Monday, June 02, 2008

Sermon: "You say, 'UU'; They ask, 'What?'" (Delivered 6-1-08)

[I am especially grateful to the four members of the class who had speaking roles in the worship service.]

Opening Words
We have all had it had it happen to us, in some form or another. A distant relative asks you where you go to church. The person sitting beside you on the airplane tries to proselytize and win your soul for Christ. A co-worker asks you about your religion.

“I am a Unitarian Universalist,” you say. And you’ve passed the first test which is to actually get the name of your religion correct. And they, “A Uni- what?” Or, “Yes, I’ve heard of Unity?” And you sound out the name of your chosen faith for them, all ten syllables.

And then they ask, “What is that? Is it Christian? Is it New Age? Is it a cult? Do you believe in Jesus? (A loaded question!) Do you believe in the Bible? (Another loaded question.)

Does any of this resonate? This morning we will be exploring ways to help us better articulate our own religious identity. I’ll also explain why I think it important for us to be able to do this well, and effectively, and passionately.

You say, “UU.” They say, “What?” Now it is your turn, your turn… and, in that moment, what you say matters.

Articulating Your Faith
At the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1999 – or was it the year before or the year after? – I met with twenty other UU twenty-somethings in a windowless convention center room with irritating fluorescent lighting to be among the first to test-drive the first few sessions of a new curriculum targeted at Generation X Unitarian Universalists written by Jaco ten Hove and Barbara Wells entitled “Articulating Your Faith.” Over the years, the curriculum was significantly redesigned and has become a favorite curriculum offered at UU churches across the country. This course spoke to a need, the need to have a good answer to a question, “What do you say when somebody asks you what Unitarian Universalists believe?” All this sounds really simple, but I think just about any of us can recall a time when we’ve either been less than articulate in speaking about our faith or a time when we’ve actively avoided the topic all together. “Hey, look over there is that Elvis?” “Nice weather we’re having today.” “How about them Cubs?”

This Spring, under the expert facilitation of a member of our church, a group met to take the Articulating Your Faith class. Together they bonded. They went deep. They grew and transformed and they had the sense that in their class they were experiencing something special. Members new and old, young and not as young gained a greater understanding of the UU tradition, but also greater comfort and confidence in speaking about it. They decided that the only bad part of their experience was that they wished everyone could have a taste of what they learned together. So, they brought me in and asked if I would be willing to speak about their experience in a sermon. I am always delighted when our members have an experience that is deepening and profound so it was a joy to honor their request.

I need to begin this sermon with a confession. It is something that I am not very proud of. In fact, it is rather embarrassing. To this day I keep my Harvard Divinity School student ID in my wallet. I keep it there for a reason. I try to restrain myself – I really do – and, in most cases I am successful about restraining myself. But, very rarely, about twice in my life, I have got in a religious discussion with somebody that has turned so ugly, so abrasive, and so confrontational, so in-your-face, that I have needed to card the person. By carding the person I mean this: I pull out my Harvard ID card and say, “I have a masters-level degree in religion from Harvard, where did you learn your Bible?”

And then, the gloves come off. Words roll off my tongue. I offer a discourse on hermeneutics of suspicion, eschatology, soteriology, and the distinctions between pre-millennial and post-millennial dispensationalism. I mention things like two-source theory, canon formation, and Gnosticism. I talk about the meaning of words in Coptic. I rehash the theological debates between Arius and Athanasius. I talk about Arminianism and Socinianism. I recite points made within Mark Noll’s history of the evangelical movement. I delve into post-modern theory, feminist theory, queer theory, liberation theology, process theology, and transcendentalism. “How do you like them apples?”

Please don’t get me wrong. This is not a habitual practice or anything. Just under extenuating circumstances. In fact, I’ve only had to card somebody twice in my life. I will also confess something else: even with seven years of rigorous academic training in the field of religion, I still don’t always find it easy to articulate my faith.

The bad news is that I can’t teach you how to do it in the next fifteen minutes although I hope we will offer the course on “Articulating Your Faith” again next year and that many of you will participate. But I can offer some pointers, as well as a conceptual framework for thinking about how you might want to articulate your faith.

