“The Challenge of Pluralism” – May 23, 2004
Mark W. Harris

Opening words – from Gary Snyder

The Zen Buddhist teacher told this story. One day the master asked his three fourteen year old students, “How old is the Buddha?” The first responded, “The Buddha was born 2,500 years ago in India.” The second responded, “The Buddha is eternal.” And the third responded, “The Buddha is fourteen.” All in a sense were right. but the one who said “The Buddha is fourteen” hit the mark straight on. We are all Buddhas by nature, whatever our age, from the small child we dedicate today, to the eldest among us. You are what you are seeking. You are the Buddha. You are it. Why don¹t we know it? What would it take to know it? To awaken and to recognize who and what we are.

Sermon – “The Challenge of Pluralism”

In her book, A New Religious America , Diana Eck of Harvard tells us that understanding America¹s emerging religious landscape is the most important challenge facing us today. When most of us were youngsters this landscape was defined as Protestant, Catholic and Jew. We could say Judeo-Christian heritage, and it meant our whole religious universe. Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism were exotic expressions of faith that conjured up images of Arabian Nights, sacred cows and Saffron robed monks with shaved heads, but they were anywhere but here. Today there are 300 Buddhist temples in greater Los Angeles, and more American Muslims than there are Jews or Episcopalians, let alone Unitarian Universalists. What does this mean to us religious liberals who in some respects mirror a diverse religious landscape by espousing a pluralistic faith of our own?

On the one hand, you might think this is just what we need. America is playing into our hand. They need us to show the way. Perfect. We can finally fulfill Thomas Jefferson¹s dream that every person now living will one day become a Unitarian Universalist. It is true that we have long said be tolerant and understanding of others. In Transylvania more than 425 years ago, the Unitarians implemented the first edict of religious toleration in history. Here in America when a liberal theological perspective developed within the established Congregational churches, such as ours, those same liberals argued against sectarianism. They wanted to define Christianity as broadly as possible without restraints of dogmas or creeds. Theirs was an ethical faith based on how one behaved as a Christian, how much love you lived with your life, rather than specifics of doctrines, such as believing that Jesus was the Christ who had come to save those who believed in the one true faith.

Since the dawn of Christianity, people had been trying to define that one path to truth, and it has proved extremely difficult to do so. In an essay from 1851 called “Ecclesiastical Christendom,” the great Unitarian leader Frederic Henry Hedge wrote, “No form of Christianity is absolutely and only true. Each successive one was right in its place, and good in its season; each put forward the face, and embodied the truth which the time required. . . Protestantism means movement. And when we say this we pronounce its justification . . . For what but movement is the destination of humanity in this moving world? Creation moves from everlasting to everlasting. This universe of things, whose sum no thought can grasp, is not a fixture, but a movement, and the quality of movement is the measure of vitality. The power who moves all things has not willed that any spirit should stand still, and the Church, the communion of saints, must move or die.” This also points to the fundamental message of Transcendentalism as reflected in Emerson¹s words in Nature that we must enjoy an original relationship with the universe. Religious must be revealed to us, and not simply be the history of theirs. Emerson and Thoreau were among the first people in the world to understand not only this desire for each generation to perceive the truths of religion anew, but also to see that God or the over-soul is not revealed through any one particular tradition. They took their belief in Unitarianism, or one God literally. The spirit that infused the world with love and justice was experienced differently in different cultures and traditions, but no one of those was superior to any other. When Emerson read the pages of the Bhagavad-Gita in his study, or Thoreau contemplated the wisdom of the Koran by the shores of Walden Pond, they realized this truth, and said the most important question must be, how does God or the spirit speak to me, or as Gary Snyder might reflect from our opening words, how do I find my Buddha?

Where is your Buddha? I think sometimes we misunderstand our Unitarian Universalist faith. We look at this rich tradition that rejected dogmas and creeds and longed for universal truths, and personally find it liberating to realize that religion does not need to be based on static truth or certain objects of devotion. Up until recently the ethos of the denomination was often based on the rejection of a Biblical childhood faith that for many of us felt like what Stephen Dunn recalled in the reading, the great book certain people use to make you feel bad. So we came in, rejected the past, and understood that all paths to the truth are equally valid. This, as we have said, was terribly tolerant and understanding, but not especially useful in seriously engaging with any new, positive faith based directions. While it was healing for many, it did not provide any meaningful new direction. It is an even less relevant course to pursue today as more people enter our ranks who have no religious baggage to let go of. It is also not helpful for those raised in the faith.

