Our seventh-grade Neighboring Faiths class is one of the most popular, well-attended classes. They visit various religious houses of worship: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Native American and others; they have a chance to witness, to get the feel of it, and to ask questions.
I’m reminded of the old saying: “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I experience and I understand.”
Last year, when I went to the class to respond to their questions about our Unitarian Universalist faith, one of our grandmother teachers, Harriette Raugh, came up to me after the talk and said, “I finally get it!” She explained that she had some of the same basic questions asked by the seventh graders.
This year, when I was asked to visit the seventh grade class, I remembered Harriette’s comment, so I asked the teachers if they would like to bring the class to a service and have the students ask their own questions so I could respond to everyone, as a sermon.
That’s what we did last Sunday. I called it ‘Opening the Question Box.’ We started with the 5th and 6th grade Bible class at the 9 a.m. service. The 7th grade Neighboring Faiths class came to the 11 a.m. service with their questions. Each was the basis of my sermon. It was a bit anxious-making, since I chose not to look at the questions ahead of time. But the response was gratifying—others said things similar to Harriette’s comment last year.
QUESTIONS FROM THE BIBLE CLASS
I’ve listened to the recording, and transcribed (with editing) most of what I said in my responses to their questions. The first set of questions included the following:
Who is God? Does God control us? Are people born good or bad? Did we evolve from apes? Why did it take 7 days for God to make earth? What did the serpent in Adam and Eve tell Eve; Why did the serpent not like Adam and Eve? Are people really good or bad? Were you a Unitarian when you were a kid? Is there a God? Why do people pass away? Why is there violence in the world? Why do you call it a church and only have services on Sunday, if it is not a Christian denomination? How do you know that there is a God? Why don’t Unitarians get a first communion? Do dreams mean anything?
Before responding to these great questions I want to say that as a Unitarian Universalist I speak for myself. For us, there are no right or wrong answers. So I prefer to say that I have responses, rather than answers to your questions.
We don’t have first communion, but we do an annual communion service at our Family Thanksgiving Service, the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Communion is a shared meal with religious symbolism. When a child is old enough to understand the symbolism of the ritual, at about age 6, he or she has their first communion as a sign that they are now growing up and can understand the religious idea of ‘sin.’ They go to confession the day before and tell the priest things they did wrong, and they promise to try not to do those things anymore.
In the Catholic Church the Communion (Eucharist) is the central part of the Mass; it’s a reminder of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ—so it’s a meal of remembrance and thanksgiving.
(It was tempting at this point to go into the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation, and our own Unitarian version of the symbolism that suggests a ‘change of heart.’ But that would not have been age-appropriate.)
It’s natural for you to look at things that your friends do in their churches or synagogues and wonder why we don’t do those things. We actually have our own version of most of those things.
Religion as a Human Invention
All the religions came from human beings, just like us, and we all do and say things we wish we hadn’t done or said, and we need to be reminded of the way we’d like to be, and we need to have a chance to try and try again.
We call our house of worship a church because originally Unitarians and Universalists came out of Christianity and considered themselves to be a denomination—a kind of Christianity.
Unitarians were people who said that they thought it was a mistake, in the year 325, at the Council of Nicaea and people there decided to say that Jesus is God. The Greek word homoousios means that God and Jesus as ‘one and the same.’ Some argued that there was a time in the history of the universe when Jesus did not exist, so they used the word homoiousios, which means ‘of like nature,’ that Jesus and God were similar but not the same substance.
The first group was led by bishop Athanasius, and the second by bishop Arius. The first group won the vote and Jesus was, essentially, elected to be God, thus forming what was to become the doctrine of the Trinity. Arius was considered a heretic, and we think of him as one of our Unitarian forebears.
Thus the word Unitarian is used to distinguish us from Trinitarians. We say ‘God is One, not three.’
Our Universalist forebears go all the way back to the first century, when Christianity was growing out of Judaism, and there was an argument about what happens to you after you die—whether there’s a heaven and a hell, and, if there is, who goes to heaven and who goes to hell?
Our Universalist forebears said, “How can there be a good, all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient) God and have some of the people He created be destined for everlasting hell?” So they said that all of God’s children are (ultimately) saved; thus the idea of ‘universal salvation,’ and the word Universalist to distinguish those who did not believe that some people burn in hell after death.
I think that heaven and hell are ways of describing this life—things that happen to you after you are born, not after you die. I believe is that the same thing happens to everyone when they die, though I don’t presume to know how to describe just what that is. But we are part of nature, and everything in nature has a birth and a death; the animals and plants—the leaves fall from the tree and return to the earth—and we humans are no different.
