This year I will be doing 2 sermon series throughout the year. The second one which starts today is about the sources which inform Unitarian Universalism. When I think of what is meant by sources, I think of where we come from, our origins. So when I was a youth, and people would ask me where I came from, meaning what was my ethnicity, being the smart aleck that I was I would tell them I come from my mother. Which was technically and anatomically correct even if a little more literal then they were anticipating.
When thinking about Sources from a general religious perspective as I did during my seminary days, it would be referred to as the first cause. What caused all of this, what caused the universe to exist, what was the cause of the big bang. Why did the universe evolve in a way to create this life sustaining planet, and humans? Why did humans come together to form different religious groups over time. What is it that animates the human mind towards self consciousness. All good questions. There was clearly one period in time starting from about 800 bc to 500 bc or more traditionalists would say 200 bc, where there was a major shift in religious and philosophical thought which moved from a cosmic dependency on a diety to a more complex realization of the self and a personal immortality. This was known as the Axial Age. During this time we saw the rise of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, the Hindu writings called the Upanishads, the Prophets of Judaism , the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism which deeply affected Judaism, and eventually Christianity with it dualistic thinking. All of these religions originated or dramatically changed during this relatively very short time to help people deal with tremendous changes that were happening in their societies.
These religions were both influenced by their society and they influenced their society. The many changes that were happening, included increased urbanization, increased mobility and political upheaval. It is interesting to think, we often think about our current times in the same way. And during unstable times, during challenging times, often we are forced to advance ourselves to deal with those challenges. One scholar stated that the axial age was “a great leap of being.” I think this is intuitive. Think about your lives. How often do we just coast along not realizing our potential or not having a breakthrough until something wakes us up.
Sometimes it is a tragedy such as the loss of a loved one, which requires us to change how we live in the world. Sometimes it is a life changing event, maybe like 9/11 which forces us to reflect on our experiences and the world in a different way then we previously did. Not to just dwell on the negative, Maybe it is hitting a game winning shot, or some other personal or professional achievement that makes you realize a greater potential within you. Or perhaps we are inspired by watching pictures from the Hubble Telescope. In fact I just read an article that Voyager One which was launched in 1977 which uses an 8 track cassette tape recorder just recently left our solar system. Thats inspiring.
I didn’t think anyone still used an 8 track cassette tape recorders anymore.
Both sorrow and joy can lift us to new levels of evolution. And with the political instability of the world today, with weapons of mass destruction, with the loss of our civil liberties, with climate change upon us, yet with new ways to communicate, with new healing medicines, with new technology, we need to find a new way to think about our relationship to the world and to each other. This has been the role of religion throughout history and it continues to be its role. This has been the role of Unitarian Universalism throughout our history, changing to meet the needs of the times.
Perhaps it is time for a new Axial Age, a new leap in our consciousness, and a New way to imagine Unitarian Universalism.
Once a Unitarian Minister was asked where he stood on a particular issue, he said we do not stand, we move. I agree, We move, because the world around us moves and changes and thus to be relevant to people we need to adapt. That is a core value of liberal religion. With new knowledge and new understandings of the universe we incorporate that knowledge into our existing knowledge and create new wisdom through experiences. Thus the sources of Unitarian Universalism are ever changing and ever evolving. That is why we call it a living tradition.
We may use previous wisdom as our foundation, but we do not rely only on dead people, or dead words, but rather in the evolution of wisdom, and the evolution of our understanding of the universe and God. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen. And if we are not open to change, we will not be able to adapt to a changing society and we will become irrelevant. There are some who want to cling to a certainty that comforts them. Humanity does have a need for certainty. Something that is a touchstone, that brings us back to and reminds us of our core values. Something to hold onto in times of need. There is nothing wrong with such certainty.
But as we evolve, even some of our values have changed over time and it is good to recognize that. Unitarians in the late 19th century were in the forefront of the temperance movement in this Country that eventually led to prohibition believing alcohol inhibited humanity reaching its full potential. Now I would say on the whole we are on the other end of that value spectrum supporting personal choice in individuals personal lives. During WWI our Association was virulently pro-war, now Unitarian Universalists have moved to recognize a broad spectrum of how to confront conflict in the world including actively working for peace and peaceful responses.
In 1961, when the American Unitarian Association and Universalist Church of America consolidated it was the culmination of almost a century long discussion. The first formal overture for merger, happened at the Unitarian National Conference in 1865. In 1878 the first Unitarian and Universalist Congregation actually did merge in Wisconsin. In the early 1900s Unitarians and Universalists joined together to write joint religious education curriculum and hymnal. In 1931 there was a joint commission formed again to discuss merger. In 1953 almost 10 years before our consolidation, the Unitarian and Universalist Youth joined together to form Liberal Religious Youth.
I know these are a lot of dates and facts, but I tell you this to impress upon you that even with the differences we realized we had more similarities than differences and we worked together over along period of time to see it to fruition.
