REASONABLE RELIGION

by Rev. Sarah Oelberg, at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society, April 4, 2004

Today is Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and the beginning of Holy week, during which Jesus supposedly fell from favor, was punished and crucified, and then rose from the dead on Easter. Tuesday begins Passover, which celebrates the historic flight of the Jews from Egypt. Actually, both Easter and Passover are redux of ancient festivals making the coming of spring and the renewal of life. Both were redesigned for political and religious purposes by powerful people who needed to borrow from the old customs in order to justify new ideas.

This year, in addition to the usual Lenten activities, Christians have flocked to see Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ," which depicts, in scene after horrible scene, the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus. The film shows vicious violence and perpetrates virtually every crude anti-Semitic stereotype that has ever been offered. What the film does not provide is any connection of what is offered with any sense of meaning, or any reason to watch it, other than the love Americans seem to have for sacred horror flicks. Even the theme of resurrection and salvation, surely the hallmark of Christian theology, is lost to images of torture taken to extreme. Few who see it will make the leap from Gibson's special effects to the spiritual depths of being human.

And this is only one example of religious belief gone amok in the United States today. In addition to this film, there is the book "The Da Vinci Code" which this week became the biggest one-year seller in the history of American publishing. It offers up mainly New Age speculation about the Holy Grail and other assorted bilge, including centuries-old plots by the Vatican. Add to this the increasing mixing of personal piety with public policy and the call for Biblical-based decisions by politicians for justifying everything from war in Iraq to banning gay marriages, and you have to wonder if we have not entered some kind of lunatic "twilight zone." This is another kind of March madness. Where is our sense of reason?

Everything, it seems, has to be "faith-based," from popular entertainment to social programs. Even Unitarian Universalism is losing its historic devotion to reason, and seeking a return to something some people feel is more religious. There is president Sinkford's call for more reverent language, a desire for more "spirituality" in our services, and churches sponsoring programs on topics from New Age crystals to faith healing. A few years ago, UU ministers gathered at a convocation designed to forge a "new covenant for the 21st Century." After a five-day process, a statement was offered for approval which began, "We covenant to affirm that at the heart of our faith is a sense of the holy. We lift up this universal religious experience, while respecting our different religious languages and symbols in worship, religious education, fellowship and service," and continued in that vein. One of our respected, humanist ministers rose to offer an amendment to add after the word "holy" the phrase "and a critical trust in the power of reason." After the allotted two hours of discussion, it became apparent there would be no agreement on the question of affirming reason as one of our underlying principles for the future, and the whole covenant was lost in months of continued discussion which led to no resolution. This, I think was the beginning of the end of reason in UU religion.

The tension is between mind and spirit, thinking and feeling, reason and intuition. No longer can this be characterized simply as a humanist vs. theist controversy. It is much more complex than that. It is a tension between us old-timers who still revere rationality, and younger members who find their religious experience in "spirituality" - a term tossed around with great abandon and signifying very little because it is not something that can be considered at the core or center of a collective religion, because it means something very different to each person. Unfortunately, it has become the "catchword" of the day, and is being used against reason.

I submit that at the heart of our faith always has been and still is a devotion to reason. It is found in the fourth Principle: "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning." I only hope it will remain if and when Sinkford's suggested review and revision of the Principles takes place. So I come before you today to defend this important principle. Now you may not think that this principle needs defending. After all, isn't this what religion is all about--finding meaning? And isn't the UU way to find meaning through a free and responsible search?

Yes. UUism, like other religions, has firm foundations and fundamental principles. And one of those fundamentals is the search for truth embedded in the fourth principle. But this is a difficult principle to get a hold of. When people ask what you believe, it is relatively easy to respond with ideals from the other principles: we believe in the worth and dignity of all persons, justice, equity and compassion in human relations, goal of world community with peace, justice and liberty for all, and so on. These are ends - they can be stated as beliefs. But the fourth principle, while supremely important as a defining ideal of Unitarian Universalism, is more a means than an end. It is an optimistic statement of how we arrive at what is important to us; what gives our lives meaning.

The freedom of each individual to discover basic truths and make meaning is a vital part of our religious tradition. And yet, there are many today who feel that this principle is under attack. Whether this is because we live in a time of perplexity and uncertainty in our everyday lives and we want something that is unchanging to hold on to in our religion; or whether it is due to the ever increasing numbers of theological strands that are now accepted and fighting to establish their credibility and merit within UUism; or whether it might be related to a kind of new-age emphasis on spirituality which some feel has no roots in reason, I don't know. But I do know, from my experience at the minister's convocation and from various things I have read and heard recently, that many feel this basic principle is no longer viewed as central--or the center of UUism. Yet, for me, it always has been. I think it is in the middle of the list of seven principles for a reason, and the reason is that it is the one that describes the central premise of our faith.

