“Who Are We (in Unitarian Universalism) Today”
By Reverend Tom Capo
August 10, 2014
The God of Abraham said to Moses: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
Now you might wonder why I started out with this excerpt from the Jewish Torah. Well, to explain this, let me start with a little about myself. I grew up Catholic and when I was in High School I realized that I no longer held the same beliefs as the other people in my church. I did not believe that women shouldn’t use contraception; I didn’t believe that a woman shouldn’t have the right to choose whether to have a child or not; I no longer believed in the Trinity—a Father-God, Son-God, and Holy Spirit-God, all in one. I found myself unable to participate in Communion or Confession; I could no longer even say the Lord’s Prayer. I felt in exile from the faith of my childhood. And I quickly realized that I would no longer fit in any Christological faith home. I was in exile from all Christian churches, an exile that was imposed by myself, yes, but also imposed by churches that would only welcome me if I accepted and professed their dogma.
Now you might say that all of our forebears, from our recent past back to the beginning of our religion, felt the same way. But I can tell you when I joined the Unitarian Universalist church in the late 1970’s, almost everyone I met were exiles just like me. There were and still are very few life-long Unitarian Universalists. So the culture I came into when I joined First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, or as we referred to it, the church with the longest name, was one of people who felt out of place in much of the Christian culture around them. The church, and Unitarian Universalism, was a bastion, a fortress, of safety in what seemed an unsafe culture.
I felt at home in my new faith community the very first moment I walked into that Unitarian Universalist church. I could ask the questions that had been so long on my heart. I could talk about my history and my problems with the faith of my childhood freely with others who had had the same experience. I could put aside the idea of a personal god while still being able to consider the ultimate questions of existence. So while I was in exile, I was with other exiles and we embraced each other, supported each other, encouraged each other to search for truth and meaning. For some time I felt this was the perfect religion and I could not understand why anyone wouldn’t want to be a Unitarian Universalist. But as with all religious communities, we are not without our issues.
While we had no creed, no official dogma, there was an unofficial dogmatism. While we expressed a pluralist acceptance of all faiths, in fact, there was a rejection and ridiculing of anything Christian. And rational secular humanism was the only real choice offered as an acceptable belief system. While we said the words “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations,” and “free and responsible search for truth and meaning, “ in the 70’s in Texas at least, there were some limitations on what these principles really meant. When the minister of my first Unitarian Universalist church tried to talk about spirituality or Christianity, she was almost universally criticized by the congregation. And she sought to jar people out of their rational mind-set a few times, once inviting congregants to do a Sufi dance of Universal Peace during the service. Only four people of the approximately two hundred in attendance joined her in the dance. She was ridiculed for months afterwards and the service became the butt of many a joke when congregants gathered to socialize.
For years, this unofficial dogma of thinly veiled intolerance of any “irrational” belief was widespread across our churches and our denomination – I remember going to General Assembly in the 80’s. In the bazaar, the UU huumanists had in their booth various items that mocked Christians—two of which were a wind-up fire breathing nun and the fish symbol from Christianity with legs, implying evolution.
Some of you might not think that putting legs on the Christian fish symbol is a big deal. I am not saying that Humanists shouldn’t put their faith in evolution or even have some symbol that supports evolution. The issue for me is that the Huumanist organization co-opted a beloved symbol of another faith—this fish symbol was used during the times of persecution of the early Christians as a secret sign of identification, in other words identifying safe places where Christians could gather. Our chalice shares that in common with the fish symbol—a chalice symbol was used by members of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee to designate safe places for those people trying to escape Nazi Germany during World War II. The Huumanists used this beloved fish symbol to support their own belief system by more or less diminishing it. So often in our own culture, in this case our Unitarian Universalist culture, we do not recognize oppression. If an action or symbol seeks to devalue another person or group, that’s oppression. And when we accept oppression, in whatever for it takes, we become, in some measure, oppressors. I would challenge the National Huumanist organization to seek creative, powerful new images that convey their philosophies and beliefs, images that do not ridicule or subvert Christian symbols.
I am not preaching that we should be turning away from our humanist history or disregard 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. I am saying that we have to be aware of who we are, what our Unitarian Universalist culture affirms, criticizes, and even oppresses. This church, too, has gone through a transition – dealing with some of the same issues that our denomination has. The question that you are facing and our denomination is examining is, “Are we truly an open pluralistic religion?” And if we are what does that mean?
In recent years, those advocating for pluralism have exerted a stronger voice in our denomination. The pendulum has swung from the 70’s and 80’s, and now many humanists are feeling increasingly marginalized. Now, do we embrace an unofficial dogmatism of thinly veiled intolerance against the secular humanists, some of whom in the not too distant past were intolerant of people different than themselves? Do we, through our action or inaction, make them feel like exiles? How do we live in the tension that exists between theists and atheists, between Christians/Pagans and humanists? How do we move out of a culture of exile and into “a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey?” I promise you it is easier said than done.
