You know how it is when you’ve taken a thing for granted, and then something shifts and all of a sudden you’re seeing it as if for the first time?
That happened for me not too long ago, with something that is printed in every one of our church hymnals, right at the beginning and before hymn #1. This something is also featured prominently on every website of every Unitarian Universalist congregation in existence, is probably also framed and hanging in every one of those aforementioned congregations, is included in practically every pamphlet handed out to visitors to help explain who we are, and is often on our lips when we talk about what matters to us collectively and what we affirm in common.
This something is our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Purposes, with its language of Seven Principles and Six Sources. It’s been with us for 35 years now, when it was voted on and approved by the General Assembly—our Association’s annual business meeting—back in 1985. I myself became a Unitarian Universalist in 1994, and I’ve never known our faith without it. And I thought it had nothing more to teach me, until, as I’ve said, not too long ago, when I was reading through the Six Sources part, and something shifted.
The Six Sources, by the way, go like this—and I’m giving you the super summarized version:
The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:
· Mystical experience;
· Words and deeds of prophetic women and men;
· The world’s religions;
· Jewish and Christian teachings;
· Humanist teachings;
· Teachings of earth-centered traditions.
That’s our Six Sources, acknowledging the plural traditions we draw from as we weave the web of religious community. From many strands, we weave one web.
And then I saw it. My historian hat was on, and what I saw was the “Jewish and Christian teachings” source listed beside bullet number four. “Why is that?” the historian in me wondered. “Why is it listed fourth when, in actuality, it’s where we originally come from?” In other words, I saw that the sources are, as given, arranged ahistorically. But what if I was to reorder them, according to when a given source historically began impacting our congregations? Wouldn’t that make a fascinating story?
And that’s the story I propose telling you, today. The story of our faith as it has evolved through time, as suggested by our Six Sources.
Without further ado: the story of our faith. As much of it as I can tell in 20 minutes.
It begins with protest.
Two thousand years ago, the rulers of Rome spoke about peace. The peace of Rome was essentially about maintaining a certain rigid social hierarchy. The Emperor was at the top, and wealthy men were right below. Only these people had inherent worth and dignity; everyone else was a tool to be used as the Emperor and rich men saw fit: women, poor men, slaves, and the conquered. Control, subjugation, humiliation was their lot.
This was the way of Rome: the way to unified empire. Fight Rome on this—serve any gods that contradicted the Roman way—and that would spell an end to the peace.
It would bring on war.
And now begins our Living Tradition, with the impoverished and uneducated followers of a discredited rabbi named Jesus whose teachings were judged as treasonous and he was crucified. Pontius Pilate thought that that would have been enough to crush the spiritual protestors, but it was not to be so. The love of Rabbi Jesus was too powerful to die. Rabbi Jesus died but his spirit was resurrected in the lives of his followers, who refused the peace of Rome. They refused the rigid hierarchy that made up that peace because they knew that life didn’t have to be that way. Their protest grew out of something they had directly experienced: love’s liberating power.
Justin Martyr, one of these early Christians, who lived around 70 years after Jesus’ death, said, “We who formerly valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possession, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies.” That’s what the Jesus followers did. Theirs was no peace of Rome. Their peace was a very different sort of peace: to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick. They resisted the peace of Rome, with its rigid hierarchy. They affirmed instead that all people are God’s children, all people have inherent worth and dignity and not some; they argued that there should be no top of the pyramid, or bottom.
They were living, in essence, a new reach of freedom. Abundance was theirs. Compassion and love were overflowing. But how? They tried to explain, and this is how and when history witnesses a first mention of words that are central for us. One is “Unitarianism,” which is the belief that there is only one God, and this God chose a human being named Jesus to embody divine love. Then there is “Universalism,” which says that God will eventually draw all things to Godself; nothing ultimately can separate anyone or anything from the love of God.”
This is how our faith was born. This is how our story begins. Out of the powerful event of Jesus’ ministry and the Jesus communities that succeeded him. Out of the experience of the endlessness of God’s love, and how that love calls us to dissolve the rigid hierarchy that keeps people stuck in injustice and, top to bottom, traps them like flies in amber. The ancient words of Unitarianism and Universalism that name our faith are testimony to this still.
