Monday, March 12, 2012

Beyond Theological Diversity: A Sermon by Rev. Felicia Urbanski

"Beyond Theological Diversity"
a sermon by Rev. Felicia Urbanski
December 17, 2006
First Unitarian Congregation of Waterloo
(Rev. Urbanski, a friend of mine, is now a minister with the United Church of Canada in Erin & Inglewood, Ontario)

First Reading:  1.  Encountering God in People of other Faiths -
                              By Diana Eck
Several years ago I spent an afternoon in Nairobi with the parents of a Muslim colleague.  They were followers of the tradition of Islam led today by the Aga Khan.  We visited the large mosque and Islamic center in Nairobi and enjoyed a meal at Gujarati restaurant before they put me on the evening train to Mombassa.  Just as they were getting me settled in my compartment, we heard the evening call to prayer.  My friend's father glanced at his watch and said to me, "It is time to remember God in prayer.  Excuse us."  We closed the compartment door and as he and his wife sat down to pray, I sat with them.  "In the name of God the Almighty, the Compassionate, the Merciful…" -- I recognized the first few lines of the Qur'an in Arabic.  I bowed my head and entered into the spirit of prayer with them, although I did not know the words they spoke.  Is our God the same God?  Frankly, the question did not occur to me then.  I simply took it for granted.
     What we take for granted in our experience is the very stuff of theological reflection.  What allowed me to feel so natural in entering into a spirit of prayer with my Muslim friends?  When I preached not long ago at a church on the green of Lexington, Massachusetts, just across from the famous statue of the Minuteman, I reflected on the matter.  I spoke of the common monotheistic tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Allah is not "the Muslim God," I said, but simply the Arabic word for God.  Allah is none other than the one we know as God and is the name Arabic-speaking Christians also use when they pray.

      After the service a parishioner insisted it was wrong to equate the Christian God, Father-Son-Spirit, with Allah.  As we discussed the matter together over coffee, the parishioner and I concluded that there were at least three alternatives.  We both rejected the idea that there could be two Gods, the one we call God and the one Muslims call Allah, so the first possibility was that there could be one God, ours, with Allah being a false God.  This would be a form of exclusivist thinking: our way of thinking about God excludes all others.  That did not seem to account for the vibrant faith of the fifth of humankind who worship Allah.

     The second alternative could be that we see God in God's fullness and that the Muslims see the same God less clearly.  Muslims no doubt would see it the other way around.  This would be an inclusivist view -- our way of thinking includes the other, somewhat less adequate conception.

     The third and perhaps the most satisfactory alternative would be to insist that there is only one God whom Christians and Muslims understand only partially because God transcends our complete comprehension.  As Muslims put it, "Allahu akbar!"  It means not only "God is great," but "God is greater!"  That is, greater than our understanding, greater than any human idea of God.  This would leave room for the self-understanding of both Christians and Muslims and would be a pluralist view.

Second ReadingCorporate Merger Announced: Christmukkah
- from an unknown source, shared with me by Rev. Stefan Jonasson in an email.

Continuing the current trend of large-scale mergers and acquisitions, it was announced today at a press conference that Christmas and Hanukkah will merge. An industry source said that the deal had been in the works for about 1300 years. While details were not available at press time, it is believed that the overhead cost of having twelve days of Christmas and eight days of Hanukkah was becoming prohibitive for both sides. By combining forces, we're told, the world will be able to enjoy consistently high-quality service during the Fifteen Days of Chrismukkah, as the new holiday is being called.

      Massive layoffs are expected, with lords a-leaping and maids a-milking being the hardest hit. As part of the conditions of the agreement, the letters on the dreydl, currently in Hebrew, will be replaced by Latin, thus becoming unintelligible to a wider audience.  Also, instead of translating to "A great miracle happened there" the message on the dreydl will be the more generic "Miraculous stuff happens" In exchange, it is believed that Jews will be allowed to use Santa Claus and his vast merchandising resources for buying and delivering their gifts.

