Working Backwards

Reading 1:

From "The Church and Its Leadership" a report commissioned by the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1963

As a result of the freedom which is ours, our members reach many different conclusions on theological and other questions. But these differences do not divide us. They vitalize us. Our ideal is that each shall be given full opportunity to express his views; that none shall submit to the dominance of those whose views are different; but also that none shall go his schismatic way alone. We do not merely tolerate differing opinions, we encourage them and look upon them as the most likely source of new and better understanding. With us the heretic is the man who insists upon having his own way, who says, "Play my way or I won't play at all." The real opposite of liberalism is not a traditional set of theological opinions but the dogmatic insistence that a particular set of opinions is right.

Does it follow then, that there are as many opinions among us as there are individual members? In one sense, yes. But it is the experience of all of us to find across the country Unitarians […] very much alike — interested in the same ideas, fighting for the same causes, although sometimes asserting, "We don't have to believe anything to be what we are." Our commitments and activities belie this statement. To speak of the church of the free spirit is to proclaim a principle of a very clear and precise character.


Reading 2

No Coward Soul Is Mine
 No coward soul is mine,
 No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere:
      I see Heaven's glories shine,
 And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.
      O God within my breast,
 Almighty, ever-present Deity!
      Life--that in me has rest,
 As I--undying Life--have Power in Thee!
      Vain are the thousand creeds
 That move men's hearts: unutterably vain;
      Worthless as withered weeds,
 Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,
      To waken doubt in one
 Holding so fast by thine infinity;
      So surely anchored on
 The steadfast rock of immortality.
      With wide-embracing love
 Thy spirit animates eternal years,
      Pervades and broods above,
 Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.
      Though earth and man were gone,
 And suns and universes ceased to be,
      And Thou wert left alone,
 Every existence would exist in Thee.
      There is not room for Death,
 Nor atom that his might could render void:
      Thou--Thou art Being and Breath,
 And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

~Emily Bronte


Some of you have been around Unitarianism for a long time – maybe even for your whole life.  Others are much newer to it. Some of you consider yourselves to be Unitarians.  Others are more likely to ask “I know that I find something of value here, but does that make me a Unitarian?” Why is that? If you regularly attended a Catholic church you might have less trouble in saying whether or not you were a Catholic. Your decision would probably have something to do with whether you accepted the various articles of belief that Catholicism offers.

One of the challenges people face in getting a handle on Unitarianism comes from the fact that – in our culture – we are accustomed to thinking of religion in terms of belief systems.  Christianity works this way.  With its creeds and dogma – Christianity places a great emphasis on what you believe.  The theologians’ word for this is “orthodoxy” – which literally means “right belief” or “correct doctrine.”  If you believe certain “right” things about the stories told in the bible and other church doctrine then you are a Christian.

With the Christian understanding of religion ingrained in our culture, it is not surprising that when they encounter Unitarianism for the first time people jump to the question “what do Unitarian’s believe?”  How many times have you been asked that question when you mentioned Unitarianism?  And you may have struggled for an answer – “well, we don’t believe this and we don’t believe that…”  Some charge that our religion is defined by what we don’t believe. 

The problem is not that we are negative, it’s that “what do you believe?” is not the right question.  If we look beyond the traditional Christian way of thinking about religion, we see that “orthodoxy” fades in importance.
Louis Nizer put it in a way most Unitarians would probably agree with, “true religion is the life we lead, not the creed we profess.”

Unitarianism emphasizes action and practice rather than belief. In contrast to “orthodoxy,” we focus on “orthopraxy” – literally “right practice.”  And we are in very good company!  Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and Hinduism all emphasize orthopraxy over orthodoxy. The five pillars of Islam are at the core of that faith.  Only one of these pillars is a faith statement – “there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger.”  The remaining four are about action.  The one central belief of Judaism is monotheism – the proclamation that “God is one.” But action is the most important aspect of being Jewish.  Denominations in Judaism differ on interpretations of the practice that is required, not on belief.  Buddhists are primarily concerned with following the right practices to bring about enlightenment, although they are not theists and may hold a wide variety of different beliefs.

