Question Box Sermon

“Question Box Sermon”  Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, November 4, 2012


This presentation was build around questions asked by members.


From Colin MacPhail: Hi Brian … I have the highest respect for you. So please don’t take this personally. My question is why are “ministers” called “Reverends”. I looked up the definition, and it mentions someone in clergy who is to be revered. I then looked up revered, with the definition below. Aren’t we ALL reverends?


Thanks Colin, no offence taken!  The use of the word Reverend in Christian traditions first appeared in the 15th century used as a noun as in “we went to see the Reverend”. It began with the Catholics but was adopted by many Protestant groups as they split away in the Reformation.

By the 17th century, however, it had become a title like Doctor or Captain, and a mark of rank as well as one of respect.  Common priests were called ‘the Reverend Mr…’ , and then you could get the Very Reverend and the Most Reverend in the Anglican tradition as you moved up the hierarchical ladder.  Unitarian Universalists follow no such tradition.

Today I use the title in formal publications mostly to show non Unitarians that I have legitimate credentials for the work I do.  My business cards also list my academic degrees for the same reason.

In truth, I am not one for titles or credentials.  I’m one of those folks who when called Mister, says, “Mister Kiely was my father”.  And when newcomers arrive at church and ask the proper way to address me I reply, “Brian.”

I don’t believe respect comes from a school, or from a title.  I believe respect can only be earned by demonstrating who you are in your actions and your words.  And for that reason, I suspect my title should properly be “the Irreverend”.  That said, I do understand that for some people, according me my title is important to them, and so I don’t balk at its use.


In a question related in that it’s about history, Bryce Missal asked me last week why religion seems to hate women.

A lot of people might be tempted to suggest that hatred is far too strong a word, and it was different times and so on.  I won’t.  Historically all the major religions have displayed a very strong misogynistic streak.  No amount of parsing their texts and mining them for positive stories about women can refute that basic assertion.  Women are portrayed, at best, as second class humans, and often treated worse than that – as property, as objects, and most reprehensibly, as the source of sin in the world.  You won’t necessarily find that in Scriptures, but you will find it in other writings and in history.

A great example comes from Hebrew rabbinic literature.  You may not know that Genesis contains two creation stories.  The first is the six days of creation, the second is the story of Adam and Eve.  Genesis 1:27 reads, “So God created man in his own image…male and female he created them.”  Later in Chapter 2 we get the story of Adam being created from the earth and Eve being formed from his rib after he complained of loneliness.

Now the rabbis noticed this discrepancy and needed to explain it, so they devised the character of Lilith, allegedly Adam’s first wife.  According to Jack Holland, author of “Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice” the rabbis decided that Lilith was formed not from the pure dust, but from the filth instead.  They did not have a harmonious marital relationship, for Lilith challenged Adam’s authority.  She, for example, complained about having to be on the bottom during intercourse claiming the right to be on top sometimes.

Lilith abandoned Adam and becomes a demoness who spawns the demons that plague mankind.  God then avoids the problem of female defiance by creating Eve not as an equal, but from Adam’s rib, and insignificant part of human anatomy.  And then Eve gets the rap for convincing Adam to eat of the fruit of the tree.  In some rabbinic accounts Lilith is even named as the serpent.  All those women just ganging up on poor hapless, but authoritative Adam!

There are similar kinds of women as second class person in other religious stories as well, so, I fully grant that the historical base of most religions has a strong misogynistic streak.  Why?

All of this begs a deeper question, in my view.  Does religion define culture or does culture define religion?

The answer is something of a “both and”, but I feel a stronger case can be made for the view that religion follows culture.  Heaven knows history is filled with preachers, all the way back to the Biblical prophets who call their people to a holier life and a more religious life with little or no effect.  Despite the loud banging and crashing of the evangelical movement, our society, and even that of our neighbours to the south, remains one where women have equal rights and control of their bodies, possibly for the first sustained period in history.

Our own liberal Unitarian Universalist movement’s occasional place on the cutting edge of social change has only in a very limited sense been a leading role.  Most often, we have witnessed oppression, witnessed the oppressed standing up and demanding their rights.  Only then, having been persuaded by their stories and their arguments have we lent our voice to the fight against oppression.  This was true with slavery in the US in the 1800’s, with US civil rights in the 1960’s, with our support of women and Gay rights in the late 1960’s and after.

Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of our record in being willing to look at our religion and say, “Right, we have gotten this wrong, it’s time to fix it.”  That puts us leaps and bounds ahead of other much slower-to-change groups. But my point is that we didn’t change the culture, we just readily accepted that culture was changing us.

That’s what religion does.  It supports the dominant culture and changes only when culture changes.  So I believe that if religion has been misogynistic, it’s because culture was that way.  Religion’s failure was to not challenge that status quo.

In the 1980’s there was a movement within feminist studies claiming that before the patriarchal religions there was a time when the goddess ruled.  There was some excellent work done asserting that in this pre-historic age religion tended to be earth based, community and life affirming, focused on nurture rather than war and cooperation rather than dominance.  Authors like Carol Christ and Riane Eisler produced some powerful arguments.

I recall then critiquing these accounts if only because they constructed elaborate understandings based on very little real evidence.  They theorize about an age before writing.  The few artifacts and digs they mustered as evidence were open to a variety of interpretations.  I am not convinced that this golden age ever existed.

I think a fairer interpretation is that women in the best scenarios were accorded their place within society.  Yes they managed the camp or the hearth, handled cooking and child rearing and other tasks, but in those areas they had distinct areas of responsibility, distinct rituals and their own power that was simply different from the men.  It would however, be overly hopeful to say that all tribes and communities treated women well

I think it’s also true that women’s lives and menstrual processes were a mystery to men, and that taboos prevented that from changing.  I think our own Liz Cloutier offers as useful an assessment as any.  She responded to our Facebook page with this:

“Fear, envy…women can sustain new life in their loins…bleed each month and not die. A woman always knows that her baby came from her. The man was never sure that his genes were passed on until the discovery of D.N.A. . As for Adam and Eve knowledge is power and I guess “God” didn’t like that”.

So, religion is misogynistic because human culture has tended to be at best segregationist and at worst hateful towards women.  This is not to excuse religious misogyny, but only to put it in context.


From Julius Buski:  A treatise on “If God is good, he is not God. If God is God, he is not good.” I’m sure you can take it from there. Unfortunately we’ll miss the answer as we’ll be in Palm Springs….


Julius is posing a classical theological question about whether or not God can be both a loving and caring figure and a harsh and judging divinity.  How can a single entity be both the punisher and the nurturer?  Not surprisingly much of traditional theology went round this and ended up with a parental image of Father God, for that is the only model we could construct that has both elements in it.


But this question is also predicated on the notion that God monitors and intervenes in our lives.  I am not sure that such a model really works for most Unitarians in this day and age.  That was the model I grew up with in the Catholic church to be sure, but even then my mother made sure to tone down my expectations of divine support with the oft repeated aphorism, “God helps those who help themselves.”  It was a deep disappointment when I discovered she was not explicitly referring to accessing the cookie jar.


I know from conversation with some of you that we have a wide range of belief in this church, from atheist to those who believe in a god of their own definition.  I am fairly sure that even those who do believe don’t expect to have any god answer their prayers with anything more than inner strength.  And I am pretty sure no one around here expects a harsh judgment from the divine after death.

I expect that a more common view is that the divine does not share human attributes with us, that Scriptures that suggest it were designed for simpler minds in a more literal age.  Given our awareness of science and how natural processes work – without divine assistance – we tend to not worry about divine goodness or harshness anymore.  God is neutral, a source of life energy perhaps, a unifying force in the universe, an energy that connects all living things – a Spirit of Life as the hymn says.

Issues of good and bad remain in our hands.  Heaven and hell are largely things of our human creation

From John Pater: Question: can my UU faith, my UU world and life view, be nurtured without going to church on Sundays? What might some of those other sources of UU enrichment be? And might those sources be competition for my church attendance?

Behind my question is some musing about the adherents of other religions – can you be a good Catholic and not go to mass and confession, can you be a good evangelical Christian and not go to church and bible study, can you be a good Muslim and not pray facing Mecca each day, can you be a good Hindu and not worship at a shrine regularly, etc. So, my basic question is: can you be a good UU and not go to church? Or, what is an identifiable and agreed upon UU activity that marks one as a good, faithful Unitarian-Universalist?