So how have we gotten to this state of affairs? Professor David Robinson, the author of The Unitarians and the Universalists, claims that UUs are periodically vexed by a sense of vagueness concerning their religious identity--perhaps due, in part, to the open search for truth which gives individual answers and not one cosmic TRUTH! Robinson suggests that we have deliberately disconnected ourselves from our own history. Our 360 degrees of openness to change, to every trend, makes us vulnerable to an undiscriminating eclecticism. UUism, he says, customarily presents itself as "continually being invented anew, perpetually leaving the past behind to engage the new concern of the moment. But one cost of this condition is a kind of collective theological amnesia", which conceals the fact that we are the outgrowth "of a deep and potentially sustaining history of spiritual achievement" second to none in American religious history.

Present day UUs, suggests Ron Knapp, are far too inclined to get locked into what he calls "contemporanaiety," locked into the idea that the only thing that is important is our time and our world and our thoughts, going from one fad to another. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we are part of a historical movement that extends from far back in the distant past to far forward in the distant future. We are the spiritual children of Michael Servetus who died in flames and of Francis David, who died in prison, because they proclaimed the Unitarian faith. We are children of Channing and Parker and Emerson and Murray and Ballou and a whole host of women and men who spread the gospel of freedom and equality for all throughout this part of the world. We are children of John Locke and Jefferson and of that whole historic period called the Enlightenment." When Thomas Jefferson optimistically predicted that everyone would some day be Unitarian, he was stating his faith in reason, as well as the reasonableness of his faith.

And we are the children of Humanism, both ancient and modern. And the fourth principle, more than any other, comes from the Humanist tradition, which is currently under attack within Unitarian Universalism as being passe, male dominated, anthropocentric, anti-spiritual and culturally absorbed. But it was, and still is, humanism which holds that each person can be the chief agent of spiritual force and intellectual freedom in his or her life. The humanist outlook implies affirmation of the dignity and the power of the human individual to carve out one's own destiny and to derive standards and values from one's own experience of life in light of the experience of others. Nothing is forever fixed, nothing is preordained, and human possibility is at once limited and infinite. The search for meaning is at the center of the religious experience.

But whether the antagonism to the fourth principle comes from a desire to have some certainty in life, or because many new UUs come with their own sense of what is true, or out of a simplistic embrace of the elusive spirituality, the fact remains that we turn our backs on this important principle at our peril. For, from the very beginning of both Unitarianism and Universalism, the freedom of belief and the search for truth and meaning has been what has differentiated us from other religions. If we abandon this historical principle and move to the middle, history tells us that some new organization or sect will develop to assume our discarded mantle of reason in religion. As Kendyl Gibbons cautions, "The first chapter of the Enlightenment may be closed, but reason and objective truth, like Pauline of the perils, has a way of making a comeback out of seemingly dire situations.."

There are, of course, many jokes about the Unitarian Universalist search for truth. And there is some truth to the charge that, for some, the search is the end, not the means. We are a community of seekers, we say. But that is not good enough--it seems to me to suggest what philosophers would call "solipsism," the idea that we are, each of us, only in our individual worlds, with our individual ideas. There is no communal context to it. One has to ask, "what are we seekers after? What are we seekers of?" And the only answer that resonates with our tradition is that we are seekers after the truth. Not individual truth, but however difficult the task may be, however far it is beyond our reach, the shared truth. That seems to me to be the mark of an authentic community.

Now, before you misunderstand me, let me assure you that I am not talking about the Truth, with a capital T, as in "there is only one Truth, and our religious community knows it and believes it, and everybody else is wrong." When it comes to religious truths, or rather TRUTH as claimed by the great religions, there are four possibilities:

1. None is true,
2. Only one is true; all others are false,
3. Though only one religion is in all major respects true, other religions share in that truth; or
4. Religions are all true, each true in some way.

UUs are often accused of believing whatever they want to believe. We ourselves are often guilty of perpetuating that image when we answer people who ask what UUs believe with something like, "Well, we can pretty much believe what we want to." That is absolutely wrong. It is the fundamentalists who can and do believe what they want to--for one would really have to want to believe something that makes absolutely no sense - like the Virgin birth or the bodily resurrection of Christ - things that fly in the face of truth and reason. We, on the other hand, believe what we are compelled to -- compelled not by any book, or any church, or any creed, but by the dictates of our own active and critical minds. We believe what our search for truth and meaning tells us is real--at least as real as we are able to determine at the present, and open to modification in the future if our continuing search yields new evidence.

The idea of radical freedom of belief lies at the heart of our UU faith. No one, no church, no authority, can tell one what to believe. Individuals must work out matters of belief for themselves. For more than a century that idea, in the form of various "liberty clauses", has been part of any collective affirmations we have devised. But, although it is up to individuals to work out what is to be believed, there is also a sense of certain parameters--some things are just too unbelievable to be taken seriously. So there is a kind of tension. We say that individuals have to come to their own beliefs, but we also feel that if the beliefs they embrace are outside the realm of sensibility, then they are violating the principle of "responsibility" in their search for truth and meaning.

