© Doug Rodgers 2005. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 17, 2005

When I was a kid, everybody had a culture but me. Italians had a "culture", they had a language that wasn't English, they had spaghetti and pizza (which weren't so mainstream in those days), they had big families and they yelled at each other. Jews had a "culture", too; they wore funny hats, they ate bagels and lox, and they went to church on Saturday.

But I saw myself as cultureless - just regular, no special holidays or customs, no exotic language, nothing special. It took me a long time to figure out that I do have a culture. It is the culture of my ancestors who were from England and Germany. Their culture persists in me, even though they were all in the U.S. long before I was born.

So culture persists to some degree in the food we eat and how we celebrate holidays. But also, more subtly, in our attitudes, our outlook on life, and our expectations. These aspects of culture are not so easily examined, they are things that can go unnoticed.

Organizations have cultures, too. They have attitudes and practices that outlive the individual members, and often the larger culture as well. Our Unitarian Universalist Association has a Protestant culture, linked back to Martin Luther (whose hymn "A Mighty Fortress" we sang) and the Protestant Reformation, linked further back to the Unitarian heresy - our religious ancestors' rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity - and the doctrine of universal salvation, from our Universalist roots.

The Unitarian heresy has arisen several times, independently for the most part, and we have inherited the American branch. Other branches exist today in Canada, Britain, and in Transylvania, the Hungarian-speaking province of Romania. On our recent trip to central Europe, we learned that there was also a branch in Poland which was suppressed in the 19th century and died out but is now struggling to be reborn. Others in the Czech republic also wish to re-establish a Unitarian church.

The popular culture changes and religious cultures change, too, although more slowly. Our UU culture has moved far beyond the theology and practices of the early Unitarians and Universalists with their strong Bible basis.

No longer do we confess our belief in Jesus Christ as a condition of membership, as did the early members of the Unitarian Church in San Jose when they joined the church and signed the bylaws. Our modern faith includes anything and anyone we think can contribute to us as a society or to us as individuals. By abandoning the Bible as our sole authority, and by allowing free choice in our beliefs, we can continue to move our UU understanding as people in the secular world learn more about our universe and about us as human beings.

Christians have stuck to the Bible for a long time and are also stuck with its now woefully obsolete world view. In his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong lays out in great detail how much our world view has changed from when the Bible was written. We see a world full of impersonal causes and effects, many of which we now understand and some of which we can control. We no longer live on a flat earth with heaven above and Hell below, an earth where our omnipotent, omniscient God controls each and every event. We no longer see physical illness as punishment for sin and we no longer drive out demons to cure mental illness.

There are those who still live on a flat earth, driving out demons and repenting of sin rather than seeking medical attention. They are stuck with the limitations of an obsolete world view, of pain and suffering being caused by sin. They are stuck with a contradictory view of God, the problem of a Good God who does bad things to good people.

As playwright Archibald MacLeish said, "If God is God, he is not Good. If God is Good, he is not God." Although it's easy enough to trash the ancient texts and beliefs, lots of people - perhaps a growing number - still believe them. Since 1998 when Bishop Spong wrote his book, Christian (and Muslim and Jewish) fundamentalists have grown in power.

Fundamentalists are willing to ignore evidence in front of their noses in favor of the ancient texts, and more importantly, are willing to accept the interpretation of those texts made by their leaders. For the most extreme Christians, the imminent coming of the Rapture means that it is foolish to invest in solving our worldly problems (like global warming) since the faithful will be going to heaven before those solutions are needed.

Never underestimate the ability of people to believe what they want to, regardless of the evidence. Still, fundamentalism is a brittle structure, subject to collapse under the weight of facts. It tends to arise during times of greatest social change, and then decline during periods of greater stability. We can only hope for more stability, although it doesn't seem to be on the horizon.

