© Doug Rodgers 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 8, 2006

Listen to Audio Version of Sermon (mp3)

We have three powerful parts to our religion. First, we believe that reason and experience are our authority. We exercise our right to use philosophies and practices from wherever they come. We seek wisdom from all of human tradition, and in today's world we have access to much of it.

Next, we have religious practice and mystical experience. Although these may sound antithical to reason, they really aren't. Mysticism is based on experience, not on scripture or church dogma. Prayer and meditation are base practices in every religious tradition. Our tradition also recognizes prayer, and doesn't require magical thinking or even belief in God. Meditation is recognized by modern science as something that conveys real physical benefits on the practitioner. Mental, emotional, spiritual benefits are not so easily measured (yet), but they are experienced by those who practice.

Finally we have our religious community, a group of people who help each other practice their religion. Including, of course, our clergy. Our people include an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience. We read, we take courses, we write books and we look in every corner for religious inspiration.

It seems to me that we have everything positive that a religion has ever offered anyone, the wisdom of the ages, religious practices that work, and a community of loving people to help. And we have it without the superstition, intolerance and downright violent hatred that others are stuck with.

We often have trouble talking about what we believe, but I don't really see a big mystery. Here are some beliefs that we agree on.

So what's the problem? How come we keep talking about what we believe? Aren't these things pretty self evident, the sort of things that everyone believes? Why is it so hard to explain our selves? Why do we struggle with "elevator speeches", why are we so little understood, why do people say we're not a "real" religion?


One reason, is, well, REASON. Our principles and purposes don't say much about the, the transcendent, about things unseen, about life after death. We do have the part about encouraging spiritual growth, but most of our words are a kind of "what you see is what you get" universe. Most people think of religion as dealing, not with the things of this world, but of the next. Most of our words talk about what we might call "civic duty" or good human relations, not real religion in many people's view.

ANOTHER problem we have in explaining ourselves is that it isn't so much what we believe, most Christians and non religious people too, believe these same things. Most of our beliefs are derived from the Golden Rule, and all religions believe in some version of that. So where is the disconnect?

It is easier to define ourselves by we don't believe. We don't believe that the Bible is the Holy Word of God, perfect and unchanging. We don't believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection of the body. We don't believe that revelation is sealed. We don't believe in eternal damnation. We don't believe in doing things that seem wrong because scripture tells us to.

We do believe that dumping the trash of the past - trash like treating women and girls as slaves, like killing those who practice a different form of your religion, or like teaching religion as if it were science - dumping that kind of trash would make the world a much better place to live in, make at least some wars obsolete and generally improve everyone's outlook on life.

Our beliefs don't fit neatly into the categories set up by the ancient religions and for that reason, it is difficult to explain who we are in just a few words.

Let me talk more about what drives our beliefs, I am calling it REASON, but it really includes the entire process of reading and study, critical evaluation, personal experience and talking with others. It also includes change, willingness to move in a direction that works better, leaving behind ideas that no longer apply.

We believe in the supremacy of REASON. We believe that it isn't necessary to sit around trying to believe things that just don't make sense. As a Methodist boy, I spent a lot of time and mental effort trying to convince myself that I really believed a lot of stuff that just never made any sense to me. I finally gave up trying. Since then, I have a better understanding of many of those beliefs and can accept them on my own terms, but some continue to elude me.

One Bible story sticks in my mind, the story of the loaves and fishes. You remember, how when Jesus spoke to the crowd his disciples were worried that that there wouldn't be enough to eat, but Jesus told them to pass out what food they had and that it would be enough. And how they ended up with more food than they started with.

I learned that story as one of magic, that somehow Jesus turned a small amount of food into enough to feed a large crowd. Now I understand that story differently, as one of human understanding and cooperation. Just as wonderful, but not violating any of the physical laws that we have come to count on.

I have a personal version of that story starring a former San Jose minister, Gretchen Thomas. Gretchen is a special person, she appears totally disorganized, she never seems to actually do much, but somehow good things happen where she has been. Her loaves and fishes story takes place on a train in Romania, soon after the fall of Communism, during a holiday when people could visit family for the first time in many years without extensive government permits. The train was packed with people and their things. Gretchen took out a tray that had been given to her and put some food on it that she had been given by her Romanian hosts. (She had more food than she needed or could carry and was hoping that some of it would disappear). She passed the tray around, saying, without words, since she didn't speak the local language, to take some and pass it around. The tray made its way all around the train, disappeared, and finally returned, still full, but with entirely different things. And this in a country where everyone spied on everyone else, where about 1/3 of the population worked at least part time for the government spy organization and where trust was all but forgotten. This is how I see the stories of religion, stories of how we overcome our distrust, our inherent tribal nature, and cooperate with each other. And how great that feels.

