(leader emeritus of the New York Society for Ethical Culture)
Why not let people differ about their answers to the great mysteries of the Universe? Let each seek one's own way to the highest, to one's own sense of supreme loyalty in life, one's ideal of life. Let each philosophy, each world-view bring forth its truth and beauty to a larger perspective, that people may grow in vision, stature and dedication.
The religions of humanity should be a unifying force, for all the great religions reveal a basic unity in ethics. Whether it be Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism or Confucianism, all grow out of a sense of the sacredness of human life. This moral sensitivity to the sacredness of human personality -- the Commandments not to kill, not to hurt, not to put a stumbling block in the path of the blind, not to neglect the widow or the fatherless, not to exploit the servant or the worker -- all this can be found in the Bibles of humanity, in all the sacred books. All teach in substance: "Do unto others as you would that others should do unto you."
There is, then, a basic unity among the great religions in the matter of ethics. […] [M]ost of the great religions agree on mercy, justice, love -- here on earth. And they agree that the great task is to move people from apathy, from an acceptance of the evils in life, to face the possibilities of the world, to make life sweet for one another instead of bitter. This is the unifying ethical task of all the religions -- yes, of all the philosophies of humankind. There is no need to force our own theological points of view upon one another or to insist that the moral life grows out of final, absolute authority.
By Sophia Lyon Fahs
Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage
exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.
Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and
Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose
one's own direction. Other beliefs are like wide gateways
opening wide vistas for exploration.
Some beliefs weaken a person's selfhood. They blight the growth
of resourcefulness. Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and
enrich the feeling of personal worth.
Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a
changing world. Other beliefs are pliable, like the young
sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.
Over the purchase of a head of lettuce and a few tomatoes, the Turkish owner of my nearby corner store referred to me as a priest. I corrected him, wondering if I was headed into yet another conversation that would expand someone’s understanding of what religion is and can be. As it turns out, I was. ‘You’re not Christian?’ He asked – puzzled. ‘Your congregation don’t all believe the same thing?’ As a minister, I often find myself explaining Unitarianism and I find that Unitarianism is confounding to many people.
For one thing, many people are surprised that we have many different beliefs about God among us. But that’s nothing compared to the response I get when I explain that included among our members are humanists, agnostics, and even atheists.
To most in the west, the notion of religion is centred firmly around belief in and worship of a personal God – that is to say a God with a personality – a God with whom one can communicate and who is active in the world. It’s not surprising that this is the common understanding. This is how Christianity – the dominant religion here – is constructed. Of course, this was also true historically for Unitarians who came out from the Christian tradition. James Martineau, one of Unitarianism’s leading lights in the nineteenth century stated his understanding this way:
‘Religion is the belief in an ever-living God, that is, in a Divine Mind and Will ruling the Universe and holding moral relations with mankind.’
Religion can be far broader and more inclusive than this. Indeed, it must be broader if it is to be relevant and beneficial today.
We live in a time and place where only five percent of the populace want anything to do with what they understand religion to be. Ours is a culture where questioning is expected and teachings are rarely adopted without careful examination. To be relevant today, religion must be inclusive of many different notions of God and – I believe – of those who find that term unhelpful altogether.
Don Hirschberg, an American atheist activist, has said that ‘calling Atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair colour.’ Well, although I’m moving more and more toward that particular hew, I must agree with his words. It makes no sense to call atheism itself a religion. But more importantly and in contrast to Hirschberg’s implication, I would insist that an atheist can be religious! Certainly, if we want to include Buddhism or Taoism among what we call religions – and I think we must – then we can not define religion simply in terms of belief in God.
What then do we mean then by ‘religion’? I want to avoid sliding down into the fiery pit of semantic hair splitting here. Many great minds have attempted to define religion and have invariably failed to come up with a solution upon which all can agree. Instead let’s consider these four statements that come from different times and cultural backgrounds:
Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘Religion is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble.’
John Dewey: ‘The religious is any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of its general and enduring value.’
HH the Dalai Lama: ‘This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.’
Albert Einstein: ‘True religion is real living; living with all one's soul, with all one's goodness and righteousness.’
These statements do not offer the kind of definition that we can use draw tight boundaries and to determine who falls inside or outside of them, but they do suggest an essential truth about the way in which we are religious: religion is chiefly about how we live, rather than what we believe. It is about what we do, rather than what we think or say.
Traditionally in the west, it has been understood that righteous action and religious living depend entirely on right belief, and that right belief means belief in God – and a very specific kind of God at that. And yet, we – radicals that we are – dare to claim that a religious way of living can does not necessarily require theism.
I have mentioned previously a simple model of what religion’s purposes are. They can be described in three domains: spirituality, community, and justice. It may be useful to think of this way of looking at religion using the image of a tree. Spirituality is our roots – the connectedness with the ground of our being that nurtures us. It is our support and our stability. We grow spiritually by deepening.
Community is the wood of the tree. It is the solid collection in which we may be protected and supported. Amid the collection of branches, we find relationship and are able to reach both toward one another and outwards.
And the leaves, flowers, and fruit of our tree of religion may be identified with justice – with our reaching out to others and offering of beauty and nurturance to the world. It is through flowers and fruit – through justice – that seeds of a brighter future are generated.
