“Is All Religion One?”   by Mark W. Harris

 March 13, 2011 –  First Parish of Watertown

 

Call to Worship from Alfred Martin      Chuck Dickinson, Worship Associate

We believe in a fellowship that shall unite men and women and children, not in the bonds of Confucian or Muslim or Christian love, but in the holier bonds of human love;

Gong down beneath all that separates and divides, to the principles of freedom and understanding;

Below religions to religion; beneath all sacraments to the universal impulse that bends the soul in reverence and awe;

A union not of religious systems, but of free souls, united to build on the basis of truth, justice and love, the commonwealth of humankind.

Responsive Reading  –  “Hey Ain’t

That Good News!” by John Corrado

 

            Response: Hey, Ain’t That Good News!

We believe there is a place at God’s table for each and every child of earth.

             Hey, Ain’t That Good News!

 

We believe the giver of life has been given many names and loves the givers of all of them.

             Hey, Ain’t That Good News!

We are more interested in getting heaven into people now than getting people into heaven later.

             Hey, Ain’t That Good News!

We believe that religious scriptures are open doors rather than sealed vaults.

             Hey, Ain’t That Good News!

We believe there is more holy writ yet to be written.

             Hey, Ain’t That Good News!

We believe that true evangelism is more preaching practiced than practiced preaching.

             Hey, Ain’t That Good News!

We believe that peace and justice are not just words we form with our lips, but realities we shape with our lives.

             Hey, Ain’t That Good News!

We believe in one race – the human race.

            Hey, Ain’t That Good News!

We believe are one with the stars and trees and tigers and rivers and all the stuff of life.

            Hey, Ain’t That Good News!

 

We believe our lives are all about growing hearts that love, minds that seek, and hands that serve.

            Hey, Ain’t That Good News!

Blessed Be! And Amen!

 

Readings

(From As If God Were There, by Terry Sweetser)

I was seven years old when I had my first encounter with theology. My mother made a batch of fudge, placed it in the refrigerator, and decreed that it could not be sampled until after supper. I was not pleased. I contrived every scheme I could imagine to sneak some, but someone always seemed to be lurking in the kitchen.

At about four o’clock I got an unbelievable break. My mother and sister had to go to the store, leaving me alone for a little while. Mother must have been reading my mind because she gave me a warning on her way out: “Just because I am not here,” she said, “don’t think you are alone with the fudge. God is watching you.”

The word “theology” means God study. As they drove off I was studying hard. It did not take me long to conclude that I was a seven year old atheist. Boy did that fudge taste good. Unfortunately, for me, mother counted the pieces, and the recount on her return showed a deficit of three. When asked how I could have brazenly taken the fudge in front of God, I said, “I don’t believe in God.” My ever practical Unitarian mother responded by administering my first spanking, (and saying): “It would be in your best interests to act as if God were there.”

from “On Going to Church”  by  A. Powell Davies (1902-1957)

Let me tell you why I come to church.

I come to church—and would whether I was a preacher or not—because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them. It is not enough that I should think about the world and its problems at the level of a newspaper report or a magazine discussion. It could too soon become too low a level. I must have my conscience sharpened—sharpened until it goads me to the most thorough and responsible thinking of which I am capable. I must feel again the love I owe my fellow men (and women). I must not only hear about it but feel it. In church, I do.

I need to be reminded that there are things I must do in the world—unselfish things, things undertaken at the level of idealism. Workaday enthusiasms are not enough. They wear out too soon. I want to experience human nature at its best—and be reminded of its highest possibilities, and this happens to me in church. It may seem as though the same things could be found in solitude, but it does not easily happen so.

In a congregation we share each other’s spiritual needs and reinforce each other. In some ways, the soul is never lonelier than in a church service. That is certainly true of a pulpit, for a pulpit is the most intimately lonely place in the world—yet it is a loneliness that has strength in it. Perhaps this is because the innermost solitude of the human heart is in some paradoxical way a thing that can be shared—that must be shared—if the spirit of God is to find a full entrance into it.

We meet each other as friends and neighbors anywhere and everywhere, but we seldom do so in the consciousness of our souls’ deepest yearnings. But in church we do—in a way that protects us from all that is intrusive, yet leaves us knowing that we all have the same yearning, the same spiritual loneliness, the same need of assurance and faith and hope. We are brought together at the highest level possible. We are not merely an audience, we are a congregation.