Sometimes breakthroughs happen in an instant, like Paul’s revelation of Jesus on the road to Damascus in the Book of Acts. Other revelations come after long arduous work and are more gradual such as with the Buddha, who went to many teachers over many years and then practiced as an ascetic for years, and after that, sitting under the Bodhi Tree for 49 days until it is said he reached enlightenment. We come to a point in life where we realize we are on a continuum and realize that we would not be where we are, or who we are without all the experiences that led to that. I think that was the same for Paul as it was for the Buddha and you and I. And when we look back at where we have been as an Association, we see our changes and our sources. We often hearken back to the Transcendentalists, Emerson, Thoreau, and Parker being the most famous ones, but there were many more. They brought to us critical analysis of the Bible, Wisdom from other World Religions and the commitment to social justice into Unitarian Religious life.
After the Civil War was a very interesting time in our Associational history. Up until 1865 the American Unitarian Association members were individuals, not Congregations. In 1865, Henry Bellows an influential minister seeing the need to build a stronger religious institution started the National Conference of Unitarian Churches of which Congregations were invited to join. However Bellows, even though for his time was very progressive insisted that as a way to unify the Congregations they adopt a statement clearly identifying the Unitarian movement as Christian.
Now truthfully, without the organizational work that Bellows did, we may not have the organization we do today, his unification though forced many to leave the Association. The more radical Transcendelists and other free thinkers created the Free Religious Association. Churches in the West (which then meant western Pennsylvania and beyond including Iowa became more independent through the Western Unitarian Conference whose motto was “Freedom Fellowship and Character in Religion” The Western Unitarian Conference was staunchly non doctrinal and specifically stated that it "conditioned its fellowship on no dogmatic tests, but welcomes all thereto who desire to establish truth, righteousness and love in the world." This division stood until 1894, when the National Convention affirmed by a nearly unanimous vote that: "that practical religion is summed up in love to God and love to man. The conference recognizes the fact that its constituency is Congregational in tradition and polity. Therefore it declares that nothing in this constitution is to be construed as an authoritative test; and we cordially invite to our working fellowship any who, while differing from us in belief, are in general sympathy with our spirit and our practical aims."
After this statement, the remnants of the Free Religious Association and I say remnants, for as with most uncompromising radical movements there was very little organization to sustain it, and the Western Unitarian Conference started working more in cooperation vs. disputation with the Unitarian Association. So it is only in 1894 we have our first formal statement on non creedalism. And upon merger almost 100 years later the same controversy arose. At the time of the merger there was no separate sources statement, just a set of principles, most of which are similar to our current ones, although they were not gender neutral. But included in one of the many versions of the principles was the statement “To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by Jesus and the other great teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, and prophetically expressed in our Judeo-Christian tradition as love to God and love to man.” Very similar to the 1894 statement. The Unitarians objected to the use of Jesus in that it raised his teachings above other teachings and the word our in our Judeo-Christian heritage, as many did not feel that was their heritage and again found it exclusive vs. inclusive. So the final wording of the principles included
“To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man”
In 1985 the first major change to our principles occurred when we made the wording of our principles gender neutral, and we separated out our sources from the principles and expanded them. The one thing that has remained constant over the years, at least since that 1894 statement has been our bedrock of religious freedom and non creedalism which are explicitly stated in the Unitarian Universalist Association Bylaws. Our sources are also in our bylaws, After listing the sources, our bylaws state: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen Our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.”
And so I encourage you to explore our sources as we talk about them throughout the year. Let us remember we come from different traditions that have always been in tension. Both Christian and non-Christian, Both Unitarian and Trinitarian, multiple forms of theism and deism and atheism. And although they are multiple traditions, they are one tradition, the Living tradition, Let it live in you, let it light you up, let it take your mind and heart and spirit to a new levels of understanding and consciousness. Where we once moved from a cosmic dependency to a quest for personal immortality, maybe it is time to move towards a cosmic interdependency. A realization that we are part of the oneness of all that is, and that we are affected by and affect that oneness in all our actions and thoughts.
And although I have taken you on historical journey today, I ask you to think about what informs your life now? I ask you to look at what it is that inspires you today. When I asked this question on Facebook, the responses fell into two main categories. One response focused on being inspired by experiences with others in the world, and particularly by the experiences of themselves or others overcoming adversity. This connects to the concept I spoke earlier of breakthroughs happening during times of instability. The other response was about finding inspiration from going inward, in silence, being in the moment. The key is to find inspiration. Inspiration to be able to live through a time of struggle, inspiration to find new ways to experience and live in the world, inspiration to continually build this living tradition of ours.
Let us not think of our sources as something from the ancient past, where our ancestors are from, but how they can be used to guide us in our life, in this world, and where we hope our world will be in the future. May it be so.