In our reading from Rev. William F. Schulz, written in the mid to late 1980’s, we hear him saying: “What the critical approach neglects, however, is simply this: the recognition that religion is only in part a matter of facts. Religion is in much larger measure a matter of mystery, a matter of values and faith, inference and uncertainty…My experience is that the everyday routines of existence are occasionally punctured by events or insights which make me halt in my tracks, focus on that which is most wondrous and moving—pain, passion, delight, death—and ultimately I feel blessed to be part of creation…[these events are holy] because they are not entirely explicable…cannot be quantified, tested, or put in a jar. Like feelings, they flow.”
So are we--as individuals, as a faith community, as a denomination, as an association of churches--are we prepared to embrace the idea that the critical approach to religion is not the only valid approach to religion? Can we recognize that our religion is more than just fact-based? Yes, we are the faith of the rational mind, the religion that can embrace science, evolution, and an ever expanding universe. And we will continue to be. But does it have to be “either/or”? Are we able to bring both mind and heart and perhaps even spirit, mystery, faith into our religion? Are we ready to be “both/and” people? We will not ever put aside humanism. I know I don’t want to. Atheists will always be welcome, and actively supported. But here’s the quandary, the conundrum we struggle with as Unitarian Universalists: how can we make everyone feel welcomed and affirmed, whether they are atheists, Buddhists, Jews, non-traditional Unitarian or Universalist Christians, pagans, or people who say they are spiritual, but not religious?
Though many of you would identify as humanist, you as a congregation have decided to be spiritually pluralistic. What does that mean to you as a congregation? Does it mean that I can preach using the words that resonate for me, sometimes using words that for some of you might not mean anything, without being criticized? I believe so. However, I remember a time when I personally could not even say: “Our Father who art in heaven…” without feeling a pain in the pit of my stomach because these words were so repellant to me. Do I assiduously avoid words like ‘holy’ because some of you might experience that same pain? Do I stifle my truth because it doesn’t speak to you?
All I can offer you is that this church and all Unitarian Universalists are struggling with these issues and have been for much of the latter part of the twentieth century. I have no expectation that you and I are going to figure out how to do pluralist religion perfectly. I do know that many of the people who are joining us now are not exiles from another faith and are not humanists. I believe that there is more to Unitarian Universalism than being a safe harbor for the spiritually wounded. We can be a lighthouse for the spiritually seeking. 30 years ago, most of the people who ventured through our doors were reacting against a faith position. These days most of the people who discover us are searching for a faith position. And we are here, ready to welcome all of them. Because I have talked to many of you, I know many of you are already aware of this paradigm shift. I also know that I cannot tell you if you are doing it any better than anybody else in our denomination. All Unitarian Universalists are trying to find a path forward, embracing our Principles and Purposes, and trying to embrace anyone who walks through our doors.
The people who are joining us now are different than what many of you might think of as “typical” Unitarian Universalists. Some don’t have post graduate degrees. Some of them never went to college. Some do not earn a middle class income. Some are covered in tattoos or piercings, and some may have served time in prison. They are all seekers and we cannot judge the people who join us based on how they look, or their lifestyles, or how they earn a living, or what their education level is, or even on what they believe. There are exiled Christians out there; people who do not believe in the Trinity, who do not believe that the Bible is literal, who do not believe in the creeds and dogmas of the other Christian churches, but who do embrace the Bible as a book of myths worthy of exploration, and who believe Jesus was a sage, not unlike Buddha or Confucius. Could you welcome that person with open arms? Could that person be a beloved member of DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church?
Are you ready to be the authentically pluralistic religion that we all have aspired to be in the twentieth century? I cannot answer that question for you. My role is to call your attention to the issues we as a church and a denomination are facing. This is not my church; this is your church. I can promise you that I will not shy away from issues here in this church or in our denomination. I can promise you I will use words of reverence, I will also use scientific terms and reference scientific theories; I will preach on early Christianity and I will preach on humanism. I will preach my truth—I preach from the tension that exists in this church and in our denomination as well as the tensions that life presents. My words will be provocation for you to find your truth.
Be forewarned, I believe, and I will preach, that we must move beyond the idolatry of the self. Yes, I think that you must look inward to your heart of hearts to find your truth, but we must also look outward to find truth together as a community, as a beloved community. What is it that you value and believe as DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church? Is it in your mission statement? That is one of the reasons why I have asked you to speak your mission each Sunday—we have to be sure it still speaks to us. And if what speaks to us changes, we have to be willing to change this statement as a community. Listen once more to your mission: “We gather as an inclusive community to grow in character, mind, and spirit and to transform the world toward fairness, love, and compassion.” There is tension in affirming both an individual and a communal search for truth and meaning. And that’s not a bad thing. Where there is tension, there is energy. And where there is energy, there is the opportunity for growth, growth in inclusiveness, in character, mind and spirit, growth in fairness, love, and compassion. There’s room enough for all of you here. And there’s room for those who walk through these door seeking growth in mind, heart, and spirit. So may it be.