We begin today at the very beginning of our Unitarian Universalist faith, 2000 years ago, with certain Jesus-followers who did not believe Jesus was equal to God. Jesus was very special in some sense, but not equal to God.
Call these Jesus followers Unitarians.
There were also those who did not believe that God would allow any person to be damned for all eternity. God was too good for that. God was a God of unlimited graciousness.
Call these Jesus followers Universalists.
Both argued their Unitarianism and Universalism persuasively, and in some areas and times they were quite influential. But they would never achieve the status of orthodoxy. In fact, orthodoxy would eventually reject them, call them “heretics,” commence–by any means necessary–to silence them.
The definition of a “heretic” is, literally, “one who chooses.” “One who chooses,” despite all the risks of doing so.
This is who we have been, from the very beginning. Heresy runs like a golden thread throughout all our years, up till the present moment. We are a people who choose what they believe, very carefully. Just because some authority says it doesn’t automatically mean it’s true. Just because something may be wildly popular does not mean it’s right. Conscience and reason and intuition and experiment are better guides to the truth than authority or popularity.
So, you can understand my frustration ten years ago when I opened up the newspaper and read a column in the religion section that basically trashed religious people like us who respect the fact that there are many sources of wisdom in the world and not just one. The columnist basically said that we were guilty of an “anything goes” mentality.
The columnist basically said: our minds are so open, our brains fall out.
But this heretic who chose Unitarian Universalism very carefully despite the fact that it alienated me from my family for many years because they thought I was going to hell—THIS heretic wasn’t going to take what the newspaper columnist said lying down. With brain firmly lodged in my skull, I sent in a letter to the editor, and thankfully it was published. “I take exception,” I said, “to Lorraine Murray’s article from Saturday, Oct. 4 where she equates respect towards many sources of wisdom with an ‘anything goes’ mentality. The two are quite different. People with an ‘anything goes’ mentality really don’t care about testing their beliefs to see if they are actually true or helpful in their lives; but people who respect many sources of wisdom think about what they believe and go in search of truth no matter where it comes from. An open-ended search for meaning has nothing to do with ‘anything goes.’ Open minds DO have a limit—and that limit is the test of reason, conscience, justice, and love.”
Lorraine Murray got me fired up. Don’t tell me we just gobble things down. Are you kidding? Have you ever seen Unitarian Universalists sing, and they’re reading ahead in the lyrics to make sure they don’t ever sing words they can’t understand or endorse? We carefully pay attention to if and how an idea or a practice is changing our lives. We carefully ask if it’s making us into more ethical and aware people.
I went on to say this in my letter to the editor: I said, “Ms. Murray is clearly out of touch with today’s pluralistic world, which brings to people the riches of the world’s religions, science, literature, the arts, and scholarship. In the face of this, Ms. Murray cites some shallow theology and a spurious interpretation of the Bible to call people back to a narrow ‘One Way, One Truth’ kind of religious path.
“For my part, I’m grateful that a prophet like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ignored all such calls. Dr. King’s eyes were fully opened to the New Testament’s message of love when he read a spiritual classic of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita. Dr. King discovered a veritable incarnation of nonviolent justice and peacemaking through the life and work of the Hindu saint Mahatma Gandhi.
“As for what had been a source of inspiration to Gandhi, in his day: Gandhi of course read the Bhagavad Gita, but he read it side-by-side with the writings of Henry David Thoreau, who happens to be a direct spiritual ancestor to people in my tradition.”
That’s what I said, and then I concluded: “To me, this says that a spiritual life which draws wisely from multiple religious traditions can change lives and change the world. It also says that if you want to be enriched in your home religious tradition, don’t be afraid to explore other voices and other ways. God is too big to be contained by any single tradition, and this is but evidence of God’s goodness and God’s mercy.”
That was my letter.
We are heretics. We choose. This is not an “anything goes” faith. The issue is not about our minds being so open that our brains fall out; the issue is our minds being open enough that something transformative can fall in.
Even so, the “anything goes” stereotype persists. It really does. And not just in the minds of the Lorraine Murrays out there, but also in those of too many Unitarian Universalists! Openness to many sources of truth is like a light, and like light it throws a shadow. The shadow is that “anything goes” stereotype. The shadow is there, when someone affirms that they are a Unitarian Universalist Christian-Buddhist. The shadow is there, when someone says they are a Unitarian Universalist Humanist-Mystic-Jew
Say you’re a Unitarian Universalist something-something-something, and the shadow is there.
So we need to ask, What’s going on with these forms of religious mash-ups? What’s going on with these forms of spiritual fusion that echo surpringing fusions in the world of food? Have you ever heard of falafel tacos? How about sushi burritos, or mac and cheese pizza? What’s going on there?
Same thing you could ask about forms of spiritual fusion in our faith.
What’s going on?
Is it theological laziness?
Are we a lazy people?
You know my answer already: of course not. We are heretics: we choose.