      One of the sticking points holding up the agreement for at least three hundred years was the question of whether Jewish children could leave milk and cookies for Santa even after having eaten meat for dinner. A breakthrough came last year, when Oreos were finally declared to be Kosher. All sides appeared happy about this.

      A spokesman for Christmas, Inc., declined to say whether a takeover of Kwanzaa might not be in the works as well. He merely pointed out that, were it not for the independent existence of Kwanzaa, the merger between Christmas and Chanukah might indeed be seen as an unfair cornering of the holiday market. Fortunately for all concerned, he said, Kwanzaa will help to maintain the competitive balance.

      He then closed the press conference by leading all present in a rousing rendition of 'Oy Vey, All Ye Faithful'!

One can only imagine what the rest of the words could be for "Oy Vey, All Ye Faithful", heralding the news of that "joyful and triumphant" hero, Judas of the Maccabees, as the throng descends upon the manger scene in Bethlehem!  

We could go on and on, couldn't we?

It is humorous -- as well as ludicrous -- to imagine such a merger of distinctive religious holidays, as much as Judaism and Christianity and even Islam share certain common elements, such as certain foundational stories from the Hebrew scriptures.  This time of year especially, there are a great many symbols which use the imagery of light, including that of the sun's eventual return as marked by the celebration of the Solstice.  Light triumphing over the darkness, hope in a time of struggle, and peace being possible in a world consistently besieged by some kind of a war, somewhere on the planet.

As Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists, we will often look to the similarities rather than the differences between various religions and philosophies.  We will try to honor them all in our worship and in our educational gatherings.  Like Diana Eck, we will look to becoming a pluralistic religious body -- one in which participants are invited to explore a variety of paths, all equal in their validity. 

As Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists, we often will look at ourselves as a unity created from a diversity.  We frequently pride ourselves on the great variety of expressions of spirituality that are represented in the majority of our congregations.  In fact, during the time before I came here to be your Interim Minister, I was deeply involved with the process known in ministerial circles as "the search".  A minister in search within our free association of congregations gets to go to his or her computer and "click on" the name of any congregation looking for a minister.  Then, he or she can "click on" up to a total of 15 at any one time of congregations which seem like good places to apply after reading their "congregational record".

In these rather long documents, each congregation has to answer a series of questions.  One of these is:  "To what degree does the congregation possess a dominant theology?" 

How we define the word "theology" perhaps needs a bit of explanation here:  Theology includes the full range of religious and philosophical beliefs, not just theistic ones, as well as our human understanding of the meaning and purpose of life and of Ultimate Reality.

So…to what degree does the congregation possess a dominant theology?  Better get ready now -- you'll be needing to help your ministerial search committee to answer this and many other tough questions beginning about six months from now!  Think of all those potential permanent ministers clicking on the First Unitarian Congregation of Waterloo.  What can they hope to find?

Hmm…a dominant theology?  Perhaps forty or so years ago you could confidently state "Humanist".  Perhaps not so now!  I can well imagine how this question puzzles a great many search committees.  My question is:  Do any of our congregations have one particular theology which dominates all others?

I have to say that in my experience of reading dozens of congregational records, I learned that they all say pretty much the same thing!  That is, that their congregational has no dominant theology.  That they are all eclectic and diverse.  Their congregational surveys may reveal a higher percentage of people in one theological category or the other -- such as those who self-identify with humanism, or atheism, or paganism or Buddhism.  But overall, every congregation I looked at indicated some kind of an eclectic mix of philosophies or theologies.  Many congregations which began in the period of the fellowship movement, similar to the historical beginnings of this one, observed a rather big shift away from a primarily humanist centre to this very interesting, well, stew!  They each have distinct ingredients, yet these are all blended at the edges to create what now I see as the typical congregational make-up today.