There are many factors that conspire against us being good at articulating our faith. Let me list a few of those factors:

One factor is that we are a faith tradition that is based in respect and views diversity as a good thing. We tend to react negatively to people who go around seeking converts and proselytizing. Many of us are more comfortable as listeners. As it has been put, “We don’t seek out conversions; we seek out conversations.” But, conversations are a two way street and to engage fully and fairly, we need to be able to speak effectively about our own tradition.

A second factor is that we are not theologically uniform. Our religious community includes people with diverse beliefs and practices. Oftentimes this means having to decide whether to speak for yourself or speak for others. Someone asks you what Unitarian Universalists believe and there simply isn’t a simple answer to that question. “Well some of us believe this, and others of us believe that.” Which, while true, does make us sound a bit wishy-washy.

A third factor is that many of us have a strong sense of privacy. Oftentimes our privacy is especially strong when it comes to our personal beliefs and spiritual practices. In this church you are not expected to have to defend what you believe or what you practice; it is your business. And part of my role (and your role) is for us to respect each other regardless of whether you have a strong belief in a personal God or whether you are an atheist, whether you, outside of the worship we engage in together on Sunday morning, have a spiritual practice of communing with nature, or Buddhist meditation, or prayer, or chanting, or what have you.

While there are many factors that make us less effective about speaking about Unitarian Universalism, allow me to name just one more. We are a religious minority. There aren’t very many Unitarian Univeralists. There are less than 200,000 of us in the United States. Just one half of one tenth of one percent of the residents of Johnson County is UU. The overwhelming majority of the general population is oblivious to the fact of our existence. What this means is that despite the fact that our tradition goes back over two-hundred years, despite the fact that UUs were instrumental in the founding of our nation, despite the fact that so many leading authors, scholars, scientists, and social justice heroes have been UUs, many of us tend to take on a minority complex. We internalize our own minority status. As a result, we create jokes about ourselves that reinforce this sense of inferiority.

I received an email from my cousin – a UU in Knoxville, Tennessee – that exemplifies this dynamic. Let me read it in part:
“As we welcome our newest members and visitors, it is only fair to let them know what we Unitarian Universalists are like and what we expect.
* We believe in tolerance and cannot stand intolerant people.
* We are more non-competitive than other groups.
* We believe in equality; everyone is as good as the next person and a
whole lot better.
* Every Unitarian is a feminist, so he has to watch his language.
* We are prompt about being late to meetings.
* Dogmatism is absolutely forbidden and freedom of belief is rigidly enforced.
To this wonderful religion we joyfully welcome you.”
Then of course there is the joke about how if you don’t like organized religion you will love us because we are a disorganized religion.

*** SIGH *** That is surely why I went into the ministry… to commit my life to a fake pseudo-religion. And, I’m sure that is why you come here… not to have your life transformed. Not to work on your own life, not to heal your grief, not to grow in love and gratitude, and certainly not to make a difference in a world that needs our prophetic vision. It is all a big joke, right?
*** Sigh ***

When it comes to articulating your faith, a lot depends on who you are talking with. Are you talking with a dogmatic, evangelical Christian who thinks you belong to a new age cult? Are you talking with an open-minded person of faith such as a main-line Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, or a Taoist, who is interested in learning about Unitarian Universalism? Are you talking with a person who holds a strong dislike of all things religious? Or, perhaps, you are talking with somebody who is seeking out a religious community, who has tried and tried and tried to be a faithful Catholic or a faithful Methodist and it just is not working out… and they are wondering if there is a church out there where they can be who they really are.

How you will talk to each of these people will be different. How many of you have found yourself having an uncomfortable conversation about religion with an evangelical Christian? Before I offer you some tips, let me ask you a question: who is more individualistic, us or them? How many of you would say that we UUs are more individualistic? How many would say the opposite? My answer here may surprise you. I think we often refer to our diversity as individualism. We are diverse in our beliefs… heterodoxy as opposed to orthodoxy. We are diverse in our practices… heteropraxy as opposed to orthopraxy. We are also inclusive: we have humanists, pagans, Jews, Buddhists, and Christians in our midst. We also have gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. We’re not perfect in our inclusiveness, but we’re pretty darn good. Also, we affirm individual rights. We have a strong belief in the rights of conscience and in constitutionally granted freedoms. This is all summed up in the famous words of Francis David: “We need not think alike, to love alike.”

