Filling the Vacuum: A sermon on Tom Harpur and Unitarianism

Reverend Brian J. Kiely, Unitarian Church of Edmonton, November 27, 2005

First, I would like to welcome any who were courageous enough to come here this morning as newcomers. Whether you came with a friend or on your own, it takes at least a small amount of nerve to walk into a strange church for the first time. “What will they do there? How should I behave? Will they ask me to do something that makes me uncomfortable? They’re all strangers to me!” may be some of the thoughts that ran through your mind. I know those are the kinds of things I thought the first time I walked through the doors of a Unitarian church.

My girlfriend dragged this somewhat rebellious, but otherwise good Catholic boy through the doors of the old Montreal church. I remember vividly sitting stiffly, resolutely refusing to join in any readings or sing hymns. After all I was CATHOLIC and they were PROTESTANTS. I thought it a personal break-through that I didn’t add the modifier ‘Dirty’ before ‘Protestant’, a not unheard of phrase in my childhood.

It wasn’t a very successful visit, frankly, but she was my girlfriend, so I did go a few more times. Each time my stiffness relaxed a little and I opened my ears to what was being said. The more I heard, the more I liked it.

And let me let you in on a little secret. Nearly everyone in this room was a stranger to Unitarianism. Let’s do a poll: Hands up if you first came to Unitarianism as an adult! The fact is over 80 per cent of Unitarians came from another church or from no religious background. And a large portion of our members arrived the first time because a friend invited them. So, welcome. It’s good to have you here today. We will be happy to answer your questions as best we can. Let me reassure you: After your visit no salesperson will call. That’s not our way. We’re not out to convert the world to Unitarianism. There is a wide variety of people in the world with different needs, different experiences. It stands to reason that different religious expressions are needed to satisfy this broad range of people and desires. Here we do not believe there is only one way to truth. We think we have a pretty good message here and a pretty friendly community, but it’s not for everyone. If you do like what you hear and experience today, by all means, we do hope you’ll come back. But if what we offer is not for you, well, thanks for stopping by. We wish you well on your personal search.

So what do we offer here? Well non-Unitarian observer Tom Harpur gave as good a summation as any: “They believe in the duty to foster the nourishment and maturing of our own soul and to hear the divine call to work for the healing of the planet and its inhabitants. It’s a kind of Cosmic Spirituality, though they might not call it such.”

He really has three points: our duty to work on our own spiritual well-being and beliefs; the responsibility to listen for a personal call to live well; and the need to work for the healing of the world and its people. All are valid. Let’s unpack those three ideas a little bit…

Unitarian Universalism, as it’s sometimes called, begins with the personal. Ours is a religion with a great deal of personal freedom, but with that comes a degree of personal responsibility. We are free to develop our own beliefs, but that freedom implies a duty to actually work at those beliefs.

Unitarianism has no creed. There is no required set of beliefs that you must recite in order to be a Unitarian. You are free to decide on the nature of God, indeed, on the very existence of a god or gods. In this community we have everything from atheists to agnostics to humanists to pagans and even a few Christians here and there. The beauty of such freedom is that we can bring a variety of religious viewpoints to any conversation. You see we don’t forge our beliefs and then turn our backs on anyone who thinks differently. No, we turn to face each other. When we are at our best, we look for the common themes that unite us in spite of those differences. As one early Transylvanian Unitarian (Francis David) used to say, “We need not think alike to love alike.”

Three Unitarians might be standing side by side by side looking at a sunset. One admires the majesty of the divine creation. The second ponders nature’s magnificence. The third marvels at the physics that makes refracted light so beautiful. Individually they think about the sunset quite differently, translating the color and texture of the moment into their own way of understanding. But collectively they have been moved by the same experience. That’s the core of our freedom, we recognize first, that we each see the world in a unique way, in a way that is shaped by our thoughts, ages, genders, life experiences and childhood beliefs. Next we realize that each of those ways of taking that experience seriously is valid and worthy. It would be easy, far too easy, to focus on the differences. The world has way too many religious groups fixated on the small things that separate them from everyone else. But in our view, that serves no purpose. No one of the three sunset watchers is more right in their understanding of the event than any of the others. Why not instead focus on the common positive experience?

The religious freedom we celebrate in this church leads us towards greater respect of individual belief and a greater willingness to discuss and hear different points of view. As a community we work hard to make this a safe place for everyone to express their ideas and their spirituality. Ideally, that makes it easier for us to do that necessary work to form and reform our beliefs as we grow and develop.

Harpur’s second point grows out of the first. He writes of hearing the divine call. Of course he writes out of his own religious experience and so labels the event a ‘divine call’. Perhaps that language doesn’t work for you. If so, feel free to translate it into your own experience. We do that a lot around here. We try to look past specific language to find instead, what the writer is trying to convey.