Is this a good thing?  Perhaps only time will tell.  For now, many of us are enjoying the ride.  Many of us are also leery of being involved in a denomination -- or technically, an association of congregations -- which in a relatively short time seems to have almost forgotten its historical roots in Christianity.  But that is a topic for another day!

Let's look at an important study which was completed quite recently.  The findings were published in this book called Engaging our Theological Diversity.  From 2002 to 2005 there was a group of dedicated and knowledgeable Unitarian Universalists who worked hard to try to answer the basic question of "what is it that holds us together anyway"?  The Purposes and Principles are not the answer, although they are a good statement of some of our commonalities in the area of ethical values.  But what about theology?  What about our human understanding of the meaning and purpose of life and of Ultimate Reality?  What holds us together, if anything?

Well, you can imagine the difficulty in answering this question, especially for a religious movement with people who hold such a variety of strong opinions.  This group, called the Commission on Appraisal, said this: 

"Three years of study and conversation have not brought us to a complete consensus about a common core to our faith."  

Okay…so are we back to where we started, I wonder?

They continue to say, "Yet, we have found much common ground along the way, in the material we share."

Okay, that's a nice concession.  But frankly, I'm disappointed!  I thought that for once we might be able to pinpoint exactly what lies at the centre of our faith!

Well, the Commission did come up with a good set of twelve statements which attempt to at least describe who we are theologically.  I'd like to share these with you now:

We are a grounded faith.  We are a faith with roots, however lightly held, that go back two thousand years and more.  Unlike other more recently evolving nontraditional faiths, ours is solidly grounded in both the realm of history and the realm of ideas.

We are an ecological faith.  The "interdependent web" concept of our seventh Principle is not new to history (the "net of Indra" in Hindu and Buddhist thought has been around for several thousand years).  But in the West this vision of interconnectedness has had an uphill struggle to displace a more hierarchical vision of the nature of the cosmos.  We have placed the web squarely at the center of our shared worldview.

We are a profoundly human faith.  Whether we see our charge as loving our neighbour or ending the suffering of all sentient beings, whether a transcendent dimension is part of our worldview or not, our primary focus for religious action is the well-being of this world.  We wrestle with our ideas about human limitation and human power and acknowledge that our understandings are imperfect.

We are a responsible faith.  At our best, we are able to respond to our deep sense of interconnectedness with both the natural and human worlds.  Whatever our source of religious inspiration, we understand that humanity must take its responsibility for the state of the world seriously.  We humans have created many of the ills from which we and all creatures on this planet suffer.  We have the ability to ameliorate suffering, if only we find the will to do so.  Our diverse sources of religious inspiration power our will to act.

We are an experiential faith. We are focused more on experience (our own and that of trusted others, past and present) than beliefs.  We do not hold with beliefs that contradict our experience, although we recognize that there are realities that can draw us beyond the present limits of our knowledge.

We are a free faith.  We are free both as individuals and as congregations.  We recognize the authenticity and integrity of each individual's life journey, and concepts such as "building your own theology" or "composing a faith" resonate with us.  We are a faith of heretics (from the Greek hairesis, "to choose").

We are an imaginative faith.  We engage with image and story, garnering wisdom from many traditions and building bridges between them, making a place where creativity can flourish.

We are a rational faith.  While we support the individual journey, we ground it in caring community.  Relational language occurs more frequently than any other in core-of-faith statements shared with the Commission.

We are a covenantal faith.  We are held together, from our Reformation roots, by our chosen commitment to each other rather than by creed, ecclesiastical authority, or revealed truth.  We began to reclaim that heritage with the language of our Principles.  More recently, we have come to recognize ourselves as a dialogical faith; the explosion of covenant groups (which we call "Chalice Circles") in our midst reflects this.  We are reminded of Francis David's admonition over four centuries ago: "We need not think alike to love alike".

