Our Unitarian Ground

On Unitarian Ground” a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, September 8, 2019

Responsive Reading

Reflection on the Seven Principles

By Michael E. Sallwasser (abridged)

We, the member congregations of the Canadian Unitarian Council, covenant to affirm and promote:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We promote the first and most honoured principle of our Association by opening our pulpit to all. We affirm the dignity of every person when we value their thoughtful and heartfelt opinions enough to provide a forum to express them.

Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.

When our speech challenges the injustice and inequity we see and experience in the world, we are called to do so with compassion for the oppressor as well as the oppressed.

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

It is often through words that we demonstrate acceptance or rejection of someone else’s spiritual journey. By choosing our words carefully when expressing our individual beliefs, we can encourage others on their chosen path by intentionally acknowledging the multiplicity of spokes to the spiritual centre.

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

How better to affirm and promote a free and responsible search than to provide a marketplace for those who are searching to share the fruits of their quest?

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

Free speech is the cornerstone of democracy. When repressive regimes seize power, speech is the first freedom they crush. When people rise up, it is because they are emboldened by speech that is free.

The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

This is our challenge: to broaden the sphere of our influence, to build a community of those outside these walls. If today strengthens our convictions, then we have done well.

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

We are intimately connected and profoundly dependent on one another. Not the least of what we need from one another is the infusion of new ideas, new ways of thinking, that help us to better understand each other and ourselves.

Sermon

A long standing problem within Unitarian Universalism has been the “Not” issue.

I don’t mean knot with a K.  I mean the, “What’s a Unitarian?” “Well, we’re not…”

We’ve all done it.  Go ahead, admit it.  I will.  We have all begun our answer to “What’s a Unitarian anyway?” by defining first, what we aren’t.  We have no shortage of ’not’ answers starting with, “We’re not Christian” and running all the way to, “Well, we’re not really a church.”  Oh yeah, I have heard that one too.  Even I do the negative thing sometimes, for I will often start to describe us as a ‘non-creedal’ church, right before I say, “We base our faith on a set of Principles and Sources, not on a fixed set of beliefs.”

The ‘Not’ problem is okay for starters, at least.  In our culture, the word church usually connotes a Christian organization.  People expect the Christian god, Jesus, the Bible and creed in some form with either a heavy or a light emphasis.  Our approach is different.  Those traditional rubrics are not bad things by definition.  It’s just that many of us have issues with how those beliefs are proclaimed and those concepts used.  We find the certainty and the accompanying dogmatic teachings a bit hard to swallow.  And so, we are unable to find an outlet for our spirituality and belief within the creedal confines of such churches.  We seek something else.  We need something else.

Our search comes from the same deep religious impulse as everyone else, however.  Most people who participate in religious community seek one or all of three things: a sense of purpose and meaning; a connection with the something beyond their isolated selves; a place where they can feel safe expressing their values.  The primary job of religion is to help people understand the vastness of existence and to define a place within that vastness. It’s easy to feel alone and lost.  Religion helps us connect, reassuringly, to something greater than ourselves.

A second purpose is to help people define and refine an ethical set of values and guidelines to assist them in living well and with integrity.  

The idea of god, and I mean no disrespect to anyone’s beliefs, but the notion of a god or gods is just one way of serving those purposes.  But it’s not the only way.  God is certainly an answer to the questions of creation and meaning.  And the various rules and precepts associated with a god are meant to define what’s required to live well.  The problem is that the moral answers of a few thousand years ago don’t always adapt across time and cultures.  Most religious precepts were developed in authoritarian and male dominated times when only a very few mostly men had significant rights.  But we live in a democratic or even socialist world where individual rights are at least balanced against the needs of the state or the church.  In recent decades a dominant force in law and culture has been the extension of full and equal rights to all people in a radically inclusive way. Those ancient authoritarian, male focused, rule based religious doctrines may no longer serve.  

So religion has two purposes: to give us the tools to explain existence, and to help us live ethically and morally.  Those purposes remain fine and useful, but the rules associated with old creeds are of decreasing use.  The ground of religion has shifted, if not the purposes.  The proof is easy to see.  Traditional western religion is in decline.  The Roman Catholic Church is more often in the news for its failures than its successes.  Culture has changed, but too many religions have not.

The idea of an all powerful all knowing god is just one possibly outdated way of serving the purposes of religion.  The notions  of salvation or eternal judgement are meant to reinforce divine authority and to encourage us to follow those rules made long ago by men in power who thought they were interpreting God’s will.  These rules that may not fit the world in which we live, a world where we are perfectly comfortable challenging the authority of powerful men.  

I believe many Unitarian Universalists find that approach unsatisfying.  We want something different.  We want something contemporary. We want a religion that speaks to the lives we live today and the issues and challenges we face today.  And our today is constantly changing.  

