I knew she was nervous when she sat down. Her breathing was quick and her eyes darted all over the room. “How can I help?”
She was an inmate in the Denver Women’s Prison. I was her Chaplain intern. I’d sent for her after I got a note indicating her request for spiritual counseling.
“I have some questions about God,” she began. Questions turned to worries, worries turned to shame. She wondered if God loved her, if God could ever love her for who she was? And she was sure even asking the question was a sin.
Listening to this strong, wounded woman, and getting to know a little of her story, a longing began to grow in me.
A longing and deep hope that my faith tradition – Unitarian Universalism – would have something to say to this woman and her questions that would meet her where she was and help her become the person she was meant to be.
A longing and deep hope that we would be able to do as we say in our 3rd Principle: walk with her in her path of spiritual growth. Written on posters and pamphlets, it sounds dry – but when lived out, it looks like healing and transformation.
Listening to her, a seed was planted in my spirit – deep down – that we would be able to offer her – and others like her – something beyond simply tossing out “God” all together – from her context and life story, that would’ve been just as wounding as the notions of God she was wrestling with.
It was a hope that we – we – could be a people and our congregation could be a place where she could grow her ideas about God and expand her experience of God in a way that would in turn allow her to grow a new vision for herself and for our world. That we would have tools and practices and a willingness and capacity to go there with her – whereever there is – and to walk that path with joy and love and respect.
It was a big hope, and to be honest, sometimes I still wonder if we have it in us.
If you were here two Sundays ago, you heard my colleague the Rev. Robert Latham challenge our congregation and our faith to define ourselves first by what we hold in common, rather than our usual mode of affirming how we differ.
He recalled the Hagar the Horrible cartoon where there’s a bunch of vikings in a boat all rowing furiously, and yet the boat is going in circles and zigzags. The caption on the bottom has Hagar shouting, “Will you please stop saying different strokes for different folks?”
Robert’s basic premise is that society invented religion as a meaning-making institution, and in order for us to be effective with that charge, we need to claim a basic set of shared answers to the questions most people wrestle with.
I’m not sure if he said the questions in his sermon – if not he’ll likely outline them when he’s back on the 9th – so spoiler alert! There are 5 of them, they go like this:
1. Who am I?
2. How do I know what I know?
3. Who or what is in charge?
4. What is my purpose?
5. What does my death mean?
As he says, “A religious community is a group sharing a common view of reality built around unprovable answers to life’s compelling questions. It is from these answers that a religious community extracts its message to the world.
This message proclaims that if either individuals or society lives accordingly, they will be transformed.”
In some ways, Robert’s message runs contrary to much of what I have preached and taught in this congregation
over the last three years.
And my first response is to remind him: we need not think alike to love alike. We need not standardize our answers in order to walk together in service of the spirit of life and love. I might also add, as we often say, that each of us holds a piece of the truth, and we need each other across our diversity to better see and experience a greater whole.
Despite these initial misgivings, however, I hear in Robert’s questions the same kind of longing I felt in myself when I was talking to the woman about God.
I hear his desire that we would be more practiced and more capable of offering a life-affirming alternative theology translatable to a variety of contexts, and that we would be able to act in response to this theology.
I hear his longing that we would understand why these questions even matter – what theological commitments ground our 3rd Principle – as well as the other six. And so as with most things Robert preaches on, I think I’m on board, with one slight reframe.
Nearly a century ago, the Rev. Lewis B. Fisher, dean of a Universalist theological school, published a treatise on Universalism. His opening chapter, entitled “Which Way?” begins with this well-known quip:
“Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move.”
He goes on to say, “We grow and we march, as all living things must forever do. The main questions with Universalists are not where we stand but which way we are moving, not what positions we defend, but which way we are marching.”
So rather than a single, fixed identity-based answer to Robert’s questions about our common view of reality – perhaps our living tradition would be better served by asking ourselves again – which way are we marching?
And with whom? In service of what?
In Fisher’s treatise, he answers the “which way” question with a lot of words about Jesus and God, but ultimately he sums up the direction of the Universalist movement as moving towards “abundant life.”
Universalists march with all those who serve and create abundant life, in service of abundant life, so that all may have abundant life. Nearly 100 year later, it’s still a very good “common view of reality,” or at least a good place to begin.
Now, before I went to seminary, I have to confess, the conversation with the woman about God would’ve terrified me. I wouldn’t have known what to say or how to listen to her – I am not sure I identified as an atheist, but I definitely didn’t “do” God.
Which meant that despite being very active in my UU congregation, I had no tools or language, and no practice in being present to and with big theological questions.
All I had was what I didn’t believe, and I had avoidance – my UU church taught me very well how to avoid conversations like the one she wanted to have. It’s hard to remember now what motivated this avoidance strategy – in myself or in my church. Mostly I think it was fear.
Fear that we couldn’t be together across our differences, fear that if I really shared my “beliefs,” it would sound dumb, or contradictory. And maybe most of all, I was afraid that whatever I said would mark me with a label
that was fixed on me forever – and then I would be set across a table, or a room, or a computer screen from others
who were pinned with a different fixed label, and we’d have to debate about who is actually right, or who actually belongs.
This is my nightmare.
