© Rev. Barbara F. Meyers 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 24, 2005

The Unitarian Universalist faith encourages each person to conduct his or her own free and responsible search for truth and meaning. And, because of this there are many different expressions of that truth ranging from Christianity to Paganism, from Theism to Atheism, and many other personally constructed views of the Ultimate. Because of this, some people have made the observation that Unitarian Universalism has no theology.

I am here today to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Both Unitarianism and Universalism developed in reaction to the dominant Christian religions of the early 19th century, making different choices for many theological underpinnings of their faith. My aim this morning is to teach to you about some concepts from a discipline called 'systematic theology' and show how our faith fits into this structure, and how it developed that way historically. I want to preach to you of the importance and significance of this theology for our lives in today's world. I hope to leave you with a better understanding of the theology of our faith, and better able to conduct your own free and responsible search for truth and meaning within this theology.

I will do this by using a metaphor proposed by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, the president of Starr King School for the Ministry, the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, where I went to school. She uses the metaphor of a House to explain the elements of systematic theology, the discipline that is used by theologians of many religions to discuss components of a particular theology. There is a picture of a house with various components in the insert in your order of service. Each component is labeled with a "50 cent" word from systematic theology, and I'll be explaining what these words mean. I invite you to refer to this during my sermon, and take it home to use during your own theological explorations.

Before I start, I want to ask why this kind of study is important. Why do theologians make up these fancy words and classify different beliefs in accordance with them?

The discipline of Theology is concerned with religions answers to humanity's ultimate concerns. All humans have struggled with these issues since the beginning of time. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong believes that:

"Human beings are spiritual animals...Men and Women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably humans; they created religion at the same time as they created works of art. This was not simply because they wanted to propitiate power forces; these early faiths expressed wonder and mystery that seem always to have been an essential component of the human experience of this beautiful yet terrifying world. Like art, religion has been an attempt to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering that the flesh is heir to."

So, this kind of struggle to understand the divine and the relationship between humans and the divine is endemic among human beings, and it always has been.

Having established that all peoples have engaged in these theological activities, we'll now break down this study of life's ultimate concerns into parts, using our house metaphor.

I will begin with the word Pneumatology: This word comes from the Greek word Pneuma, which means "breath" or "soul" or "spirit." In our picture of the house, Pneumatology refers to the elements that surround the house, which are the wind, fire, water, and earth. This is a way of speaking of the elemental things that move through all life, sustain us, have tangible effects in how this power or spirit nourishes and transforms life. Theologically, it is the spirit of life; it animates all things, moves through all things.

In Trinitarian Christianity, Pneumatology is used by religious thinkers try to explain the component of the Trinity called the Holy Spirit. In the Unitarian Universalism theology, Rebecca Parker says we have a distinctive Pneumatology - our own particular perspective on spirit which is our emphasis on the immediate presence of the spirit-of-life in all of life. This spirit is not something outside that comes to us occasionally as part of a triune God. For us, it is something that exists in all things, moves all things, in us and others, weaves us all together, sustains and transforms us. This is our response to limited images of the Holy which are solely: male, white, and able-bodied.

19th century Unitarians spoke of God as ever-present, with-us. Emerson's "over-soul" was a force of soulfulness that breathes through us. A sense of God as all-permeating, we each manifest it, but it is greater than us. It is this that we take from our heritage beginning with Emerson and the Transcendentalists.

The next theological concept is called Ecclesiology, which represents the walls of our house. It is our understanding of what it means to be a church, who is "in" and who is "out." Our notion of church is that it is formed by free human beings joining together in covenant. We have what is called "congregational polity" which means that all important decisions about a church's life are made by the congregation itself and not some higher authority. This we get from our Puritan ancestors who populated New England starting in 1620. They were religious refugees fleeing from what they saw as a corrupt church, a church structure in which hierarchical power is in a few hands that make all important decisions. This structure existed in both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches that they were taking flight from. They wanted a structure where the congregants defined the church and had the ultimate authority. This covenantal model defined who were members, who the ministers were and how they were chosen, what they promised each other, and how they related to one another.

Moving on, the roof of our house saves us and protects us from danger: the theology of salvation. The theological word for this is Soteriology. This is where our Universalist heritage comes into play, with Rev. Hosea Ballou the most influential Universalist preacher of the 19th century. Ballou rejected the contemporary Christian notion that God killed his son Jesus, and that we are saved by believing in Jesus' death and resurrection. In his Treatise on Atonement he stated that we are all saved not by Jesus' death but rather by his example of how to live. Our salvation or Soteriology is not through violence or death, but rather by working together to create heaven on earth.

The Unitarians also weighed in against the Soteriology of contemporary Calvinist theology. Calvin believed that people were predestined to either Heaven or eternal damnation in Hell, and can't do anything to affect this. That is, he believed all people were sinners and that God does the choosing of the saved or the damned. The Unitarian position was that human nature was basically good, and that we save ourselves and others by the way we live our lives.

These theological beliefs from both of our heritages endure for us to this day. The door of our house represents where we are coming from and where we are going. The theological word for this is Eschatology. The Unitarians and Universalists both rejected the view expressed in the Biblical book of Revelation that the world ends in battle. Instead, they believed that Heaven can be here on Earth. We are the beloved community for each other. The father of American Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing said 173 years ago, "the great end [of religion] is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life."

