Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sermon: "Religion Without Guilt" (Delivered 3-22-09)

Unitarian Universalism is a religion without guilt. Amen.

[At this point I stepped down from the podium, went back to my seat, sat down, and waited for about 15 seconds before returning to the podium.]

What, you were expecting more? You don’t find a seven word sermon satisfying? (And if you would prefer a seven word sermon, I’d prefer that you not tell me.) But probably, considering that you pay me to preach, I should say something more on the topic of religion and guilt.

When we talk about Unitarian Universalism as a religion without guilt we are often saying something about our belief in the non-existence of Hell. Our Universalist heritage and theology proclaims that Hell does not exist, or if it does, its population is zero. This is the doctrine of universal salvation, a doctrine that historically proclaimed that God’s love and mercy were boundless and limitless, and that no soul would be judged and sent to a place of eternal torment. This is our Good News.

Ironically, our Good News is something that we can tend to take for granted nowadays. After all, the Universalist doctrine of universal salvation is more than 200 years old. But, every so often events remind us not to take our theological legacy for granted. Consider the case of Philip Gulley, a Quaker minister from Indiana. Gulley, along with his friend Jim Mulholland, co-authored two books of liberal Christian theology with the titles, If God is Love and If Grace is True. The second of these two books, If Grace is True, argued for universal salvation. Last weekend, Philip Gulley was stripped of his credentials as a Quaker pastor. The action was taken by a Committee on Ministry and Evangelism who charged Philip Gulley with preaching anti-Christian messages. The specific teachings charged as anti-Christian were that God will include all human beings in salvation, and that gays and lesbians must be included as equal members of the church. Let me remind you: Gulley was not the pastor of an evangelical or a Methodist or a Lutheran church. He is a Quaker!

Such an absence of a belief in Hell within Unitarian Universalism is one of the prime reasons why we might think of ourselves as a religion without guilt. Without the threat of eternal damnation, eternal punishment, or eternal separation looming over our heads, the guilt factor decreases exponentially.

This morning I want to explore this concept of Unitarian Universalism being a religion without guilt from two different perspectives. First, I want to explore how this discourse of being a guilt-free religion is often unhelpful and extremely self-limiting. Second, I want to explore guilt and shame at a deeper level. Guilt and shame are, after all, human emotions and our faith that we love should be up to task of speaking to these emotions with depth, rather than casually dismissing them.

An example from close to home helps to illustrate how our typical discourses about Hell and guilt is too often lacking. The example I share with you relates to financial stewardship, an area that is so often a locus for feelings of guilt. A few years ago, on a pleasant afternoon, I got in my car and turned left out of our parking lot and drove down 87th Street. If you make this drive, you notice that the religious buildings grow larger and larger. (Which is the case, I am convinced, and not the illusion one gets, the sense of shrinking and getting smaller and smaller.) So, on my drive down 87th Street I stopped in at the Seventh Day Adventist Church on the corner of Antioch, then the larger Nazarene church just past Quivira, then the larger Baptist church, and then, finally, the sprawling and immense complex that is the Lenexa Christian Center right by Shawnee Mission Park.

[It had not yet been built at the time I took this drive, but I would have stopped at the Covenant Church that now sits between the Baptist Church and the Lenexa Christian Center. Next time you drive by the Covenant Church, notice that they have a couple of small sports fields with several large signs declaring that these fields are the property of the church, that a permit is required in order to use them, and that this policy is enforced. I am always tempted to go there and to replace these signs with ones that say, quote, “Matthew 6:12: We forgive those who trespass against us.”]

But anyways, on my trip down 87th Street I stopped in at each church and asked for information on tithing, which the staff members of these churches tripped over themselves to provide to me. I compared the literature and noticed that as you travel West the literature becomes glossier and the expected standards of commitment grow higher, bolder, and more clearly stated.

I shared these findings with a leader in our congregation who promptly dismissed them. “We don’t have Hell,” she said. And here it was: the exact statement of our Good News was transformed into a statement of our own predestined mediocrity, an excuse for why we can’t.

“We don’t have Hell.” “We don’t have guilt.” “We don’t preach fear.” Are these bold declarations of our religious heritage and our convictions, or are they offered as excuses? It seems to me that in a religious climate where our religious brothers and sisters only one step away from us in terms of religious liberalism can charge one of their own with anti-Christian heresy for claiming that Hell does not exist, that we should declare ourselves fortunate and grateful. Our Good News should be a source of pride, not an excuse. The lack of a threat of Hell and the lack of a message of fear and religiously motivated guilt should not be used as an appeal to the lowest common denominator in terms of participation, attendance, and commitment.

Our faith is not about threats and guilt trips. At the same time, I believe our faith offers so much of value: a place for reflection and discernment, a community of searchers and heretics who are here to find answers to questions of how to live meaningfully, what has value, what is worthy. It is a place of deep engagement, of learning, of growth and transformation. That should be all the rationale that is needed for active participation and commitment and living out our faith’s profession.

