© Dr. Chris Schriner 2006
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
December 10, 2006

[Holding up a saw and a hammer:] OK, everybody, let's see what we can build this morning! Every Unitarian Universalist is a builder. We build our own philosophies of life. We invent new spiritual practices, new ways to have fun, new ways of working together, and new ways to serve the wider world. Every UU assembly hall should have a big sign out front saying:


My job is to construct sermons which each of you can use as raw material for building your own meanings. And today's sermon is about a report from the UUA Commission on Appraisal called Engaging Our Theological Diversity, a report that explores the question, "What is it that holds Unitarian Universalists together?"

We need to ask that question because we lack several typical sources of unity. We were not founded by one great prophet. We don't all read the same sacred text. We don't celebrate one mythic story about the meaning of life. We don't all recite the same theological creed. Instead, we have discovered that good people interpret reality in many different ways, and we can learn and grow by appreciating diverse viewpoints. In fact, we thrive on finding unity in diversity. This is a huge step forward, but it is a difficult step because it stretches us so far beyond the usual human tendency to seek communities of agreement that reinforce our assumptions and our prejudices.

Throughout the Commission on Appraisal's report, I sensed a longing for the reassurance and security of group agreement. They seemed to want to place our unity more in the foreground and our diversity more in the background. This was helpful for me to hear, because I myself am extremely comfortable with diversity. I need to remember that any spiritual community needs some sort of common ground to hold it together.

Over and over, the Commission urged us to find our common ground in theology. They claimed that UUs "are the product of a particular theology, and our core beliefs ... implicitly express that theology." Supposedly this UU theology is "buried" within the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism which DeAnna Alm read this morning. (P. 65)

Can you sense the confusion in these statements? How can we be "the product of a particular theology," when most of us became UUs as adults? And doesn't it seem strange to think that some specific theology is hidden in our statement of principles? However, the Commission uses the word "theology" very broadly, to refer to one's philosophy of life, regardless of whether that includes belief in God. I wish they had explained what they meant by this word on page 1, rather than on page 166!

Now if theology is just one's overall philosophy of life, then theology includes ethics, the principles that tell us what we should and should not do. But in some places the Commission implies that theology and ethics are two different things. For example, "Unitarian Universalism has an extant theology, a fact frequently de-emphasized in favor of ethics." (page 66) And "... we teach our ethics without saying how our theology supports it." (page 29)

Well, I don't want to get stuck in griping about fuzzy thinking. We all know that a camel is a horse created by a committee, and this committee-crafted book has a few humps and lumps. But writing about philosophical issues is hard work even for an individual author, much less a group. It is so easy to get tangled up in complicated conceptual problems and trip over the meanings of words. So we should appreciate the Commission's good intentions, and thank them for at least trying to think clearly about how UUs relate to the big questions of life.

Thinking clearly is a spiritual discipline. Practicing clear thought lifts us up, moves us higher. It helps us grow our souls. Of course, feeling deeply also lifts us and grows us up, but it's much easier to feel than to think. You can feel deeply just by channel-surfing till you find a good television drama. But try to find a TV program which insists that you think precisely. George Bernard Shaw once remarked that "Few people think more than two or three times a year;" and he added: "I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week."

So let's think clearly about the Commission on Appraisal's complaint that Unitarian Universalists should show how their beliefs support their ethics. Orthodox religions claim to do just that. Supposedly they start with belief in God, and then listen to what God tells them about how to act. God says, "Thou shalt not kill," and they answer, "Gosh, thanks for letting us know." Sometimes this commandment gets a bit muddled, as when God demands that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. But if God went around ordering us to slay little children on a regular basis, we would soon become suspicious. "Hey, wait a minute! Maybe that isn't God talking. Maybe that's some kind of demon" - or one of our own troubled thoughts masquerading as God.

This is important. We get it backwards when we try to justify our ethics by our theologies. In many respects, ethics should shape our theology, not the other way around. The Israelites saw that the Ten Commandments were good. They realized that killing, stealing, and lying caused big problems, at least if these things happened within one's own tribe. So it made sense to them that God must have inspired the words on these stone tablets. If the tablets had said, "Thou shalt joyfully exterminate one other, night and day," they would have named the author as Satan, not God. They called the source of the Ten Commandments God, because God was their word for a great spiritual force which is aligned with goodness.

Generally there is only a loose connection between our beliefs about what's so and our ethical commitments to what should be so. That's why you can commit yourself to the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism regardless of whether you're an atheist, agnostic, pantheist, panentheist, deist, theist or Rastafarian. We accept these principles because we do better when we follow them, not because they are grounded in some big theory about God, life, death, and the universe - a theory that may be out of date in a hundred years.

Unitarian Universalism has somehow discovered that the core of spirituality should be ethics, values, principles of living. And we did not make this discovery by sitting at the feet of some prophet. Individual men and women gradually worked toward this realization over two centuries of moving from liberal Christianity to honoring all religions, and then to respect for all positive philosophies of life.

