I grew up in a town outside of Boston where Unitarian Universalism was very prevalent. The town was perhaps five percent UU but we were dwarfed numerically by the Catholics, the largest religious population in my hometown. I remember a time when I was in junior high and was listening to a couple of Catholic students complain about how awful and boring and tedious their CCD classes were. CCD stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, better known as Catechism. Nothing I’m saying here is a put down of Catholicism. I’m only saying that these students spoke about their classes as if they were the sheerest form of boredom, the type of boredom only a pre-teenager is capable of articulating. By contrast, I liked my UU religious education quite a bit. I expressed my enjoyment to my classmates in this way. “I am sure glad,” I said, “That I belong to a religion where I can believe whatever I want.”
At the moment that I had uttered those words, I noticed that my teacher had overheard me. My teacher happened to be a Unitarian and also happened to serve as a member of the Parish Committee. She frowned a disapproving frown at me. Speaking to me privately, she explained to me that I didn’t really understand the religion to which I belonged, a religion that didn’t say that I was free to believe whatever I want, but rather that I was responsible – responsible! – for figuring out what was most true to me and most worthy of my devotion.
In our first month of services in our new church home we are revisiting some of the foundations of liberal religion. Two weeks ago we explored what it means for us to say that we are radically welcoming. Last week we talked about being a tradition that isn’t overly focused on beliefs, that is in many ways beyond belief. This morning I am going to talk about conscience and about how our tradition demands that we follow our conscience. The fifth of our UU seven principles states that we affirm and promote the rights of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large. The democratic process is what our country did last Tuesday. This morning we’re going to focus on the conscience piece. I’m going to talk about following your conscience in matters of belief, and, more importantly, following your conscience in living your life. Belief first.
Let me be clear. You cannot believe whatever you want. For one thing, that’s not what Unitarian Universalism is about. For another thing, that’s not how belief works. It would be impossible for me to believe that the world is flat. It would be impossible for me to believe in a jealous, judging God who condemns people for failure to worship him correctly.
There are a lot of beliefs that might make my life easier if I believed them. If I believed that forgiveness was for wimps, I could avoid the hard work of forgiving. I could take solace in the righteousness of my grudges and use finger pointing as a way to distract myself from owning my own stuff. But that’s not what I believe. I believe that the path of forgiveness is the path towards wholeness.
If I believed that greed was a virtue my life would be different, somehow I suppose. I’d buy myself more toys that I don’t want or something. Actually, I have no idea what I’d do. But I don’t believe that greed is a virtue. I believe it is an illness of the human spirit and that generosity is a pathway to a fuller life.
You can’t believe whatever you want. You can’t believe that the sky is green or that the earth is flat or that Batman will bring the villains to justice. Though holding certain beliefs may be convenient, or even personally advantageous, you can’t believe whatever you want. You have to believe what your conscience tells you is right and true, even if it is unpopular or challenging.
Through my years as a minister, I’ve met many different Unitarian Universalists and heard the stories of their spiritual journeys. I know just how much conscience plays a role in bringing you to this place. Often it was conscience, telling you that you couldn’t honestly recite that creed or believe that doctrine. It was conscience, telling you that you couldn’t in good conscience belong to an organization that practiced discrimination. So, I think of you, of us, as a people with active consciences. There is an old joke that Unitarian Universalists are bad singers because we’re always reading ahead in the hymns to see if we agree with the words. That could be a well-developed conscience or it could be trust issues. And, I think we’re better singers than the joke makes us out to be, by the way.
A few years ago, a couple in our congregation offered a party at the auction. The party was called “Dinner With Two Psychologists.” The bidding was especially fierce. How the evening worked was that each person took a personality test in advance of the gathering. Then, at the dinner, we played a series of conversational games in which we attempted to guess each other’s personality type. It occurs to me that it probably takes a certain kind of personality type to find this enjoyable. I was not at all surprised to discover that the most prevalent personality type among those at the party was the “conscientious” style, a personality style described this way,
“To be Conscientious is to be a person of conscience. These are men and women of strong moral principles and values. Opinions and beliefs on any subject are rarely held lightly. Conscientious individuals want to do the right thing… They stick to their convictions and opinions… No detail is too small for Conscientious consideration.” Yep, that’s my congregation. How many of you see a little of yourself in that description?
It shouldn’t surprise us that conscientiousness in belief and in personality style also translates into acting with conscience. A few weeks ago I met with our church’s youth group, which is off to a great start this year. I brought with me this book called The Book of Questions which has lots of questions for stimulating discussion and sharing. At the end of the youth group meeting, we each picked a question and answered it. One of the questions went something like this, “Have you ever stood up for something that you believed was right, even if it was costly to you?” After a thoughtful, quiet moment, one of the youth shared about participating in the National Day of Silence with friends, a day at school when students go the entire day without speaking in recognition of the silenced voices of gay and lesbian students. Conscience.
In 1848 Henry David Thoreau spent a night in a jail cell in Concord, Massachusetts, for refusing to pays taxes as a form of protest against the Mexican-American War and the expansion of southern slave territory. Thoreau reflected on this experience in his famous essay “Civil Disobedience.” Of Thoreau’s essay, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in his autobiography,
During my student days [at Morehouse College] I read Henry David Thoreau's essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.
I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau's insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.
As if by clockwork, the most recent edition of the UU World magazine arrived in my mailbox less than twenty four hours ago. This issue contains a feature story written by our own Don Skinner, about the conscientious activism of Tim DeChristopher, a member of the UU church in Salt Lake City. DeChristopher was just released after spending two years in federal prison for disrupting a government oil and gas lease auction. DeChristopher, who also contributed a manifesto about activism, has been quoted as saying, “Those who write the rules are those who profit from the status quo. If we want to change the status quo, we might have to work outside of those rules because the legal pathways available to us have been structured precisely to make sure we don’t make any substantial change.” This conscience stuff is not for the faint of heart.
Religiously, Unitarian Universalism is not a tradition that says, “Here are the approved beliefs. Here are the established rules. Here is a list of acceptable behaviors.” It should be no surprise that in a religion that expects us to listen to our conscience in matters of faith, that we would also find figures like Thoreau and DeChristopher who listen to their conscience and who challenge the established rules and laws. Some will witness this challenging of the approved beliefs and will wrongly conclude, “I can believe whatever I want.” Conscience is not about evading responsibility. It is about taking greater responsibility. Some will hear these stories about civil disobedience and will wrongly conclude, “So, what you’re saying is that I’m allowed to do whatever I want.” Conscience is not about evading responsibility. It is about responsibility to something greater and more worthy of your loyalty.
Theologically, there is another way to put this. UU minister Victoria Safford writes, “The ancient question ‘Who am I?’ inevitably leads to a deeper one, “Whose am I?” – because there is no identity outside of relationship. You can’t be a person by yourself. To ask ‘Whose am I?’ is to extend the question far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder, Who need you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable? To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices? With whose life, whose lives, is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious and invisible ways?"
For Thoreau or Tim DeChristopher, for Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, those acts of conscience are made meaningful because they answer in a profound way that larger question, “To whom am I accountable?” “To whom do I answer?” “Whose life is altered by my choices?”
May we always seek profound answers and the courage to follow our conscience.