UU: a Religion of Choice
I didn’t grow up in a Unitarian Universalist church, but I always had the same basic idea about God and the afterlife, so I was a Unitarian and a Universalist before I realized it. I was very glad to discover that there was a place where I could go to church and still have all of my own, personal beliefs.
A Unitarian Universalist is a person who believes that you should be free to think for yourself; we know that we continually change as we grow and learn and have certain experiences. So for me, the stories in the Bible—like the creation story someone asked about—are myths. A myth is not a lie. It’s a Truth story. It’s not mean to be a true story, like the story of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.
Take the story of Adam and Eve. The story says that God created everything in six days, and on the seventh day he rested. He put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and told them to have a good time…enjoy your self. But do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for ‘on the day you eat of it you will die.’
So they decided to eat from that tree, and then they heard God’s footsteps in the garden and they covered their genitals, and they hid from God. So God realized that they must have eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The apple is a symbol of that fruit—they lost their innocence. They had the knowledge of good and evil in themselves—they realized that they have the capacity for both good and evil, or good and bad, and that each of us is responsible to be good, to do good, and to avoid being or doing bad. That’s the human struggle, and it lasts a lifetime.
We ask ourselves, ‘What’s the right thing to do,’ like when Katrina caused the flood in New Orleans and we’re trying to be helpful to the people there who lost their church, as well as their homes and so forth. We want to be good. We want to do good.
To know that you have the capacity for both good and evil is to be evicted from the garden of innocence…to lose your innocence. This goes back to the question about first communion—at a certain point in each person’s life we know that we have to take responsibility for our own lives—for the kind of person we’re going to be.
So the stories in the Bible are myths because they are symbols of the Truth about what it means to be human. In the best myths we see ourselves.
Joseph Campbell said, “A myth is a public dream; a dream is a private myth.”
What Kind of God?
This leads me to the questions about God. When I say, ‘God is One,’ I don’t mean that I think there is ‘one god,’ out there in space somewhere. I do not believe there is a god ‘out there.’ God is within the One-ness of All that Is.
For me, God is Nature with a capital N.
The surest sign of God’s presence within me, and I presume within you, is compassion. Why should I care what happens to someone else, or to their pet? There is this thing in us—call it love, human compassion, caring…that is the surest sign of God’s presence, and it’s enough for me. It’s adequate, theologically. I don’t need to know more than that about God’s presence.
I wouldn’t want not to care. Life for me would be pretty meaningless, pretty empty. If I didn’t have joy when others celebrate, like the celebration of a new birth.
When my daughter was in the seventh grade there was a discussion in one of her classes about religion, and Susan said she didn’t believe in God. So the teacher said, “Oh, Susan, your father’s a minister, you must believe in God.” So I went into the school and told the teacher that I did not want her to tell my daughter what she ‘should’ or should not believe about God or religion.
Then, eighteen years ago, Susan gave birth to her first child, and I went to the hospital to see my first grandchild and to visit Daddy’s little girl, and she handed Alex to me and said, with tears in her eyes, “Dad, this is a miracle.”
That was a special moment for me, and one on which I’ve reflected a lot over the years. It’s not that everyone who has a baby or grandchild will ‘believe in God.’ That’s not it. The point is that our real, true religion is a direct function of our real ‘experience.’ It’s the only thing that really and truly informs us about things like God and so forth.
That’s one of the things that distinguishes us as Unitarian Universalists: that we rely on our own, personal, direct experience to inform us. We can read all the books, special as they may be, we can attend services and sit with a master, the guru, but ultimately we have to have our own experience, and we have to trust that we can draw the Truth from that experience.
Emerson said that we need to pass our life ‘through the fire of thought.’ It’s not enough to simply have experience—you need to reflect on your experience, and not all at once; it’s a life-long task; it’s a life-long process.
You asked about people being good and bad; you asked about violence. We know that people are good and bad—even the same person can be both good and bad. Violence is one of the ways of being ‘bad.’
The Genius in the Genesis Stories
Take the story of Cain and Abel from the Bible; another wonderful myth. Adam and Eve had Cain, the first natural-born human; then they had Abel, the second person born into the world.
Cain was a tiller of the fields and Abel was a keep of flocks—he raised animals to eat. Each of them, the story says, brought the fruit of their labor to the altar of God; Cain brought fruits and vegetables, Abel brought meat—sacrificed a lamb, perhaps, and laid it on the altar.
The story says, “And God had regard for Abel’s gift, but for Cain’s gift he had no regard.” Now why is that? Here we have a god who seems to choose favorite, and this is one of the big problems in religion.