And, history flows on. Things change. Ironies and tragedies abound. In around just 300 years, the peace of Rome would essentially take over the peace of Christianity, as a virus takes over a host cell. It meant that the Christian church would find itself reproducing the rigid hierarchy of Rome, which was a patriarchy. The egalitarian vision of Jesus and the early Jesus followers was written over, forgotten. A thing called “orthodoxy” emerged, which really was a form of social control and thought control. People needed to believe the right things (whether or not they spoke to real life experience or made rational sense), or else they were condemned—either excommunicated, or executed.
If this isn’t what the power of Rome and emperors are all about, I don’t know what is.
So there came a time, 1500 years after Jesus and the early Jesus communities, that the most serious protest in Christian history took place: the Reformation. This is the part of the story when our first religious communities appeared, in Poland in 1556 and in the Transylvanian region of what is now Romania in 1568. Our protests were so far-reaching (relative to the times) that we became known as “Radical Reformers.” What did we protest about? That orthodoxy is indeed a terrible virus that our churches needed to be inoculated from. Covenant should be the source of our unity, not sameness of belief. Preachers ought to be free to preach as reason and conscience move them; and the people in the pews ought to have the freedom to accept what the preacher says, or to disagree, as reason and conscience move them. “We need not think alike to love alike.”
That’s what made our reformation efforts “radical.” Reformers who are better known, like Luther and Calvin, never dared to go as far, and, through their so-called “reformation,” they ended up reproducing just more of the same rigid hierarchy and patriarchy that Christianity was infected with.
Our Polish churches are long gone; Catholicism came in, took over, and banished Unitarianism by 1660. But our churches in Transylvania exist still. They have gone through unspeakable persecution and suffering over the past 452 years. But they exist still. So we can say that our Living Tradition in church form is 452 years old.
That’s a lot of candles on a cake.
But now it’s time to move to the next source, which is “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” It’s listed as the first source, but historically, the value of direct experience or, more to the point, “mystical experience,” hit home with the spread of a spiritual and literary movement in New England called “Transcendentalism,” which started in the 1830s. Ralph Waldo Emerson is practically synonymous with this movement, and so are such folks as Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, and Theodore Parker.
It’s yet another protest movement which stems from people having experiences that cause them to say, Life doesn’t have to be that way. Life can be different and better than it is now. The experiences that animated the Transcendentalists were of the mystical union of the surface self with the deep self, and they called that deep self God within, or the Inner Light. The faculty they used to connect with God within they called “intuition,” and they said anyone can learn how to tap into it. They said that being in natural places was one of the best places for doing this. They said that anyone could access spiritual wisdom and truth directly; anyone can go to that wellspring, which is deep within. But people are, on the whole, just sleepwalking through life. People truly believe that they are poor—so poor, in fact, that they must seek out wisdom and truth from external sources like churches and preachers and traditions and scriptures and so on—but, in reality, they are already richer than they can imagine. They have direct access to everything they need for happiness and holiness, if they could only see that….
That’s the essence of the Transcendentalist protest movement, that wanted to free up people’s individualism and sense of self-reliance. And not just this; it wanted to free up people’s emotion. Mysticism is feeling-ful experience; it is not a strict affair of logic or reason. But Emerson and the other Transcendentalists experienced the liberal religion of their day as way too emotionless, way too cerebral. It was nothing but the rational parsing through of Scripture, and dry as dust worship services. But religion just didn’t have to be so deadly dull and dry. Why did it have to be that way, when, through intuition, you could behold in your very own heart the same brilliant glory that Moses did when he beheld the Burning Bush?
Transcendentalism was a game-changer. Not only did it nudge Unitarians and Universalists to take mystical experience more seriously and seek it out, but it also opened the door to wisdom from the world’s religions, yet another of the six sources of our faith. For it is through intuition that we see nothing less than Divine wisdom and love animating the best teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism and Islam and Yoruba religion and Native American religion and on and on. Intuition sees beyond differences to the essence. And so, when wisdom and truth are available everywhere and from all times, why in heaven’s name should anyone restrict their spiritual searching to just one source? That no longer made sense, to the Transcendentalists. Soon enough, it no longer made sense to most Unitarians and Universalists. In 1894, we officially declared ourselves creedless.
“We need not think alike to love alike” had truly become official.
And that’s the story of our faith, up to the 1900s. Three sources down, three to go. Note that our source in Christianity reigned basically supreme for more than 1800 years. The other sources get added in fairly rapid succession after that.