I doubt whether I could stand the thought of the cruelty and misery of the present world unless I could know, through an experience that renewed itself over and over again, that at the heart of life there is assurance, that I can hold an ultimate belief that all is well. And this happens in church.

Sermon –  “Is All Religion One?”   by Mark W. Harris

            The church of my childhood was the opposite of that responsive reading we heard today.  Scripture was taught as a sealed vault; we all wanted to assure ourselves of a place in heaven by believing in Jesus; and the head table at God’s feast belonged to Bible believing Christians, period.  We used something called the Good News Bible, which was a paraphrase of scriptures.  We learned that Gospel means good news, and the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John contained that message with the heart of the gospels being: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life.”  My personal inclination to freely search wherever my inquiring mind led me, especially affirming science, evolution, and those giant creatures called dinosaurs, plus the fact that my girlfriend happened to be Unitarian,  led me to reject fundamentalism and embrace our free faith.  We all learn our own good news in different ways. For me, it was through freedom from dogmatic truths, from fear of hell, and from bodily sins.  And the news came from books and friends, from teachers and life affirming experiences.

            The Sufi mystic Rumi tells a story that reveals how we can even learn a freeing truth in unusual ways.  Once there was a wealthy merchant, who kept a parrot in a cage. He loved the beauty of the bird, and having it as a pet, but the bird preferred the jungles of India, where she could fly wherever she chose.  One day the merchant told the bird he was going to travel to the bird’s homeland, and wanted to know if he could bring anything back to her.  “My freedom, “ squawked the parrot.  But since she knew that was asking too much, she continued by saying, “Bring me news. Tell my feathered kin of my life here in captivity, and inquire about them.”  Weeks later the merchant found himself deep in a humid forest.  He kept his word, and kept asking for birds who might have news to exchange.  One of the local parrots upon hearing of her sister being penned up in a cage, instantly fell senseless from its branch to the ground.  Back home, the merchant related this unfortunate event to his pet, the parrot, suggesting that her apparent bird cousin was so overcome with grief that she collapsed and died.  Then a moment later, the merchant’s very own parrot began to totter and then fall from its perch, and died instantly on the floor of the cage.  The news of her bird relative startled her so much, she , too, has died, the merchant thought.  Suddenly grief struck at the loss of his pet, he lifted the lifeless body out of the cage, and laid her on a window sill, prior to preparing her for burial. Almost immediately, the parrot awoke from its “death,” flew out of reach, and then called back from the safety of a tree branch to her former owner.  “Thanks for brining me news – of how to get free.”  And then she flew off.

            To pretend we are dead in order to win our freedom may seem extreme, but it is certainly true that we may feel dead inside when we live in circumstances or in a culture where we do not have personal or cultural or religious freedom.  We must conform to a perceived cultural norm, or cannot love whomever we wish, or must absolutely follow the tenets of a particular faith. Richard Wentz writes, Religion “provides the ideas and actions that enable us to maintain the significance of the sacred in circumstances that deny it.” One hundred and fifty years ago a young woman named Olympia Brown had heard a woman preach when she was a student at Oberlin College.  This example inspired her to follow her understanding of the sacred, which was that God loved men and women equally, and would save them all, because what God desired most was human happiness for all, and thus for women to be given equal opportunities to  fulfill themselves. Her faith called her to the ministry, but she lived in a culture that denied the equality of her sex.  She was told, even by fellow Universalists that her voice was weak, women were intellectually inferior, that they should be home taking care of children, and that they were too delicate and pure to deal with the pressures of work or the evils of politics.  When she was threatened with the loss of her ministry while serving in Bridgeport, Connecticut because of her involvement in the suffrage campaigns, she continued to affirm the significance of the sacred despite difficult circumstances. 

            Many of us have felt dead inside as a result of the faith we were reared in, or perhaps the acquisitiveness or greed of the culture made us feel that something was missing from our lives, or maybe we longed for a community where the interdependence of all the creation was affirmed, and we wanted to live in an environmentally responsible way with the support of others who were trying to do the same thing.   If you were like me, you wanted freedom from that faith that taught it had the only and absolute truth about God the world.  If you were like me you wanted a culture that offered more than consumerism, purchasing power and economic success for the individual, but  instead called upon us to live together in recognition of our interdependence. If you were like me you wanted a world where there was not a wanton and wasteful consumption of the earth and its waterways and habitats, but rather a return to a vision of a lush garden that could feed us all.  We may say we came to this church because we liked the people or the food, or for the RE program or the beautiful music, but underlying all that is the vision of those people and that faith, which is spiritual freedom.  I call that mind free, William Ellery Channing once said, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which receives new truth, which does not cower to human opinion.  You are here, whether you came from a repressive, liberal or even no childhood faith because you want spiritual freedom.

