First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore March 3, 2002
Unitarian Universalists believe there are many ways to imagine and live a satisfying and ultimately meaningful spiritual life in religious community. We believe is there is no best religion for everyone --including ours. I expect almost everyone here would join me in saying I do not believe everyone would be better off if they were Unitarian Universalist just as I do not believe everyone should be a Buddhist or a Christian or a Moslem or a Pagan or an atheist or a Humanist. In my interfaith work, I have been deeply inspired by the faith and practice of people from other religious traditions and I would never consider suggesting that they should join our congregation and reject their current church.
This fundamental, bedrock belief of Unitarian Universalists may not seem that remarkable until you attend the services of a tradition that does claim to be the only way to salvation. Even if they do recognize the value of other religious traditions, as many do today, they will still claim some kind of superiority for their understanding of God or liturgical practice. It is quite rare to find a religious tradition that is as open and accepting as we are.
Believing that there are many ways to imagine and live a satisfying and ultimately meaningful spiritual life in religious community has institutional consequences. If you explore our history and our heritage you will discover how much we have struggled to give birth to this eclectic way of doing religion. The Unitarians in this country began our institutional journey asking: was salvation predetermined or could living a good enough life secure our fate. The Universalists began with the assurance of God's universal redemption of humanity through Jesus' atonement and then wondered what it meant to be a member of such a church. Both the Unitarians and Universalists, over almost 200 years, have explored those boundaries. Do we all believe in Jesus or could there be other, equally valid ways to grow spiritually and live religiously? Do we all have to believe in God or could a morally upright life be good enough? Do we need to believe in anything beyond what science can reveal?
What is significant, I think, is each time we've wrestled with these questions, we defined ourselves to include rather than exclude. Today we are a non-creedal congregation without a test of faith or belief for membership. The meaning of membership is making a commitment to a community and a way of doing religion.
Our belief in many religious paths to Truth logically leads to an openness and exploration of how religions other than ours formulate, practice and live a satisfying and ultimately meaningful spiritual life in religious community. In our religious education program for children and adults, we explore Christianity and Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, Humanist and scientific ways of believing. We want our children to understand and appreciate these religious traditions so they may absorb some of those ideas and values. On Sunday morning, I may quote from the Torah, the Christian Scriptures, Taoism, Buddhism, the Quran, the great writers and poets from around the world, from the theories and findings of science, and the inspired words of the mystics. Every source of words is potentially a source for an inspiring, enlightening and insightful message.
This eclectic, "salad bowl" approach to spirituality sometimes is critiqued by the elitists from other religious traditions. They charge we are just spiritual tourists who visit a shrine or a cathedral, ooh and ah, and then travel to the next exciting destination. If things get a little uncomfortable, we turn off and move on. What stays with us is perhaps only a pleasing memory, a trinket of wisdom or a souvenir of sentimentality. When we find something we like, say, a stimulating Native American ritual, we appropriate it out of context and desecrate it by practicing it outside its indigenous community. Even adopting the practice of Holy Communion in our sanctuary on Sunday morning would be tenuous, at best, as we are not a believing Christian church. We have Christians in our membership who find tremendous meaning and value in the life and teaching of Jesus. But institutionally, we do not exist to perpetuate Christianity.
Our critics charge that we cut ourselves off from spiritual depth by not picking one of the elements of the salad and diving deeply into that tradition by making a commitment to it and it alone. They would say, if you are attracted to and find inspiration in the Bible, become a Christian or a Jew and make it your life. Only then will you get the true value that comes through commitment.
This criticism struck me hard, to the core of my being. While I was in seminary and in the years afterward before accepting my first settlement in Florida, I struggled with this criticism. Being raised a Unitarian Universalist, I was encouraged by my religious education teachers to go out and explore different religious traditions. Explore I did. I spent nine months studying and practicing psychic healing. I hung with the American Sufi community in San Francisco doing the Dances of Universal Peace. I even got initiated into Sufism by a great human being who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (By the way, you too can try out these dances. A wonderful local Sufi group meets here on the third Saturday night of the month to do them with all who wish to attend.)
During seminary and afterwards, I struggled with whether or not I should really be a Buddhist since it spoke to me so powerfully. I discovered Vipassana or Insight Buddhist meditation in 1984 and became strongly drawn to it. I would go on a meditation retreat for a week and be amazed at the transformative power of the teaching and practice. I wondered if I could offer people in my Unitarian Universalist ministry the value of what I received through these Buddhist retreats.
I don't think I'm alone among Unitarian Universalists with these doubts. I know other UU's who enthusiastically explore the offerings of other religious traditions. Most of us find aspects of other traditions that really appeal to us. For me, Sufism opened my heart and gave me an experience of spiritual love that endures with me to this day. I will be eternally grateful for what I learned in that community. The profound insights of Buddhism into the nature of reality have transformed my understanding of the way things are and how the universe works. I'd have great difficulty in ministry without the guidance I've received from Buddhist teaching and practice. I've found great inspiration with some of my fellow ministers who are Christian witnessing how their faith in Jesus motivates their actions. Praying together, as we do at ARISE meetings, can be particularly moving. Sometimes I've even wondered if I could be a Christian after some of my reading in liberal Christian theology.
And then, I attend a Christian service and it is quickly obvious to me why I could never be a Christian especially as most of them conceive of their religious tradition. While the Good Samaritan story touches me and the Sermon on the Mount inspires and challenges me, Resurrection theology offends me. Those of you who have read the most recent issue of the Unitarian Universalist Association's journal, UU World, will know what I'm talking about. The cover article makes a strong connection between the toleration of abuse and violence against children and women and the Christian ideal of redemptive suffering. If Jesus can die for our sins, we too can get merit by enduring suffering and domination. The idea that Jesus can suffer for me and fix things with an angry God sets up a parallel theological insanity that if I suffer unfairly I can somehow please God through my self-sacrifice. This perverts the real value of facing one's suffering and moving beyond it through inner and outer transformation.