Our stereotypical image of a fundamentalist Christian is pretty much a polar opposite of all of this – they would believe there is only one right way to believe and one right way to pray; they would openly exclude all but straight people; they despise many of the freedoms at the core of a liberal constitutional democracy. But evangelicals are also highly individualistic, perhaps more than Unitarian Universalists. They are highly individualistic in their concept of salvation. How does one get saved in a conservative evangelical church? Answer: You have to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. At the root, that is the only thing that matters – whether you as an individual have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And, on this point, we are polar opposites. Our idea of salvation usually has to do with a notion of the Kingdom of God, or, as we would call it, beloved community. Salvation for us is this worldly. It is about creating a world that is peaceful, fair, and free. This is the very opposite of individualism.

Of course, conversations with hardcore evangelicals may prove frustrating, so allow me to address another group: those in our society who are profoundly anti-religious. If you are anything like me, you get along very well with these people until the subject becomes the church you go to. Then you become a bit defensive. To a strongly anti-religious person, you migh paraphrase John Buehrens and them to, “Tell me about the church you can’t stand. I can’t stand that type of church either.” Strongly anti-religious people have existed for well over two-hundred years. In 1799, the great Enlightenment philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher published essays on religion dedicated to religion’s “cultured despisers.” In these essays he said things like,
“Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. ... Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it. Religion is the miracle of direct relationship with the infinite; and dogmas are the reflection of this miracle. Similarly belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God, and it would be pure contemplation of the universe; the desire for personal immortality seems rather to show a lack of religion, since religion assumes a desire to lose oneself in the infinite, rather than to preserve one's own finite self.”
More recently, Chris Hedges has published a book entitled, “I don’t believe in Atheists” which takes to task the Dawkins’, Dennett’s, and Sam Harris’ of the world for having a view of religion that is far too narrow.

So, how do you talk about your faith? These are my tips:

First, make is personal. Abstract discussion is not nearly as effective as personal testimony. Talk about what being a Unitarian Universalist has meant to your life. Has it held you to a higher standard? Has it made you a better person than you actually wanted to be? Has it demanded that you be more open-minded? Has it challenged you to service and sacrifice? Has it expanded your heart, your compassion? Has it led you to courageous works and good deeds?

Second, claim the center. Too often we self-marginalize. In reality, our principles are not radical statements. They are very centrist. To disagree with them, I would say, is to take a stance outside of the mainstream, and even to display some level of deviance. Claim the center.

Third, remember the ninth commandment. Thou Shalt not Bear False Witness. What I have found is that Unitarian Universalists are some of the most honest people I have ever met. (This observation was made to me by another minister.) Why this honesty? Well, why would anyone join a UU church? Not out of family pressure. Not for reasons of society or to make business contacts. Not to be like their neighbors. Not out of guilt. Rather, it takes a kind of personal honesty to belong to our kind of church. Religion, for us, begins with the ability to be truly honest about who we are and what it is that we actually believe. That is why you are here. You cannot tell a lie.

How did the class do? Very well. They emerged a group of people who were very open and eager to articulate their faith. Let’s see how they did.

One class member talked about how the binding points of Unitarian Universalism are things like community, love, service, and social justice as opposed to specific beliefs about a deity or the afterlife.

Another spoke of the evolving nature of religion. How it poses new possibilities as life poses new problems. She wrote, “I believe that God exists in the good works of humans and in the beauty of the world around us. I believe that each moment is precious and my purpose—and hardest challenge—in life is to make the most of the time I’ve been given.”

A third wrote that Unitarian Universalism provides her with a spiritual home while she seeks truth. A fourth added that she uses words by Thomas Jefferson to help explain what it means to be a UU. Jefferson said, “It is in our lives and not our words that our religion must be read.”

Go forth and practice. Speak your truth boldly. Fear not.