For the rest of this sermon, I want to share a bit of the history behind how we have chosen to be a people of many ways and many sources. I will conclude with some ideas about things we heretics need to choose, moving forward, lest we do, indeed, collapse into a shadowy fate of “anything goes.”
So, we begin again, but this time with a different point of origin. Go back to the 1790s. This is when Joseph Priestley came to America. Does that name ring any bells? If you have ever enjoyed a carbonated beverage, you should thank him. He was the first to discover the carbonation process. Being the pure scientist he was, though, he put that discovery to the side and let others become wealthy off of it. He was a pure scientist, and his greatest discovery was about the air we breathe: oxygen.
More to the point, Joseph Priestley was no less than the founder of organized Unitarianism in England! No small achievement! But he paid the price. In the 1790s, he emigrated to America because his religious and political views got him into big trouble. Trouble as in: a mob burned down his house.
He stood up for his Unitarianism no matter what the cost. How in the world could anyone call that religious laziness and “anything goes”?
Priestley came to America to start anew, and one of his gifts to America was a book published in 1799, entitled A Comparison of the Institutions of Moses with those of the Hindoos and other Ancient Nations. Super awkward title, right? But back then it fit right in. And as for what he actually said, well, to us today he sounds like a narrow-minded bigot, basically saying, “Look at all this weird stuff in other religions—but Christianity is the one true faith!” Yet again, given his context, we must see his work as extraordinarily courageous. Religious orthodoxy and social convention told him and told everyone in his day, Do not even look at other world religions. Nothing there to see. But, being the heretic he was, he chose to take a look.
He chose to do this.
And in so choosing, he started something up on American soil. One of his readers was yet another Unitarian, a guy named John Adams, second president of these United States. Says Carl T. Jackson, author of The Oriental Religions and American Thought, “He [John Adams] fumed at Priestley’s unevenness and catalogued numerous instances of omission, unfairness, and distortion; nevertheless, he learned a great deal.”
Priestley started something up on American soil: looking beyond Christianity to the works and wonders of the other great religious traditions of the world. And it went on to gain tremendous momentum through the scholarship and religious practice of other spiritual ancestors of ours, nearer to us, which history has called “The Transcendentalists.” It’s Henry David Thoreau together with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Convers Francis, Amos Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, and many others. This remarkable circle of souls: they were movers and shakers in New England and beyond from the 1830s onward, and joining them were Reform Jews, Progressive Quakers, Spiritualists, New Thought optimists, Vedantists, and Theosophists. It was a whole host of people and groups, spreading the Transcendentalist vision of many ways to God, and over time this idea became the idea we collectively chose, and chose, and chose, again and again.
That’s why we talk about the Six Sources of our Living Tradition, today. That’s why the “many ways to truth” idea is now embedded in our spiritual DNA.
When Henry David Thoreau, almost 170 years ago, saw ice cut from his beloved Walden Pond in the form of blocks, then packed in felt and sawdust and sent over to India, he intuited the ultimate religious consequences of this economic act, saying, “The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”
Consequences that went to the core. Thoreau was not a Joseph Priestley (whose interest in non-Christian traditions was all in his head); Thoreau embodied his faith. His was a revolutionary example that millions of Americans follow today, Unitarian Universalist or not, whether they know it or not. He took personally what the sacred stories and rituals and symbols of many lands had to say. This is what he chose, heretic that he was. It became his regular spiritual practice to read the Christian scriptures alongside the Bhagavad-Gita, the Analects of Confucius, the sutras of Buddhism. Practically everyone else in his day went one way, but he happily went another, followed a different drummer. He mingled the sacred waters of many lands in his own soul. His spirituality was eclectic to the core.
As you and I explore our Unitarian Universalist Six Sources over the course of what I hope is many years together, let’s remember that it’s the answer to the following question: “What would Thoreau do”?
What Thoreau would do is mash it up. Mingle the sacred waters. Create something new and unexpected and beautiful.
Remember what he helped start up in the soul of Gandhi. Remember what Gandhi helped start up in the soul of Dr. King.
Remember. Ours is no foolish faith when it asks us to seek for truth from wherever truth may be found. Such a search may very well change lives and change the world.
This, friends, is really what our heresy is all about.
This is why we are who and what we are, with all our falafel tacos of the spirit and sushi burritos of the soul and mac and cheese pizza theology.
It’s about choosing to change lives.
And, we must keep on choosing. From this moment on, there are some things we need to choose to ensure that our faith stays alive and vital and never guilty of laziness and “anything goes.”
One of these choices needs to address an unfortunate rabbit hole that the Transcendentalists themselves went down. The Transcendentalists eventually found themselves caught up with a vision of what they called “universal religion.” Listen to the leading second-generation Transcendentalist, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who said, in the 1870s, “There is a sympathy in religions. [E]very step in knowledge brings out the sympathy between them. They all show the same aim, the same symbols, the same forms, the same weaknesses, the same aspirations.” And then he declares, “I do not wish to belong to a religion only, but to the religion; it must not include less than the piety of the world.” “The one unpardonable sin is exclusiveness.” And then he challenges his hearers: “Are we as large as our theory? Are we ready to tolerate … the Evangelical man as the [Muslim]?”