The other part of traditional Christianity I can't stomach and completely reject is the idea that I'm an unrepentant sinner who can only be redeemed through accepting Jesus as my personal savior. While I completely accept the criticism that I fall short of my potential for good and sometimes do that which is harmful to myself and others, I reject the idea that baptism is the only way to wake up to my errors and begin moving beyond them. In this model, the authority for that transformation is outside of me, in Jesus' grace, and by implication, his ministers, their doctrine, their teaching and their church. If I take Jesus into my heart as my savior, the church is sure to want to tag along and instruct me about how I should be a good Christian. After all, I'm lost in sin so my judgment is suspect. I must now trust the judgment and advice of others before I trust my own. In my opinion, this can be a cultic recipe for ritual abuse.
The second core belief of Unitarian Universalism I'll mention is the guidance system for our spiritual lives is individual. It is within us and independent of everyone else but us. We know, at a deep level, what religious wisdom is healthy and useful for us and what will poison us. The most challenging piece of this belief is that one person's passion can be another's poison. I completely accept that for many people, the Christian path I personally reject is the right path for them. For whatever reason, they find trusting an authority outside themselves works better in their religious journey than trusting an inner authority. The problem a Unitarian Universalist has with most other religious traditions is having to accept the whole doctrine even though some of its aspects might be toxic to us.
I've learned this lesson from personal experience. When I first discovered Buddhism, I thought every Unitarian Universalist should be a Buddhist too. I found it completely answered the gnawing questions within me, it gave me such a clear focus for how to live my life, I wanted everyone else to share it. It was so compatible with the Scientific Humanism of my childhood. There was no God to worship or obey. Revelation was personal and came through the systematic practice of meditation. It was repeatable and predictable yet emotionally powerful. When I began in seminary I was sure all Unitarian Universalists would be happier if they meditated like I did.
Thankfully I've grown a little wiser since then. I've met a number of people who tried meditation and found it useless to them. I've even met some people who found it repulsive. This reinforced for me the Unitarian Universalist belief that each of us has a unique source of spiritual nourishment to discover for ourselves. Each of our individual spiritual guidance systems is shaped by our biology, our culture, our heritage, our upbringing, our friends, our life experiences, by so much that it is ridiculous to think that one size of religion can fit everyone.
This was true for me of Buddhism as well. I personally could not accept the monasticism of the Theravadan Buddhist sect through which I received my instruction. I found the Islamic view of the place of women incompatible with my Humanistic values. None of the places I found such great satisfaction could I be fully myself.
This last point motivates another important question: So if we are all so different, what value is there in bringing together a congregation full of individualists who aren't going to agree with each other?
This is a question I've also struggled with. Many spiritual seekers avoid religious community. They go to workshops and retreats at places like Omega and Kripala. They drop in here and there when the mood strikes them. They light their incense and candles in their private sanctuaries and worship the God of their own creation. This smorgasbord approach has tempted me too. Perhaps the answer for me, I wondered, is to create my own religion and call it "a reasoned approach to mystical Sufi Buddhist Unitarian Universalism!"
The reason we need, and I emphasize the word need, religious community while we do our own individual search for truth and meaning, is the dangerous trap of self-deception. The spiritual tourist will come upon powerful ideas and experiences that will captivate them, transport them, satisfy them and sometimes deceive them. One of the most intoxicating experiences seekers can encounter is to believe that God has spoken to them and has given them a message for the world. Moses, Jesus and Mohammed moved millions -- nay billions -- of people to follow them because they believed God spoke to them and directed them. Today there is no shortage of people running around carrying messages from God or channeling spirits and wanting to convince others of what they have received.
Yes, it is possible that some of them really have been in touch with what is beyond them and have brought back a valid, transformative message. And it is also possible the inspiration they feel is of their own creation. Instead of God, they are actually listening to their own ego dressed up as God. The intoxication of such experiences can fool them.
Who can provide the reality check, and, on the positive side, the encouragement and validation? A religious community can be that holding environment to support us as we live out our spirituality. I know I, like many ministers, am vulnerable to ego intoxication and to religious enthusiasms. I greatly value the exchange I have with members of this congregation to help me see when I'm in touch with something real and when I'm in fantasyland. Since you do not expect me to be authoritative, you will challenge me when you think I'm deluded. I welcome that challenge for in it we both can grow. For in that challenge, you too may discover you are operating out of your own ego intoxication that I may help you discover. Or, as is often the case, it is a little of both and in the engagement, in the creative interchange if you will, we both teach and discover ourselves.
This is another fundamental Unitarian Universalist idea. We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people. That means we have value and can be both teachers and students for each other. The only difference between you and me is I have made a personal commitment to ministry and have worked very, very hard at being both a teacher and a student. I have studied and learned a great deal about things spiritual and religious. I speak about it from the pulpit, in personal counseling or conversation, or in a classroom setting. I also have worked very hard at learning to listen deeply to people and hear their inner guidance system at work. I have learned and continue to learn how to help people find their way as they imagine and live a satisfying and ultimately meaningful spiritual life.
This eclectic spiritual path of Unitarian Universalism I've been describing is a great path -- but it is not for everyone. The kind of people who will be attracted to us will be independent thinkers and individualists. They will be people who trust their own judgment. They will want to take responsibility for their own spiritual life and will not want to turn it over to an authority. At the same time, they will want be part of a supportive community of fellow seekers who are also working to better understand and follow their own inner guidance.
This is what Unitarian Universalism is all about. If you are a visitor and this makes sense to you, it could become your home too.
©2002 by the Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.