Harpur is trying to discuss that sense of inner purpose. One of our hymns describes it as the “still, small voice within”. Call it a voice, a feeling, an intuition or the tingling of one’s Spidey senses. You can even call it the visitation by an angel if you like, seeing as how we are approaching the Christmas season. Perhaps the oldest religious question asked the world over has to do with meaning and purpose. Why are we here? Is there something we are meant to do while alive on this earth? Virtually every faith tradition has at least some kind of answer for this perplexing inquiry.

Many Christians tend to discuss personal meaning in terms of a divine call. In the 1920’s my father studied for the Catholic priesthood. He was a good and faithful man, and he was groomed for the church by his mother from a young age. But somewhere in his early 20’s he came to understand, as did his teachers, that his true calling was as a family man and a businessman. He left seminary with the blessing of superiors and student colleagues who would remain his lifelong friends.

Fifty years later, after trying my hand in business and the arts, I came to a realization that my calling was in the church…not the church of my birth, perhaps, but in the church of my choosing.

As members of a free faith, Unitarians have a responsibility to wrestle with that question of call, of purpose, of meaning. There is no easy answer, and perhaps more importantly, there is seldom a quick answer. There may not even be a ‘once and for always’ answer… it can change over time.

The decision to be part of a church community carries with it an invitation into a lingering process of discernment. It’s not a 24/7 activity, it’s not usually a burdensome task. Joining a church, however, usually means opening yourself to the possibility of reflection and self-discovery when the right moments arrive. It’s about preparing to welcome new insights when they come to you, and about becoming ready to recognize them for what they are.

And what are they? Sometimes they are big life changing moments. Four years ago I met a woman. In a very short time the still, small voice within told me that we would marry, and that at the age of 48, I would change a lifelong expectation of childlessness. It was a moment that changed my life…believe me, did it ever change my life! But it was the right change at the right time.

And sometimes the moments of discernment are quite small, little course corrections that push us to do little things differently. Whether big or small, we need to be ready when they come or we will miss opportunities to grow larger and deeper.

Finally, Harpur observes that our Unitarian faith helps us hear the call to, “work for the healing of the planet and its inhabitants”. A call like that is not unique to Unitarianism, of course. Every religious group I know prays for the healing of the world, and a good many do great work trying to bring it about.

If we do have a unique role, it springs from our creedlessness. On local, national and international fronts, Unitarians have become known as religious diplomats, helping bridge gaps between at least some members of differing religious groups. Because we are small in number and large in vision, we prefer to do our outreach and justice work in coalitions instead of on our own.

We are also somewhat unusual in that we promote liberal solutions to moral and ethical dilemmas. We support personal freedom and many of us often take our stands at the rubber edge of societal change when the envelope is being stretched. But because we do support personal freedom, you can expect that not everyone agrees with the majority on social justice activities either. That’s a tension we live with.

And while many of us who claim the name Unitarian are be proud of our contributions to the fight for same-sex marriage rights, for standing against the war in Iraq, for choice in dying rights for opposing health care privatization, the real test again comes back to the personal.

A long time ago as a new member to a different Unitarian congregation, I heard a man speak. He was the president of the congregation and a prominent businessman in a major utility. He was asked why he came to church, what drew him to Unitarianism. He said many things, but one stood out. He said, “You know, I work at a stressful job where there are often challenging decisions with moral implications. It would be easy to ignore the morality and simply make ‘bottom-line’ decisions. But I come here each week to sit in the quiet. I give myself this hour as a gift to recover my humanity and think about my values. It prepares me to go back to work.”

Everyone of us changes the world every day. The very fact that we live changes the world. The question is, how will we change it? To some degree we have a choice. We might not have jobs that allow us to save lives or bring an instant cessation to all war. But we all touch other people and the planet that sustains us. We each make a hundred moral and ethical decisions every day, most of which we don’t even notice.

I believe that many of us are here because we want to be more aware of those decisions, because we want to think through situations we have or might encounter in this lifetime and try to be ready to make decisions that will make us feel good.

You see Unitarianism is not a religion about the hereafter. It’s about the here and now. I personally believe that all we can do is live the very best life we can, be the very best people we can become. If we do that, then if there is some kind of afterlife, well, we should be in good shape, for actions speak louder than prayers. In the meantime, I also believe that heaven and hell are mostly of our own making, and they exist right here, all around us. I think we have a task to create heaven around us, and to invite as many people as possible to experience it. My Unitarian faith helps me do that.

It’s hard to explain and entire faith in 15 minutes, so consider this a beginning to a longer conversation. If it feels right, you are most welcome to return and continue the conversation. You’ll find that’s what most of the other people in the room are doing, listening, thinking, silently pointing out my errors and gradually working at developing and refining their ethical, moral and religious beliefs. You would be welcome to join us.