We are a curious faith.  Freedom and tolerance have been central to our tradition at least since the Reformation.  The psychological characteristics and values of people drawn to our ranks suggest openness is a compelling characteristic, even if we do not always live our values of tolerance, acceptance, and respect as well as we might.  We acknowledge that our perspective is limited, that we could be wrong, that we live in the midst of uncertainties, yet we are ever open to new insights.

We are a reasonable faith.  We do not ask people to check their rationality at the door, and we encourage the practice of disciplined inquiry toward personal and societal assumptions.  We challenge idolatries, especially our own.  We are positive toward the findings of science, while questioning the values that at times motivate choices in that area as in every other.

We are a hopeful faith.  We are a faith of possibilities, aspiring to be (though we often fall short) a transformational faith, a justice-seeking faith.  We would create a space for the realization of possibility, whether we call it the "commonwealth of God" or the "Beloved Community".[i]

Well -- perhaps this vision can be claimed by all the various strands in our theologically diverse circles.

These 12 statements use the word "faith" over and over again, and like the word "theology", I think an explanation is needed.

Many of us have a deep affection for our in-house musical group here at First Unitarian, a group who named themselves "Blind Faith and the Lost Crusaders".  The humour implicit here of course comes from the fact that blind faith -- giving away one's own authority to another person, or to a doctrine, or to an organization -- is not genuine faith.  Real faith helps people to stand on their own two feet, to embrace life in times of both joy and sorrow, and provides the courage to step through darkness into the light.

Authentic faith is not about believing in something that someone says you should.  It is not about memorizing and parroting the teachings of a religious leader or of a sect.  It is rather about becoming who you really are.  Faith requires reflection and self-examination. 

The late James Luther Adams, perhaps our foremost Unitarian Universalist theologian, took the words of Socrates, "An unexamined life is not worth living," and reframed this to say, "An unexamined faith is not worth having".  In other words, there is no genuine faith that is not an examined one.

Remember that faith is not a set of beliefs, especially beliefs not grounded in scientific evidence.  It is the act of deciding to live in the way required by the source of all human good.  An authentic faith is one which calls us to reshape our lives.

James Luther Adams said that faith is not fundamentally about one's beliefs, but about one's choice of commitments.  He asks what do you love with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength?  Whatever that is, where is it calling you to meet the demands of this challenging time in which we live?  What are you truly committed to?

"An unexamined faith is not worth having."

When we truly engage in examining our personal commitments -- our own faith -- that then we can truly remain open to the expressions of faith which we find different from our own.  We can be truly open-minded, and non-defensive when we hear someone else describe their personal faith stance.  We can then engage our theological diversity in a healthy, affirming way.

Like Diana Eck, we can even pray with someone else who is different from us.  We can at some point comprehend that what another person loves with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their mind and with all their strength is greater than any human understanding.

We can begin to move beyond the traditional labels, and accept that the labels themselves have soft borders.  The labels themselves are shifting.

Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists love using theological descriptors, such as telling people, "I'm a UU Pagan", or "I'm a UU Buddhist", or "I'm a UU Christian", to name only a few examples.  These hyphenated UU's follow a particular religious discipline within the community and values of Unitarian Universalism.  Some people say that there should be no such thing, and just simply people who are UU's.  To which I say, that may be fine for you personally, but just look at the reality of the situation.  Is it such a bad thing that people want to plumb the depths of a specific tradition?  To go deeper rather than to expand ever wider?

This is the key:  We are able to look at the other religious traditions and have them inform our Paganism, or influence our Buddhism, or change our Christianity.  Yes, true religious dialogue opens us up to gaining information, being influenced, and even changing!  And change is how we grow.

May we encounter God in others, not only in the religious traditions they choose to follow, but in the core of the human being who embodies them.  May we see into one another's souls and be truly able to say that although we are different, we are still one.

[i]   Engaging Our Theological Diversity, A Report by the Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association, May 2005, pp. 91-93.