Instead of being belief-centered, Unitarian Universalism is value-centered. The Commission on Appraisal realizes this, but they seem uncomfortable about it. I believe our focus on values is one of the most important breakthroughs in the history of religion. Of course, no two people have exactly the same values. It's like an overlapping pattern that still has a kind of unity. [Showing a drawing of many colored overlapping circles:] Let's imagine that each of these circles represents one person's values. They aren't all the same, and that's OK because there are various ways that people can live well. But there's enough overlap here so they can live together in harmony.

The Commission found that our seven principles are strongly supported as an expression of our core values. The principles are not a creed, because individual UUs don't have to agree to them. And unlike most creeds, this statement is expected to change over time. Some object that the Principles are just common sense, like saying, "Let's all be nice." Ho-hum. But our core values should mostly be common sense ideals - easy to understand but hard to attain. Simple tools can build complex structures.

The simplicity of our UU principles reminds me of Robert Fulghum's book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Fulghum claimed that most of what we need to live a good life can be understood by the time we are six - lessons such as:

"Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people.... Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody... When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Be aware of wonder.... And ... remember the ... biggest word of all - LOOK." (pages 4-5)

Usually, following a positive spiritual pathway is not rocket science. It is kindergarten-simple. Diligently practicing the seven principles is more than enough to produce a profound spiritual awakening. This requires real commitment, not just a vague feeling that these are good ideas. In Biblical terms, Unitarian Universalism is based on covenants, commitments we make to ourselves and our world. As the Commission on Appraisal writes, "In a creedal faith, individuals are tied together by one set of beliefs; in a covenantal faith, they are bound by faithfulness to vows." (page 127)

These "Promises must be risked openly and publicly, unlike beliefs, which can be held in the privacy of one's own soul. Promises are fulfilled only in communal life. Promises require companions and signal institutional allegiance."

They then offer us this inspiring challenge: "Do more than simply keep the promises made in your vows.... As time passes, keep promising new things, deeper things, vaster things, yet unimagined things. Promises that will be needed to fill the expanses of time and of love ... keep promising." (page 128)

So what should we promise each other at Mission Peak today? Do we currently have any special opportunity to manifest our free faith in ways that are vaster and deeper than we have yet imagined? Well, there is the fact that our lease is not being renewed, and we have to find a new home by the end of June. I haven't time to consider this topic in detail, but it ties in with today's sermon in three important ways. First, if we truly understand that Unitarian Universalism has invented an entirely new way of being spiritual together, focused on values instead of dogmas, we will do whatever it takes to find a new home that is even better than Kidango. We are the custodians of something astonishingly precious. It's up to us to manifest this vision in the tri-cities area.

Second, in selecting a new location, we may sometimes sincerely disagree with each other. Let's use these disagreements to practice respect for each other's worth and dignity, to speak clearly and listen well, and to trust the collective wisdom of the whole congregation.

And third, the push to find new space might shake us up so as to accelerate our purchase of our own building. Being evicted reminds us that renting makes us vulnerable, and that owning would establish us as a visible and viable community center. I expect that we will need one more rental before we buy a facility. But we could still ask people how ready they are to stretch up to the level of commitment that makes buying a building possible. We have never asked people how much they would contribute for a home of our own, a legacy that would endure for generations. To do that now would require a special commitment by one or more "financial angels." But as one of our members told me, "There are angels in this world waiting for a chance to make a difference - let's give them the chance." To investigate people's readiness to buy a building now would give us useful information about how far we are from ownership. I would guess there is a 1 in 4 chance that we are financially ready today. I admit that I'm an optimist. Maybe the odds aren't that good. But we could find out.

What holds us together? Promises, covenants, commitments to principles of positive living, rather than belief in some theology that may or may not be true. But now, as I turn on my magical ministerial mind-reading mechanism, I think I'm picking up thoughts from some of you that sound like this: "OK, Chris, I agree that values are important. But doesn't a denomination need more than that to hold together and move ahead? Maybe people do need one prophet, one holy book, and one great mythic tradition."

I used to worry that we needed those things. I used to look at Christianity and experience "cohesiveness envy." Why can't we have the unity and solidarity of traditional Christian churches? Then suddenly it dawned on me that Christianity, despite its many virtues, is the most fractured and fragmented religion the world has ever known! Despite having one prophet, one book, and one central doctrine, Christendom has splintered into thousands of sects, many of whom think they're the only ones bound for heaven.

Religious communities hold together best if they start with shared values. Values are the most useful tools for building a strong and healthy denomination. Unitarian Universalism is still under construction, and it takes time to build it right. Sometimes we have to say, "Pardon our dust." But that's OK. Mission Peak is our spiritual workshop, our living laboratory of unity-in-diversity. What shall we build, working and playing and worshiping together?

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