You see, liberty can lead to license. Freedom of belief can lead to all kinds of absurdities unless it has a powerful corrective. In our own history there have been those who believed--believed religiously--that African Americans were an inferior race and therefore, in the name of God, could be subjected to slavery. Today we see people who believe that it is God's will that they kill doctors who perform abortions, or that homosexuals must be prohibited from enjoying the privileges of legal marriage, or that George Bush be elected president. These are people who deeply believe that one Truth is so superior to all other ideas that it is permissible to insist that everyone embrace that Truth, and to punish those who do not. Unitarian Universalists may not hold such beliefs, but it is easy, if we focus only on individual freedom of belief, to arrive at the absurd notion that it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you truly believe it. Well, it does matter. And this is where responsibility and discipline come in to the picture.

We have set the idea of the "free and disciplined search for truth" at the very heart of our faith. It is not an easy faith. It is not a shortcut or a copout. It requires a lifelong commitment to the disciplined search. It goes back to the enlightenment and John Locke, who said, "One unerring mark of the love of truth is not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant." It requires the centrality of reason; asking, with respect to beliefs, "is it reasonable to believe this? Does what I believe square with what I know to be true?" People are free to believe that the world is flat, or that the sun revolves around the earth, or that the holocaust never happened, or all kinds of things; but to do so defies reason and therefore flies in the face of the responsible search for truth.

There is another kind of search mentioned in the fourth principle--the search for meaning. It is relatively easy to speak of the search for truth. Throughout our history, Unitarians and Universalists have been trying to bring a reconciliation between science and religion; indeed, humanism in particular, but liberal religion in general, have forged the marriage of science and religion. The use of reason, the quest for truth, the free and responsible search--all these imply that there is something to be found, and scientific methods of inquiry can aid in the search and the discovery.

But just because something appears to be true, does it have meaning--at least in the sense of religious meaning? For meaning goes beyond mere facts; it transcends objective truth. Meaning suggests an importance that may well be greater than the subject or object itself; it suggests words like "sense," or "vision" or "significance," or even "grace." Being nonspecific, meaning overlaps these concepts, and is more than any of them. As Willard Quine said, "Pending a satisfactory explanation of the notion of meaning, linguists in the semantic field are in the situation of not knowing what they are talking about." So here is a conundrum--we search for truth in order to know; we find meaning in things we cannot and do not directly know.

We can break the fourth principle down and examine, as I have to some extent, each word. And each has importance: freedom - the radical notion that nothing ties us to any particular belief, but we can discover our own; responsible - the duty to use reason, good sense, science, compassion and intellectual discipline to find religious answers; search - the ongoing quest for that which defines for us, individually and collectively, the way to live and to be; truth - that which we are required to believe because it speaks to us with the force of fact and reality; and meaning - that which gives us the sense of purpose and position in life. But, although each word, each element, is important in itself, it is the entire principle, with its preface "we covenant to affirm and promote...a free and responsible search for truth and meaning," which is at the core of our Unitarian Universalist religion. More than any other principle, the fourth defines who and what we are, not only in the present, but historically and, I trust, far into the future.. This is the one principle which really separates us from other religions, and distinguishes us as a people of reasoned and reasonable faith. It is my favorite principle; the one that makes me really proud to be a Unitarian Universalist. I only wish the rest of the world could see its value and embrace it as we do. What a different world this would be!


Earlier sermons by Sarah Oelberg are available on other Web sites as follows:

First Unitarian Church of Sioux City, Iowa 
Church and Family  (May 7, 2000)

UUA General Assembly, Cleveland Ohio 
Joining Together (June 23, 2001) 

Nora Church collection, Hanska Minnesota. 
Strange And Wondrous Partners (May 6, 2001) 
Gathering The Flock (September 9, 2001) 
Dealing With Difficulty (October 7, 2001) 
Moral Challenges of Globalization (January 13, 2002) 
Whose Side Is God On? (February 3, 2002) 
Great Emancipators (February 10, 2002) 
It's A Grand Old Flag (June 16, 2002) 
Roots of the Israeli - Palestinian Conflict (Sept 22, 2002) 
War And Peace (November 10, 2002) 
Heroes And Heretics (February 2, 2003) 
Spirituality Without God (February 9, 2003) 
Peace On Earth Or Peace Within? (March 23, 2003) 
Drawing On The Divine (April 6, 2003) 
Tradition: Blessing or Curse (September 28, 2003) 
The Story of Jonah (October 5, 2003) 
Deception, Deceit and Dishonesty (October 12, 2003) 
Feasting, Fasting and Famine (November 23, 2003) 

UU Fellowship of Mankato collection, Mankato Minnesota. 
Judging Others (January 20, 2002) 
Great Emancipators (February 10, 2002) 
Whose side is God on? (March 17, 2002) 
Coming Together (September 15, 2002) 
Unity and Universality (November 16, 2003) 
Leaving and Letting Go (December 21, 2003) PDF Format