Sermon: A Deeper Look at the Living Tradition

Once upon a time, I found on the website of a Unitarian Universalist congregation a 30-second video clip that was there to explain briefly what Unitarian Universalism is. It’s called “Unitarian Universalism in 30 Seconds,” and it goes like this – picture different people saying each short line of this:

“I’m an atheist.

I’m a humanist.

It’s hard for me to characterize my belief system.

I’m a Buddhist.

I’m a Taoist and naturalist.

I’m a spiritual humanist.

I’m an explorer of liberal Christianity.

I’m a spiritual person.

I’m deeply agnostic.

We’re all pretty different.

On a different path.

Many different beliefs.

But we all worship at the same church.

The same church.

We go to the same church.

Go to the same church.

We all go to the same church.”[1]

Get it? I think that message probably resonates with most Unitarian Universalists. And I suppose if we’re trying to give a quick thumbnail description to help shape visitors’ expectations about what they’ll find when they visit us, this piece is at least trying to be honest about our diversity.

You might have missed a definite bias in the piece. In the list of religious self-descriptions are eight different ways to say: “I reject and do not personally subscribe to any conventional religious tradition.” In the minority are two statements of subscription to non-Western religious traditions, and one venture to explore the dominant religious tradition in our culture, Christianity. One might summarize this list as: “No, no, no, / no, no, no, / no, no, and no.” The only collective description is “Freethinkers,” a word often used loosely to mean “I think for myself,” but just as often used more narrowly to mean “atheist.” Take into account that Buddhism and Taoism – the two non-Western traditions mentioned – are widely misunderstood to be atheist traditions, and the bias is obvious. The one religious tradition that is practically synonymous with “religion” in our culture we might venture to “explore,” but on the whole, if it’s religion, we reject it.

Though we, the initiated, might reject that interpretation, there’s no doubt in my mind that many of the uninitiated – whom this clip is meant to address – would understand it in just that way. We speak of our “living tradition,” but this clip would say to many that we have no tradition at all.

Peter Morales – the current President of the Unitarian Universalist Association – keeps telling us that we have to do three things:

  • Third: Cross borders – allow love to overcome fear – in its clumsy way, the clip tries to illustrate that value: people crossing borders of belief together in one church;
  • Second: Grow leaders – learn to trust – a hard skill in this culture of economic predation that America has become;
  • and First: Get religion – get beyond what we believe, and get to what we love – which the clip utterly fails to do.

With this advice, Peter’s on to something important about faith. In English we say that we “have faith” – but as you know, faith is not a possession you can hold, like a belief. Faith is a way of moving and being in the world, and it involves a skill set: to stay in touch with what you love, to live in the world with trust, and to allow love to overcome fear. That’s what it means to have faith. We are tempted many times to do the opposite – to stay in touch with what we believe, to live in the world with suspicion, and to let fear overcome love. To succumb to these temptations is to lose faith. To embrace them in the name of faith is blasphemy. The teaching of our living tradition is that there is beneath our surface vices and foibles a core of goodness in us that knows how to love and to trust and to reach out to others, and when we act from that core we act in faith, we create beloved communities and find right relationship with one another and with the universe.

We are a people of faith with a distinct religious tradition. Our hesitancy to own our tradition probably owes something to our attitude toward traditions. Since most of the religious traditions we encounter explain themselves in terms of beliefs, we think a tradition is a belief system, as most people in our Western culture do. But the core of religion – of whatever tradition – is beyond belief.

A tradition invites you into a story. That story deals with what is within our power to do in the world and what is beyond our power. It deals with the nature of the world as it is, whether we like it or not. It deals with how we treat each other. It deals with the relationship of our inner life to our outer life, where our deep hungers meet the world’s deep needs. It deals with our sense of calling, of purpose, of meaning in our lives. And it deals with our relationship to all that we love, and especially with the excellence we love – “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good report, whatever is virtuous, whatever is praiseworthy.”

A story does not offer beliefs. It explores them. It questions them. It judges them. It lifts up the tensions and contradictions in them. And it holds them – and us – accountable to what we love. It illustrates how – and how not – to live in trust and let love overcome fear. It explores the consequences of losing faith.

