“Sources of Faith” – March 28, 2004
Mark W. Harris

Opening Words – from Rumi

My heart has become capable of every form.
It is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks;
And a temple for idols, and the pilgrim’s Ka’ba;
And the tables of the Torah and the book of the Koran.
I follow the religion of Love,
Whichever way his camels take.


I was surprised not too long ago when I heard that a young boy in Dana’s class at school had his first confession. I realized Catholics had first communion, but it had not occurred to me children had to think up all the sins they had committed as well, and then receive absolution before communion. This shows I am not particularly savvy when it comes to the procedures of the Catholic church. In fact there is a relationship here with turning seven years of age, which the Catholic church considers the age of reason, and becoming responsible for your sins. While the church is suppose to both nurture you and keep you in line, the seven year old is thought to be able to make his/her own decisions when it comes to upright moral behavior. I think it is important that children should gain a sense of right and wrong, and also know there can be forgiveness for mistakes. As a Protestant child, I also learned that I was likely to sin, but moral codes as imparted by my parents, the church, and the school seemed to be primarily formulated to keep me in line; to prevent sin rather than promote goodness. As Protestants we emphasized the Bible as the seat for moral foundations, especially as elucidated in the Ten Commandments.

The occasion for today’s sermon was a comment that was made to me on the day I preached about same-sex marriage. I said I affirmed same-sex marriage as a moral good. It was not just an issue of individual rights and justice, but that a broader understanding of covenant and fidelity would actually help build a better society. In response a person made the assumption that we Unitarian Universalists had moved beyond Biblical foundations for morality, and she asked me, what are the moral foundations of our faith? While the Protestants have the Bible and the Catholics have their rote traditions and dogmas, we may seem to have nothing more than 200,000 UU opinions. There is an old joke that builds upon the assumption that liberals do not accept any moral commandments that assert authority over us or attempt to keep us in line. We like to come to our own moral opinions and conclusions. And so it was said that for us, the ten commandments ought to be called the ten suggestions.

Today I am going to suggest that despite the long moral evolution of our own faith from a liberal Christian to a pluralistic faith that draws upon many traditions, from a God and Bible centered to a humanistic, person centered faith, from a world where people were assured of moral absolutes to a post modern society where nothing is sure or known, that the basic premise of the Ten Commandments still governs the moral foundation of Unitarian Universalism. In fact, as my wife Andrea has suggested, our greatest spiritual inspiration, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote his seminal work, Nature, based on a reworking of the Ten Commandments. While we may recall the authoritarian childhood don’ts of swearing, disrespecting parents, lying, cheating and killing, Emerson reminds us that it goes much deeper than keeping us in line with rules. Our moral code is found in freedom, agreement and community.

As Jews prepare to celebrate the Passover, and Christians recall that same event at the time of Jesus’ death, we think of the context in which the Israelites found themselves. In other traditional societies, the source of authority was a monarch, one who held and acted on behalf of God. But how could the Israelites agree to this normal pattern of authority when all they reaped from it in Egypt was slavery and oppression. Because they had broken from this bondage, and found freedom, they felt the need to derive the meaning of their existence not from authority, but from agreement. For them, and later our own founders the Puritans, the covenant or agreement with God is what produces community. So this is not about slavish obedience, which to them symbolized horror, but the freedom to agree to something.

The Israelites understood that agreement is fundamental to all true relationship. To begin to find this truth, we can do what Christians have traditionally done with the Ten Commandments, divide them into two sections. First are the ones about a personal relationship to God. When Jesus summarized the law and prophets, he said first, “love God.” When the Commandments say you shall have no other Gods, it is a question of idolatry. Who is the source of your ultimate concern? For them it might have been other Gods, but for us it may well be money, property or possessions. You must agree to give your ultimate loyalty to something beyond the lesser Gods we worship. Directly related to this is the idea of no graven images.We cannot know God, and it is foolish to think we can image that which is beyond our ways of knowing. We cannot find spiritual wholeness by submitting to visible symbols. For us it may mean the other images we worship: the female body, the automobile or whatever else is sold to us as the product of spiritual fulfillment. This is important in our congregational tradition. You may remember that our Puritan ancestors were appalled at the idea of knowing God through any kind of imagery, for them it had to be a direct spiritual experience, and any symbols merely distorted true faith. Thus they created purified places of worship by not having any crosses, stained glass, stations of the cross or, elaborate vestments or other such paraphernalia. Know inwardly in the heart, not outwardly, to some object.