While there’s lots to cheer in this passage, the practical implication is troublesome. The practical implication is that our churches are failures if we lack both the will and the wit to create worship services that satisfy at all times and in all ways the sharp spiritual hungers of everyone, no matter what their tastes may be and where they may be coming from. We fail, if ever it happens that any dish we serve up to both spiritual carnivores and spiritual vegetarians does not satisfy both of them equally 100%.
Universal religion is but one version of spiritual perfectionism. We explored this together a while back when I preached my sermon entitled “Soul Foodie.” It’s just important to recognize that spiritual perfectionism like this has historical roots. The Transcendentalists blessed us, but they also cursed us with their perfectionism.
So we need to soften this curse with a big dose of awareness.
We need to inoculate ourselves from the curse with humility.
We need to make better choices, moving forward.
Here’s just one more better choice to make. It has to do with religious borrowing from other cultures. Thomas Wentworth Higginson talked about the sympathy he felt between himself and the religious practices and artifacts of other cultures. But being the scholarly, rich, white, cis-gendered male he was, Higginson and so many like him was oblivious to how, sometimes, the act of borrowing is rife with a sense of unquestioned white supremacy entitlement that results in real harms done: either to the very thing or practice borrowed, or to the culture borrowed from, or both.
When we sense spiritual sympathy between ourselves and a thing or practice coming from a different culture, we must choose to be thoughtful. We must choose to open up a dialogue with people coming from that culture. We must never act in such a way that harms a culture that’s already fragile, and hurting.
I am reminded of something that happened in the Atlanta UU church I used to serve, as part of its leave-taking from the building that congregation occupied for more than 50 years. The church had sold its building to Children’s Health Care of Atlanta for all sorts of excellent reasons. But now we had to say goodbye. How do you say goodbye to a beloved space like that? One of my congregants reminded me that we had a good relationship with the Tibetan Buddhist monastery in town, and that they travelled the country creating exquisite Buddhist sand mandalas, to raise funds to support initiatives back home in Tibet and to spread the inspiring wisdom of their faith. My beautiful congregant wondered: Why not invite them to create a sand mandala for us? For their process was not just creation—the sand mandala tradition is also and equally about destruction. Life is both creation and destruction—and beginning again. Wasn’t that what was happening to us? Why not enter into the ritual as a way of seeing more deeply into what was happening to us? To gain from the gift of the Tibetan Buddhist ritual wisdom and hope for ourselves, as part of saying goodbye to the building?
Note how the Atlanta congregation I used to serve had a relationship with the monastery. Note how the monks operated out of a place of cultural strength, and they positively wanted to share their tradition. Note that it was they conducting the ritual, not anyone in my congregation doing it themselves.
This is why I gave it the green light. Some folks left the Atlanta congregation over this, insisting that, to them, it smacked of cultural misappropriation. Well, it definitely would have been cultural misappropriation if there had been no relationship, if there was a clear message coming from the Tibetan Buddhists that sharing would harm them, or if folks at the Atlanta congregation decided to go on the cheap and do it themselves.
I gave it the green light. There are definitely times we can do this, and other times, definitely no. No especially to playing at being Native American, outside of relationship and permission and making sure the rituals are done right.
YES to the sympathy of all religions. NO to ignorance about the concrete realities of marginalized communities that are struggling to maintain dignity in this world.
But now I fear I’ve been beating up on old Thomas Wentworth Higginson. So I’ll close with something he said that I and we heretics who choose can wholeheartedly affirm. This is what he says: “Our true religious life begins when we discover that there is an Inner Light, not infallible but invaluable, which ‘lighteth every man that cometh into the world.’ Then we have something to steer by; and it is chiefly this, and not an anchor, that we need. The human soul, like any other noble vessel, was not built to be anchored, but to sail. An anchorage may, indeed, be at times a temporary need, in order to make some special repairs, or to take fresh cargo in; yet the natural destiny of both ship and soul is not the harbor, but the ocean.”
This is why we choose this faith. Because we know, deep down, that our souls were not meant to be anchored at port. Because we know that our souls were meant to sail the ocean. And so we go. We sail the ocean, steering by our Inner Light, and we go to China, we go to India, we go to Africa, we go to the Middle East, we go to Greece, we go to Australia, and we discover evidence everywhere of humanity’s encounter with the sacred—as expressed in story and scripture and symbol and ritual.
Blue boat home: we go, we go, we go.
Gimme more falafel tacos, sushi burritos, mac and cheese pizza—spiritually speaking.
What would Thoreau do?
This is not laziness or anything goes.
This is creativity. This is joy.
Some of us will even say that this is but a response to the fact that God is not stingy, God is not a scrooge, but God is generous, God scatters wisdom everywhere, and there is an abundance of it, and the only real issue is and has always been: can we open up our minds enough to let more of it in? Can we open up our minds wide enough to think a truly transformative thought?
Will we choose this?
Let this be our heresy!