“Making Sense of a Free Faith” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – September 16, 2018

Opening Words – from Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Reading from Divine Inspirationby Jane Langton


Some years ago the writer W. Somerset Maugham wrote, “ A Unitarian very earnestly disbelieves in almost everything that anybody else believes, and he has a very lively sustaining faith in he doesn’t quite know what.”  I think it is Maugham who also said that “Unitarianism is a feather bed for falling Christians.”  Too often in our history, we have been the faith that made fun of religion. We are a religious movement made up of skeptics and deniers, and so we have made jokes about those who we feel are stupid enough or uninformed enough to believe in anything deemed orthodox or true by believers.  In 1835 Henry Ware, Jr. wrote that There was a group of people who had attached themselves to us simply because we are not orthodox; they disliked Calvinism, but liked nothing else, who generally think religion is a good thing that ought to be supported, but don’t know the form they should support other than reject the one they have been taught heartily to hate. He wrote: “They are anti-calvinists, anti-orthodox, anti-zealots, anti-everything severe and urgent in religion.” 

This is not how it was when Unitarianism was first being formed as a religious movement. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, a number of scholars who believed in reading and interpreting the Bible with a critical eye concluded that the Bible was an ethical guide for humans teaching them how to live in loving relationship with others, rather than strictly following the dogmas that the church authorities demanded would result in a personal highway to salvation. It was not a rejection of orthodoxy, but a positive approach to truth, which emphasized freedom to explore new truths, the use of reason and the critical mind in understanding truth, and it also allowed more personal choice in what religious faith you could follow, as long as you were respectful and understanding of others. This was an unusual approach to faith development then, as powerful monarchs, nobles and the church hierarchy demanded singular pathways . Deviations from this could mean exile or death. Rather than being skeptical of everything, these early Unitarians said I will proclaim this truth to search every day for the force greater than myself which will give me strength and purpose to be a better person. In one of the more famous stories from our history, founder Francis David of Transylvania returned to his home town after winning a religious debate to make Unitarianism acceptable in the kingdom, preached his gospel of tolerance from a huge boulder, and converted the entire town to Unitarianism.

I have told you many times before that I was one of those people from my generation who rejected a traditional Christian faith of Biblical literalism, an exclusive dependence upon salvation through Jesus, and a denial of the truths of the scientific community to embrace our liberal faith. Yet part and parcel of that rejection of orthodoxy was a rejection of religious exploration, which often meant a loss of the mystery that lies at the heart of the universe. My father once said to me, “your religion doesn’t have enough fantasy.”

In a book called Heavens on Earth, Michael Shermer tells the following story.  He owns an old radio that came from Germany.  He had tried to fix it, and make it work many times before without success.  Finally he abandoned it in a desk drawer with its switch in the on position. One day it just started playing a love song, but this was not any day or any song.  The radio had belonged to Shermer’s fiancee’s deceased and beloved grandfather, whom she had been missing, especially as an important day approached.  That big day arrived, and it was also the day the radio chose to start playing: the wedding day of Shermer and his fiancée.  The music seemed like a blessing from this beloved relative on this important day, and it continued on into the evening, and then it stopped. The radio went quiet, never to play again.  What did this mean? Was it a communication from beyond, or was it an opportunity to make fun of such a crazy speculation, and merely conclude it was some kind of coincidence.  Shermer’s conclusion is: We don’t know how this happened, but rather than try to explain it away, we should embrace the mystery.

Throughout the centuries most people continued to embrace the teaching of their respective churches. The foundation of moral and spiritual truth was their understanding of God, yet it was becoming harder and harder to discern this Lord God, who supposedly held things together, while the discoveries of science and the experiences of humankind continued to erode that firm foundation. It became increasingly clear that this was a castle in the sky that was built upon sand.  From the knowledge that the earth was not the center of the universe, but was a mere speck in an endless ocean of space to the discoveries of Darwin who showed that human beings evolved spontaneously from lower orders of creatures, it became more and more obvious that no one was in charge. Humans became more and more impressed with their own knowledge and technological developments, but those inventions also made the world more dangerous and more polluted. Yet people continued to believe in a God who was in control, giving direction and meaning to life.  Humans had to invent their own theories about why this God they believed in behaved in such a chaotic, unpredictable and often purposeless  fashion. I am in the middle of reading a book called Mourning Lincolnby Martha Hodes, which discusses how the nation responded to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Whatever the personal motivations of John Wilkes Booth people tended to interpret this tragic event, as they did most events in history, as somehow occurring under the direction of God. It was part of God’s inscrutable plan.  So some Southerners said it was God getting the North back for the destruction caused by the war.  It was retribution. Yet some Southerners believed that God sought revenge for their sinful behavior, and killed off Lincoln, so that reconstruction would be much harsher than it would have been otherwise. Northerners had some different ideas about what God was up to. Our own Lydia Maria Child, sister of First Parish minister Convers Francis, said Lincoln was too kind and so God took him away.  This is like when you hear someone say, this sweet person was too nice for this world, or God needed another angel in heaven. Others said Lincoln’s work was done with the finish of the war, and so now he could go home to God, but there were even Northerners, such as former slaves, who said God directed this to happen because it took Lincoln too long to come out against slavery. It was clear that both sides believed there was some kind of plan or scheme for humanity because, without such a plan, there could only be dark and dismal chaos.

