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Sunday, February 1, 2015

What This Unitarian Universalist Believes

Presented by Rev. Dave Hunter, with Carol Carter Walker, Worship Associate; Dayna Edwards, Director of Multigenerational Religious Exploration; and the Choir

What This Unitarian Universalist Believes

Rev. Dave Hunter Co-Consulting Minister,

Unitarian Universalists of Gettysburg

Prepared for Delivery to the Paint Branch Unitarian Church

February 1, 2015

I was taking the train back to Philadelphia from Baltimore a week ago Friday. I had gone there to have lunch with old friends from my years at the Department of Justice. My seat-mate 1 and I were quietly reading, with him on his Kindle and me absorbed in an old-fashioned book. 2 But a brief but unexpected stop, about ten minutes north of Baltimore, broke the silence between us, and we started chatting. We had both grown up in the northern suburbs of Detroit – who would have guessed? In explaining why I had retired from my legal career so young, I mentioned my second career, as a Unitarian Universalist minister. That was a mistake.

“What do you Unitarian Universalists believe?” he inquired, quite innocently.

“Why didn’t I stay glued to my book?” I asked myself, pondering the question I still felt quite unable to answer adequately. “Ours is a creedless faith,” I began. “There’s no prescribed dogma that Unitarian Universalists are required to accept. We agree that how we live is more important than what we believe. We are bound together by a covenant – by an understanding of how we treat each other, how we relate to one another – by a covenant rather than by a creed.”

“OK, deeds not creeds,” he said, summarizing what he had heard, “that’s all well and good, but you must believe something. What is it that you Universal Unitarians believe?”

I clearly hadn’t gotten through to him. So I tried again, from a different angle. “The underlying question,” I responded, “is authority. What has authority in our lives? What is the source of religious authority?

“For us the ultimate authority is in each individual. We have the freedom – and the responsibility – to decide for ourselves.

            • We all must decide how to live,

            • We must decide what’s important in our lives,

            • We must decide how we should treat others.

            “The preacher on Sunday morning isn’t going to give you the answers.”

“OK, I understand,” he said – though I had my doubts about that – “but when you get beyond the preliminaries, what is it, really, what is it that you Unitarian Unificationists believe?”

I began to be afraid I would run out of ways to answer him. Perhaps it would be easier just to have a creed and be done with it. I can still recite the Apostles’ Creed from my Presbyterian days. Why can’t I do as well with Unitarian Universalism? I tried again.

“For us, religious questions are as important, probably even more important, than religious answers. We take the questions seriously.”

I thought that should satisfy him, but he went right back to the same old question. “Really,” he said, “that’s all swell and fine, but there must be something you Unilateral Unitarians believe – what is it?”

I pretended I hadn’t heard his question, and just kept on going with my explanation. “For us, perhaps the most basic question is how shall I live, what should I do with my life, knowing that my time here on earth is short, knowing that this is it – it’s not a practice session for another life – knowing that death will end it, all too soon, knowing that I care – I care about what happens after I’m gone.”

He was beginning to look frustrated. “You keep giving me questions,” he complained, “I want to know what your answers are. What do you Unitarian Univisionists believe?”

I thought it was time to tell him about our principles and purposes. They’re not a creed, of course, but they do seem to bind us together.

“Unitarian Universalist congregations,” I began, “have agreed to affirm and promote ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person.’”

Before I had a chance to explain, he jumped on what I had said. “So you believe in the inherent dignity and worth of every person. Big deal! What does that mean? I think I know what ‘and’ and ‘of’ mean, but ‘inherent,’ ‘worth,’ ‘dignity’? – they’re too slippery for me. It seems to me that either your statement is meaningless, or it’s obviously false. Every person? If you’re saying, well, that Abubakar Shekau, leader of the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or Adolph Hitler have worth and dignity – that’s just crazy!”

I considered rebutting him.

            • Inherent worth and dignity means that everyone has potential – but some throw it away.

            • It means that we don’t give up on people – there’s always hope.

            • It means we’ve rejected the doctrine of original sin: humans are not inherently bad; we don’t inherit the sins of our parents and grandparents, let alone the “sin” of Adam and Eve.

Our inherent worth and dignity affirmation – it’s not an empirical statement, but a statement of how we choose to view people, a statement of aspiration and hope. We aspire to the creation of a world in which the inherent worth and dignity of every person would be manifest, where we could all live together in a world of mutual respect.

But while I was gathering together my somewhat confused thoughts, he repeated his question: “Just tell me,” he pleaded, “what do you Unicostate Universalists believe?” 3

I decided to go to the other end of the seven principles – I have trouble keeping track of the ones in the middle.

“We have respect for the interdependent web of all existence,” I told him. “And we recognize,” I continued, “that we are a part of that interdependent web. We’re not separate from it, or above it. We’re all in this together.”