A few years ago I recall Andrea¹s sister-in-law sent her children to Vacation Bible School. It was similar to the experience Stephen Dunn had with his kids. They wanted the children to go have fun for a week, and get them out of the house, but they came home singing and dancing about Jesus. While Jesus was a nice man who lived a long time ago, he was no one you should get so excited about that you should perform his story. What to do? Too often we have failed to either tell the stories, or else make them so literal and wordy, as in Dunn¹s example of evolution that the kids long for anything with a little passion. The reading does remind us of the power of stories to engage with heart and mind. How do we begin to engage with religious stories again? I think there are three steps for Unitarian Universalists to respond to the challenge of pluralism.
The first step is illustrated in a Zen story called the Empty Cup. One day the Zen master Nan-in had a visit from a foreign scholar of Eastern religions who came to inquire about Zen. But the scholar did not listen to the master at all. He simply went on talking and talking about all his knowledge of eastern religion. He was the expert. After a time of talking, Nan-in suggested they have tea. He poured the tea into the visitors cup until it was full, but then he kept right on pouring. The tea cascaded over the sides of the cup onto the saucer. Soon the saucer was full, and it spilled over onto the table washed down on the man¹s pants, ouch, and onto the floor. The visitor screamed, “hey, didn¹t you see that the cup was full? You can¹t get any more in!.” Nan-in finally stopped pouring and said, “Just so. And like this cup you are filled with your own ideas. How can you expect me to give you Zen unless you offer me an empty cup?” The scholar had all of the knowledge, but none of the experience. He had to empty himself of his hubris that he knew it all, and couldn¹t be taught a thing.
The second step has to do with the religious smorgasbord, the pluralism we find in the world and especially what we espouse as our denominational approach to religion. Unitarian Universalists advocate that we should all sit at the religious banquet table and place all the tasty dishes before us, saying they are equally valid ways to find nourishment. The problem with the scholar in the story is that he had learned everything there was to know about eastern religions from the books, but he had never experienced them. He needed to empty himself of all his knowledge and taste. Learning about the foods makes us knowledgeable in history and traditions, but we never find a revelation for us, as Emerson suggested we need, we only know about theirs.

This also relates back to engaging with the stories. Perhaps at Easter it is difficult to engage with the story of Jesus because some of us have theological baggage with the Christian tradition, but what happens when we see the mythic story lived out for our day and time by a nobody Unitarian Universalist minister who sacrificed his life because he believed in racial justice and was in Selma, Alabama with Martin Luther King. The James Reeb story I retold at Easter is ours just as the one we will tell in three weeks on Flower Communion Sunday about Norbert Capek, the Czech minister who longed for a ritual to speak of our connection with one another, but not one that conjured up hurtful images of his Christian past. Later he was martyred by the Nazis. So we empty ourselves of all the knowledge and sureness we have about truth or the rejection of others¹ truths, and begin to engage the stories.

In the novel The Death of Vishnu, Mr. Jalal feels he is superior to those people who have what he calls faith. He wonders if his intellect has made him close minded to religious experience. He decides to switch off his intellect and invite religion to come and seek him out. “So far,” the author Manil Suri, writes, “his interest in religion had always been clinical – never possessing the spirit.” But he decides it is going to be an experiment, just to see if there is anything there. He is not actually going to empty himself as the Zen master suggested in the story. So he goes to the wilderness to wander in a park, and then sits and closes his eyes. Suddenly a light surges onto his face, and then a flash, and then his mind raced to the books he had read about the Buddha. Did a light flash before him when he reached enlightenment? What did it mean? Then the light returned, followed by a laugh, and his eyes flickered open to see a gang of school children who had gathered around him. One of them flashed the mirror for the final time, and then they kicked dirt on him and ran away. You would think he might have concluded that the world had become too overpopulated to recreate the conditions for Buddha¹s renunciation of the world. But even though he had been tricked, there was something more – he remembered the exhilaration, the mindlessness, feeling weightless as a balloon as he closed his eyes. His quest was true and real, not an experiment. His skepticism lessened. He now had a longing to feel a blaze of energy through every cell and fiber of his being.