The foundation of our house is Theology: that basic understanding of our human beingness and our relationship with the ultimate. In the early 19th century our forbearer William Ellery Channing rejected Calvin's theology that human beings were born depraved and that God predestined human life. In its place he helped forge a new understanding that human beings have a capacity to reason, to choose, to sense the presence of God and that we possess an innate sense of right and wrong.

The nature of Divinity is today the area of most diversity within Unitarian Universalism. Some find the expression of the ultimate in nature; some find it in human hearts, some in community, some in a supernatural presence, and some in multiple places. Some reject the idea that there is a being called God, and believe instead that it is up to humans alone to save our world and ourselves. Others believe that Jesus, while not divine, is the exemplar to follow, and consider themselves to be Christians. Others believe that Buddhism most closely represents the ideals and guidelines for their lives. Others construct their own set of beliefs through their own personal search for truth and meaning in their lives. And, these views change over time.

But all of them believe that this free and responsible search for truth and meaning is an individual responsibility, and they respect the choices of other people. It has been observed that this Unitarian Universalist view that we must respect all responsible paths to the Ultimate is quintessentially American. I've heard other say that there are a lot of people who are Unitarian Universalists without knowing it.

Missiology: our reaction to the diversity of religious expression in humans. Looking out the windows, we get to see what is happening in our neighborhood of religious homes. Missiology is about mission - our mission to and with our neighbors. And, we have many diverse neighbors in Fremont! We believe and respect the views of these other religions and seek to live together with them in peace. This is opposed to the Missiology of some other religions that theirs is the only true path and their responsibility is to convert everyone to it, believing that those who won't change are damned.

Far from being a religion without a theology, we have seen that Unitarian Universalism can be articulated using the framework of systematic theology. Further, we have seen that this theology first emerged at the time and place that American Unitarianism and American Universalism were born, as a reaction against the doctrines of the mainstream Christianity of the time. Those parts of our theology that are the most unique in comparison to other religions are:

Enlarging on this theme, Emerson in his essay Nature he writes,

"The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we through their eyes. Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not this history of theirs?"

Of Emerson's words, Unitarian Universalist Minister Christine Brownlie preaches that "This is not just wishful thinking or a sweet sentiment on Emerson's part. With these words he lays an obligation upon us that we may not be so eager to take up. If we are to enjoy an original relation to the universe, we will need to give time to that relationship, to cultivate it. If we want a poetry and philosophy of insight rather than tradition, we must set aside regular times of meditation, reflection, and prayer. We must listen to the voice of our own souls and deepen the questioning of our own minds. Unitarian Universalism is not for the spiritually passive."

What other religion would trust its people with this kind of freedom, and this kind of responsibility? And, it is an awesome responsibility, indeed. Instead of accepting pat answers to life's ultimate questions, we are given the freedom to use our reason and passion to responsibly make our path, thereby forming our own beliefs.

A resulting corollary to this theology is that we respect the outcomes of each others' searches for truth and meaning, knowing that no one has all the answers, that we each can see a part of the truth. This is again a freedom and a responsibility for each of us.

Rebecca Parker's house metaphor is not the only way that people have tried to articulate Unitarian Universalist theology. As another example, the Rev. Roy Phillips identified eight themes which characterize Unitarian Universalism. I'll briefly go through them so you can see the similarities with the ideas evoked by Parker's metaphor.

  1. Mystery - We acknowledge mystery when we say that no person, no disciple or method of knowing, and no one religion has all the truth.
  2. Revelation continues - the truth was not sealed up in one creed back in the fourth century CE.
  3. Variety - "God is unity, but always works in variety" We all have different paths and respect each other's views
  4. Divine seed in every person - The nature of humans is good
  5. Mutuality - A way of relating where each individual is able to share the thoughts and feeling of the other and to know that his or her feelings and thoughts are regarded and valued by others.
  6. Acknowledging the negative - standing against the evils and injustices we see in society
  7. Engagement - we are actively present and involved with one another, with our own personal development, and with the needs of the world.
  8. Sacred here and now - We value today and we believe that what we do each day matters

In yet another effort, just last month the UUA's Commission on Appraisal issued a document entitled "Engaging Our Theological Diversity," which was focused on studying various manifestations of UU theology. They identified many of the same themes I have just talked about, without the "Big Theological" terms. They used words like human, experiential, free, imaginative, relational, curious, reasonable, and hopeful to characterize UU theology as it now exists.

I know that all this talk of theology has given you a lot to think about, and hopefully not a headache! I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts in the days, months, and years that are ahead. I'll leave you with the hope that this exploration will deepen your understanding of our way of the spirit and expand your appreciation of the gift and responsibility that is ours through our heritage and this house, our beloved community.

So may it be. Amen.

Reflection and Prayer

Spirit of Life and of Love,
Allow us to feel the elemental presence of grace
That is at once immanent, transcendent, and between.

Let us give thanks for our abilities of passion and reason
to be able to freely form the foundation of our religious home.

Let us know that we are in the beloved community,
Creating and opening a door to heaven here on earth.

Let us not pray to be sheltered from dangers,
But rather to be healed by the power of creative love.

Let us live the covenant that we promise to each other
To support and care for our community within these walls.

Let us be good neighbors to those outside our windows,
Allowing ourselves to be moved and changed by them.

We pray that we make of our lives blessings worthy of our house.

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