When we look at Unitarianism in this light, we can begin to see that the right question to ask of a Unitarian is not “what do you believe?” but rather, “what do you do?” or “what do you value?”

In our first reading this morning, we heard that “…it is the experience of all of us to find across the country Unitarians […] very much alike — interested in the same ideas, fighting for the same causes…”  This has been my experience too – both in the States and here.  There is much that unites us – they are not beliefs, but rather values and ways of being in the world.

We can not stop there though. Just because Unitarianism places a greater emphasis on orthopraxy than on orthodoxy does not mean that we should not attempt to search for and understand what ties all this together – what makes us so similar.  It is surely not mere coincidence that we – in our openness to difference – find we have so much in common.  

As a biologist, I learned about two very different ways of characterizing and describing any particular organism.  They are called phenotype and genotype.  The phenotype is what we can observe directly: a person may be tall or short, light-skinned or dark-skinned, male or female.  

The phenotype is, in turn, determined by very subtle differences in the sequence of a complex chemical – DNA – in the cells of their bodies.  DNA makes up the genes that provide the blueprint for the body’s development – for its phenotype.  And it is these DNA blueprints that we refer to as genotype. 

We can learn a great deal about genotype by observing and measuring phenotype, as the scientist monk Gregor Mendel did when he famously studied different kinds of peas and worked out the rules of genetics.
What can we learn about Unitarianism’s genotype from its phenotype.  In other words, what are the deeply seated beliefs and assumptions that cause us to commit to certain ways of being?

We need to start with an understanding of the Unitarian phenotype. How does a Unitarian act? What matters to him or her?

One obvious trait is our attitude toward diversity.  Where most religions aim for a uniformity of belief, we embrace difference in our communities.  Another characteristic is our emphasis on the ability of each person to determine what spiritual path is right for them – our resolute refusal to impose creeds or dogma.  Working for fairness and justice has always been important to us, and so Unitarians have been at the forefront of the struggles to end discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, and gender.

Another striking Unitarian phenotype is how we run our congregations. Unlike many western organisations – religious and otherwise – we have set up no powerful hierarchy.  Within our congregations, the members of the congregation are in charge and operate by democratic process to ensure that each person has a voice and a say. And when our congregations associate, they do so in a voluntary assembly reserving complete freedom of action to each individual congregation.

Finally, and perhaps most important, we strive to value each person as they are and try to look beyond their flaws and frailties.

I recognize that this is probably an incomplete list and that we could keep adding to it for some time.  But as I consider our phenotype, I see two themes emerging.

The first of these is freedom: we stress individual freedom of belief, freedom of congregations to make their own decisions, and freedom from authoritarian rule of all types.  

Secondly, there is a clear commitment to treating people with a respect and kindness that goes beyond valuing freedom.  We not only recognize each person’s freedom of belief, we welcome them whatever path they’ve chosen.  We do our best to discard our biases and prejudices and welcome everyone. I will call this “radical hospitality” – the title of an excellent little book about Benedictine spirituality and practice.

Can we go even deeper? Is there a single belief that underlies these two simple themes of freedom and radical hospitality?  I think there is.  I think that it is what we refer to when we speak of the worth and dignity of every person in our General Assembly’s object – its statement of purpose.  And it is what the UUA principles in the States describe as the “Inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

We believe in people. We make the audacious claim that every person is worthwhile and is to be valued. We may describe this in many different ways depending on our beliefs and our origins. I speak of a sacredness that lies within each one of us – no matter how broken or twisted by pain and fear.  You might speak of an eternal soul.  Others will speak of God – a divine presence that is within and around us. As Emily Bronte writes:

      O God within my breast,
 Almighty, ever-present Deity!
      Life--that in me has rest,
 As I--undying Life--have Power in Thee!

