Last week we acknowledged the 50th anniversary of the marriage of our forebears – the Universalists and the Unitarians. A 50th birthday is the beginning of maturity in a person’s life, and one of the hallmarks of maturity is the ability to look at one’s past with a better understanding of how you got ‘from there to here.’
Let’s look again at our religious forebears…briefly.
The Unitarians emphasized the use of reason in religion – the rational side of the mind. They objected to the doctrine of the Trinity on two counts: first, it’s not Biblical; and second, it’s not rational. They liked to carve God is One on their pulpits; thus the name Unitarian.
The Universalists emphasized compassion as the key ingredient of religion – love is a sure sign of God’s presence. They liked to carve God is Love, on their pulpits. They protested the idea of predestination and election which painted a not-nice picture of an angry deity; they protested the very idea of hell fires where some of God’s children would be horribly punished for eternity; thus the name Universalist.
By joining together mind and heart, the Universalists and the Unitarians formed a good marriage — they symbolized the two hemispheres of the human brain – the left, rational hemisphere represented by our Unitarian heritage and the right, poetic or compassionate hemisphere represented by our Universalist heritage. Individually and collectively we find a balance in life by marrying mind and heart.
There are two sides to the human brain, two hemispheres – simply put, the left side is the rational, reasoning side, and the right side is the emotional, poetic side. The two sides of the brain are connected by the corpus callosum.
That got me thinking about the two sides of our sanctuary roof which we could say symbolize the two sides of the brain.
The skylight represents the corpus callosum, connecting the two sides, and shedding light on the situation, facilitating communication, helping them to understand and appreciate one another, like a built-in therapist.
On May 15, 1961, while the marriage of our UU forebears was being celebrated in Boston, this sanctuary was literally under construction. The sanctuary was designed to help us build a faith system that would leave room for each of us to develop a balanced, mature faith, firmly grounded in the natural world around us, but inspired by the best in our human nature, summarized by words like love, compassion and sympathy.
Whitman said it this way:
We consider bibles and religions divine–I do not say they are not divine,
I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still,
It is not they who give the life, it is you who give the life…
The sum of all known reverence I add up in you whoever you are,
All architecture is what you do to it when you look upon it,
All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the instruments,
It is not the violins and the cornets, it is not the oboe nor the
beating drums, nor the score of the baritone singer singing his
sweet romanza, nor that of the men’s chorus, nor that of the
It is nearer and farther than they.
Last Sunday, May 15, we celebrated that 50th anniversary. The next night there was a powerful documentary on Public Television about the Freedom Riders, and I was reminded that on May 15, 1961, while our forebears were celebrating the merger, and while this sanctuary was under construction, those courageous Freedom Riders were risking life and limb to end the hate-filled system of segregation between the races in this nation.
It occurred to me that the two sloping sides of our sanctuary roof, joined by the sky light, represent the two denominations that merged to form the UUA.
Then, watching the documentary about the Freedom Riders, I realized that the two sides of the roof under which we’re sitting could just as well represent racial integration – overcoming the great divide…racism is a life-threatening sickness. This amazing architecture speaks a deeply religious language with the two separate sides of the roof coming together, connected by the light, suggesting the need for enlightened, healthier inhabitants.
The women’s movement which was taking shape in 1961, so the two sides of the roof could represent women and men meeting in the middle, working towards a better understanding – shedding light on the issues so men who ‘once were blind’ could see; and so women could help them move from blame and shame to mutually respectful relationship.
Thinking back fifty years to 1961 we realize that some seeds were being planted that would grow into the movement toward equality and justice for gay, lesbian and transgender women and men; so the two sides of this roof could represent gays, on the one hand, and straight folks on the other, ending discrimination based on sexual orientation.
With a little light we can live together under one roof, respecting and appreciating one another. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
It’s about maturity, and it’s about time! Indeed, it’s been delayed for too long. It’s time to grow up!
Our architect, Victor Lundy, liked to think of the two sides of the roof coming together as two hands in prayer.
Emerson said that ‘prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.’ We need to be well grounded in the so-called ‘facts of life,’ living in the real world with all its faults and failings, but we also need to elevate our thoughts to imagine how the world could be.
Renowned educator, Rudolf Steiner, put it this way: “If we do not believe within ourselves this deeply rooted feeling that there is something higher than ourselves, we shall never find the strength to evolve into something higher.”
We need religious humility and we need to allow room for our aspirations, which was the prayer of the Freedom Riders and civil rights movement, and the women’s movement with the suffragettes and those working for gay rights.
Much has been accomplished, but we’ve only just begun – there’s a lot more work in all these areas.
The civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the gay rights movement were born in the prayers of those who believed that we could do better – we could be better. They had high aspirations, and helped us move toward maturity by moving away from prejudice, bigotry, cruelty and injustice.
We see signs of religious maturity all around us. Very few among us – even the most religiously conservative – are preaching about eternal torment in the fires of hell.
Very few among us continue to talk about their religion having a monopoly on heaven. That was the case a few short decades ago…the idea that among the many religions in the world there’s only one true religion (mine!) and all the rest are false or wrong or inadequate and their adherents are destined for hell.
Religious maturity doesn’t discount the idea of a Creative Power or deny the wisdom of our ancestors’ religions – but we’ve got to go one step further in the long evolutionary road toward a sane, sensible and mature civilization.