Alongside the story – alongside tradition – religions have a body of speculative knowledge known as theology or doctrine. The religions we encounter that stress belief dwell more in their doctrine and less in their story. When they do enter their story, their doctrines place limits on their exploration – limits that might tell them that what they love or what they trust is unimportant or wrong, limits that might instill fear rather than temper it. Religious practices there derive less from the compelling movements of the story and more from beliefs regarded as doctrinal knowledge. They are more likely to hinder than to foster development of the religious skills – to find what you love, to learn to trust, to let love overcome fear.

Beside tradition and speculation – beside the story and the doctrine – there is a third element in religion: it is variously called the mystical or the spiritual or the experiential. This is the primary mode of a truly lived faith, which the story and the doctrine are meant to support. In a spiritual or mystical experience, one is deeply in touch with what one loves, profoundly in a state of trust, and fear is cast away or at least wrestled down. Belief-based faith has a hard time embracing this primary mode of faith, because it is not accustomed to dealing so directly with the true ground of religious skills, the ground that we say is “in our hearts.”

That 30-second clip is trying to lift up the importance of this mystical element of religion. That’s what Unitarian Universalism always does at its deepest level. The emphasis on the individual that we are sometimes criticized for, sometimes lampooned for (you know the jokes – “we believe in the worth of luminescence and in the inherent dignity of all bulbs of whatever sort – incandescent, fluorescent, neon, and even wicks – and we believe in the value of fostering luminescence through change” – right?): our emphasis on the individual is meant to lift up conscience – the ground of religious skills that is in our hearts – which Ferenc David called “the source of all spiritual joy and happiness.” The clip falls short of delivering that message because the other great emphasis we are famous for – social justice, making a difference in the world – falls short of being a tradition.

A religious tradition deals with the nature of the world as it is, whether we like it or not. It deals with how we treat each other. It deals with our sense of calling, purpose, or meaning. And it deals with our relationship to all that we love, and especially with the excellence we love. To put some theological labels on that: a tradition deals with cosmology, morality, vocation and the divine.

Our emphasis on social justice is an emphasis on morality. Quite commonly, Unitarian Universalists think that cosmology is best left to science, that vocation is a private matter best left to the individual conscience, and that the divine is an artifact of ancient superstition unworthy of our attention. So all we’re left with for a religious tradition is morality. Hence all our talk about covenants and right relations and social justice and so on.

In recent years one of our leading theological thinkers, the Rev. David Bumbaugh, has offered a statement of what Unitarian Universalists believe[2] that begins with a cosmology, moves to a morality (a statement about what beloved community looks like), accounts for our longing for purpose and meaning, and ends in a statement about the divine, which David calls: “a deep, implicate process that called us into being, that sustains us in being, that transforms us as we cannot transform ourselves, that receives us back to itself when life has used us up.” Moving as this statement is when David delivers it, and thorough as it is in summarizing the elements of our tradition by the lights of the most broadly shared speculative perspectives among us, I observe that in the end most Unitarian Universalists don’t know what to do with it. Because in most ears it starts off as a poetic statement of the findings of science, touches on our core concerns with covenants and social justice, enters somewhat questionably into the realm of private discernment, and finishes up with a lot of antique superstition polished up, like the science, with poetic flourishes.

We hear it that way because we do not understand that our tradition must encompass more than just the moral dimension of religion. We do not understand that, because most often we do not affirm it or teach it. We do not affirm it or teach it much because we think that, when we get down to brass tacks, religion is about creating the beloved community, and all else flows from that. Or else it doesn’t matter, religiously speaking. That is a very common theology among us.

In consequence, we are criticized in the wider world for having a “works theology” or a “works righteousness.” And some like to say that this is because we’ve let go of God. The criticism is just. But to see that it is just, we must have the skill to do two things: to understand the dimensions of religion that are not encompassed by the ideal of the beloved community, and to read the symbol system in which the criticism is framed. The more significant consequence of “letting go of God” is that our skill to understand that symbol, and symbol system, has atrophied some. As we grow in faith, we do learn to see it as a symbol system rather than as an alternative form of science, but we’re not confident about how to read the symbols. If we are to learn to read the symbols, we need to engage less with the people in mainstream religious traditions who still think it’s science, and find the people who know that it’s symbolism and are trying to read it skillfully.

