“If You’re a Church Then How Come…?”: A sermon for those new to Unitarianism
Rev. Brian J. Kiely, Unitarian Church of Edmonton, August 27, 2006
Let me begin with a version of an interaction I have had many times over the years:
“So what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a Unitarian minister.”
“Oh,” said neutrally.
Or “Ohhhh,” the ‘I need time to regroup and think this one out and better remember to not say any swear words.’ response. Or, “Oh,” disdainfully as in, “I better shut this down before this Bible thumper tries to convert me.”
The “Oh” of whatever type, is usually followed by a pause of varying lengths. Now and then I can hear the mental machinery whirring faintly in the background as the off balance questioner thinks of what to say next. And sometimes, people in the first two categories of ‘Oh!” will then ask, “Well, what’s a Unitarian?” The disdainful ‘Oh’s” seldom ask, even over their shoulders as they beat a hasty retreat.
Then comes a version of my ‘elevator speech’ tailored to the audience. ‘Elevator speech’? That’s a phrase coined by the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association in the U.S. Bill Sinkford urges all of us to develop a response to the What’s a Unitarian? question that can be given in the time it takes for an elevator to travel 15 or 20 floors.
Mine goes something like: “We are a creedless faith that encourages people to develop their own spirituality while living ethically and morally according to a set of democratically chosen Principles.”
If it’s a long ride I might add that we have roots that go back to the radical side of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, that most of us view Jesus as one of many great prophets who has shared wisdom with us, but that most don’t see him as uniquely divine.
Now most of the time an answer like that will satisfy the needs of people who are just making conversation. But now and then the chat takes a deeper turn. Some folks like what they hear and want to know more. Then I start inquiring about their interest and views to see if we can find some common ground.
Other times the elevator speech earns a challenge.
“You mean you don’t believe in the Bible?” (or God, or Jesus or whatever piques that person’s particular denominational interest.)
Well, since we’re a creedless church we don’t require our members to subscribe to any particular pre-written set of beliefs in order to be Unitarians. Some believe along traditional lines, but many don’t. Others believe something in between. Some members view, Jesus, for example, as an important teacher of moral values. Some think he was chosen in some way, perhaps he was even divine to a degree. Others say he only represents the divine in all of us. Still others think he was just a darn good guy who was mythologized and transformed into something much more than he was or ever wanted to be.
The point is, we really have no way of knowing who Jesus was. The only official record was written by four guys from different parts of the Roman Empire who never met the man and only began writing down their second and third hand accounts between 30 and 150 years after he died. (If you want to learn more about that consider taking the Bible for Liberals class I will be teaching later this month.)
In the same way we can’t know if Allah wills it or what that will might be, no matter how loudly some people proclaim their beliefs on that score. We can’t prove the existence of YHWH or that the Ten Commandments were really his creation. We know nothing provable about the Goddess or Buddha or Quan yin or the Creator.
If we can’t know for a provable fact anything about God (or the absence of same), then all we can do is speculate. The nature and existence of a divine presence becomes a question of faith. Ane mines isn’t all that certain. Physicists tell me that twodifferent theories of light, quantum theory and particle theory are both right at certain times. That pretty much describes my relationship with God. I believe on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and don’t believe on Tuesdays,l Thursdays and Saturdays. Sunday beliefs remain open for discussion.
Please understand, I am not dissing the divine in any form or people who believe. And I’m not dissing anyone who chooses not to believe either, for unbelief is another kind of faith. I have a great respect for the idea of faith. What I am stressing is this: no one has a right to tell you what you can and must believe. Yep, that’s the big one, the thing that separates Unitarians from a good many other religious groups available to you. We hold firmly to the idea that each one of us has the freedom and the responsibility to make up our own minds about matters of faith.
Each one of us is unique, and the things we believe are shaped by many factors. It is incumbent on each of us to respect the different journeys our fellow beings have travelled as they have formulated and revised the things they believe.
There are the religious beliefs we may have learned as children. A good many Unitarians came from religious backgrounds that they later left for their own reasons. These days another good portion of Unitarians come from no formal religious background at all. And then there are between 10 and 20 per cent who grew up in the Unitarian church and stayed.
Each of us has been shaped by parents and friends, by teachers and figures in history, some religious, some outstanding in other ways. Some have changed the way they see the world after illness, divorce or other life shattering experience. Some come to church simply because they have a vague feeling that something is missing from their lives.
