from "Inclusive Evangelism" by Robert W. Karnan
Our church and fellowship buildings and the moments we share within and outside them point to a sometimes wild and raging visionary courage in the face of all that would demean and destroy and pervert and estrange what is in our hearts. There is no more critical task for our lives than the courage to love and to be there honestly and fully for one another. Deep and good friendship and all the trust and serenity that come with it are transformative. Deep friendship makes a healthy life possible, even likely. It makes for peace and for strength in facing the hardest issues. Doing what we can for what is right, just and fair here where we live is the most powerful social justice force on earth....
The quality of love and goodness we expose from our sometimes reluctant hearts will change the world. Our task is not to make more [Unitarians] or to make bigger congregations or to raise great gobs of money. It is to heal and inspire, to open and to remake, and thus change what is sorry to what is a joy. It is why we gather in the spirit of love and justice. It is why I give my life in service to what can only be described as invisible and intangible but which is also the most powerful force of all: our all too human, sometimes faltering, sometimes complete, sometimes painful and sad, sometimes serene and laughing love – that speaks, if anything at all does – with the voice of God.
by Oliver Herford
My child, the Duck-billed Platypus
A sad example sets for us:
From him we learn how Indecision
Of character provokes Derision.
This vacillating Thing, you see,
Could not decide which he would be,
Fish, Flesh or Fowl, and chose all three.
The scientists were sorely vexed
To classify him; so perplexed
Their brains, that they, with Rage at bay,
Called him a horrid name one day,--
A name that baffles, frights and shocks us,
There is a storm raging outside!
There is a storm raging and it is changing the face of religious life as we know it.
In the space of just a few short decades, the place of religion in our society has been turned on its head.
Religious belief, membership, and attendance of worship services have all plummeted. You have probably heard the numbers. Only about 5 to 10% of the population now attend church regularly – and those numbers would be even lower if it were not for an influx of avid church-going immigrants.
Religion is no longer the serious matter it once was. In the last UK census, 390,000 people said that their religion was Jedi Knight! It’s almost enough to make me long for the good old days when suggesting that Jesus was just a bit less divine than God could get you burnt at the stake!
But the decline in institutional religion does not mean that the needs that religion addresses have gone away.
One of our own, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said this:
“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out.”
Indeed – our need for purpose, for meaning, for growth, for belonging, for unity – they will continue to insist on being met and human beings will continue to find ways to meet them.
And Emerson goes on to warn:
“That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
What are we worshiping and what are we becoming? Many today are worshiping, as I did for so many years, at the feet of the false god of materialism. They seek their sense of purpose and meaning through climbing the ladder of success and prosperity. They cling to the hope that the next new ipod, car, or new home will bring happiness. When at last they come to recognise that this false god is not enough, they are left feeling alone, empty, disconnected, and broken.
To feed such a religious hole in a culture where institutional religion has been largely discredited, many have sought other paths. And so, along with the decline of mainstream religion has come the growth of what has come to be called collectively ‘spirituality.’
Spirituality is no single thing at all though – in fact, it is a label that includes a wide range of disparate activities.
People who are drawn to spirituality tend to be seekers. They may wander from meditation to yoga to Reiki or from aromatherapy to Tai Chi to spiritual healing. For some reason, they think that they have the right to go where their conscience leads them. They think that spiritual exploration – being exposed to new ideas and different practices – is a good thing. They exercise tolerance of diverse beliefs. Where could they have gotten such wild ideas?
Well, of course, they are not wild to us! These are the very same values that have driven Unitarians for centuries. It was our Francis David who said ‘we need not think alike to love alike.’ It was our James Martineau who encouraged us to seek the divine in the world around us, saying:
“God's name is in the Bible; his presence is in the world. Inspiration speaks of his power; creation exemplifies it. Sacred men declare his wisdom; a more sacred universe displays it.”
And so while the storm that we helped to create has brought decline to the churches it has also strewn, and planted and watered a million diverse seeds of spiritual exploration.
Where does this leave Unitarians? What place is there for us in this new and constantly shifting landscape? Maybe there is no place for us. Maybe the world has passed us by. Now that free-thinking is taking hold, maybe our time is past. So, tell me:
• Is it time for Unitarianism to become just a page in the encyclopaedia of
extinct religious movements?
• Is it time for us to fold up our tent and disappear?
• Is it time for us to conclude that we have nothing more to offer?
• Is it time to admit that our purpose is irrelevant to the larger world?
• Is it time to accept that our message of freedom, reason and tolerance in
religion is not needed?
• Is it time to concede that there is no value in creating unity in diversity?
• Is it time to stop proclaiming the worth and dignity of every single
I say no. On the contrary, I say that Unitarianism’s time has come. Religion has finally begun to catch up with where we have led and now we can fully come into our own with a bold new purpose.
The spiritual revolution has brought with it a polarisation between what is called religion and what is labelled spirituality. In the dichotomy that has become common, we see the different strengths of each:
• spirituality offers personal growth whilst religion focuses on service
• spirituality lets us go off on our own path whilst religion brings us into
• spirituality allows us to sample many experiences and beliefs whilst
religion offers belief and practice within a meaningful context – a
container that provides guidance and direction.
Today, there is a widespread sense that one must choose between religion and spirituality, and increasingly, people are opting for the latter. It is not a good choice to have to make. Either way, one is forced to give up something important: personal growth or helping others, religious freedom or community, a choice of beliefs and experiences or a meaningful context. But Unitarianism has been here before. We have struggled with these questions before and worked to create a religion freedom, reason and tolerance. Have we found a better way?
• Have we found a way to pursue spirituality and service?
• Have we found a way to follow our own path and be part of a committed
• Have we found a way to have a variety of spiritual experiences and be
rooted in a meaningful religious context?
The truth – as we know – is that we do not have to choose between these goods. We are not limited to the sea and we are not limited to the land. We are the platypus and I say that with pride. We are the platypus.
We are and have always been the exception.
It is not, as the poet says, indecision that led this particular platypus to be part one thing and part another. It has been deliberate. We have refused to be only one thing or another. We chose to create a movement that combines the best of religion and spirituality: a movement that unites diverse beliefs in one free faith, and that marries commitment to one another with the individual journey toward wholeness.
And now, today, amid the storm that has rearranged the religious landscape, we have the opportunity to bring the polarised extremes together. And if we are ready to heed the call, we can show the world a better way. We are the platypus and we have a great task ahead of us for which we are specially made.
I warn you – It is not easy being a platypus – everyone thinks you should be one thing or another and they just don’t understand. It will not be easy for us to step into this important role. It will require us to be visible, to speak our truth in the public square, to strive to understand and value diverse traditions, and to welcome people who have followed very different paths from our own. But the world of religion needs a platypus right now. We can hide ourselves away or we can go to the waters edge and take the chance to bridge the divisions between religion and spirituality to bring greater meaning, connection, and wholeness to a world in need. The choice is ours.