We want a religious approach that recognizes that fact.  We want to consider questions of meaning and connection with a measure of control resting in our hands.  We don’t want to be told, we just don’t trust being told the answer. We want to include scientific knowledge in our defining of the universe, and then have a say in naming the spirituality of existence and connection.  We need answers that are personally meaningful for us and that make sense.  And when it comes to morality, we should be good people because it’s the right thing to do, not because we have been either promised something good or threatened with something bad.

Some people who come to Unitarianism, and most of us come in rather than are born into this faith, are looking for something that won’t fit within the confines of a ancient creedal religion.  Others, who have no religious background, are seeking an opportunity to think in religious terms in an age when religion just isn’t all that cool.

What connects the two groups is this idea of seeking.  That’s the first idea expressed in the four words of this congregation’s  Mission Statement: “Searching, Learning, Connecting, Serving”. Searching is the first thing that connects us in community.

So since we have no creed, what do we have that helps us search? that helps us think through and shape our understanding of our liberal religious faith?

In my life, I have been given the fortunate opportunity to travel the world a bit.  And when I go into a strange new city, I like to have at least a map, or possibly a guide book to help me plan my visit.  I don’t have to stick to that map, and often have found marvellous delights off the beaten path.  Those maps don’t define my trip for me, but they help me think through my visit in general terms.

In Unitarian Universalism, we do not have a creed, nor do we require our members to believe the same things.  What we offer instead of fixed belief is a kind of road map, a list of things you might consider, as you make your travel decisions, as you make your ethical and moral decisions about life and the life of your spirit.

These are, of course, the Statement of Principles that we read in the responsive reading. These seven statements are not a creed.  Nowhere are you asked to accept these things as hard and fast beliefs.  These are not ancient words, but a statement that is only 35 years old and open to occasional review.  In fact, if you look at them closely, they are written in somewhat vague and poetic terms.  There is – deliberately- lots of room for interpretation, for the inclusion of personal experience.  

What does it mean, for example, to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person?  Does it mean you have to go hug them and invite them home for lunch?  No, probably not.  Does it mean you have to allow people to abuse and exploit you?  Definitely not.  Because if you are going to respect worth and dignity, you have to start by respecting your own first, by keeping yourself safe.

A person’s worth and dignity and their behaviours are not always the same.  I have no qualms about condemning behaviours that are hurtful, dangerous or destructive.  But it might be possible to do so without condemning the person.  I think that this is what the Principle calls me to do.  I believe I have to try to separate the person and the action in my mind.  There may be reasons for bad behaviour: everything from illness or a really, really bad day that are influencing this person’s actions.  To be my best self, I feel a need to condemn the acts and hope there is a salvageable person behind them.

In the same way, the first Principle calls me to look beyond the obvious indicators of gender, age, race, nationality, culture, economic class, political outlook (that can be the toughest one for me sometimes!) or any of those other categorizations and look at the person.  I am called to look for the common humanity at their core, not the disparities that they wear like so much wardrobe.

My point is that this first principle is NOT a belief statement but a call to thoughtful action.  It is a guideline that asks if I have considered all the possibilities before I make up my mind.  It’s a nudge asking if I am doing the best I can, or if I am giving into easy, dehumanizing judgementalism.

And if we look at the other six Principles we can see a similar spaciousness in the wording.  The second Principle asks us, when we do make judgements, to consider are they legal? Are they fair? Are they compassionate?  and so with the rest.  They aren’t rules, they are thought provoking ideas.

In the end, the Statement of Principles does not tell you what to believe or how to act.  It asks you only to think through the implications of the beliefs you do hold and to consider the impact of the actions you do take.  That’s not a creed, it’s a guideline.  These seven statements offer a course in personal reflection.

This is the way of Unitarian Universalism.  Nothing is fixed.  Everything is open to reasoned discussion.  Following a creed is hard, but following a non-creedal and ethical religious path might be harder.

For me it’s been a 35 year journey, and I am far from finished.

But I believe this path offers the world a different kind of salvation.  There is nothing heavenly about it, for Unitarianism is a religion of this life, a here and now faith.  We can’t be naive enough to think we will fix the world in our lifetime.  There is simply too much brokenness.  But we are each called to do what little we can to make things better, starting with making ourselves better.  And if we do that, perhaps we can find some peace and contentment in the act of living as ethically and morally as we can.

Meditation  (read responsively)

WE NEED A RELIGION

By Scott Alexander

In a world with so much hatred and violence,

We need a religion that proclaims the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

In a world with so much brutality and fear,

We need a religion that seeks justice, equity, and compassion in human relations .

In a world with so many persons abused and neglected,

We need a religion that calls us to accept one another and encourage one another to spiritual growth.

In a world with so much dogmatism and falsehood,

We need a religion that challenges us to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

In a world with so much tyranny and oppression,

We need a religion that affirms the right and conscience and the use of the democratic process.

In a world with so much inequity and strife,

We need a religion that strives toward the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

In a world with so much environmental degradation,

We need a religion that advocates respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

In a world with so much uncertainty and despair,

We need a religion that teaches our hearts to hope, and our hands to care.

Source: “Salted with Fire” (out of print)

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