While fundamentalists rail against the modern world and its science, thinking people seem to be abandoning traditional religious organizations which have tried to reinterpret their ancient texts in light of modern knowledge. The mainline protestant churches - Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans - are growing older and are literally dying out. In the traditional European strongholds of Roman Catholicism, people still love their old cathedrals, but don't attend Sunday services, neither do they practice Catholic teachings. Italy and Spain have the lowest birth rates in the world and in Spain gay marriages are now legal. U.S. Catholics also practice birth control are still trying to sort out the recent series of priest sex scandals and the subsequent cover-ups and lawsuits.

Somehow the traditional religions have not maintained their relevance to today's world. They seem to be stuck somewhere between the Bible and the organ music, the stained glass and the ordination of women. Whatever it is that they are doing, it isn't working all that well.

So where does that leave us? We have moved beyond the Bible and the organ, although we still have Luther's hymn (and some of the other Reformation tunes as well). We also have a great many new songs. And we have a new supplemental hymnal just released this year at GA that has even more contemporary and upbeat music. We don't use the Bible much, but we still have it and we still draw from its stories. But we also have Rumi and Annie Dillard. In fact, particularly now, we have all of the world's literary resources at our fingertips.

And, perhaps most importantly, religion can still be relevant to today's world, but it must be today's religion. It seems to me that religion has three major roles to play in any world, and that the religion which can successfully play these roles in the context of our modern understanding will enjoy acceptance across the developed world.

  1. We humans are tribal animals, after all, and we need a face-to-face community of other humans. Our modern world's interactions are increasingly with voices on a telephone and words in emails, with text messages, automated phone menus and chat rooms. We need people who will be there when we have tragedies to endure and when we have joys to celebrate. We need to know people through our lives and their lives, how they grow up, who they marry and how they raise their children. Where they work; what they do in retirement and how they cope with aging and death.

    Work fills some of this need, It has to, since so many of us spend so much of our time there. But work communities are not stable, there is much coming and going, and little continuity. Less stability today and tomorrow than there was yesterday.

  2. We need moral teachings. We need rules to live our lives and rules to teach our children. Our civil society provides basic laws that define criminal behavior, but there is a big gap between not being a criminal and being a moral person. We need to treat each other well, at least well enough to keep from killing each other, and hopefully, well enough to get to know and appreciate each other. At the very least, we need to get along well enough to hold our complex society together.
  3. We need a context for our religious experiences. It seems to be a characteristic of human beings, that occasionally someone will have an overwhelming experience that we can only describe as religious. Although these experiences are all different, individuals typically report an sense of belonging, of one-ness with everything and every one, a deep sense of peace. These experiences are mystical, powerful and life changing for those who have them.

    Many of the rest of us get bits of that experience. We want the peaceful feeling that we hear about, we want the happiness that comes from not worrying about who we are, what we are doing or what is going to happen to us. We struggle to define, explain, and communicate our bits to others. We try to put ourselves into a place where the experience will come to us. We hire leaders who can better lead us there, we read difficult books and try strange practices to help us. Some of them work.

    In this category of religious experience I would put the other great questions, like "what is the purpose of my life," "why am I here," "what should I do." The answers to these questions provide the direction for individuals and societies.

In our increasingly secular world, the old words don't work anymore and we have great difficulty finding new ways of talking about these ultimate life questions. The answers are missing. We have replaced our spiritual compass and religious goals with the ultimately unsatisfying tasks of making more money, having more stuff, seeking our own pleasure. The world really does need people who can stand up and point to deeper goals, including true personal happiness, real social justice and a world where everyone gets to live their lives free from fear and hunger. The world needs a story that weaves together our objective knowledge with the subjective experience we have living inside our heads.

Organizations can and do address individual aspects of these needs, but only a great religion with a comprehensive vision of human life and potential can put the pieces together. We could be that religion, we could weave that story.