Unitarianism is a religion that welcomes seekers, people who are searching for answers to their own faith concerns, but who will not have the answer dictated to them. Now there are lots of ‘unchurched’ people out there who feel they can do it on their own. More power to them. I can’t. I grew up in the Catholic church, and I guess its true, you can take the boy out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the boy. I left because I thought the pope was flat out wrong on birth control. After wandering on my own for a few years, I came to realize that I missed having a faith community, a place of caring, a place of many people. But I couldn’t go back. Too many things had change inside me. The church of my childhood was no longer ‘relevant’ to use a term from 35 years ago. I needed a faith community, but one where I could think freely about the religious questions that bothered me. I found that in the Unitarian Church.
Well, okay, that’s not entirely the way it happened. In fact I was led into a Unitarian Church by a girlfriend, not quite kicking and screaming, but not exactly embracing the whole deal either. It was only over time that I found how much I had missed a church community. In a time of personal crisis, the people in the Unitarian church became precious to me. And along the way my mind opened. I found that there had been childhood beliefs that chafed and made me uncomfortable. Here I found the freedom to look for more satisfying answers and so the faith became precious, too. I’m still looking, for as I grow and develop and deepen my experience of the world, the questions either change or new ones emerge. I think I’ll be looking until I die. And after that? Well, this church has no doctrine on a possible afterlife. Me? Either I’ll die or start on another new adventure. I’m good either way.
“So how can you call that a church?” my interrogator might ask. “You don’t believe anything, you don’t promise anything and you don’t threaten anything! How can you expect people to be good?”
Well, first, we’re all believers…we just don’t all believe the same things, but as one of our first ministers said in Hungary four centuries, ago, “You don’t have to think alike to love alike.” He was fighting to bring religious freedom to his country, and for a brief time, he succeeded. If you can live comfortably without the certainty beyond that which lives in your own heart and mind and soul, then perhaps you belong here.
Second, we do promise something, just not a celestial Heaven or a tormenting Hell. We promise to respect our fellow seekers as we each work through our own faith issues. No, we don’t promise heaven, because we can’t be sure that any heaven exists beyond the one we make here in our lifetimes. All we can do is to promise to work together on common causes , to work for justice when we can and to help each other along the way. If you think that’s enough, well, perhaps you belong here.
Third, we don’t threaten eternal punishment, but we still expect people to strive to live good lives. I have said several times that we have no creed. That’s true. But we do have a Statement of Principles. It wasn’t handed down from a mountain top or a 2,000 year old book. It is rather a document democratically developed across the continent by delegates about 20 years ago and revised as recently as six years ago.
It’s not a statement of belief. I prefer to think of it as a guideline, as a kind of roadmap for living and for approaching the religious questions that challenge us. There is no one way to interpret the seven Principles. That too is a matter of personal conscience and choice.
“But how will you make people do the right thing?” We won’t. We can’t. No one can. The prisons are full of people who profess to follow one religion or another, but no one has yet come up with a threat or a promise that will keep everyone on the straight and narrow. So instead, we offer community, care and concern for one another, a place to consider a broad range of ethical and moral ideas. And here we offer, as our first Principle says, “respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” When we’re at our best, this respect can also mean ‘speaking the truth in love,’ which means telling the people we love and respect the hard truths about behaviours that may be hurtful or unacceptable. We try to resolve conflict in a healthy way in church matters and in personal differences.
So how can we call ourselves a church? Because here each week gather people of faith…or rather people of faiths. Here are people who are Humanist, Pagan and Wiccan , ‘Spiritual but not religious’ as they say, Christian, Taoist, Native Agnostic and all points in between. We gather here because this feels like the right place to practice our beliefs. We gather to try to figure our way through the challenges that face each of us in life.
The Latin root of the word ‘religion’ is the verb ‘religare’ which means to tie up or bind together. That’s what the people do here. They consider questions and answers that help them make sense of the world. They come to tie their worlds together. And they come for a break and a chance to look inside themselves. They come for the spiritual awakening of their children, and they come to feel loved and loving in return.
In our reading Vincent Silliman wrote, “Religion uniting us with all that is admirable in human beings everywhere, holding before us the prospect of a better life for human kind which each may help to make actual.”
If that’s not a definition of church, I don’t know what is. If this sounds not quite right for you, well thank you for coming today and good luck in your continuing search. But if it sounds like a community that might fit you, well, please come back and test that theory until you know for sure. We will always welcome you.