightenment path.
First, Daily Mindfulness. I am persuaded that mindfulness (cultivating your keen awareness of each unique and remarkable moment of living, and accepting it as it comes in all its fluidity and flux) is the key that opens the door (for each of us) to life-sustaining gratitude, contentment and purpose. I quote from my Buddhist/UU friend Jim Austin, who wrote this in my book on Everyday Spiritual Practice:
Mindfulness...is a kind of remembering, remembering to be here, to be present [in your life], to pay attention to this moment of life. When we bring awareness to this moment we know what we are doing and we know we are alive...Our mind...easily wanders off into some fantasy of the future or some evaluation, judgement or remembrance of the past. All this time, we sacrifice what is right in front of us: this present moment...[without mindfulness...we lose...a sense of direct experience with the richness of life...Being mindful is not only about becoming more receptive to the outer world...our inner landscape is [also] more lush when we are more aware...Mindfulness is characterized by spacious knowing of what is happening [be it a pleasant experience like walking in a beautiful garden or an unpleasant experience like feeling intense grief when someone we love dies]...By being [mindful and fully present to the moment] in a deeper and richer way, we connect directly with that inherent self-worth that is our birthright.
So in my spiritual life I want the life-enriching mindfulness of Buddhism...and I also want its teaching about the interconnectedness and relatedness of all things (and the everyday compassion that reality of oneness demands of us). To further explain this core affirmation of Buddhism , I go to the teachings of my favorite modern-day Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, as he expresses himself in his important new book Ethics for the New Millenium (about which I preached a full sermon about a year ago now). He says that because all human beings everywhere on the globe singularly strive to, 1) find happiness and, 2) avoid suffering, that we are bound together in an indissoluble and powerful human oneness...a natural oneness that impels us to be compassionate and caring toward one another. I quote him:
There is no denying that our happiness is inextricably bound up with the happiness of others...if society suffers, we ourselves suffer...Compassion is one of the principle things that makes our lives meaningful [and happy] through truth and justice toward all others we ensure our own benefit...the only spiritual practice we need...consists of nothing more than acting out [ever wider and deeper] concern for others...[and] providing you undertake this practice sincerely and with persistence, little by little, step by step, you will find that you enjoy peace and happiness yourself.
I doubt many Quakers (or Unitarian Universalists for that matter) would find anything to quibble about with this great spiritual affirmation, in any case I need and want this compassionate Buddhist ethic deep in my heart.
And then, finally, there is the spiritual gift (and wisdom) of what I shall call Buddhism's stoicism. Stoicism is a classical school of philosophy which (in a nutshell) basically says we must accept the laws of nature. Two-and-a-half-thousand years of Buddhist teaching -- beginning with the writings of the Buddha himself - affirms that both suffering and flux are a part of the essential nature of human life...and that if one is to find true wisdom, happiness and peace, one must accept (even embrace) this reality. For reasons I'm not entirely sure of, our Western minds resist this stoical sensibility (that unwanted suffering and change are an inextricable, unavoidable part of life). We rail against and resist unhappiness, suffering, and mortality -- tending to view them as unnatural affronts to our humanness (rather than a natural and acceptable part of the ebb and flow that is our lives). Over recent months in this congregation, for example, we have had two wonderful and loving young parents (John Lyons and Martha Hayes) die in their 40's, leaving behind grieving spouses, parents and sad children. Western minds have trouble coming to terms with such unnatural and untimely deaths, and for many of us the first question out of our mouths is, "Why?...Why did this happen?" A Buddhist would not understand this question, and would quietly counsel us Westerners that our job in life is not raging against unfair and inscrutable fate, but rather to find peace, purpose and wisdom in life as it is given to us (in all of its fluidity, unpredictability and pain). I want this stoical Buddhist sensibility in my life...I want the calm and composure that accepts personal pain and tragedy (and is thus liberated and empowered by that acceptance) to move on in life with compassion, contentment and purpose.
So there you have it, my new spiritual home, if UUism ceased to exist, would be someplace between East and West, my own hybrid version of a kind of Quakeresque Buddhism!...a stoical, compassionate, peaceful, reflective, people-centered, justice-loving, globally-concerned, and democratic faith where the ultimate authority for deciding what is good and true and right would rest with me. But even with this personalized Quakeresque Buddhism (even with the complimentary richness of these two fine and compassionate yet distinct religions), my spiritual portfolio would still not be quite complete. Some spiritual treasures would still be missing. And so I would undoubtedly find myself STILL CASTING ABOUT...respectfully going to and borrowing from even more faith traditions, to round out, deepen, and complete my new spirituality.
I would want to visit Episcopalianism, and learn some of their sense of hushed magic and reverent mystery.
I would want to visit Pentecostalism and take home some of their passion, sway and emotion.
I would want to visit Islam, and take to heart and hand that tradition's insistence of charity and generosity toward the needy.
I would want to visit Christian Science, to remember that there is a vital and saving connection between the body and the spirit.
I want to visit Judaism, and pick up some of their community spirit and compassionate generosity.
I would want to visit the Baha'i's and enrich my Universalism with their global ethic of human connection.
I would want to visit Confucianism and learn what they have to teach about reason and the human mind's capacity for wisdom and growth.
On and on my spiritual shopping list would go...indeed (if I have the time and energy) I would want (in the end) to visit every spiritual tradition of humanity, to see what I could discover or learn to enrich my own fragile, wondrous life.
And WHAT DO YOU KNOW ???? In the end...WELL MERCY ME!...LOOKY HERE!...I'd end up with something very close to the free, open, and inquiring Unitarian Universalism I so value in my spiritual life today. Yes, you're right folks, this sermon on what I'd be if I couldn't be a Unitarian Universalist is has been just one more (thinly veiled) rhetorical device to remind you what a great and expansive spiritual place our Unitarian Universalist tradition is! Yes, I'm sure I could spiritually get along with that hybrid Quarkeresque Buddhism I earlier cobbled together, but frankly I'd rather be here...right here...a Unitarian Universalist...firmly rooted in this particular historical faith with its seven guiding principles...also open and eager to every expression of humanity's diverse spirituality. May we, together here, build a Unitarian Universalism that truly explores and welcomes the wisdom of other religions and traditions, that we ourselves might always grow deep and strong and clear in the ways of the spirit.