At the same time that most of our world is becoming more secular, other parts of it are becoming religious, clinging tightly to old texts and ideas. These religious forces are not reformulating their revelations into the language of today's culture, but instead are trying to bring back the old culture and what they see as the pure word of God as revealed in scripture. These fundamentalists, whether they are Jews who claim that God gave them what we call Palestine, just like it says in the Bible; or Muslims who are driving infidels out of their holy lands, just like it says in the Koran; or Christians, who are happy to invade Iraq because it is a part of the "end of days," just like it says in Revelations. These are dangerous people doing violent and destructive things, all in the name of their God.

But the most dangerous part of fundamentalism isn't the individual people looking to ancient texts to make present day decisions, problematic as that is. No, the dangerous part is that members of fundamentalist groups look to their leaders to tell them what the ancient texts mean and what they should do about it. As these leaders gain influence, they begin to seek political power. As always, it is the political power of church leaders that causes the real trouble.

Fundamentalist leaders have decided that they know how their followers need to live, which isn't so bad - that part is their job, after all. But what causes me to occasionally lose my state of calm detachment is when they try to make laws to make the rest of us live that way too.

And let me be quick to point out that the plain old power-hungry sorts of leaders with a world view that keeps them in power and allows them to bring their vision into reality are still among us and just as dangerous as they ever were.

One of the least fun, but perhaps the most important part of our trip this summer was to visit Auschwitz. Not that there is a lot to see. The buildings and the area are quite ordinary looking. In fact I had a difficult time taking picture. None of the things we saw made much of a visual image, except perhaps the pile of shoes. It was the story of what had happened that has the impact. I found myself taking pictures of the faces of the people in our group as we listened to the guide tell the story. It is a sobering reminder that political power must always be checked by the democratic process.

You don't have to be a political scientist or much of a student of current affairs to realize that we really do need people to stand up for what is right in our larger society. And we need enough of them to make a difference. Only a world class religion can do that effectively.

We UUs have everything we need to formulate such a world class religion - a religion that meets all of the needs and yet is free from the rigidity that leads to violence. We have the community, we have the teachings, we have access to the those writings that communicate true religious experience. We have enough history to be seen as legitimate, we have an educated clergy, we have an energetic and articulate membership and a dedicated national leadership. But we seem to be stuck on the idea that not everyone is cut out to be a UU. We somehow make it too hard, too esoteric, too undefined. And so we remain small.

The "not for everyone" idea is a very important issue for us. I believe that it is a flaw that we must address and fix. We are needed in the world. We do have a mission, a reason to get out of our chairs and do the work that needs to be done. To do our work, we must grow.

It's important to remember that although they had a better product, Apple Computers nearly went out of business because they didn't have enough users. They would most likely have gone under, except that they came up with the iPod, which is for everyone (or at least a lot of people). The niche market is a tough one to survive in because the niches keep changing and people don't hear about you.

A message that is aimed at one person out of a thousand (our current fraction of the U.S. population) is a weak message and is quite likely to be ignored and die out completely as the culture changes.

An institution that is unable to re-formulate itself to become more attractive to potential members is not likely to endure. Religions tend to fade slowly, but they do disappear. Quakers were once a powerful part of our culture, now they are nearly gone. Methodists and Presbyterians are dying out as well. In the late 1800's Unitarians and Universalists were nearly 10% of the US population, now we are 0.1% although we are holding steady.

We claim that we want to influence the larger culture, to promote justice, etc. Currently we are unable to do that. We have just the smallest bit of influence around the gay rights issues, and that's about it. Some people join us with the idea that they are going to be able to influence political issues, but they are unable to do so because we do not have the numbers. We also don't have the focus or the discipline. But we could have these things.

Saying that we are an elite group, as some UUs do, is a reflection of present reality, but it is not an honest position to take forward. Do we really think that we are the only people who deserve or are capable of happiness, spiritual growth, ethical behavior? Do we really think that we can exert a positive influence on our society at our present strength? Do we really believe that fundamentalists succeed just by preaching hellfire and damnation?

