What is it mean to be a Unitarian Universalist? When I describe Unitarian Universalism, I tend to use the words faith, diversity, belief, values, unity, love, religious, justice, equity, inspiration, pluralistic, meaning-makers, humanism, and mystery to describe what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. And you have probably hear me say, “DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church is your faith community.”
Faith is one of those religious terms that not all Unitarian Universalists can use comfortably or authentically. The word has been used in divisive ways by some religious people, separating the saved from the unsaved, or those who will prosper from those who will suffer. Many people define faith as a strong belief in a particular God or in the doctrines of a specific religion. [Unitarian Universalist minister] Clinton Lee Scott wrote, ‘Faith is a very simple thing until it gets in the hand of theologians. It is not a mystical, mysterious something belonging only to religion. It is one of the conditions by which we live.’ Scott is presenting one alternative understanding of the word faith. And there are definitions of faith that might resonate with a Unitarian Universalist, and they were written by theologians. Theologian Sharon Parks deﬁnes faith as the “activity of making meaning.” To theologian Paul Tillich, “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.” And, wrote religious historian William Cantwell Smith, “Faith at its best has taken the form of a quiet conﬁdence and joy which enables one to feel at home in the universe.” For me, these definitions express a broader, more open, more inclusive understanding of the word faith, understandings that could fit within the belief systems of many Unitarian Universalists.
Let’s for a moment use Sharon Parks’ definition of faith, the “activity of making meaning.” Recently I read an article that helped clarify this definition of faith. It was written by Unitarian Universalist religious educator, Judith A. Frediani. She wrote:
“There are three simple questions we can ask ourselves individually and collectively to identify, articulate, and live out our faith. Those questions are What? So what? and Now what? The ‘what’ is any new knowledge, input, or stimuli we encounter. [in other words any internal or external experience we have] The ‘what’ can be a ﬁlm, a book, a class, a concert, a death, a sunrise.
‘So what?’ is where we make meaning, judge value, discern what is right and wrong, seek to understand and ﬁnd purpose. ‘So what?’ is an act of faith development. ‘So what?’ asks, ‘What do I set my heart to?’ We are pretty good at ‘so what?’ We are inquisitive and resourceful. We explore and question and even ponder, and we come together in our religious communities for supportive and challenging companions in our search for truth and meaning.
‘Now What?’ refers to what am I called to do? Given what I know; and what I understand, and what I value, what am I called to do? Our own [Universalist minister] Hosea Ballou wrote: ‘There is one inevitable criterion of judgment touching religious faith in doctrinal matters and that is can you reduce it to practice? If not, have none of it.’
‘Now what?’ is where we take our faith, our principles, and our values, out onto what Jane Addams called ‘the thronged and common road.’ Now what? can require time, commitment, and even courage. ‘Now what?’ challenges us to respond to these words of Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’
Our answers to three simple questions can help us live more mindfully, more meaningfully—one might even say, more faithfully.”
As I reflect on these words, I recall a time in my life when I was serving Spindletop Unitarian Church in Beaumont, Texas. I was their half-time minister. George W. Bush was president at the time. Port Arthur, Texas is just sound of Beaumont; I am sure you have heard of Port Arthur, it is where Janis Joplin was born. You have heard of Janis Joplin, right? Anyway this was right before the Iraq War, and members of my congregation became aware that a lot of military equipment and personnel bound for Iraq would be shipping out of Port Arthur and would be traveling right through downtown Beaumont on the way there. And some of the older members of the congregation had once organized churches around Southeast Texas to march for Peace during the Vietnam War. They called themselves Southeast Texans Organized for Peace.
As these snippets of information began to coalesce in my mind and heart, they become my “What?”, using Judith Frediani’s construct. The military was going through town. Members of my congregation wanted to do something. Some of the older members had some experience with organizing a peace rally. “So What?” Remember, this question is “where we make meaning, judge value, discern what is right and wrong, seek to understand and find purpose.” In my heart I felt the Iraq war was not right. But I also thought this war was inevitable. President Bush wanted it and nothing I could do would stop that. I knew our little congregation couldn’t stop a military convoy. I could preach about peace; maybe that was an effective way to make meaning. “So What?” I asked myself again. “So What?” in my heart, I valued peace and had all my life. My church was looking to me for leadership. I had arrived at “Now What?”
I had decided that my belief in peace and my congregation’s pacifist beliefs had to be put into action. I talked with the members of Spindletop Unitarian Universalist who had rallied for peace during the Viet Nam war and asked their advice. They said “Let’s get our old allies in the Southeast Texans Organized for Peace (STOP) together and go downtown and hold Peace Signs up as the military goes by.” I thought what practical use would that be? Then I realized that living our values out loud and proud would draw attention to the looming war in Iraq. Anyone who didn’t understand that this war was going to happen, anyone who believed no military hardware and personnel were heading out, could no long be in denial. At least they would have to face what this country was doing. Maybe the peaceful protest of a handful of pacifists would make a difference. I called all the local media and helped make signs. And then on the day the military was coming through town, we were there.
Here we are gathered across from the Federal Courthouse in downtown Beaumont, Texas with our signs waiting for the convoy. For two hours we stood in silent, peaceful protest as the military convoy drove by. Eventually someone in the military must have noticed what we were doing and all the media. And the rest of the convoy was diverted several miles around Beaumont to avoid us. We had achieved what we had hoped to – we got the word out about our country’s preparation for war and we graphically offered peace as a viable option. Did we stop the war from coming? You all know we did not. Did we change anyone’s attitude? Perhaps. Many people drove by that day and most honked in solidarity. And many people saw and read about our peace protest the next day. Did we feel like we had lived our values and principles out in the world beyond our Unitarian Universalist walls? Indeed, yes. Very much, yes.
Life. There is a constant flow of knowledge, input, stimuli every day. There are situations in our lives and in this church community, when we will be startled with a “What”. Then our hearts will call us to ponder this “What”, to ask “So What?” And as Unitarian Universalists, sometimes it is easy for us to get stuck in the “So What?”, to get stuck in the process of making meaning and finding purpose. But to live out our faith, we must take the next step, either individually or as a community. We need to ask “Now What’s?” We gather as a community to share our “What’s?”, our “So What?” and our “Now What’s?” with one another, to ponder and to take action together. That is what we are a faith community is. That’s what a faith community does. And that is why I believe whatever we face, we will use our intelligence, our heart-felt values, and our resources to make a positive difference. We will not just ponder “So What?” We will work together to deal with our challenges and the injustices that we see in the world.
I don’t see us here as a community who stops at “Now What?”, I see us as a people who answer “Now What?” with creativity, with passion, and with vision. So may it always be.