Preached on Sunday, July 11, 1999
River Road Unitarian Church
Rev. Scott W. Alexander
The question (the REALLY BIG question) I want to pose (and hopefully answer!) this morning is: Where In The World Is Unitarian Universalism Headed?" I have chosen to address this topic now because, just back from our denomination's General Assembly held in Salt Lake City, Utah, I have a fresh sense of some of the "movement" that is occurring in our movement. But accurately taking the pulse of this diverse and energetic animal that is the Unitarian Universalist Association is not easy task, not even for someone like me who has spent his whole life immersed in it.
If a martian (who had no understanding whatsoever of our free religious tradition) were to have dropped out of the sky and into the midst of the hubbub of the Salt Lake City General Assembly (and had wandered the halls and meeting rooms of the hotels and convention center we occupied for a week, attending a wide variety of the literally hundreds of lectures, workshops, services and presentations that happened there) I'm not sure the creature would have any coherent idea about 1) what exactly Unitarian Universalism stands for, or 2) where in this world it is headed as a religious faith. The martian might return to the spacecraft scratching his or her head (if martians indeed come by gender...or even have heads for that matter!) utterly confounded by the diverse kaleidoscope of ideas and experiences...constituencies and special interests...spiritualities and religious interests expressed by more than 3,200 Unitarian Universalists at their annual "gathering of the clan."
Let me just read you now a few of the far-flung titles of programs offered at this year's General Assembly, pretend you're a martian for a moment:
If you were at GA this year you could have attended a program on:
Feminism and Buddhism: the Not So Odd Couple
Singing As Spiritual Practice
Dismantling the Oppression of Ableism
Drumming for Channing: Recognizing Our Slave heritage
UU Backpacking: A Faith for the Road
Humanism and the challenges of Post-Modernism
Unitarian Universalists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
A Just World Government: Fantasy or Vision?
Contrast, Intensity Novelty; Whiteheadian Pointers for the New Millennium
UU Introduction to Mormonism
Visions of Esthetic Future: Moving Deeper into the Spirit
Implementing our Social Justice Values
(Remember I said in a sermon last year most UUs don't believe in an afterlife? Well this GA my friend and colleague Randy Becker presented a lecture entitled: Spiritual Persistence and Encounters with the After-Life)
Shinto in Today's World
POW-WOW: Drum, song, Dance - Celebrating Cultural Integrity
Celebrating Shabbos: our Jewish-UU Heritage
A conversation about Family and Family Values
Liberating the Woman's Bible for the New Millennium
Well, I think you get the idea! Martians (or even River Roaders!) looking for a concise sense of today's spirit or direction of UUism beware! Unitarian Universalists today are religiously, spiritually, culturally and ethically interested in and committed to almost everything in the world, and we freely explore almost everything spiritual-human-or-religious we can begin to wrap our minds or hearts around! And because, over time, the realities of our natural and human world constantly change, Unitarian Universalism is constantly changing too!
And so that is the first answer I give to the question I have posed this morning: "Where In the World is Unitarian Universalism Headed?" The answer is "YES" [Scott writes the word "YES" in great big letters up on the poster board he has on the easel]. Yes, Unitarian Universalism IS HEADED SOMEWHERE!...it's always heading somewhere...somewhere different from where it has been! Since the earliest days of American Unitarianism and Universalism, our religious tradition (which - on point -- moved to merger in 1961 as it became clear these two liberal religious traditions belonged together after hundreds of years of friendly co-existence) has been a moving, living, breathing, changing thing. In 1921, Lewis B Fisher, dean of a Universalist seminary in Chicago said, "Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move!"
Ours, by its very nature, is an EVOLVING FAITH...a free, fluid and flowing faith tradition, open and eager (receptive and tolerant) to fresh religious insights and understandings...to new moral realities and imperatives...to emerging spiritualities and expressions of full and creative humanness. We are a church that has never hesitated (as human times and realities have changed, as they have in every age) to DROP some aspects, assumptions, attitudes, practices and understandings of our faith and ADOPT new ones that seem appropriate, proper, meaningful and useful for the unfolding future. While many American religious traditions pride themselves on resisting change (pride themselves on shoring up the old faith and foundations...and resisting - on principle -- new spiritual, ethical and theological ideas and expressions) Unitarian Universalists EMBRACE change, and welcome new expressions of religious, ethical and spiritual understanding and practice. It is both fascinating and informative to read the succession of faith statements which Unitarians and Universalists have put to paper over the more than 200 years of our American history...there is a clear and steady evolution of UU thought and practice expressed in these historical statements (beginning with the early Christian "confessions" penned by early Unitarians and Universalists...moving through the "Humanist Manifestos" so many UU leaders signed earlier this century, ending with the most recent version of our denomination's statement of purposes and principles -- an evolutionary document to which I will refer again a bit later in this sermon). One of the clearest and most accurate things you can say about Unitarian Universalism is that (by its very nature) IT NEVER STANDS STILL...IT'S ALWAYS MOVING SOMEWHERE!