Cain is furious. He thinks it’s unfair. Unjust. So what does he do? He asks his brother to take a walk with him, out into the fields, and when they are there Cain kills his brother.
This is a story of human violence; it’s about jealousy. It’s at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s not a story that happened ‘way back then.’ It’s a story that is happening now, in Iraq, for example.
Human life, like all forms of life on this planet of ours, has been evolving for hundreds of thousands of years, for millions of years. In the process of this evolution we change; hopefully we grow, both as individuals and as humanity. But we come from a long, dark past. And we have a long way to go.
Our hope is that we will help, during our own lifetime, to move humanity a billionth of an inch closer to becoming the civilized, compassionate species we’re capable of becoming. And if we don’t move ourselves closer to becoming civilized we may bring about the virtual extinction of human life on the planet.
Finally let me respond to the question, “Do dreams mean anything?”
Dreams come from the unconscious mind. There are several levels to what we call consciousness. At night, when you sleep, and you have a dream, the dream is like the unconscious mind speaking to the conscious mind.
It’s important to have dreams; and I think it’s important to talk about, or write about your dreams. We don’t necessarily know what it means, but I’m convinced that the process of dreaming, and talking or thinking about your dream, is helpful.
Thank you for bringing these questions. Does anyone have another one? “What about The Duck?”
Oh, that’s a good way to end: the poem about the duck.
The Duck, by Donald Babcock
Now we’re ready to look at something pretty special. It’s a duck, riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf. No it isn’t a gull. A gull always has a raucous touch about him. This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over. There is a big heaving in the Atlantic, and he is a part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher. He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is. And neither do you. But he realizes it.
And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it! He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity — which it is. He has made himself a part of the boundless by easing himself into just where it touches him.
I like the little duck. He doesn’t know much, but he’s got religion.
SECOND SERMON: SEVENTH GRADE CLASS
The seventh grade class asked: What is a UU; Who can be a UU. Do you have to do anything special to become a UU. If someone asks you what a UU is what do you answer?
Do UU ministers go to a special theology school separate from other religions? Why do we light chalice candles? Why is the chalice candle the symbol of the UU church? Do we have other holy objects?
What religious holidays do UU’s practice? Do UU’s have a holy book? Why do we study the Bible in RE but not the other holy books? What do we think about other religions? Can UU’s go to other churches?
Who founded the UU; when was the UU founded; why was the UU founded? What do we believe happens in the afterlife; do we believe in a God or spirit; do all UU’s believe in exactly the same thing?
Some of these questions are the same, or similar to the first set, so I’ll try not to repeat too much.
As Unitarian Universalists each of us, ministers and members, is free to have our own answers to questions about God, good and evil, and so forth. But they are not final answers, since we continue to grow, to mature, to learn from experience.
That’s why you’ve been going around to the various religious groups—rather than simply reading and talking about them.
I told them how I had given an example in the earlier service about how we change our beliefs, saying that when you are at a certain age you believe in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. Someone told me he was sitting beside a ten-year old who responded to that statement with a look of dismay. He said, “I think the look on her face said, ‘Oops, you mean my parents realize I don’t really believe in those things anymore?’ Maybe she was afraid she wouldn’t get the goodies!”
What is a Unitarian Universalist? Who can be UU?
Theologically (historically) a Unitarian, is someone who believes that God is One; who does not accept the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus Christ, as established at the Council of Nicaea, in 325 A. D. (See above.)
A Universalist was one who does not believe in eternal damnation…hell. (See above)
Today, a Unitarian Universalist is a person who affirms the right of each person to have his or her own beliefs; that these beliefs are a function of experience, and not from a book; and that the individual’s beliefs grow and change (evolve) throughout life.
A person can be a member of this church who can affirm that basic freedom. To become a member a person must become familiar with the church, its teachings and its organizational structure: that it is a church ‘owned and operated’ by its members; that members have the privilege of voting on matters brought to it by the Board of Trustees or by the appropriate number of members who bring an issue by petition.
If someone asks me, “What is a Unitarian Universalist,” I first try to find out where the question is coming from, rather than barge into a discourse on our approach to religion.
If it’s a matter of simple curiosity, from a person who has a faith or religion to which they belong, and is happy with it, I try to minimize my response. If it’s from a person who is looking for a faith system, who may be wondering how to raise children, and so forth, I may invite them to come to my office for a give-and-take conversation.
I’ve never tried to answer this question in an elevator, and hope I never will.