One of the most well-known and respected researchers in the study of religious development, especially the development of the individual’s religious life, is James Fowler.
Fowler is best known for his so-called six stages of faith development, from early childhood when the individual learns language – a most remarkable achievement, when you stop to think about it. In this early stage, typically around ages three to seven, a child is told what to believe. They are given answers before the questions occur to them…they learn about social taboos around sexuality and they are confronted with the fact of mortality…and observe rituals around death.
In the next stage they are confronted by the difference between the mythology they had taken as literal fact and the idea of symbolism; the difference between a literal Garden of Eden, for example, and a figurative Garden; the difference between a mythological creation story and the scientific truths about the evolution of life on the planet.
This confrontation pushes growth forward as the child’s world expands beyond the narrow confines of home and family, the child’s world expand in school with peers, and teachers who have ideas and ways that are different from one’s own family – maturity advances as one engages with the larger world.
We’ve very recently entered a new chapter in that expanded world with the worldwide internet, with social networking, which is pushing aside old thinking faster and more profoundly than we’re able to comprehend.
Each stage of faith development is powerful, of course, but this third stage, entered in adolescence, can be confusing, even explosive; anyone raising an adolescent today can give first-hand accounts of this challenging time of life.
The locus of authority is shifting – one’s equilibrium is easily lost, taking away the comfort and security of home, it can hit like a personal earth quake. Old sacred beliefs suddenly disappear. Deep, often disturbing questions to come up out of no where, critical reflections put cracks in all of the old mirrors.
These critical reflections lead to a serious, sometimes scary sense of responsibility for one’s own life, one’s own commitments, beliefs, attitudes and lifestyle.
Joni Mitchell sang it:
“Tears and fears and feeling proud to say “I love you” right out loud, Dreams and schemes and circus crowds, I’ve looked at life that way. But now old friends are acting strange, they shake their heads, they say I’ve changed. Something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now, From win and lose, and still somehow, It’s life’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know life at all.”
Fowler calls this is a “demythologizing” stage, with an excessive or confidence in the logical, rational side of the mind – he suggests that it’s ‘a kind of second narcissism.’
In the next stage, Fowler’s fifth stage, one is confronted with everything that was once believed and experienced out of which one has created what Fowler (and others) refer to as ‘a personal myth,’ – the story we’ve been telling ourselves about ourselves.
It involves a new kind of reclaiming of one’s past – an acceptance that things are as they are, and a need to move beyond blame and shame, a need to ‘find one’s own voice,’ and a deeper sense of authenticity.
Fowler says this is, “Unusual before mid-life…stage 5 knows the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts.”
He says that this stage of religious maturity is, “Alive to paradox and the truth in apparent contradictions, this stage strives to unify opposites in mind and experience.”
It comes with a deepened appreciation for spirituality – as opposed to religious certainty, and it is characterized by an increased sensitivity to justice and a felt need to work for justice.
It’s a liberating stage when one is ‘freed from the confines of tribe, class, religious community or nation.’
Stage 5 appreciates symbols, myths, poetry…it appreciates the meaning behind “…the use of rituals (its own and others’) because it has been grasped, in some measure, by the depth of reality to which they refer.”
It also sees the divisions of the human family vividly because it has been apprehended by the possibility (and imperative) of an inclusive community of being.
Finally, Fowler describes stage 6, saying, first of all, that reaching this stage of religious maturity is exceedingly rare. He says:
“The persons best described by it have generated faith…that is inclusive of all being…they have become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community.”
“They are ‘contagious’ in the sense that they create zones of liberation from the social, political, economic and ideological shackles we place and endure on human futurity.
“Living with felt participation in a power that unifies and transforms the world, Universalizers are often experienced as subversive of the structures (including religious structures) by which we sustain our individual and corporate survival, security and significance.”
Whitman wrote a brief poem about this:
I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions,
But really I am neither for nor against institutions,
(What indeed have I in common with them? or what with the
destruction of them?)
Only I will establish in the Mannahatta and in every city of these
States inland and seaboard,
And in the fields and woods, and above every keel little or large
that dents the water,
Without edifices or rules or trustees or any argument,
The institution of the dear love of comrades.
Fowler says, “Universalizers are often more honored and revered after death than during their lives.” (eg Whitman)
“The rare persons who may be described by this stage have a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us.” (eg Thoreau: ‘simplify, simplify.’)
“Their community is universal in extent…particularities are cherished because they are vessels of the universal.”
Finally Fowler says about the final stage of, “Life is both loved and held to loosely. Such persons are ready for fellowship with persons at any of the other stages and from any other faith tradition.”
Religious maturity doesn’t demand agreement…
Religious maturity doesn’t demand answers…
Religious maturity, as Paul said so well, ‘is not jealous or boastful, is not arrogant or rude, doesn’t insist of having its own way, is not irritable or resentful and doesn’t rejoice in things that are wrong, but only in things that are right…now abides three things: faith, hope and love…’
Religious maturity embraces differences – is not threatened by disagreements…doesn’t need to try to convert others but is open to more growth, more understanding, more depth and a deeper sense of compassion.
Immortality, by Richard Jeffries
It is eternity now.
I am in the midst of it.
It is about me, in the sunshine;
I am in it, as the butterfly in the light-laden air.
Nothing has to come,
It is now.
Now is eternity,
Now is the immortal life.