© Dr. Chris Schriner 2007
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
October 14, 2007

"So - what do you Unitarian Universalists believe?"

Many of us dread being asked that question. We stammer and hesitate and wonder, "What exactly do we believe?" But some of us welcome this question as an opportunity to say why our spiritual path is unique: "Actually, Unitarian Universalism is one of the few spiritual communities where members are not told what to believe. We don't think anyone has a monopoly on truth. We don't expect to all agree on final answers to the big questions of life. Instead of basing our religion on some theory that everyone is supposed to accept, we focus on how to live a good life here on Earth. Instead of focusing on common beliefs, we draw our strength from common values."

We need to let people in on the secret that our denomination has moved from being belief-centered to being value-centered. Making values central is one of the most important breakthroughs in the history of spirituality. Some UUs actually want to go back to basing our faith on a creedal statement of theological beliefs, but I think the radical shift to value-centered religion is here to stay. Today more and more people are becoming open to non-dogmatic spirituality.

People are noticing that religions which think they have the whole truth often create division and conflict rather than unity and love. And isn't it ironic that the "final answers" offered by religions often seem very strange to outsiders. When you're inside of a religion, you get used to certain ideas and you don't look beyond them. For example, think about the belief that a loving God created humans, and then because the first two humans disobeyed God once, the billions of descendants of Adam and Eve are stained with original sin (which is a form of collective guilt). So no matter how good and loving a person may be, she or he "deserves" to be tortured horribly in Hell for all eternity.

The Nineteenth Century Universalist Hosea Ballou was good at helping people question this idea. According to David Reich, one day Ballou "stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. The farmer...confided to Ballou that his son was a terror who got drunk in the village every night and fooled around with women. The farmer was afraid the son would go to hell. 'All right,' said Ballou with a serious face. 'We'll find a place on the path where your son will be coming home drunk, and we'll build a big fire, and when he comes home, we'll grab him and throw him into it.' The farmer was shocked: 'That's my son, and I love him!' Ballou said, 'If you, a human and imperfect father, love your son so much that you wouldn't throw him in the fire, how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect father, would do so!'" (David Reich, "Of Sand Bars & Circuit Riders: Stories of Universalists," The World, July/August 1993, p. 19)

This farmer had accepted the notion that a compassionate God would torture millions of people forever and ever, but the idea of the farmer's own son suffering that same pain for just a few minutes until he died was totally repugnant. So Ballou made his point.

I should emphasize that many Christians today have gone beyond accepting everything in the Bible as the literal Word of God, and some Christian churches appreciate non-Christian religions. First United Methodist Church, for example, is now offering a class on Buddhism which several Mission Peakers are attending. I applaud that openness, and I am so happy that finding inspiration in all religions is never a problem for Unitarian Universalism.

Some people put down our denomination for letting people "believe anything they want." This flippant idea sounds like W. C. Fields' cynical comment: "Everyone needs to believe in something. I believe I'll have another beer."

One day four UU ministers were talking about our denomination in a taxi and the taxi driver asked them, "What's a Unitarian?" To avoid being distracted from their discussion one of the ministers replied, "Unitarians are just like vegetarians except that we eat meat." And the driver replied, "Oh!"

The minister's joking response sounds like, "anything goes." But in reality UUs don't believe anything they want, because people don't just pick out their core convictions about life, death, God, and the universe by whim. And in fact UUs tend to consider these subjects with unusual seriousness and sincerity. Furthermore, people often mix up beliefs about facts with beliefs about moral values. Those are two very different things. As a Unitarian Universalist I have the right to accept in any theory of reality that makes sense to me - theism, pantheism, polytheism, God as male, God as female, no God, or I'm not sure. But UUs are not free to believe anything at all about how we treat people. As the Rev. Tony Larsen puts it, we are intolerant of intolerance. "You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you support the Nazis or the KKK or any other group that believes in oppressing people. We may be open in this church - but...we are closed to movements or groups that close people off."

So how did we make this huge leap from being belief-centered to being value-centered? Unlike many other religions, Unitarian Universalism did not start with some great prophet. This is a grassroots religion that grew out of collective wisdom, through the work of thousands of ministers and ordinary church members, evolving in a way that could not have been predicted in advance. Like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism, Unitarian Universalism emerged out of another religion. Unitarians and Universalists were originally Christians, but both denominations emphasized freedom of thought. Eventually their freedom to explore led them to find insights in all religions, and then even in non-religious points of view. This happened in about 150 years.

It might have happened more dramatically. Some prophet might have stood up and proclaimed, "You have heard it said of old that you should bow down before some theology that explains all of life's deep mysteries. But today I say to you that theories of reality come and go. Basic moral values are more dependable and more enduring. Therefore found your faith upon the rock of sound ethical principles, and not the shifting sands of theological opinion."

