The Transient and the Permanent in Liberal Religion


preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, September 30, 2007

My theme this morning is the transient and the permanent in liberal religion. When I talk about liberal religion I mean Unitarianism, Universalism or Unitarian Universalism. Over the course of our almost five hundred year history our religious movement has changed a great deal. We have changed so much, in fact, that what seemed essential to us in one era now appears to be only tangential. Despite appearances I believe that no matter what the changes in our movement we have retained an important and discernible core. At our essence we are a covenantal community committed to truth, love, freedom and the ability of each person to find his or her own spiritual path.

The inspiration for this sermon comes from a seminal sermon by the Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker entitled “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.” In that sermon Parker tried to discern the essence of Christianity. He believed that much of what people took to be Christianity was actually a product of the time and culture in which they lived. He wrote:

“In actual Christianity… there seem to have been… two elements, the one transient, the other permanent. The one is the thought, the folly, the uncertain wisdom, the theological notions… the other, the eternal truth of God. These two bear perhaps the same relation to each other that the phenomena of outward nature, such as sunshine and cloud, growth [and] decay…bear to the great law of nature, which underlies and supports them all.”

Parker wrote as a transcendentalist. For him the essence of Christianity stood in for all religious truth. He thought that Jesus taught not Christianity but absolute religion, the essence of spiritual truth that lay behind all religion. Despite the title of his sermon, Parker was part of a movement that helped turn Unitarianism away from its identity as an exclusively Christian religion. Today, in our congregations, we recognize that all religions contain a kernel of truth in them. We understand that each religion is an effort to reach toward an understanding of ultimate reality. The interpretation may be different but the impulse to reach out is the same.

To help us explore the transient and the permanent of liberal religion, our own attempt at reaching towards the absolute, I would like to offer you three images from my and our religious ancestry. If examined closely, these images can teach us much about Unitarian Universalism.

First, imagine the gathering of a group of 17th century New England colonists. They have left the Church of England and fled their native land. They have come to a strange continent seeking religious freedom and, after months of discussion and debate, they have decided to form a religious community. Finally, they have reached agreement about the shape and form of their community. It is important for them that each individual be allowed to find truth in God and in the Bible as they best know how. One by one they write their names in the membership book and sign a covenant, an agreement about how they will behave together in religious community. Their covenant reads:

“We Covenant with the Lord and one with another; and doe bynd our selves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himselfe unto us in his Blessed word of truth.”

Now we turn to our second image. It is late at night. Theodore Parker sits at his desk. He is writing a fiery sermon calling for resistance to the fugitive slave law. That law demands that Northerners return fugitives to their supposed masters in the South. In front of Parker lies a loaded pistol. He has the gun because he and his wife are sheltering Ellen and William Craft, fugitives and members of his congregation. He plans to shoot anyone who comes and tries to return them to slavery.

The third image is of myself as a youth of fourteen. I am on the beach with about two hundred other Unitarian Universalist youth. Moonlight bounces off the sand and waves tumble rocks ever smoother on the shore. We are at the evening worship service of Con Con, the international annual conference for Unitarian Universalist youth. We are singing, sharing stories, running our hands over the soft warm earth. Amid the song, starlight and fellowship I experience an almost overpowering feeling of love and unity.

Each of these images is taken from a different moment in the history of liberal religion. The first image is from our earliest roots on this continent. The last is almost contemporary. We can draw a direct line through all three images to our worship service today. What has changed in our communities since the New England farmers gathered almost four hundred years ago? What has remained the same? What is transient and what is permanent?

I approach these questions from two directions. First, I take a theological tact, and look at the beliefs of both Unitarian Universalists and our ancestors. Second, I examine our culture, that is I look at who makes up our communities and how we relate to the wider world.

To the casual eye it would appear that almost nothing of Unitarian Universalist theology has remained consistent. Our religious ancestors who gathered together in Massachusets were self-identified Christians. The Bible was the central text in their religious community and all of them regarded Jesus as their lord and savior. A sociologist of religion would call them Protestant Christians.