We turn, now, to the next source: “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” This source came into our movement in the first decades of the twentieth century, but we need to see the prelude, which began 60+ years earlier. In 1859, Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species was published. It sent shock waves throughout Christendom. Some denominations, we know, sounded the alarm and struck back; it was to be an all-out war of faith against science. But we liberals responded very differently. We liberals saw the power of the scientific method and wondered, What would happen if we welcomed this power into the religious venture? What if the scientific method became a valued part of our faith? For people who embraced this approach, a whole new world opened up. Evolution became God’s way of creating the world. Science could become itself a kind of scripture, complementing and correcting the traditional scriptures of old. And on and on.
Call this perspective “scientific theism.” There were plenty of scientific theists among us in the latter 19thcentury, and if they were fighting a war, it was against what they considered “fuzzy” Transcendentalist intuition and mysticism. But soon enough, God itself and the whole metaphysical enterprise came under suspicion. In 1916, the Rev. John Dietrich and the Rev. Curtis Reese began preaching what they called “Humanism” to their congregations. Humanism narrowed the definition of science down to the hard sciences (like physics, chemistry, and biology) and its truth test was essentially reproducibility under controlled conditions, or some kind of public verifiability method. This was the sort of science that religion was supposed to follow, as it aimed to improve people intellectually and ethically. Make the world a better and more just place for humans, and do this by following the lead of the hard sciences. No room in this for God or for anything spiritual or mystical which were considered “idolatries of the mind and spirit.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, Humanism was hotly contested in our congregations. But by the 1950s and through the 1970s and even into the 1980s, it had become our consensus creed. It really had. We really weren’t pluralistic anymore. The content of our worship services had become essentially academic; we had lectures not sermons; and the lectures were pretty much about ethics and justice issues. You just didn’t talk about God or spirituality—that stuff was “unscientific” and therefore irrelevant. Passe’. In bad taste.
That had become the content of our services; and as for the tone: it had become as arid and rationalistic as the services that had repelled the Transcendentalists back in the early 19th century.
Darwin’s power is incontestable, as is the power of the hard sciences in general. But what about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and the power of the messy irrational unconscious? What about the power of guilt and passion and pain—together with the so-called “softer” forms of science that help us to understand the human psyche in its fullness?
In fact, as these “softer” sciences started to develop and deepen—think of Abraham Maslow and his theories of self-actualization and peak experience, as but one example—what became relevant again was all the so-called “fuzzy stuff” that the Humanists wanted to banish as idolatrous: mystical experience and intuition and God.
Furthermore, while the Humanists trusted that the hard sciences were firmly aimed towards the betterment of humankind, what happened was World War II and Nazi concentration camps and atom bombs, which are clear examples of how science could be used to serve evil. Years later, during the Vietnam War, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, would talk of “improved means to unimproved ends.” Science improved means but was itself no guide to improving ends.
Finally, by the late 1970s and 1980s, women’s power in Unitarian Universalism was reaching critical mass, and male-domination in our movement was about to go bye-bye.
Enter the source that goes, “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Of course, we’ve been hearing men’s prophetic voices from the beginning, so what’s truly powerful about this source is how it names the prophetic voices of women.
Yes, as early as 1863, Olympia Brown became the first woman formally ordained by any denomination in America. She was a Universalist. Her Transcendentalism empowered her to trust her voice and her vision. It empowered any number of other women who stepped up to religious leadership.
But by the turn of the 20th century, there would be a huge backlash against women and a push for a “masculine ministry,” and this push was felt well into the 1970s. In 1952, in the midst of the Humanist consensus in our congregations, there were only 12 women ministers in all of Unitarianism and Universalism combined. In 1974, when that year’s General Assembly formally resolved to address this injustice and articulate specific ways the denomination was going to change its ways, there were only 40 female ministers, out of a near possible 800.
Our ways did change. In 1977, a “Women and Religion Resolution” was passed at General Assembly that essentially called out the use of anti-women language and theology in our faith. It asked us to take a close look at the rigid hierarchy of patriarchy that we were stuck in for too long. We did. That’s why, in 1999, Unitarian Universalism was the first denomination in America to achieve parity between male and female ministers. Now, there are more female ministers than male. We are indeed hearing the voices of prophetic women loud and clear. And it’s about time.