He paused for a moment, then he responded. “That’s just another feel-good statement. It’s like cotton candy rather than doctrine. It’s sweet but it dissolves when you try to, to really chew on it.

“But I think I see the problem. I want to know where you Unicameral Unicellularists stand on religious questions, and you keep talking about moral or political or philosophical stuff.

“But you’ve got me confused,” he continued. “First you said that all men – sorry, all men and women – that we all have inherent worth and dignity, then you said – or at least you implied – that we humans aren’t really any more important than, say, gophers or possums or bumble bees. Does that mean that you believe that gophers and possums and bumble bees have inherent dignity and worth? That’s absurd!”

I looked out the window, hoping that Philadelphia was within sight.

“I don’t know what to say about gophers and possums and bumble bees,” I told him, “but I do know that we human beings are the ones who have to take responsibility for our dear Mother Earth. We’ve messed the planet up. Now it’s up to us to save her.

“If we want the earth to be a fit place for our grandchildren to live – and for gophers and possums and bumble bees, too – then we need to repent. We need to rethink our ways – that’s what repent means, to think again – we need to rethink our ways, and radically reform how we live, how we are treating our common home.

“I take seriously,” I continued, “what God says in the first chapter of Genesis.” I figured that a preemptive strike with the Bible would throw him off guard. “Do you remember Day Six of the creation story?” Before he had a chance to answer I plunged ahead.

Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." 4

“That means,” I explained, “that we have responsibility. God didn’t give us dominion just so we could destroy what God had created. God had already declared his creation to be good. It’s our job to preserve it. We are God’s stewards.”

I didn’t realize I had just painted myself into a corner.

“So,” he interrupted, “you Uniparous Univocalists believe in God. Why didn’t you say 5 that earlier?”

“Some Unitarian Universalists believe in God,” I responded, “some don’t; some aren’t sure; some don’t think it’s a very important question.”

“I see,” he said, though I suspected he didn’t. “But what about you, do you believe in God?”

I gave him my standard answer. “If you can define “God” for me, then I’ll tell you – or I’ll try to tell you – whether I believe in God.”

He rejected my terms. “Nothing doing. I just mean God, what everyone means by God, you don’t need a definition. God is just God.”

I decided to take the offensive. Now I’ll ask him some questions. “Well, tell me this. Do you consider God to be omnipotent? Is God all powerful?”

He hesitated just for a moment, and then he responded, “Of course, you can’t imagine God being anything less than all powerful.”

I realized I should be ashamed of myself, but I could not resist the temptation to lead him into a trap. “And does this God of yours love us?” I asked.

This time, he didn’t hesitate, but walked right in. “Yes, of course God loves us. God is love.”

“OK, if God is all powerful, if God is able to do anything God wants, and if God loves us, if God loves us the way a mother loves her child, then why does God let us suffer? Why does God allow war and disease? Why does God allow babies to die of starvation? What kind of God is this?”

“Interesting questions,” he said, with a remarkable lack of emotion. And then, escaping my trap, he turned them back on me. “How would a Univalent Unipersonalist answer them?” 6 7

“Some would say,” I responded, “that God doesn’t exist anyway, so we don’t have to bother with such questions. Some would say that the existence of this dilemma – the contradiction between a powerful God and a loving God – that this dilemma proves that a God of the traditional sort cannot exist. Some would say–”

But he interrupted before I could finish the sentence. “But what would you say?” he demanded.

“Actually,” I said, “I call myself an unfinished quasi-mystical post-humanist metaphorical theist.”

“That’s a conversation stopper,” he admitted. There was a brief pause, then he resumed, “you’ve evaded the God question pretty well. What about Jesus?”

“What about Jesus?” I replied.

“Do you believe in Jesus?” he asked.

“There was such a man, if that’s what you mean,” I answered. “Jesus lived in the early decades of the first century of the common era. He was a Jew. He was executed by the Romans for what he taught, for the way he lived, and for the example he provided to others.”

This didn’t satisfy him. “You sound like Marcus Borg,” he said, somewhat impatiently, referring to the liberal Christian scholar who had died two days earlier. “Don’t you remember 8 the Apostles’ Creed?” he said, “what about ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead’? What about all that?”

“That leaves out a lot, doesn’t it?” I replied, “his life, his teachings. He would eat with anyone, no matter how poor or disreputable. He practiced nonviolence; he learned this his message of hope was not only for his own people, the Jews, but for all of humanity.” 9

This didn’t satisfy him, either. “But do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? That’s the heart of the matter.”

I answered his question with one of my own. “And who do you say that Jesus is?”

“Good question,” he responded, “but I want to hear your answer.”

“We Unitarian Universalists are Unitarians, not Trinitarians. That means that whoever Jesus might have been, he was not God.”