Adam Snider responded to John and added, Even though I think I have an idea of the answer to John’s question, I’d also like to hear the answer, or at least the answer to a slight variation: if I am a UU who doesn’t go to church, what might I do to maintain my UU “faith?” How can I make my Unitariansim a practice in the absence of a UU community?

Given that there are so few UU churches in Canada, I imagine that there are a number of self-identified Unitarians who can’t go to a UU church even if they want to. In fact, some of the cities I’d most like to live in should I ever move away from Edmonton are cities that do not have UU congregations, so this isn’t entirely an abstract question.


Through much of the 20th century, and even today, smaller Unitarian congregations often closed down in July and August.  There was an old joke:  Unitarians are the only people God trusts enough to give them the summer off.


John and Adam’s questions are good ones.  On the one hand, the Unitarian church is an institution, and requires some institution building if only to help us promote and ground our teachings of the Principles, our presentation of a liberal alternative voice in religion.  Without some center, there would be no ministers or theologians, no literature, no consistent web presence, and no means for giving our particular moral positions a social justice voice.


And yet there is nothing we require of anyone in order to call themselves a Unitarian Universalist, other than a willingness to be a member of a community.


The strength of our tradition is that we do not have a fixed creed or set of beliefs. We do not have obligatory rituals or even a requirement to attend services on a fixed basis.  Face it…we are really crappy at regulating members and making them toe the line.


American President Thomas Jefferson once said that were he ever to join a church, it would be a Unitarian church, but as there was not one nearby he had to be content to be a Unitarian, “on my own”.


I think you could make a fair argument that Unitarianism is more of an approach to religious and moral questions than a religion itself.  And if that is so, then there is no reason why Adam can’t move to East Overshoe Alberta and still be a Unitarian.


But it takes work.  That’s really the key to this thing we have together.  For some of us the work of being a UU is about coming to church, supporting it financially and helping out where we can.  And we still have an obligation to ponder the events of our lives in terms of the Principles.  In other words we have to put in the time to make our religious practice meaningful.


It is the same if you are on your own.  You can read, or follow web sites, increasingly participate in online discussions etc.  And if you want to get more specific, the UUA has the Church of the Larger Fellowship, the CLF, a fully on-line church community with ministers, live cast services, pastoral care and everything.  Their pot luck dinners leave a bit to be desired, but in every sense it is a real congregation.


All that is good, but in a real sense the decision to Unitarian identify is yours to make.  I am not sure curling would nurture your UU view of life, John, but perhaps organizing a group that met for liberal theological chats in a brew pub would.


It just seems that having a church is a lot easier.  This service will be here every week.  You don’t have to always make the effort to figure it out for yourself.  And these people will be here, in some agglomeration, every week, as well.  That familiarity breeds a degree of comfort and camaraderie, and that’s the part that I think is sacrificed when you have to do it on your own.  It’s not the rituals that make our communal worship meaningful, it’s the people that share them.


Finally, I was asked: “For someone who came from a religious background that stresses the existence of Hell, how can this person change his/her belief from “Hell exists” to “Hell does not exist”?


Slowly.  This is a question about worldview, about something that has been deeply ingrained since childhood.  You can’t just toss that overnight.  It takes deep thought and considerable effort.  Accepting that Hell exists, leads to a whole bunch of supporting ideas and even behaviours.  It affects how you think of the good people you meet and how you react to the not so good.  It affects how you think of yourself, and whether or not you live your life in the grip of fear that you will burn.  It affects how you look at categories of people who you have been taught to think of as sinners .  Each of these inherited or taught ideas has to be re-examined in light of this new “Hell does not exist” thinking.


It takes time.  It takes a willingness to listen to the stories of these so called sinners and to try and understand their point of view.  You don’t have to accept it outright, but for your own growth, you do need to consider their stories and rethink your own positions.  I was never very fond of Hell, nor was I very afraid of it, but I was raised in the Catholic tradition.  I left the church.  Two years later I began to attend a Unitarian church.  I listened- almost resentfully at first.  I listened and I thought about what I heard and then I decided what I believed.  It was nearly four years before I became willing to think of myself as a Unitarian.  It takes time.