A few years ago Kathy Warren shared a reading with me from a book called The Jew Storeby Stella Suberman. In that reading Suberman wrote about her Russian immigrant father who didn’t take God seriously.  He would sometimes make supplications to God out of custom, but when an uncle spoke about God as intervening power putting in his two cents worth or God taking care of things, her father would respond, “he gave us Cossacks and typhoid epidemics, and this is the way he takes care? “ He said God was like the belief that they told in Russia that America’s street were paved with gold.  Did anyone ever see those streets?  No, of course not.  It was only a rumor that everyone agreed upon.  That rumor about God became dimmer and dimmer, especially as Jews suffered through the Holocaust, and the death of God movement swept the world. Yet you still have countless believers who say God is pulling the strings, killing some in hurricanes and wars, and saving others in mysterious fashion.  Most liberals concluded that this kind of God was not worth believing in.

You can see in this scenario why liberals would have made light of those who believe; this supernaturalism appears to be ignoring the teachings of science. Dealing with believers or a believing culture can make us feel frustrated. We live in a time when the entire Republican Party ignores the teachings of science to deny global warming. Have they all gone crazy? Even news reports consistently fail to inform us that the increasing number and intensity of storms has anything to do with global warming. I could be convinced that the all-powerful God that I don’t believe in is causing these storms so we will pay attention. While liberalism functioned for decades as a negative faith, there was good reason for it. We were rejecting the irrational beliefs of our childhood. We were rejecting that for which there is no evidence, but this left no room for mystery or wonder, and relied only upon reason. That said, when we rely only upon human action, that approach results in a sense of uncertainty about life. How do we find meaning in a seemingly meaningless universe? Clearly that is not the kind of faith that is going to attract people with a feeling that we are in good hands. We either had something we couldn’t believe in, or we had something that might produce dubious results. While we once said reject supernaturalism, our humanism was no  more certain. Humanists say that history is open ended so that human choices and actions determine our destiny. Yet we have been just as naïve as the believers, because we have assumed that good results are guaranteed. People are good we have said, but then as a wise member of this congregation once said, “no good deed goes unpunished.” Humanist theologian Bill Jones once said, liberation and oppression are equally probable.  We may make self-destructive choices, and there is no cosmic safe-guard. If we feel there is some kind of transcendent, or life force, or spirit of love that is the grounding of our freedom,  then we must proclaim it to build liberating communities.

Ask your average Unitarian Universalist to explain our faith, and they may become tongue tied.  While it is no longer the immature negative religion that speaks of one God at most, or considers Christian theology garbage, it now espouses a multi-faith approach somewhat like the reading from Jane Langton’s murder mystery Divine Inspiration.  It is a little of this and a little of that, and a whole lot of social action, which we hope will liberate the world, even though the oppression makes us feel like we are battling Sisyphus pushing the rock up the mountain. Many younger UUs today didn”t have a childhood faith to reject because they were brought up without one.  We used to hear people say it was freedom that inspired them to join UU congregations, but it meant freedom from those dogmatic childhood faiths. Today we often proclaim freedom to believe what we value individually.  It allows me to fight for what I want, but it has no context in community. So we use freedom, not to get away from what we dislike, but to choose something that fills a longing or need, to get our way, but does not transform our lives to build a vibrant liberal religious community.