One of the things, in fact, that so infuriates and confounds our critics on the radical religious right is that we are so diverse (remember those GA program descriptions!)...and so fluid (in every period of our history we have significantly evolved to new religious places), that we feel like "a moving target" to them. In the magazine article I shared with you in May by Professor Alan Gomes (the one which attempts to warn fundamentalist Christians about how "dangerous" Unitarian Universalism is to the doctrines and worldview of orthodox Christianity), he accuses us of being (and now I quote) "a one-stop spiritual supermarket" that is now shamelessly catering to "baby boomer" religious tastes. Now I will be the first to admit that our open and evolving approach to religion does sometimes mean we Unitarian Universalist jump on some rather superfluous cultural and spiritual bandwagons. Twenty-five years ago, for example, most of our congregations got swept up into the Transactional Analysis fad - the "I'm OK, You're OK" psychobabble that turned out to be just a bit trivial and trite. Sometimes our movement has gotten intrigued by new ideas and approaches to the life of the spirit without as much thoughtful consideration and discernment as we might bring to bear...and this is a weakness of ours (getting swept up in spiritual, psychological, or cultural fads) we must take seriously as we grow and change into the new millennium. But, on the other hand, the reason we are such an appealing religion to younger American families today (growing rapidly at a time when most "mainline" churches are precipitously declining in membership) is that we are open to exploring diverse religious, spiritual and ethical realities which they are interested in! The young families that are "church shopping" these days do not want to spiritually restrict themselves narrowly, and neither do we. But we Unitarian Universalists are not, I assure you, open to new and diverse spiritual avenues because that is part of some sort of cynical "cultural marketing strategy" to fill our financial coffers and pews...we are open to change and new ideas and experiences because we have always believed (over the hundreds of years of our rich and flowing history) that is the way all creative, responsive, relevant religion should be - moving, growing, changing, responding to new realities and insights!
This American religious movement (which began late in the 18th century as two, distinct-yet-unmistakably Christian sects) has evolved into a single, fluid faith tradition that (in many ways) barely resembles the religion of its founders. While we clearly honor and cherish our Jewish and Christian roots (relying especially upon the core ethical and moral precepts of these two great world religions for guidance as we strive to live in our modern world justly and compassionately) we have refused (over time) to spiritually restrict ourselves to these worthy (but necessarily limited) Western spiritual worldviews. In the 20th century, Unitarian Universalism moved first (as I have already observed) to enthusiastically embrace religious humanism (more on this important historical enrichment some other Sunday), and later opened its spiritual doors to (wide and welcoming) to all the world's great religious traditions, including the Eastern traditions (which 19th Century Unitarians and Universalists like Channing and Emerson began exploring) and neo-paganism which I'll discuss in a moment. In just the 40 years since this beautiful hall was built (as the auditorium of the River Road Unitarian Church) our faith (and faith practice) has significantly evolved. While the theological and moral foundations which built this place are still here strong and proud (and we'll explore these roots further in October when we celebrate our 40th anniversary as a congregation) , much of our religious style and substance has changed. And I have no doubt that if I am alive 40 years from now, the Unitarian Universalist congregation I will attend as an old man will practice a faith that will be substantially different from that which I so earnestly practice (and promote) today. To some (like Professor Gomes and other fundamentalist Christians) this evolutionary nature of our faith is something to be despised, attacked and rejected...a sign that we religious liberals shallowly "go wherever the spiritual winds blow" without bearing, belief or bedrock. To me, a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that we are, as a movement, headed to new ethical, theological, and spiritual places is a sign of our vitality, our relevance, and our creative depth and intellectual suppleness as a faith tradition. We aspire to be a faith ready and willing to be both engaged and useful in the challenging world that is ceaselessly unfolding...and I am proud to be part of a faith tradition that assumes the value of an evolutionary approach to all things religious.
Alright...enough (in general) about the historically responsive and evolutionary nature of our tradition. I want now to (rather briefly) describe FOUR visible and discernable realities that reflect where I believe we are now headed as a religious movement.