The purpose of religious cosmology is not to describe the universe – that is the job of science – but to tell a story about the universe as we understand it that will align and relate us meaningfully to all that is “given” – all that is beyond our power or preferences, all that is “grace,” to use the old term. Religious cosmology does not model the universe; it helps us understand our place in it and how we belong to it. David Bumbaugh observes a shared Unitarian Universalist cosmology that resembles that of Congregationalist minister Michael Dowd (author of Thank God for Evolution!) or CalTech professor Brian Swimme (author of The Universe Story). Both of these writers are popular in our circles, and both of them share with us a hesitancy to acknowledge that cosmology is within the purview of religion. It is one thing to describe the universe: that is what science does. It is quite another to discern our place within it, to know how to be at home in it: that is what religion does. To fulfill this function, religion needs a cosmology that does not contradict science. But a religious cosmology needs to be a story, a space in which to explore, to question, to judge, to lift up the tensions and contradictions, to help us understand how we are accountable to what we love, how we may live in trust, why we should let love overcome fear, and what are the consequences of losing faith.

A religious tradition, beyond the moral realm that we dwell upon so much, requires a cosmology of this kind. It also requires teachings about vocational discernment and spiritual practice.

Religious vocational discernment deals with our longing for purpose and meaning, to find our calling or vocation in life. Properly vocational concerns have to do with the question, as Mary Oliver phrased it, “what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?” This is as much a matter of conscience as morality is. Unitarians used to say that religion is about loving God and loving our neighbors. Now we mostly talk about loving our neighbors. And we say that we “stand on the side of love,” which I think is our new way to talk about love of God. Our Universalist forebears taught that God is love. Today, instead of teaching ourselves to strive to be fully in the image of God, we speak of striving to be fully in the image of love. I think we mean the same thing as our forebears. The moral dimension of that teaching is evident, and we are inclined to dwell upon it. The vocational dimension of it is: given who you are – what you love, what you do well, what draws your interest, and so on –what will you do with your one wild and precious life to fulfill your potential to manifest love in the world? You can see that that’s different from career counseling, just as religious cosmology is different from scientific cosmology, yes?

We’re often tempted by our congregation’s organizational needs to try to satisfy people’s religious vocational needs by career counseling them into jobs in the church. We’re tempted to do that because we tend to understand our whole tradition in terms of covenants and the work of the church, as having to do primarily with the beloved community and not so much with the relationship of our inner life to our outer life, where our deep hungers meet the world’s deep needs. That, we think, is a private matter. And thus we inhibit our efforts to encourage one another toward spiritual growth in our congregations.

Cosmology, morality, vocation, and the divine: these are the four fields of religious concern. Every tradition has some kind of practice meant to put you in touch with the divine – with the best of what you love and the source of what you love. Whether it’s your prayer life or your meditation practice or your yoga or something else, there is a spiritual practice that the tradition encourages you to take up and engage in every day. Not a rote ritual, but a conscious cultivation of feeling the presence of the divine in your life. Feeling it – having an experience of it, or recalling one. More often it’s a memory than an immediate palpable experience during your spiritual practice time, but it accompanies you, it grounds you, it reminds you of all the other dimensions of faith: your sense of place and being at home in the cosmos, your sense of beloved community and social justice, your sense of calling and of becoming more fully in the image of love. Because we tend to think of the divine as superstition – thinking of God as a fact (or not) rather than as a symbol – and because we tend to think of spiritual practice as a private matter, and because we think that diversity means we should never prescribe one practice for everybody, we neglect to teach ourselves, much less our children, that having a spiritual practice is important, indeed necessary, to our health and basic human nature. Just as religious cosmology needs to agree with scientific cosmology, so your spiritual practice has to agree with your way of naming the best of what you love and the source of what you love. It has to fit into a story that you believe in. It has to be authentic; it has to satisfy your conscience. But it is not optional.

This is what our visitors are looking for: a sense of our tradition. How do we understand our place and our belonging to the cosmos? How do we understand the beloved community and social justice? What do we teach about how to fulfill our potential to embody love in the world? And how do we stay true to what we love? How will this faith help me to get past what I believe and get to what I love? How will it help me to live in trust? How will it help me to let love overcome fear?

This is also what all of us already here are looking for, each in our own way. A true living tradition tends to all of these things. So I encourage you to explore cosmology as a religious story about how things are and how we are in the cosmos. I encourage you to explore how you – given who you are – can most fully embody love in the world, and not only that, but to support others in that exploration by helping them see their gifts as you see them. And I encourage you to have a practice that puts and keeps you in touch with the best and the source of what you love, and to support each other in having and maintaining a spiritual practice. A living tradition lives through us. Let us bring it alive. Amen.