And unfortuntately, having it as a fear is not unfounded. In our attempts towards spiritual growth and along our search for truth, Unitarian Universalists have often been sucked into this kind of labeling and debating mode.
Just these past few months, you may have noticed another round of “debate” running through the UUA about the so-called pendulum swing of humanism and theism.
In our own congregation, over the past year, prompted by the retirement of our senior minister, there has been some parallel questioning and debate, often referencing the conversation at the association level and asking if we can claim more explicitly which we actually are, and where we stand.
While some of this conversation can be – has been- quite meaningful, and insightful, a lot of times, this whole either/or approach makes me weary, and makes that old practice of avoidance seem quite appealing.
If it wasn’t for the persistent longing and hope that conversation in prison planted in me, I might just give in. But I can’t. I can still feel it. I still hope we can meet her there.
Which means, we have to find another way to discern our shared answers – a way that is not debate. A way that moves us out of our heads, and into our hearts, a way that prioritizes relationship and honors our commitment to moving rather than standing.
A way of describing our “common view of reality” that transcends labels and instead makes space for – as our second reading from Tom Owen-Towle puts it – “the creases between mysticism and humanism, theism and naturalism, believing and doubting, devotion and skepticism.”
Which brings me to my two semi-contradictory conclusions.
The first conclusion is to say – that the way forward is not to delegate this work to the broad and generic Unitarian Universalist Association. For us to experience a new way – we need to do this from the ground up, in congregations, and in the context of real relationships. As the principles goes: we encourage one another to spiritual growth in our congregations. Here – everything we do here, is a part of this work – small groups, adult ed classes, spiritual practices, the discovery sessions with the search committee, teaching our children, and most definitely all that we do in ministry teams to serve within and beyond our church.
In all of these we have a chance to ask one another, and ourselves – to practice our answers to some of life’s biggest questions, and to listen to one another, to listen them into speech.
What does it mean to be human? What is our purpose? What does our death mean? Who or what is in charge? What if anything do you understand or experience as God? And how do we decide about our answers to all this?
These sorts of conversations, when grounded in listening deeply, hold the promise of transcending the either/or debate, and what Unitarian ethicist James Luther Adams called the “hardening of the categories.” Because in such conversations, to say it plainly, it’s no longer about “those theists,” or “those atheists,” it’s about my friend’s story, my group’s heartbreak, and my community’s greatest love.
You may be disappointed to learn, however, these conversations will not result in a vote. There’s no winner – or loser. Sorry. But over time, these conversations allow us to recognize our common view of reality – as well as the places we differ – and how that’s ok – because our commonality is big, and wide, and deep.
Which brings me to my second somewhat contradictory conclusion. Although I maintain that this theological construction and spiritual discernment remains the work of each particular gathered covenanted community –
as a centuries-long faith tradition, we do inherit a theological framework – our common view of reality we might also call our good news – that remains ours to claim. And so I want to end with my sense of that Unitarian Universalist common view, and we’ll see how it sits with you. Here it goes:
1. Being human means you matter, that inherently, your life is precious and worthy of love. And it means being a part of a great interdependent web of life, where we are all in this together.
2. We don’t know what happens after we die – our focus is on living a good life now. What makes a good life is in doing our part to create what Martin Luther King Jr. called the Beloved Community – a world of peace, and justice, kindness, and love – for all.
3. Though we might wish otherwise, we know we aren’t in charge of this life. However, we can choose how we respond to our lives as they unfold. These responses – across all time and space – are what drive the world forward. Our actions make a difference, and showing up for one another in our common vulnerability and courageous love brings the hope of healing, and transformation.
4. We describe God in many different ways – or in no way; but our common view, is that no one knows for sure, and no one answer is sufficient, which leaves us with an ultimate posture of humility.
If we talk about God, that God is love – courageous love, infinite love. We are held in this love, we partner with it – to heal ourselves, and heal our world.
5. And finally, as the holy reveals itself in ever-new and surprising ways, we turn to all sources that keep us moving in the direction of more life, and more love to help us sort out our answers to these and other big questions. We draw on our own life stories, as well as our encounter with others, and we seek to keep faith with the liberal religious vision that over many centuries has affirmed the goodness of humanity, the love of God, and the need and our capacity to keep working towards justice for all.
There you go. Our common view of reality.
While I am sure it isn’t 100% for 100% of you, and I’m sure some wish I’d use different words…my guess is that if you listen for the underlying intent, it works for most of us.
So when Robert comes back in a couple weeks, let him know you got the work done. Just kidding. Kind of.
It’s been almost 8 years, and still that conversation with the woman about God – won’t let me go. I still believe we can be that place that could meet her in her struggles, and walk with her. I still believe in our capacity for theological imagination, spiritual depth, contemplation and service – a place that can be present with tools and companionship no matter where your spiritual quest may take you – that we could meet you there, and walk along side you in the direction of life, abundant; love, abundant.
I still long for us to lay down our avoidance strategies, and instead lay claim to our common answers to life’s big questions – not by way of debating about static categories – but rather from within our moving, breathing, covenantal and heart-growing living tradition where we don’t stand, we move.
And when they ask which way – let us say – towards life. Abundant life.