The Ten Commandments are quite unique in the literatures of the world. They are not offered in a legal framework. There is no justification for the code because it is God’s code. While we might argue about their source of origin, the relevance of the message, properly understood and embraced in modern language, is timeless. The third and fourth commandments continue the concern for understanding our relationship with the divine. With taking the name of God in vain, many of us flash back to those swear words we said to entice our parents to anger. But actually the reference is to using the name of God as a kind of magic formula for either personal, satisfactory results, or to invoke the belief that the true God is our God only. In the last half century this has been increasingly popular with politicians, especially the current resident of the White House and his favorite philosopher Jesus. It is being debated now in the Pledge of Allegiance case. This premise of the pledge with the God language results in a false God who takes care of us because we are on the right side, and he will see that we prevail.

The final commandment in this section has to do with keeping the sabbath. No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. God bids human beings to restore themselves, that is to take care of ourselves and recreate. One could interpret this as an opportunity to restore and take care of the earth. It also represents our freedom to improve ourselves, be creative, or educate ourselves so that we are always learning and exploring spiritually. In all the first four commandments God is seen as a liberator; these are the things you need to do for spiritual wholeness. Emerson has them correspond with four things we apply to life from nature: commodity, beauty, language and discipline. If we enter into an agreement with God, or if we experience nature, we will know personal freedom. If you have false gods you are chained to them, and they control you. Curiously enough you may have noticed that there is no commandment to actually love God or have faith, but rather it is what you need to do in order to love God. There is no true life in worshiping things or bowing before images, or in invoking magic words, or in forgetting the sabbath – you exhaust yourself- you distract yourself- you delude yourself, and you don’t find true life. Keep what is holy before you is the simple distillation of these commandments.

The Commandments also suggest to us that we do not live in a vacuum. You can’t just have a personal relationship with nature, or the divine or celebrate your freedom. We live with other people, and thus Jesus said, love your neighbor as yourself. Loving neighbor has to do with the creation of community. There is a transitional commandment which leads us from relationship to God to relationships with community, and that transition is the family, and thus the fifth commandment is honor your parents. I saw a children’s version of the commandments once where honor became humor your parents. While parenting requires both humor and honor the idea is the parents guide the whole child into the world in a myriad number of ways. The family is the basic unit of the society. Parents not only give us life, but introduce us to life in the world, the freedom we will use to build a new community.

The commandments that are numbers six through ten are, as I have suggested the community commandments. They are the things we need to do to build an orderly, beautiful society together. We list them as no killing, no adultery, no stealing, no false witness and no coveting of other people’s things. There are virtuous acts in and of themselves. We live our lives out in the context of others. Faith assumes concrete form in our understanding of our relations with others and the values contained in those relations. All five of these are still of enormous relevance. We still say do not commit murder, that it violates life to take another life. This is argument enough against capital punishment. We also know that people are made to feel devalued or killed in other ways – the poor, the children, victims of abuse. What can we do as a community, this asks, so that so that everyone is heard and valued?. We may think of self-esteem, purpose, hope in the future. What can we agree upon that will create a whole community?

The additional community commandments reinforce this need. While the sixth commandment against adultery has been severely tested, and even questioned by some, including many of us, it points toward the social need for strong stable enduring family relationships built upon covenant and fidelity. We considered the moral good of same sex marriage in this context. If we want a society that values deep, committed, long lasting relationships with stable homes for children, then it is a given that we want more monogamous marriage. Whether it is the personal or the community relationships, the commandments remind us that we must engage in, and build right relationships, not based on obeying conventional authority, but on the deeper path of spiritual wholeness. In the preface to Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte wrote : Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.