But no one came down a sacred mountain bearing clay tablets proclaiming this gospel. The revolutionary evolution of Unitarian Universalism resembled the way plants in a garden grow toward the light, and we are still lifting our faces toward greater illumination. Individual UUs are still reshaping our movement with their good work. For example, the Rev. Barbara Meyers, a community minister endorsed by Mission Peak, is producing writings and television programs that illuminate the relationship between spiritual communities and people with mental illnesses. In fact, some of her TV programs will soon be available on the Internet.

Let's talk some more about our values, some of which are expressed in our Seven Principles, on the back cover of the Order of Service. Since these statements are human creations rather than revealed truth, we expect them to change over time. In fact, the UUA's Commission on Appraisal is now reviewing the Principles for possible amendment.

I greatly appreciate the Principles, but they do not cover every aspect of our free faith. They mostly address our duties as world citizens. It's great that UUs want to make a difference in society, and yet many of us came to this congregation with emotional and religious needs, dealing with difficult personal challenges, or sensing an emptiness in our own spiritual lives. We have a lot to offer spiritual seekers, and we should make that more clear. I have been a Unitarian Universalist for nearly 45 years, and I see quite a lot of consensus about meeting personal needs. I recently listed some of what I consider UU principles of personal healing and transformation in the newsletter, and this morning I'll give you version 2.0. First, we believe in:

  1. Mindfulness, experiencing ourselves and the world around us clearly and objectively. That's why many of us practice meditation.

  2. Lifelong learning. Socrates was right to say, "Know thyself," and many of us also love to learn about everything under the sun.

  3. Mental health. I mentioned Barbara's mental health ministry, and Mission Peak has frequently offered a Depression Support Group. Also, several of our members are involved in the Reaching Across organization, directed by Scotty Scott. I know Scotty would welcome involvement by additional members of MPUUC.

  4. Commitment to something bigger than ourselves. We seek to serve something larger and more lasting than what I call the small self (the tiny, transitory, ever-changing point of individual consciousness). For many of us that larger something is God, and of course God is defined among us in many ways. For others it is a higher power, an inner light, our own deepest values, or our sense of solidarity with human community.

  5. Creating value, looking for ways to add beauty and meaning to our lives and the lives of others.

  6. Gratitude, being open and receptive toward life's blessings.

  7. Confidence in our power to change. Many of us believe in the possibility of spiritual transformation, and we sense that wonderful sources of healing and renewal are abundantly available to all of us. And last but not least,

  8. Connectedness, feeling connected to other human beings, other living creatures, the universe, and the great Mystery behind it all. We certainly try to build connections in our local congregations, and we are increasingly able to share deeply with each other - partly thanks to the remarkable expansion of the UU Small Group Ministry movement.

So in addition to the familiar Seven Principles, I think we could also articulate shared principles of personal healing and transformation. We believe in mindfulness, lifelong learning, mental health, commitment to something bigger than ourselves, creating value, gratitude, confidence in our power to change, and connectedness.

If you want to experience healing and renewal, are you actively looking for ways that this congregation can help? Perhaps you feel stuck in a rut. Look for ways that Mission Peak can challenge you. Perhaps you feel weary and want rest. Look for ways that Mission Peak can ease your emotional burdens.

I won't give you a laundry list of all the opportunities at Mission Peak but I'll emphasize again the value to our Small Group Ministry program. We've got five different groups including one that meets in the daytime, discussing topics such as discipline, taking a stand, our gifts, sacred moments and sacred places. Last week, the Small Group Ministry Leaders Group had a wonderful conversation about prayer, despite the fact that many of us approach prayer in ways that are quite unorthodox.

A follower of Jesus known as Paul spoke of the Christian gospel as a treasure contained "in earthen vessels." (II Corinthians 4:7) We could say that Unitarian Universalism is such a treasure, but the real treasure is actually this new approach to spirituality, focusing our faith on values rather than on some theology. Unitarian Universalism is an earthen vessel containing this treasure. Our denomination is a good vessel for our vision and our values, not perfect, but good. You and I are also imperfect containers for this great gift, and I hope we know how precious it is for us and for the future of humankind.

How wonderful that at Mission Peak we can focus on what life is all about, gaining perspective, clarifying our purpose, and intensifying our passion - in an open-minded community, gaining perspectives from other people that are both stimulating and corrective. As one of our advertisements says, "Find us and you shall seek."

And Unitarian Universalism is not just an intellectual discussion group. It's a place where we put our principles into practice by working together, dealing with all aspects of life - relationships, conflicts, illness, death, money, and politics. And we approach each of these challenges not merely with the logical part of the mind or the emotional part, but with our whole being. I am convinced that we thrive most fully when we are embedded in a community that stimulates us, supports us, challenges us, and loves us. This is good news that we should share with the world.

I aspire to become truly worthy of this great treasure. People are tired of religions preaching judgment and condemnation, teaching their followers that people are either righteous saints or evil sinners, creating conflict rather than building unity. I am so glad to be part of Unitarian Universalism, a both/and religion in an either/or world.

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