We also recognise the many interconnections between these aspects of our religious lives. The roots are fed not only by the ground, but by the leaves and woody parts of the tree. Without community and justice, spirituality weakens and eventually dies.
Can the tree of religion grow and thrive without a traditional notion of God? Is God the only sunlight to sustain it? – the only water and nutrients its spiritual roots may absorb? No. Our own experience teaches us that inspiration may come from many sources and beliefs. The belief in a ruling, acting, thinking, deity is only one such source. Nature, love, humanity, the earth itself, the wonder of the universe – these are all sustaining sources for many of us.
But, you may ask, what of the personal relationship with God? From our very beginnings, humankind turned to the supernatural – to the divine in many forms – in worship and in gratitude. A belief in God meets some of our deepest needs and desires. Some would say there is a God-shaped space in each of us that we desperately need to fill. Yes, we may be inspired to live justly or to have compassion with a more abstract God or with no God at all, but what of hope? What of healing? What of comfort in our terror and suffering? What of the need to be understood, to be loved, to be forgiven for which many look to an omniscient, omnipotent God? What of the need to know that our trials are not without meaning?
If I were able to, I would believe in an all-powerful, personal God. I would dearly love to have a God with whom I could converse and who could offer me hope, love, knowing, comfort, and healing.
If the presence of such a deity is a reality for you, that is well and good. I hope that you count yourself as fortunate and blessed.
But, that is not to say that all is bleak for the rest of us. We may find our comfort and hope and knowing in a different kind of sacredness – one that is in all things. We may find love and acceptance in humankind – in those relationships where the sacred within becomes evident. We may find our spiritual needs met in a feeling of connection that unites us, or a love that never dies. Our religious sense reaches out continually to find new ways to grow spiritually.
Indeed, it is this journey that brings us here. We come with all our different needs and hurts and strengths and our different perspectives and beliefs and we explore together in search of the sacredness that can touch us and move us toward wholeness.
It must be said though, that as much as we may recognise how wonderful it is that we can be together with all of our different beliefs and perspectives, that this living amid difference brings real challenges – some of them painful and frightening.
I have talked in the past about the responsibility involved in being religious in a diverse community. Elsewhere, we might be served our spiritual meal – one choice, but satisfying if that dish meets your needs. Here, we are offered a wide range of spiritual foods to taste and to choose among, and we are offered recipes for more. We have a chance to get what we want even if that changes over time, but it takes effort.
The challenge of living amid theological diversity goes further though than the additional responsibility it brings. We may enter this community with well-established ideas and patterns and they may be lifelines to us. We may be holding onto a belief as we would a rope above a great abyss. How ready would you be to release your hold on that rope? If someone nearby points out that they are doing just fine without a rope, what do you do? How can your reality be so different from theirs? Are they right and you are wrong? Can two such different realities exist side by side? My advice: if you have a rope to hold onto and it’s keeping you from falling, don’t let go!
We engage in a difficult and delicate dance as we share our beliefs with one another. Different beliefs may be very hard to appreciate. As William O. Douglas, who served on the US Supreme Court for 36 ½ years described ‘Religious experiences which are as real as life to some may be incomprehensible to others.’
Learning of other beliefs challenges us. It naturally tends to make us call our own beliefs into question – something that can be frightening as we feel that the very foundations of our way of being are called into question. A natural reaction is to challenge the beliefs of the other. This, we must avoid.
Our duty to be open-minded and to support one another requires that we listen and share, to try to understand another’s reality but neither to adopt or dispute it.
A word that may come to mind here is ‘truth.’ Are we not seeking the truth? There can’t be different incompatible truths living side by side, can there? Is it not wrong to believe in something that is not true?
As a scientist by training, I would simply remind you that we are not engaged in science! This is not the place for scientific standards of truth.
Robert Fulghum, author and Unitarian minister says this:
‘I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge -- myth is more potent than history -- dreams are more powerful than facts -- hope always triumphs over experience -- laughter is the cure for grief -- love is stronger than death.’
When we come here to understand our world and to find meaning and purpose in our lives – to grow as spiritual beings – our truth is not and must not be defined solely by what can be proven.
Instead of a scientific standard of truth, I suggest that our religious truth should be defined pragmatically – if it works, it is true.
The Buddha took just such a stance. Here is a paraphrasing of his words:
‘Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it. Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held. Believe nothing just because it is said in ancient books. Believe nothing just because it is said to be of divine origin. Believe nothing just because someone else believes it. Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true.’
I would have you judge the garden of your belief by its fruits. Beliefs that lead us to be good, caring, justice-seeking, generous, grateful, open-minded, people full of forgiveness and compassion are good beliefs. They are true for you. Those that do otherwise are not as good or true.
We come together here to grow spiritually, to be in community, and to reach out in doing the work of justice. We come because we are reminded of something that can inspire and even transform us. Whether we call it God, love, companionship, peace, or goodness. Even if we have no name for it. We come because we know there is more – that there is a better, more meaningful, more purposeful way to live – and we commit to taking that journey together.
So may it be with you.