The eighth, ninth and tenth commandments reinforce the need to create meaningful community together. The code says do not steal, but the higher suggestion is also how we create ways to share the wealth with each other. The code says do not bear false witness, but it goes beyond lying, to how to tell the truth with our lives, how we are true to a vision of what we are and can be. My wife always tells me I am a bad liar; every time I even attempt to bend the truth it shows in my face, my eyes. Beware the person who can lie with no compunction. Finally we come to do not covet. One children’s version of this is: Be content with what you have. Earn it honestly. Greed and envy were once described as among the seven deadly sins. Our material desires can destroy the fabric of what we create together by pitting us against each other in pursuit of gain and competition. Our inclination to covet brings us back full circle to the first commandment. We cannot live in harmony with each other and the creation until we have no other gods but God.

The commandments ask how can we create the community of peace and harmony. They have always done this. Emerson reflected on what will reproduce the right character in us, and the peaceful society when he wrote his first book, Nature. Nature has been called our primal book, the fountainhead for our greatest, our one indispensable tradition.” It is no accident that Emerson sees the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments in our coming to harmony with nature, and he used the structure of the original ten for his model as well.

When Nature was first published in 1836, Emerson had a new career as lecturer and author. He had resigned as an active minister in 1832, but transformed what he had learned about life, and written of in sermons and first fully expressed it in Nature. Emerson’s understanding of the path to human fulfillment is similar to what I have outlined as the two main currents of the Ten Commandments – the personal and the communal, what Jesus called God and neighbor. In a later essay he outlined these as “Solitude and Society.” This helps those of us who might reject the traditional language of the commandments. In Nature, he writes, “All things are moral; and in their boundless changes have an unceasing reference to spiritual nature.” Everything we observe, “shall hint or thunder the laws of right and wrong, and echo the Ten Commandments.” This from the man who we often say rejected the Bible and traditions. He recognized that there was a universal essence of a religious conscience or timeless moral sense captured in the commandments that could not be dismissed.

Emerson understood that there is a great harmony behind the words of the Ten Commandments. Part of the harmony is what he called the design of nature, which must be fulfilled in the eye of the beholder – the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. As early as his days at Boston Latin School, Emerson had written a theme on astronomy, and he reechoed this in Nature, when he spoke of crossing Boston Common, then an open expanse. He felt the currents of universal being circulating through him and wrote, “I am part or particle of God . . .I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.” Beauty in his view, was seeing beyond the illusions. Seeing God in the commandments is getting beyond the illusions of images and idols, to the heart of God, which for Emerson was knowing divinity first hand.

Seeing beauty in the society would be getting beyond the illusions of desires and roles, and bringing ourselves into harmony with nature. “Beauty,” Emerson wrote, “is the mark God sets on virtue . . ” He insisted that every heroic act is also decent. In effect, Emerson summarizes the meaning of the Ten Commandments for us. These are not authoritarian rules to be followed in blind obedience, but rather a marvelous understanding of what it takes to make a whole person and a whole society. All we have to do is agree to use our freedom to follow the path. Their value, it seems to me, is matchless, not because they are old or traditionally religious, but because they point to the heart of what it will take for each of us and our society to get beyond what Emerson might call trifles, to the heart of right relationship with nature or God, and with each other. Emerson’s book Nature closes with a chapter on prospects. He wrote: “every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house, a world; and beyond its world a heaven.” We do that building of self and world, but can we reach the heaven? It seems to me that the spirit of the Ten Commandments, the moral basis of our faith, shows the way, and we have only to walk in that spirit.

Closing words – from Stopford Brooke

The first thing to be said is that whatever religious faith, feelings and hopes we have, we are bound to shape them into form in life, not only at home, but in the work we do in the world. Whatever we feel justly we ought to shape; whatever we think, to give it clear form; whatever we have inside of us, our duty is to mold it outside of ourselves into clear speech or act, which, if it be loving, will be luminous.

Reverend Mark Harris
Minister | + posts

Mark was minister at First Parish from 1996 until he retired in 2019. Mark’s ministry was grounded in the importance of carrying on the traditions of the congregation and the UU faith. He loves congregations like First Parish where everyone ministers to one another, and the community is central. On his retirement in June 2019, Mark received the title Minister Emeritus.