There is another part of this sermon though. Yes, this sermon is a call for us to take our participation here seriously. Yes, this sermon is a call for us to examine what is holding us back if there is something holding us back. Yes, this sermon is a call for us to re-examine our rhetoric around Hell, and guilt, and fear, and for us to be fearless, not only in our theology, but also in the living of our faith to its fullest. But this sermon is something else, too.

You see, many forms of religion can be so good at scaring people and guilt-tripping them. But religion did not invent fear or guilt. Religion is so often used to shame, but religion did not create shame.

So, when we casually say something like, “Unitarian Universalism is a religion without guilt,” that may lead us to embrace something that is not true: the idea that Unitarian Universalism has nothing to say about guilt, that Unitarian Universalism is impotent in speaking about shame. This better not be true, especially when our ranks as a church are swelled by many who come to us carrying scars, the burden of guilt or shame that their previous religious home foisted upon them. But, even those who were born into this faith, or come to us from a religious tradition that did not deal in guilt or shame, or come to us from a secular background may find themselves faced with feelings of guilt and shame as well.

Let me briefly attempt to define the terms I am using. Guilt is simply an ongoing state of feeling bad about some action (or inaction) that a person regrets or wishes that had done differently. Guilt refers to something external, something outside of oneself. That time you broke the vase and blamed it on your brother who got punished. Guilt refers to that. It may have happened many, many years ago, but one can still feel guilty about it.

Shame is something a little bit different. Shame is guilt internalized. Shame has to do with a judgment about the state of your soul or, if you don’t like that terminology, the state of yourself as a human being. Going back to that example of the broken vase, shame has to do with what you believe those actions say about you as a human being. Shame is feeling bad because you are the type of person who is dishonest, or the type of person who blames others because you can’t cop to your own mistakes, or the type of person who is afraid to admit the truth, and so on.

Guilt says something about what you did. Shame says something about who you are. And I want to speak from our own religious tradition about guilt and shame. The first thing I do want to say is that guilt is not entirely a bad thing.

When we do something that is unfair, something that inflicts pain or anguish or suffering, we usually respond by feeling a sense of remorse and sorrow for our actions. Over time, feelings of sorrow and remorse may turn into feelings of regret and then, if left unresolved, into feelings guilt. Such feelings can grow inwardly inside of us and become shame. But, sorrow and remorse, even though they feel bad, are not bad feelings. In fact, we would say that someone who is incapable of feeling sorrow or remorse has something wrong with them. To be incapable of feeling sorrow or remorse is to be a sociopath.

The experience of remorse can leave a mark. Guilt can be the result of trace memories of our actions that were hurtful. In that case, guilt is not really all that bad of a thing. That feeling of guilt might actually help to remind us not to engage in actions that are harmful to others. At the same time, guilt can get out of control. If it paralyzes us and makes us afraid to live, something is wrong. And, guilt can creep, leading us to confuse doing with being.

So, while guilt, when it is experienced in the right proportions and in response to the right reasons can be a helpful emotion, shame is not helpful. Shame doesn’t paint a picture of what we’ve done. It attempts to paint a picture, usually a distorted one, of who we are. Shame is cruel. [A member of the church approached me after the service and offered a different point of view. He told me that in some forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy, such as work with sex offenders, shame is a useful therapeutic tool.]

Probably the best analogy I can use to help us think about guilt and shame is to ask you to think of the dashboard on my car. My little 2002 Kia has a lot of computerized sensors throughout the car. One of those sensors has something to do with the scent of gasoline. This is an important sensor because if you are leaking gasoline something bad could happen. I don’t know what that something bad is, but I fear that it involves my car exploding. Unfortunately, this sensor is also triggered if you don’t tighten down the gas cap well enough. When these sensors go off the check engine light comes on, as it has about once every year that I’ve owned the car. When I bring the car into the shop, they do a scan and they tell me that I forgot to fasten my gas cap properly. But I still take my car into the shop on the off chance that the check engine light is signaling that there are big problems.

When we experience guilt it is as if the check engine light of our lives has come on. It may be a false alarm. But it is something worth paying attention to because it might signal something serious.

Shame is another matter entirely. As it turns out, the Unitarian side of our tradition speaks about the human condition in a way that liberates us from feelings of shame. The Universalist part of our tradition declared that there was no Hell. The Unitarian side of our tradition declared that we are not born sinful but that we have worth and dignity and that we are capable of improving ourselves and developing moral character. The Unitarian side did not say that we would never make mistakes. I said that we can learn from them.

We are not a religion without guilt. We are a religion that affirms dignity and worth, that teaches us that we are not hopeless and not beyond redemption. We are a religion that proclaims the good news that all are saved. The challenge before us is to be as good as our good news.

[This is the 250th sermon that I've preached in my career as a minister!]