“But,” he objected, “if Jesus wasn’t God, then his death on the cross was not a sufficient sacrifice to atone for the infinite sin of humanity.”

“We Unitarian Universalists,” I continued, “are Universalists. That means that no one will spend eternity in hell, and therefore that humanity does not need to be saved; at least, we don’t need to be saved from eternal damnation.”

“You leave me speechless,” he said, somewhat paradoxically. “You raise so many questions. If there’s no threat of hell, what incentive do you have to be good? Indeed, if Jesus isn’t our Lord and Savior, why bother with worship? Why have a religion? Indeed, what makes your Uniquivocal Univoyeurism a religion, anyway?”

He had clearly gotten himself into a muddle. Or perhaps he had gotten me into a muddle. But without pressing any of the questions he had just asked, he went on to a new one. “What do Unipolar Uniformitarians believe about death?” 10

That I knew how to answer, or at least how to evade. “Unitarian Universalists don’t all have the same beliefs about death,” I started.

“Some believe that when you die you’re dead. Period, end of story. But many of these would say, we live on in the memories of those who survive us; we live on in our works. Others would say that when we die our souls merge with the Spirit of Life, that we live on, in some sense, but without individual consciousness.

“Some believe that heaven awaits us, either directly or after a period of purification. Others believe that reincarnation is our fate.

“Some of us hold out the possibility that a surprise may await us. Others just plain don’t know, and we’re in no particular hurry to find out.”

“And you,” he queried, “what do you believe about death?”

“As I see it,” I answered him, “heaven and hell are here on this planet, in this dimension, if they are anywhere. We should work together to create heaven, or the kingdom of God, the realm of peace and justice and sustainability. We should work to bring them about right here.”

“By the way,” he said, “I noticed, when you were discussing Jesus, that you didn’t mention his miracles.”

Noting my slight hesitation as I gathered my thoughts to explain how the Unitarian theology of miracles had evolved over the past couple of centuries, he broke in, accusingly.

“So you Universible Unicyclists reject miracles, don’t you.” he charged. 11

“It depends on what you mean by miracle,” I replied.

You sure do like to play with words,” he sighed.

uniformitarian – one who accepts the theory (uniformitarianism) that all geological 10 phenomena may be explained as the result of existing forces having operated uniformly from the origin of the earth to the present time.

“I think the world abounds in miracles,” I said, ignoring his invitation to get side tracked in a discussion of language. “Consider the beauty of flowers, or the power of a baby’s smile, or the wonder of the love that can endure, between two people, for decades. And then there’s the ultimate miracle – that there is something rather than nothing, that the universe exists, that 12 evolution has led to this.”

“That leads to another question,” he continued, “what’s the Unifoliate Unilocular view 13 14 of the Bible? Do you accept it?”

“We take the Bible seriously, but not literally,” I explained. “The Bible raises more questions than it answers. The Bible offers us many rules for living, but they’re not all good ones. The Bible, some would say, is the one book to have, if you’re having only one.” 15

Finally, we pulled into 30th Street Station, and I knew that I was off the hook. But he insisted on asking one more question. “If you could sum it all up, what is the essence of your faith? Can you put it in one word?”

“As a wise woman in our congregation once reminded me,” I replied, “that one word is love – abundant, eternal, irrepressible, inexhaustible, mysterious, miraculous, melodious love. Beneath all the layers,” I said as I stood up, “beneath all the fluff and nonsense, the bedrock, the core, the essence is love, nothing but love.”

By the time I reached that concluding “nothing but love,” I was running to the door, not wanting to go to Trenton on that particular evening.

1 Lunch at Chiapparelli’s, in Little Italy.

2 Geza Vermes, Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea (2012)

3 unicostate – having a single main costa, rib, or riblike part, such as the midrib of a leaf or a thickened anterior vein or margin of an insect’s wing.

4 Genesis 1:26 (NRSV).

5 uniparous – producing only one offspring at a time, having produced only one offspring.

6 univalent – having a valence of 1 (chemistry).

7 unipersonal – being manifested or existent in the form of only one person, e.g., a unipersonal spirit.

8 See New York Times, Jan. 27, 2015, p. A15. Borg’s most recent, and presumably his last book, was the memoir Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most (2014).

9 On the universal implications of his message of hope, see, for example, the story of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician (or Canaanite) woman, Mark 7:24-30, Matt. 15:21-28, and the parable of the great dinner, Luke 14:15-24, Thomas 64, and cf. Matt. 22:1-14.

11 universible – not reversible.

12 See my sermon “Why is there something rather than nothing? – Ultimate question or pointless diversion?” (UUs of Gettysburg, March 17, 2013) http://www.uugettysburg.org/pdf%20files/why_sermon.pdf.

13 unifoliate – having a single leaf.

14 unilocular – having a single compartment or chamber (biology).

15 See, for example, John Buehrens, Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for  Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals (2003).

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