We let go of all that knowledge, all that skepticism, and in a sense engage with the stories of those lives around us. Mr Jalal goes to be with the dying Vishnu. We experience religion; we do not simply learn about it. This brings us to the third step of the path of the challenge of religious pluralism. Some choose to sit and meditate. Some go on pilgrimages. Some want deeper emotional connections. But there is so much to choose from. Remember we are still at this banquet table where there are so many dishes. There is the Indian biryani, and the Passover horseradish, and the middle eastern cous cous. There are not alien to us anymore as they were in 1950. When we returned from England last June we simply longed to have good food again. Even though I am partly English by heritage there was something about those greasy chips, that lard filled pork pie, and the ever present use of black currant in every juice and jam they create. When we sit at the banquet table we like different things. Some foods appeal to us for color and presentation. Some appeal to us for vegetables or meat. Some are spicy and some are bland. We have preferences. Some are better for us.

This is a religious lesson that Unitarian Universalists need to speak to in the challenge of pluralism. While all religions are theoretically equal searches for truth or God, we cannot as individual people equally embrace all. We need to learn in our own individual searches to say what our truth is. One of the liberal dilemmas is we often say that everyone has a right to strong convictions, but then we deny that same right to ourselves. As Harvard professor Bill Hutchison says, we must be pluralists who also believe in something, who have strong convictions. Often when we try to explain Unitarian Universalism to newcomers it comes across as we believe in everything all at once, and it is all equally valid. I have to be honest with you and tell you that while Catholicism may have a certain hold over millions of believers around the world, I personally have found my tolerance for espousing its validity, even for others, waning. My convictions test my tolerance. We are each drawn to religious truths that speak to us. I suspect each one of us is here because we want the freedom to discover religious truths. We want the search, the religious quest more than the defined answers. As part of that search, it is behooves us to empty ourselves of some of our religious skepticism, and begin to experience faith as a living vital entity, and not an intellectual exercise.

That religious experience may be going down to the river more, and meditating on what is eternal or other such times of quiet and solitude, or even reflection with others about life, any of which can help each one of us discover our Buddha. Unitarian Universalism does not say all faith experiences are right for you, but it does say that you are free to experiment and discover together that faith which is right for you. You do not have to be everything, but it is uplifting to discover that something – that Jesus or Buddha spirit, or that humanist story that empowers you to work for justice and peace in the world. Pluralism is not about finding everything in you, but it is about finding the true you, and the faith that helps that unfold.

Pluralism has always been a great challenge for our culture even right from our earliest days. For some reason in the past few months I have become fascinated by the Lewis and Clark expedition. We saw an Omni Max film, an exhibit at Harvard, and the news about the bear claw necklace they discovered that was a gift from one of the native American tribes was exciting. Now I am reading Stephen Ambrose¹s old bestseller Undaunted Courage. I think it also represents a dream of peaceful pluralism that I learned as a child – the white American explorers, and the Shoshone squaw Sacagawea learning from one another without becoming one another. On May 22, 1804, 200 years ago yesterday, Lewis and Clark embarked from St. Louis on an arduous journey. Along the way they found cross cultural understanding with Hidatsas, Mandans, Sioux and others. They were often ignorant in their approach to find way ways to relate to these tribes. Yet somehow their gifts of diplomacy and exchange resulted in a peaceful expedition. They provide lessons to us across the divide of history. Sometimes Unitarian Universalism seems like the old melting pot theory of assimilation when we try to be everything to everybody, and invite people in as long as they become like us. We have a long standing commitment to religious freedom, and as a result of that we do embrace religious diversity. But it must be more than inattention to these traditions with a blase expression of, “they are all good.” We must engage more with the religions of our neighbors. We must engage more with religious experience ourselves. We also must each use our freedom to find our truths, not just to express our freedom. In the coming years we have an opportunity to understand a new religious world. In the old assimilationist world, somebody was in control and the others were absorbed. This is why devout Muslims fear us liberals. They think we want to dilute everything so deep convictions are lost. Lewis and Clark may have learned from the natives and vice versa, but the natives never got to fulfill their destiny. That is the challenge of today. How can each tradition fulfill its destiny, find its Buddhahood, and share control? We must learn the art of stopping, and emptying our overfull tea cups. We must learn the art of experiencing, of not only filling our heads, but our eyes and hearts and souls with religious experience. We must learn the art of speaking truth, so that we don¹t espouse the melting pot theory of religion, but facilitate the meeting place of religions, so that we do not trivialize the truths that others find, even as we as Unitarian Universalists seek the common oneness of faith and universality of justice. Diane Eck suggests that we must seek harmony in diversity rather than unity. She says our dream for society, and perhaps for our church as well should be like the symphony orchestra, each playing our own instrument, but creating beautiful music together in a harmonious whole – the symphony of religions.

Closing Words – from Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence. We are conscious of a universal soul within or behind our individual lives, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul, is not mine or thine, but we are its; we are its property and people.

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.