In Jane Langton’s novel, Kraeger, the minister feels depressed over the failure of his personal life. He really believes humanity is depraved, but he puts on the appearance of being cheery, and yet he isn’t. He feels bad about himself, even as Homer tells him the death of the sexton is not his fault. This is a dilemma many clergy face. We may feel that what we do is not good enough, and yet we also feel that we have to put on a happy face as though everything were fine. Humans want to feel like everything is under control, which is why we want a supernatural God in the first place.  It is in our nature to long for this. One thing we try to do is create immortality now because many of us feel there is no afterlife, or we think that death is an inevitable defeat.  This may take the form of writing books, or having grandchildren, or it may be trying to look young or choosing extreme treatments for illnesses to prolong life. As we said,  it is natural to believe that forces beyond us are controlling everything, but science has increasingly informed us that there is no God controlling things.  And so we try to, in as many ways as we can.

In our culture the church is declining, and while there is no evidence of larger meaning, we try to create it by acquisitiveness.  We see the extreme in today’s culture of winners and losers where the one with the most toys wins. We see that without a God who controls things, and with human failings at controlling things – we make bad choices or the choices we make are for things – we come up empty. This makes it the perfect time to say to our fellow neighbors: what you need is a Unitarian Universalist congregation. We don’t have much of a history of sharing the importance of a liberal church, but when a culture is in crisis, and you realize your church has some answers, then perhaps it is time to get over the reticence about sharing your faith. Our human capacity for greed, self-centeredness and corruption is everywhere. While we can live in a little world above it all, I find that is failing to use our freedom to make a commitment to choose between the betterment or destruction of the human race, and the choice we have for liberation or oppression.

At some point I told you the story of meeting Mrs. Dietrich. John Dietrich was one of the founders of the humanist movement in this country about a century ago. After he retired, he moved to Berkeley, California.  His widow survived him, and used to occasionally attend the Oakland church. It just so happens that I was the student minister in Oakland in 1977, and one Sunday I decided to use one of John Dietrich’s prayers.  After the service a older woman who I didn’t know came through the receiving line.  I reached out to shake her hand, and said ‘Mrs. Dietrich? It was in fact Mrs. Dietrich even though I did not know she was coming to church that day, nor had I been introduced to her. She said, “How did you know who I was?” And I said, “I don’t know” Did God arrange this meeting, or was it a mere coincidence?  How did I know it was her? One of the UUA principles is: Direct experience of mystery and wonder. This event felt like mystery and wonder.  What it felt like was that my heart was open to meeting her. On Thursday night I was at Fenway Park. While I love baseball, I was reminded once again of how our culture is numbed by noise and advertising. Everyone has an opinion, a feeling about what is true, and that becomes personal gospel. How do we learn to truly meet one another?

Today I want to close by saying that embracing this Unitarian Universalist faith is important because our culture and world need it, and it is our responsibility to impart it to others, because culture and religion are floundering while we remain silent..  The message to impart to the world is that there is one spirit of life and love that moves within each of us and calls us to care for each other and the planet. It is a simple faith without a creed. But don’t forget that the idea of religious exploration, understanding, acceptance and compassion led that entire town to conversion. It is a faith that demands that we open ourselves to who we are, so that we let go of the urge to control, or judge others.  We often define UUism as the thinking person’s religion.  Unfortunately, that makes it sound like it is a religion only for smart people, and it self-selects those with higher education. Religion has always been a way to cope with human ignorance. And while science has helped us uncover new truths about life, it also shows us how ignorant we really are. Plus we may always learn more, and this is why we are pluralists taking from this and that. But we cannot always wait for answers, because at some point we must act.  We must choose. Even if it seems like a non-rational decision, you must open your heart to meet others, find the one spirit, and create community.. I think the new UUism embraces the old Universalist principle that God is love, but it does so with a sense of wonder that opens us to greater sensitivity and intuition, so that head and heart come together as one, so that what we nurture is the intelligence of the heart.  It is time for UUs to uncover their passions for religious experience, cross the barriers to deepen wonder and reverence, and enter a new country of faith where we are receptive to one another, and know we need to connect in deeper ways with one another because what we believe together is greater than what I believe alone.  Explore the intelligence of the heart in UUism, and share it with a neighbor.

Closing Words – from Dawna Markova

I will not die an unlived life 
I will not live in fear 
of falling or catching fire. 
I choose to inhabit my days, 
to allow my living to open me, 
to make me less afraid, 
more accessible, 
to loosen my heart 
until it becomes a wing, 
a torch, a promise. 
I choose to risk my significance; 
to live so that which came to me as seed 
goes to the next as blossom 
and that which came to me as blossom, 
goes on as fruit.