Today, only a portion of Unitarian Universalists and Unitarian Universalist congregations identify as Christian. The members of our religious communities follow a variety of spiritual practices and beliefs. In our congregations we find Buddhists, Christians, Humanists, Jews, Agnostics, Pagans and others. A sociologist of religion would call us Post-Christian Protestants.

We are post-Christian because, as a religious movement, we come out of Christianity. That means that while we do not retain much of the theology of Christianity we continue to use many of the forms of Christianity. Like most other Protestant movements we have ministers, gather together for worship primarily on Sunday morning and organize ourselves into congregations. In addition we have taken a central idea of Protestantism, the belief that each person is capable of direct relationship with God and able to read and interpret the Bible, to an entirely different level. We recognize that there is truth in religious communities beyond Christianity. We do not just believe that each person is capable of interpreting the Bible. We think that each person is capable of interpreting their own religious experiences and naming their own source of religious authority. For us personal experience, and not the Bible, is the starting point for theological reflection.

Despite the shift from Christian to post-Christian we are united with our New England ancestors by our use of covenants. When we form communities we agree to treat each other in a certain way. The New England religious communities from which we are descended used similar covenants. The Salem covenant of 1629 that I read earlier is an example of one such covenant. Another, couched in slightly different language, is the Bond of Union of this congregation. If you look on our web-site or in our by-laws, you will find a statement that reads:

“We warmly invite into membership all in common with our purpose as expressed in our Bond of Union: mutual helpfulness in the search for truth and for enduring value in ways of life; advancement of sound morals among ourselves and in our community; encouragement and protection of individual freedom of religion.”

This Bond of Union is meant to guide us as we live and work together in religious community. It contains several clear expectations about how we will behave in our congregation. It describes what it means to be a member of this community. We agree that when we gather:

We will help each other
We will seek truth
We will try to live moral lives and promote morality, as best we understand it, in our communities
We will respect and protect freedom of religion

Our Bond of Union is not really that different from the covenant of our New England ancestors. Laying them side by side it easy to see how they contain the same spirit. The language may be different, one mentions the Lord and God while the other does not, but both covenants speak of a commitment to truth, of mutual aid and respect. Neither explicitly mentions a standard of belief that people must meet in order to join the community. Instead we are asked to agree to “walk together” or be “in common with our purpose.”

Our use of covenant unites us with our religious ancestors across almost four hundred years. We have long understood, to quote the Transylvania Unitarian Bishop Francis David, “we do not need to think alike to love alike.”

With our Unitarian Christian, Universalist and Transcendentalist ancestors we share a belief that human beings are at the very least morally neutral. According to the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association, our congregations “covenant to affirm and promote:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

This pledge is at the heart of what it means to be a religious liberal. Historically, the very definition of a religious liberal was someone who objected to the argument that humanity is somehow inherently wicked. In the Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association this sentiment is not couched as a belief—to affirm and promote is not the same thing as to believe—but in looking back at our history it might as well be.

The origin of the American Unitarian Association, one of the precursors to the Unitarian Universalist Association, lies in a 19th century dispute over whether or not human beings had innate goodness within them. The principle spokesperson of Unitarianism during this time was William Ellery Channing and he engaged in numerous debates with more orthodox clergy. In his famous sermon, entitled “Likeness to God,” Channing argued that each person had within them the likeness to God. The purpose of religion was to help us nurture that divine spark. Channing felt that it was possible for us to reach an almost Godlike consciousness because, in his words, “we carry within ourselves the perfections, of which its beauty, magnificence, order, benevolent adaptations, and boundless purposes, are the results and manifestations [of God]. God unfolds himself in his works to a kindred mind.”

As a young man, Channing was Parker’s hero and provided him with much inspiration. Looking at texts like Channing’s “Likeness to God” and Parker’s “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” one cannot help but notice similarities between them. That said, Channing and Parker had their differences. Channing acted as a sort of senior statesman for the religious liberals of his day. Parker was a powerful prophet whose anti-slavery views made him pariah among his fellow Unitarians. Channing was reluctant to call for the abolition of slavery until late in his career.

Parker, however, never would have taken the stands he did had it not been for the liberals of Channing’s generation. Channing’s generation’s belief in the perfectibility of humans was in part what led Parker and his cohorts to attack slavery. If Parker was to approach God’s likeness how could he not speak out against the evil of his times?