The first is to name the great (yet ever changing) CONSTANT in Unitarian Universalism...our commitment to do what we can to serve the complex demands of SOCIAL JUSTICE and HUMAN DIGNITY. [Scott writes these words up on the easel] From it's earliest days of its history until now, American Unitarian Universalism has been animated and informed by the first great principle of our faith, which we now call simply (in our denominational purposes and principles) THE INHERENT WORTH AND DIGNITY OF EVERY PERSON. While, over time, the words we have used to articulate this great principle have varied - in the 19th Century, for example, Unitarians and Universalists proclaimed that every man, woman and child on earth was a "Child of God"...and in the 20th, humanist Unitarian Universalists affirmed the inherent nobility and potentiality of all persons - over the generations, we have always had the clear conviction that human persons are irretrievably infused with beauty, worth and potentiality that must nurtured...and never be willfully abrogated. This is the spiritual conviction that (early in the last century) led The Rev. Theodore Parker of Boston to keep a loaded pistol in his study desk to protect run-away slaves (and led the Rev. James Reeb to the streets of Selma where he died for the same cause 150 years later). It's the spiritual conviction that led Clara Barton to found the Red Cross so that no combatant in the Civil War would suffer or die unnecessarily, and motivated Susan B. Anthony to fight tirelessly for the emancipation of women. It's the spiritual conviction that motivated Unitarian and Universalist reformers and dreamers of every age to fight for universal education and humane welfare support...for civil, criminal and human rights...for gender justice and gay and lesbian rights...for prison, workplace and labor reform....for combating poverty, inequality, hunger and homelessness...and for working to establish world peace, nuclear disarmament and ethnic reconciliation. As we now stand on the cusp of the new millennium, surely soon facing both local and global challenges we now but vaguely apprehend, Unitarian Universalists will continue to hear and heed the call for true social justice and expanding human dignity in our communities, our nation and our world. No matter where this movement is headed theologically or spiritually, what mustn't change - what won't change - is our Unitarian Universalist commitment to serve the eternal cause of the inherent worth and dignity of every person...PERIOD.
And while we are here on the question of where Unitarian Universalism is headed in terms of social justice and human dignity, let me share my conviction that in the new millennium, Unitarian Universalists will be in a unique spiritual position to help humanity both understand and embrace a new global consciousness that I am convinced must take hold on human thought and behavior if we as a species are to survive with any sort of dignity, justice and hope on this planet. Humanity now lives irretrievably in a fragile, shrinking, vulnerable global village. If we are to survive the growing ecological, economic, political and social pressures that universally now impinge upon the human family, we must develop (and interact with one another from) a new collective global consciousness of connectedness and care that would have us live together (on our terribly endangered physical planet) with a new ethic of interdependence, reciprocity, belonging and care. The senseless violence and destruction we have recently witnessed in Kosovo and Yugoslavia is an example of humanity living out of the old, tribal paradigm that must give way to a new human way of seeing the world...and one another.
And Unitarian Universalists can help lead the way to this new global ethic. The last time we revised our (again...evolutionary) Unitarian Universalist statement of purposes and principles back in the 1980's, we added a brand new principle. We UUs promised to live with (and now I quote...we print it every week in these orders of service) "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." In the days ahead, Unitarian Universalism must move even more intensely toward a theology and an ethic of GLOBAL INTERDEPENDENCE...both in terms of ecological care and human relations. The time for tribal and parochial thinking is over. In the new millennium that is dawning, all useful religions must move (and move rapidly) toward ecological and universalistic consciousness...and I pray our evolving and compassionate religious movement leads the way in helping humanity to discover and honor this crucial emerging human consciousness.
Alright...where else is our movement headed?
Secondly, Unitarian Universalism is headed toward a greater appreciation and use of RITUAL and SPIRITUAL PRACTICE in our religious lives. [Scott puts these words up on the easel] Let me take each of these in turn...first Ritual. A generation ago, many-if-not-most of the people who filled our churches (indeed perhaps many of the people who helped to start this wonderful congregation 40 years ago) did so consciously fleeing more orthodox and highly ritualistic religious traditions (like Roman Catholicism, Conservative Judaism, and Orthodox Christianity). For decades, then, (in what I believe psychologists call "reaction formation") we as a movement were a fiercely and intentionally "RITUAL FREE" religion, with almost no repeated everyday rituals: like confession...prayer...chanting, drumming or singing...communion...grace before meals...symbolic candlelightings (like these candles of joy and concern [Scott points to them] that so many of you find meaningful each week) in our shared worship and individual spiritual lives. When this church was built, few of our congregations could even comfortably handle the simple ritual of lighting a chalice (which is now almost universally done every Sunday in UU congregations all around the world). This sparse and rational "ritual free" style worked pretty well for us for awhile. But over recent years, feeling secure (I think) in our rejection of old religious rituals that don't work for us, Unitarian Universalists (of all ages and spiritual persuasions) have been increasingly expressing a renewed interest in a wide variety of new or re-worked rituals -- as helpful, liberating everyday pathways to deeper, more satisfying spiritual places. We have realized (none to soon as far as I am concerned) that just because we had some bad religious rituals imposed on us when we were young doesn't mean all religious rituals are bad! Somehow, repetitious rituals (like lighting our chalice or our candles of personal joy and sorrow) open us to some of life's deeper, more meaningful spiritual places. I view this return to repeated, shared ritual as an extremely positive spiritual maturation in our movement. While it was right and appropriate for us to reject the old, tired, brow-beaten rituals of our religious pasts that no longer served us in positive, life-giving ways, it was wrong and foolish of us to eschew the power and value of ritual altogether. So all of a sudden, Unitarian Universalists are praying together...and chanting together...and walking labyrinths together...and sitting zen and ringing meditation bells [Scott rings ours...and pauses while it rings] ...we are experimenting with (and then often adopting as our own) a whole host of exciting and spirit-deepening rituals that are proving (paradoxically) to liberate us (through the freedom one can find in the repetitious enrichment of ritual). None of this is to say, of course, that all Unitarian Universalists are equally comfortable (or equal in their enthusiastic embrace) of ritualistic worship or spiritual form...but it is clear that our movement is broadly now moving toward a new appreciation of how repeated rituals open new and refreshing spiritual horizons for those who participate in them.