            But what is freedom going to produce?  While they may represent a  response to political repression and oppression, the protests in Egypt and elsewhere that we have all witnessed in recent weeks help remind us of the deep longing for human emancipation.

Freedom has been a loaded word for UUs because a generation ago many UUs used it as a religious tool to liberate themselves from an upbringing like mine, where sin and guilt were lathered on the human heart.  It meant freedom from something, but it was not often a freedom that led us to anything, except freedom itself, so adults and children alike were confused about this free faith that seemed to have no content.  We were told we were free to doubt received truths, free to reject God, Jesus and salvation, free to be you and me religiously, but we weren’t really sure what that freedom was except there was no set of accepted beliefs or truths, and certainly no creed, even an unofficial one.  For some the freedom seems too open ended, but for others it is freedom to discover truth wherever it comes from, and the opportunity to build community with those like us who know faith is expressed in how we live our lives rather than in what we say we believe.  It invites a journey of beautiful possibilities.

            Yet for some of us the issue may be confused even further by an issue raised in a relatively recent book by Stephen Prothero, a professor at Boston University called God Is Not One.  Prothero is disturbed by some of the recent rhetoric that he sees in religious writings which pretend, he says, that the world’s religious traditions are different paths to the same God. But isn’t this what we say? Don’t we quote people like Gandhi or the Dalai Lama who tells us that belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions, or that the essential message of all religions is the same, a  kind of a Golden Rule for all. Don’t I have a card in my desk that declares Golden Rule at the top and then quotes Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Bahai with variations of this same ethical vision for a shared world faith that expounds the truth that no one is a believer unless they desire for their brother or sister what they desire for themselves? And, yes when I am explaining UUism to prospective members or couples waiting to get married here, don’t I sometimes form the words that repeat that infamous idea that are many paths up the mountain, and they all lead to one God.   Even when I drop bread off at the food pantry, the nice Catholic ladies, who just want to feed the hungry often repeat, we all follow the same God don’t we?

            Now let me confess that I have not read the book, so, happily for you, I cannot make this into a book report sermon.  Yet I understand Prothero’s point.  He is concerned that people, including we UUs can trivialize religion.  Religions have all been formed in different times and places, in extraordinarily different circumstances and conditions. They also find meaning in different rites and ceremonies. Jews don’t go on pilgrimages to Mecca, and Muslims don’t baptize babies. Prothero says that to claim that all religions are the same is to misunderstand that each attempts to solve a different human problem. He says that for Islam: the problem is pride, and the solution is submission. For Christianity: the problem is sin, the solution is salvation. For Buddhism: the problem is suffering, the solution is awakening. For Judaism: the problem is exile, and the solution is to return to God, and so forth down the list.  Well, yes, the religions do have certain emphases, but the human problems that he wants to use to narrowly circumscribe one faith  seem a little more widespread to me. Once when I was celebrating a baseball victory a little too vociferously, I remember my father quoting a passage from Proverbs that sounded like this: “Pride goeth before a fall.”  More than just Islam, there was an issue of pride in Judaism, and didn’t those Christians also list it as one of the seven deadly sins?  And what about suffering and Buddhism?  Didn’t poor Job have a few experiences to reflect on there?  I think it  minimizes the depth and breadth of these faiths to depict them as addressing one issue with one solution.  Prothero spends most of the book dealing with the ways each of eight faiths have answered the fundamental human problem or issue that he believes forms the focus for each. I spent most of the early years of my ministry identifying as a Christian, and salvation was not the central issue for me.  I’ll bet there are millions of Christians who are not especially concerned with salvation in Jesus Christ, but rather find the essence of Christianity in that Golden Rule, and simply want to live the words of that hymn, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Prothero says our dream of peace and understanding are crucial issues here, and believes some of these naïve hopes for unity are grounded in our fear that adherents of these religions will tear each other apart, and so we depict them as really being cozy and friendly and loving.  He says we are not realistic, and that these hopes are blinding us to reality.  I don’t agree with him in two additional ways.  He says lumping religions together make it impossible for us to see the fundamental differences.  I agree that I am not going to excuse the way some adherents of Islam denigrate women.  But can’t I be critical of a faith, and also try to find ways to see our commonalities?  He says this lumping of differences is condescending and a false way to understand other faiths.  But wait a minute, how does he think religions appear in the first place?  The last time I looked it seemed as though all faiths borrow from each other and build upon what came before.  Doesn’t he know how Christianity evolved from Judaism, and then adopted pagan rites.  Does he know where the Christmas and Easter traditions mostly come from?  He seems to be an academic who wants clear eyed analysis, while forgetting that faith is mostly not rational, even for a heady Unitarian Universalist like me, who believes we must find common sources of faith to get along, instead of emphasizing differences. 