One example of what I mean is this. Prophetic women are principally—not solely, but principally—responsible for the inclusion of the religious source we have yet to mention—the last one on the official list–: “Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” In 1980, at the UU Continental Feminist Theology Convocation, we had the first ever Unitarian Universalist Pagan worship service. The Convocation also included workshops about Goddess theology, witchcraft, a film about Zen Buddhism, and another very first ever: the Water Communion service. That’s where our annual Water Communion comes from. It’s the gift of our women leaders to us all.
Earth-centered traditions, celebrating the sacred circle of life, living in harmony with the rhythms of nature: it was a reincarnation of Transcendentalism for our twentieth century—an affirmation of religion as an embodied, holistic, head-and-heart sort of thing. It came pouring into our congregations in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Humanist backlash was fierce. A 1992 letter to the editor of our denominational magazine World had this to say: “Once I was proud to be a Unitarian Universalist, and I could not understand why others thought us silly. But after reading the articles on [a] self-proclaimed witch, and a commentary on worshipping the goddess within, I not only understand, I agree….I am disturbed by the increase in mysticism and ‘new age’ philosophy in our churches….There are limits to tolerance.”
Do you hear the big feelings in what this person is saying? How they felt they were losing the Humanist-centered Unitarian Universalism of the 50s through the 70s and 80s? Perhaps such feelings still abound, in some. But I want us to stay focused on the main point, which is the golden thread that runs throughout this entire story of our faith: how our ancestors had liberatory experiences that empowered their protest against the status quo. How every one of our sources represents the reality of something being left out of our faith or of some imbalance, and people in real time realizing the need to find a new balance despite the controversy that might ensue. But the risk of controversy was worth it, because more medicine for the soul can never be a bad thing. Jesus and his message are medicine, and so is covanentalism. Intuition and the Inner Light are medicine. The world’s religions are medicine. Science is medicine. Women’s experience and wisdom are medicine. Earth-based spirituality is medicine.
All the medicine we can get is needed, because the viral disease we’re fighting is tougher than COVID-19. The virus we’re fighting is stuckness in one kind of rigid hierarchy or other, and endlessly reproducing that. Liberatory love called us 2000 years ago and calls us now to dissolve every rigid hierarchy that keeps people stuck in injustice and, top to bottom, traps them like flies in amber.
This is why right now I need to argue for something, and not just politely suggest.
I argue that we need an additional source. Six is not enough. Rigid hierarchies keep on coming back into our congregations. The effect is “push down there, pop up here.” This is called “intersectionality.” It’s patriarchy and misogyny and ableism and homophobia and transphobia and white supremacy culture all linked together….
What I am saying is that, from where I’m standing, I see our congregations ready to start grappling with the reality of the sort of evil that’s systemic as opposed to personal. For example, how there can be such a thing as racism without racists, or misogyny without misogynists. “I certainly would not object to a female president,” say millions of people sincerely, male and female. And yet they were not yet ready to vote for Hillary. She needed to be perfect, in order to be preferable to Trump. But right there–in that need for a woman’s perfection before she can begin to be acceptable–is misogyny. This is not about politics, I hasten to say. This is about people being stuck like flies in amber and not necessarily knowing that.
We need medicine to get unstuck. We need to stop reducing religion to only that which speaks to us as individuals and our individual efforts. We desperately need religion to speak to the reality of what it means to be a part of a cultural system that has autonomy, that lives itself through you and does this no matter what you, as an individual person, intend. We need religion to speak to the terrible systems of racism and sexism and other systems living through us and we don’t necessarily know this and the consequences are absolutely 100% unacceptable because they are inflicting suffering on us all, and on some people way more suffering than others.
The seventh source I am arguing for would go something like this: “The history behind systems of cultural oppression, awareness of people’s role in them (witting or unwitting), and wisdom that helps put a person on the path of liberation for all.” Something like that. Something that formally acknowledges our need to hear the voices of people at the margins. Something that intentionally and squarely witnesses to the structural evil that Jesus was fighting 2000 years ago, which we’ve always been fighting, and we’re still fighting it, and everyone stuck in it suffers, from the Roman Emperor high on top to the poor slaves and the conquered at the bottom.
Maybe now our congregations are ready to address structural evil directly. Maybe.
All I know is that everyone is suffering.
But life doesn’t have to be that way. Love is real. Love liberates.
And the promise of that, my friends—the promise of liberating Love–has always been the story of our faith.