One of our big conceptual problems is that we are hung up on theology and our lack of it. Barbara is going to talk about our theology next week, and here I am telling you that we don't have one. So let me be clear that I am speaking of theology in the narrow and traditional Christian sense - the nature of God, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, is Jesus God or man, is the Bible literally true, original sin, and what the heck is the Holy Spirit, anyhow. Theology gets distilled into a creed and then becomes a test for membership. We don't have that kind of theology, and we don't want it. But others do.

Since theology matters to our fundamentalist brothers and sisters, we allow our lack of it to define us. That takes us right into "build your own theology" and elitism. Elitism, because not many people are truly concerned with theology (although most ministers are). It's a bad focus, particularly since we don't have one. We start our self-definition with a negative, that is, we don't have a creed. That's not good framing. We do have a lot to say and we have a lot of agreement among ourselves when it comes to behavior. That's where our message should be. Our UUA president, Bill Sinkford, recognizes this to be a problem for us and has challenged us to come up with language we can use to talk about who we are and what we are about. Not an easy task, but an essential one.

Look at how the Buddhists deal with that issue, for example. They have a path that is extremely difficult to actually follow - you need to be a monk to really do it. Although some branches have a complex pantheon of gods, goddess, saints and myths, theology is never the central focus for them as it is for Christians. Instead of preaching theology, they are focused on the experience of here and now. Yet, they have a powerful worldwide presence. The reason is that they have a powerful message. Their message can be grasped at many levels, and is accessible to everyone. It is a message based in behavior, not theology.

Look what the Dalai Lama has done. During the last 35 years or so, he has, nearly single-handedly, brought his ancient, extremely complex, and largely unknown religious culture onto the world stage. People world-wide know him and his message. They have read his books and have the greatest respect for him and what he represents. How does he do this? I think we can learn at least two things:

  1. He is focused outward, to people all over the world. He truly wishes them well, even his enemies. Particularly his enemies. Can we say with a straight face that we wish the best for those we disagree with? We have trouble even talking to those who have different political opinions, let alone a significantly different religious outlook from ours. We need to get past our own self-centered view of the world. The truth is that nobody cares what we think, except us. And why should they? Unless, of course, we have something to offer.
  2. He is always on message. His message is consistent and easy to understand. He doesn't parade his deep knowledge of the complexities of the Tibetan version of Buddhism. (If you've read some of his popular books, try one of his more theoretical books. I couldn't get through any of them.) We are much too quick to use special terms, "code", to separate ourselves. To be fair, we have tried to push past that tendency, and to the extent that we have been successful, we have grown. We need to simplify our message and stick to it. Try reading our 7 Principles and Purposes. They are convoluted and unclear; they were written by committee and they sound like it. We don't even know what our message is; we are told to invent our own version. Not a strong position.

We have all the elements of a great religion, one that could bridge the gap between modern science and ancient wisdom. One that really could bring peace to the nations and peace in our hearts. We have both a clergy and a membership who, together, comprise an expertise in both science and religion that is unmatched. We have a culture of open discussion, and we also are willing to change and have changed our service format, music and words. We could be the force that reinterprets spirituality in our time.

We lack organization. We are stuck in the worst possible model - every church for itself, but with a centrally educated clergy and a weak national association dominated by a professional staff (although that part is changing). We don't know what our message is, we are unable to separate important issues from distractions, and we have the foolish idea that every individual has the right to pull the organization in his or her particular direction. Sometimes I wonder that we exist at all.

It's ironic that we are quite clear on advising individuals on how to organize their individual lives, how deal with grief or loss, how to prioritize and move forward, but we have not yet figured out that the same issues and problems exist at an institutional level. As an institution, we need to do the work that a weakly functional individual does when he or she sees a professional; that is to review, refocus and move forward with purpose.

I recommend The Almost Church by Michael Durall. We can confront and solve our problems. We can do a better job of framing in our everyday communications. We can learn to look for the universal appeal in our message. And we can reach out to our local communities.

There are many paths up the mountain, my friends, but all of them are uphill.

As we do these things we become stronger, and as we continue we will become stronger still. Building a great church is still done one member at a time.

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