One of the critical problems right now is the stigmatizing of Islam by all sorts of cultures and politicians. I have been concerned by the debates over the Muslim population in France for some time. It seems that the practice of religion is not compatible with the rules of their secular republic. And so I believe the public banning on face covering veils which comes into effect in April is a gross violation of freedom of religion. Some have compared the treatment of Muslims there to that of Jews during World War II.  There is a danger of targeting Muslims as the cause of all our problems. Prothero might claim that we blind ourselves with political correctness by saying that Islam is just this nice religion full of  law abiding people who want to live in harmony with everyone else.  Maybe he needs to hear from Minnesota Democrat and Muslim Keith Ellison, who testified before Congress this week, and ended up weeping as he described the story of a 23 year fellow Muslim who raced to the World Trade Center after the attack on 9/11 to see if he could help with his medical technician skills, and ended up dying in the building collapse. Because he disappeared, he was suspected to be part of the plot solely because of his religion.  His dead body put to rest those rumors.  Some people saw these hearings as a way to target certain people for their religious beliefs.  One onlooker responded to this as a continuing signal of how divided we are as a country.

            From my perspective, I believe we do need to talk about God as one, and we do need to find ways to discover and embrace commonalities in our faiths.  Maybe it is a little naïve to believe this way in the face of such religious bigotry and bloodshed, but one of the purposes of religion in our lives is to give us vision for how the world might be.  We must live with hope that people can overcome their differences and find common ground, and not side with those who see a terrorist Muslim under every bed and consequently make them the enemy within, that needs to be discovered and eradicated.  When Unitarian Universalist says religion or God is one, we do respect the many paths up the one mountain, but it seems me that if we look around there is no other mountain, no other world. Those Catholic ladies are right, if we believe in God, then there is only one God for one world regardless of our faith tradition, and whether we baptize or not or believe in heaven or not, is irrelevant.

            Our readings today remind us of two things.  As he pilfers the fudge from the jar, Terry Sweetser says that we must live as if God does not exist.   We know from experience that there is no God watching us the to see how much fudge we take, and so God’s hands must be our hands to see that the resources of the world are dispersed more fairly, and that we take care of one another.  Surely those who suffer in Japan from the effects of this devastating earthquake, need us to live as though they are our brothers and sisters.  John Haynes Holmes, the great Unitarian minister once said, “It cannot be emphasized too often that Jesus was not a theologian.  He interpreted religion as something not primarily to be believed but to be lived.  Prothero is right that there are vast differences in religious beliefs, but more important is the living of our faith, and that is what UUs have always emphasized.  You must be the eyes of God who is watching the fudge. The differences in faith are superficial, what Theodore Parker called the transient in religion. We as UUs live by the permanent in religion.  We live by a vision for one world. We live by a multi-religious perspective.  We draw from any and every faith tradition if it will help us be people who live in love, and work to build a new tomorrow.  And that is where church comes into our lives, as A. Powell Davies reminds us in the second reading.  Even if there are vast differences in religions, we must act as if we are one, and there is a common source of understanding and love.  And we do so in religious community.  This is the testing ground for our vision of what one world united in faith could be.  Here we support each other, care for one another, listen to one another, and help the vulnerable. Church reminds us that we have a human yearning to be one, to believe that God is one, and here, even if it is a little naïve, we imagine the lovely truth that it might be, could be, and in fact, is true.

Closing Words  – from Theodore Parker

 

Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere;

Its temple, all space;

Its shrine, the good heart;

Its creed, all truth;

Its ritual, works of love;

Its profession of faith, divine living.