Unitarian Universalist ministers must fulfill several requirements outlined by our Department of Ministry and administered by the Fellowship Committee, who grants, or does not grant, ‘Fellowship’ to candidates. One of those requirements is a graduate degree from an accredited seminary. There are two Unitarian Universalist seminaries: one in Chicago, Meadville Lombard Theological School; and the other in Berkeley, CA, Starr King School for the Ministry.
I took my graduate degree (Th. M.) from Boston University. Many of our students have traditionally studied at Harvard Divinity School, which was identified as Unitarian for many years, but it is non-denominational.
The chalice has been a symbol of our Unitarian Universalist faith for some years, and the ritual of lighting the chalice as part of our Sunday service has become more popular in recent years. Our chalice has the two circles intertwining, which represent our Unitarian and our Universalist roots—two separate denominations until the merger of the two in 1961.
The light is a symbol of ‘the light of truth,’ and the ‘light of faith.’ (“It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”)
We don’t have holy objects, as such. I would say that an object (a book, a poem, a Bible, or whatever) becomes ‘holy’ when it speaks to something deep within you. The danger is that an object, or book, becomes an idol that is worshipped, rather than holding its meaning as ‘sacred.’
We regularly celebrate the various Jewish and Christian holidays, and we try to acknowledge the holidays of the various religions about which we want to learn; Divali in Hinduism, for example.
Each year we celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve with the children’s pageant, and our popular candle lighting services.
Each year we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with a special Sunday morning service nearest that ten-day festival. We acknowledge Hanukkah.
We believe that every religion has, at its core, some basic truths; or it would not last beyond one or two generations. We believe that we should respect all the religions of the world; which is to say, we should respect the people who practice them.
We do not, however, hold one particular religion as ‘superior.’
The more we learn about the various religions of the world—all of which have been created by human beings out of the depth of their need—we see that there is a common core: at their best, the religions teach morality and ethics—right and wrong, encouraging compassion and kindness. At their worst, the various religions teach that they are better than others, or that ‘God loves us more than He loves you.’ This prejudice is at the heart of what is often the ‘fatal flaw’ in religion, and why many thoughtful people the world over have come to believe that ‘all religion is bad.’
We study the Bible because knowledge of the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures (often referred to as the Old Testament) and Christian Scriptures, or New Testament, are very much part of our cultural heritage; knowledge of these books and stories is part of what it means to be ‘literate’ in our culture. Lack of knowledge of these 66 books puts one at a definite disadvantage.
Unfortunately, many Unitarian Universalists have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, ignoring the Bible altogether.
The Bible is a collection of mythological stories that explain, symbolically, what it means to be a human being, as well as a mixture of poetry (Psalms, Job, eg.) and wisdom literature (Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, eg.) with some history (Kings) and preaching (the Prophets.)
Most UU’s were raised in the ‘other churches’ you asked about. Only a very small fraction of our members grew up as UU’s: in Westport it’s about 5%; so 95% come from others: (Jewish, about 25%; Catholic, about 35%; Protestant, about 30%, etc. We have members who have Hindu, Buddhist background, as well as having grown up with no religion, or a family that was anti-religion.)
Unitarianism in America was formed into the two religious denominations shortly after the Revolutionary War, the War of Independence. This is no co-incidence. When our country was liberated from England, our founders were careful to keep build a wall of separation between church and state.
Unitarianism was formally organized in 1825 in Boston; William Ellery Channing was a notable spokesperson for the Congregationalist ministers who were opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity; Universalism was formally organized in 1796; John Murray was a notable spokesperson for those ministers and lay people who were opposed to the doctrines of election, predestination and eternal punishment in hell. (See above) Both of these denominations are rooted in the idea of individual freedom.
There were Unitarians in Transylvania at the time of the Reformation. (1568) There were Universalists in England in the 16th century.
Our Unitarian and Universalist forebears organized in order to provide a framework for those who wanted to develop and deepen their spiritual lives without being burdened with a set of beliefs to which they had to swear.
All UU’s do not believe the same thing. In fact, most of us would be able to say how our personal beliefs have changed over the years; and we expect that set of beliefs to continue to change…to evolve…to mature.
Regarding the afterlife, we have a narrow variety of belief, ranging from some kind of personal salvation in ‘heaven,’ to simply saying ‘we don’t know what happens, but we believe that whatever happens to anyone, after death, happens to everyone.’
I concluded the first set of responses with a poem about the duck; I’ll call on another bird, the white heron, to conclude this set of responses. It summarizes much of what I’ve tried to say, above.
White Heron, by John Ciardi
What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,
a shaped thought at the sky — then gone. O rare!
Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,
would have cried Father! Cry anything you please
But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
It’s heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.