We are united with our 19th century ancestors not only by our feelings about human nature but by our understanding that personal experience is the starting point for theological reflection. In his essay “Self-Reliance” the Unitarian minister and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson admonished: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.” By this Emerson means that it is our own experience of truth that is ultimately important. Each of us has had our own experiences and each of our experiences helps us to understand what is true.

My own truth has been tempered by a healthy dose of mysticism, a feeling that we can all connect to the infinite that surrounds us. This belief stems from early experiences like the one in Oregon where I felt a deep connection to everyone and everything around me.

The wonderful thing about Unitarian Universalism is that I can hold this belief, some of you can disagree with me and we can all be right. We are able to do so because we understand that our religious truths stem from our experiences. We have all had different experiences, which means we have all come to different religious truths. The absolute undergirding all of our experiences may be the same but our ways of understanding what is true will be different.

Covenants are a belief in at least the neutrality of human nature and a recognition that personal experience is the starting point for theological reflection. Taken together these three things form the core of Unitarian Universalism. Combined they form us into covenantal religious communities dedicated to truth, love and freedom. This is the core of our theological vision, our sense of absolute religion.

Having described our theological vision, we should turn our attention to the culture of liberal religion. We Unitarian Universalists are not of the sort to separate ourselves from the world. We have chosen to live in it. We are shaped by, and to a limited extent, shape the culture around us. Parker believed that culture should be the most transient part of religion. While the essence of our religion remains the same, culture should change with the times.

We can look at the culture of liberal religion on local or global levels. From a global perspective Unitarianism, Universalism and Unitarian Universalism are culturally rich. We can find our co-religionists in the Kashi hills of India, in Transylvania, the United States and the Philippines.

On the other hand, if we only look locally, if we examine the culture of our religion in the United States over the last four hundred years it appears culturally poor. David Bumbaugh touches on this in his sermon “Beyond the Seven Principles: The Core of Our Faith:”

“[I]f we ask, “Who is served by Unitarian Universalism” we come at the core of our faith from a very different angle. The answer to that question, whether we like it or not, is that historically Unitarian Universalism has served the emergent middle-class, (dare I say, mostly the Euro-American emergent middle class). This is not a fact we find ourselves able to embrace comfortably.”

I am afraid that, in general, Bumbaugh’s observation is correct. There are, of course, exceptions, and much of the best of Unitarian Universalism can be found within them. However, it is painfully true that in aggregate our congregations have primarily served the professional and business classes. In general, our communities are made up of teachers, public servants, college professors, mid-level business executives and others of similar educational background. Most of us are neither the people who own the means of production nor those who those who labor in the mills.

Unitarian Universalists are not only a middle-class people. Many of us are also deeply counter-cultural. We have come to Unitarian Universalism because we have rejected the dominant modes of religious thinking in our society. In earlier days we would have been called heretics. Often our understanding of religious truth calls upon us to question the actions of our government, the values of our materialist culture and why people in our world are not afforded to most basic of human rights. When we ask these questions, I believe the permanent in liberal religion, the part of our faith that calls us to extend ourselves beyond our comfortable shells, in peeking through.

Nonetheless, as a religious movement, we need to ask ourselves if the class composition of our congregations is part of the transient or the permanent of liberal religion. When our communities lack the full spectrum of human diversity we are all missing something. We learn by struggling to build community with those who are different from us. If we restrict ourselves to only a thin band of the world’s peoples, then our community is the poorer for it.

The Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed reminds us, “The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all.”

To fully unveil those bonds we need to widen our communities. This is not easy work as it requires us to carefully examine the cultural assumptions we make within our congregations. Often I have heard Unitarian Universalists say that our faith is best fitted for people with a certain level of education or background. If culture is part of the transient in liberal religion this need not be the case.

When we remember that culture is transient, we remember, again in the words of Morrison-Reed, that “alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done.” This act of remembrance is part of the permanence of liberal religion. This act of remembrance is what makes our communities worthwhile. It is what happens when we truly unite in a covenantal community to pursue truth, love and freedom. That it may be so.

Amen and Blessed Be.

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