And this UU movement toward ritual leads me to the other (related) place toward which I believe Unitarian Universalism is moving...and that place (lucky for me the editor of a recent book on the subject!) is SPIRITUAL PRACTICE. [Scott points to the words "Spiritual Practice" already up on the easel] All of a sudden, Unitarian Universalists (who, again, for better part of a generation or two had little use for the concept of spiritual practice in daily living) are exploring whether or not there are spiritual practices - EVERYDAY SPIRITUAL PRACTICES - which can enrich, inform, deepen and ennoble their living. Now this does not mean UUs are simply just RETURNING to old, worn-out spiritual practices of their religious pasts...no, we're finding new (and adapted) spiritual practices THAT WORK FOR US, in fresh and creative spiritual ways. So instead of "walking the stations of the Cross" (with all that negative and rather bloody and foreboding theological baggage) Unitarian Universalists are gathering to walk labyrinths (as a meditational form that helps its participants to connect with deep, positive, life-giving places in their spirits). Instead of going to the confession booth on Saturday night (to spill out all your petty little personal regrets and shame for all the ways in which you are a despicable human being), UUs are practicing voluntary simplicity, and charitable giving, and social justice work as disciplines of care and self-improvement. Instead of saying the Rosary or sitting before the altar to a long-dead male saint, UU's are building home altars (or establishing active/practical prayer lives) where they spiritually connect with deep and significant realities which are moving through their lives.
As most of you know my new book, simply entitled "Everyday Spiritual Practice: Simple Pathways for Enriching Your life" [Scott holds up a copy of the book] is a practical compendium of a wide variety of ways in which present day Unitarian Universalists are choosing to establish simple, disciplined, repeated practices (in their everyday relationships with themselves - their minds and bodies...with others - their families, neighbors and friends...their communities - their towns and cities and states...and with the wider natural world) that open to them (again, in the paradoxical and liberating freedom that we human beings so often best discover amidst the confines of discipline and form) to life's deep, holy, quiet, saving places. Every day at GA in Salt lake City, various UU spiritual practice groups met to experience the depths of faith living together. As further evidence that spiritual practice is a direction that present day Unitarian Universalism is moving, I share with you that my book is a "best seller" for the UUA bookstore, it's flying off the book shelves like no other title they have right now!
And this direction leads me to the final one I want to suggest to you is operative in the UUA today. There is - clearly and blessedly - a new RELIGIOUS PASSION AND SERIOUSNESS astir within our movement today. [Scott writes these words up on the easel] As I am sure everyone of our delegates who attended G.A. with me will attest, the ONE QUALITY the hundreds of programs which were offered in Salt Lake City all share is a seriousness about the importance of our religious and human journey. Whether we were grappling with our own racism...or pondering the implications of process theology...or chanting with a Native American medicine woman...or strategizing about how to end homelessness in our local communities...or sharing wine and bread at the communion service offered by the Unitarian Universalist Christian fellowship - there is today in our movement a growing spiritual seriousness that fills me with hope and pride. Fundamentalist Christians are terribly wrong about us. They think (because of all our diversity, openness and fluidity) that we are casual, uncommitted, directionless religionists. The opposite is in fact true. Though we do our free religion like no other faith group (with our unique openness and fluidity), we Unitarian Universalists are nonetheless on a serious path of seeking the fullest and finest humanity - for ourselves, for men, women and children near us - seeking a humanity that will serve all life on this planet responsibly, joyfully, well.
So...where in the world is Unitarian Universalism headed? It's headed toward passion, practice and purpose. It's headed toward justice, goodness and hope. It's headed toward ritual, engagement and joy. It's headed toward that deeply important religious place where, together, people of goodwill pour out themselves to help make all life more holy, beautiful and fair. That's where Unitarian Universalism is headed. Want to go along for the ride?