Still others would say we all have Buddha nature.  Whatever words we use, we speak of a preciousness of each human life that is understandable no matter what our theology may be.

This principle is powerful.  It drives us toward justice, and love – toward treating each person with dignity and respect.  It makes us strive for a better fairer world for all. It gives us permission to accept ourselves too, and to seek happiness and joy and wholeness.

This core belief of ours is bold one.  It can be a struggle to maintain our faith at times.  What evidence do we have?  Do we really mean every person?  Do we include Hitler?  Pol Pot?  Closer to home, do we include the corporate robber with billions in assets when thousands are homeless in our city?  Do we include the child abuser, the rapist, the 7/7 terrorists, or the young man who walked into a college campus with two handguns and didn’t stop firing until more than thirty people were dead?

And if we do believe in the preciousness of every person, what are we to do about it?  Is it enough to be nice, to be polite, to be tolerant?  What does it mean about forgiving those who wrong us or our loved ones?  These are difficult questions for another day.

Now that we have worked backwards to identify a core belief of our Unitarian faith, can we work forward again?

The belief in the worth and dignity of every person impassions our most noble values and actions.  It propels us to explore and embrace our differences, to fight for justice, to treat all people with respect, to guarantee everyone an equal chance, to promote peace, to fight against authoritarianism, and to favour rehabilitation of wrongdoers over punishment.  

We can also ask if there are ways in which this core belief may fail us. I suggest that there are three areas where our emphasis on individual worth and dignity may be insufficient as a guide – potential blind spots that we must attend to.

The first is the question of evil. Clearly, there have been evil acts in this world – they happen every day.  How do we reconcile evil with inherent worth and dignity? What do we mean by evil?  Is it supernatural? Is it innate? How do we deal with evil people? Where is their value?

The second concern is that our focus on individual worth may tend to reinforce the excessive individualism that infects our society.  We may easily miss the importance of personal responsibility and of a commitment to the greater good.

The third and final concern about the Unitarian genotype is what it doesn’t say about the non-human world. Buddhism, Jainism, and Paganism, for example, teach respect for all living things.  Our core belief, however, is focused on humans. What is our responsibility to other animals?  What is our responsibility to the rest of life on earth?  What is our responsibility to the earth itself?  We have become more aware of these questions as the degradation of the natural world has become obvious, but I suspect that most of our interest in the environment stems from the realization that we are harming human beings.  Do we have a broader responsibility?

Ours is a religion that has never been written in stone.  We have deliberately resisted all temptations to establish dogmas and creeds – despite their considerable appeal from time to time when the ambiguities came to feel like chaos and like centripetal forces that threatened to spin us apart.

Within our free religious movement, we find people who are profoundly committed to living in right relationship with their fellow human beings and who are committed to growing in wholeness and wisdom both for their own happiness and so that they may be more able to love and care for others.
The theological conviction that underlies this way of being religious – a belief in the sacredness of all human life – is an important guide. It can be a saving faith in a world where individuals are all-to-often sacrificed for political or economic purposes and where justice is still only a dream for many. It is also daring and courageous faith that forces us to struggle in the face of ample cause for doubt and cynicism.

As we explore our beliefs and their origins and how they affect our actions, we have an opportunity to ask what may be missing from our way of seeing the world. In our openness to the questions, we may ask particularly about our relationship to non-human life and about how our focus on individual value may affect our thinking about the greater good of the community.

My training in Biology taught me much about flesh and blood – about what life is and about the many processes that are so important to sustain it.  What it did not teach is how to live well.  Convictions, values, and faith are where we find this guidance, and I know of no single belief that leads me to live more righteously than does a belief in the sacredness within each human heart. As Unitarians, we are free to explore and test and question our faith. Let is continue to walk hand in hand as we explore how best to live with justice, peace, love, and happiness.

May it be so.