So I'm not so much concerned about God. If you find God to be something you believe in, fine, believe. If you don't, that's fine also. I have been on both sides of that coin and have recently come to the position that I believe in God, but have very little idea what God is. Since God is, by definition, beyond our understanding, the question of belief in God is at least problematic. How can you believe, or not believe, in something that neither you nor anybody else understands? Why waste time debating the finer points of God's nature, the one God, the trinity, the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit - I never did figure out the Holy Spirit.

Forget about it! Of course there are those who will tell you that they do understand God, or at least they talk like they do, I'm thinking of Pat Robertson, for example. Those people really are dangerous, particularly when they start telling you how to behave. Particularly when they interpret scripture for you. Particularly when they use your belief in scripture to justify their authority.

We need to go deeper into our belief of tolerance. There are plenty of beliefs that we really do not tolerate, or at least we don't tolerate the actions that those beliefs encourage. Here is an example that strikes close to home. Christian views of child rearing - from Lakoff's book, Moral Politics.

Points on which Christian child rearing agree:

  1. Children are inherently sinful and defiant. "
  2. Only punishment and reward will train children away from defiance and pursuing their sinful desires.
  3. The only way a child can be raised properly is for a father to demand absolute obedience to his authority. Any questioning of authority requires swift and painful punishment.
  4. Obedience can be taught only through painful corporal punishment - by whipping with belts or beating with switches or paddles.
  5. Continued disobedience requires greater beating.
  6. Punishment for disobedience is a form of love.
  7. Parental authority is a proper model for all authority, and children must learn to obey authority so that they can wield it properly in later life."

From Dr. Jack Hyles, a popular Christian writer. Dr. Hyles was Pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana since August, 1959. This church has a membership of over 100,000:

"The spanking should be administered firmly. It should be painful and it should last until the child's will is broken. It should last until the child is crying, not tears of anger, but tears of a broken will. As long as he is stiff, grits his teeth, holds on to his own will, the spanking should continue."

I don't accept that view of child rearing. It doesn't agree with modern studies of children and child rearing practices and it doesn't agree with my understanding of Jesus' teachings, although it is a view held by a lot of people in our country. In fact, what I quoted is the moderate version, there are extremists who I don't even want to thing about.

So what do we do? A few decades ago this kind of belief was thought to be isolated in a few backward places and dying out. We passed laws against child cruelty and we created social services organizations which take children from parents who abuse them. But times have changed, a significant number of people are opposed to government social services which enforce laws that do not agree with their religious beliefs.

But we don't like to be confrontational, we would rather just get along with everyone. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that there are those who just don't want to get along with us, who think we are the crazy ones.

It seems to me that we are stuck with some version of "love the sinner but hate the sin." Not something we talk about it much, but maybe we could better define ourselves if we explored this further. How can we deal respectfully with people and viewpoints that we find not only wrong but hurtful? But I digress...

Everyone may understand the Golden Rule, but following it isn't so easy. Never underestimate the ability of people to twist meanings around to suit their own purposes. And how do we treat with respect people who hold beliefs with which we not only disagree, but find abhorrent? I haven't even talked about terrorists. I suppose that's one reason why we come here.

Back to Reason. Reason takes us into the study of everything in the world, and we UUs are readers if we are anything. What we humans have uncovered about our own inner workings is quite amazing. And just as amazing is that our new knowledge confirms a lot of what we already have come to believe about how to live our lives, how to raise our children and how to relate to each other.

Reason also has a curious relationship to mysticism. You might think they have nothing in common, but they do. The mystic may read ancient and obscure texts, but he reads them as a guide, not as the source of truth the way Christians, Jews or Muslims read the their Bible. The mystic is looking for his own direct experience and is looking for a way to get to that experience. Those of you who are no nonsense, scientific, realists might think about this part. The words of the mystic that describe some world that isn't visible to the rest of us may make no sense and may not describe reality. But the experience is something else again. The experience itself is real. The mystic who believes in God does so from experience, not from church authority.

The mystical, directly religious experience is something that pops up in all human cultures through all times, wherever we have information. You may say that it's a chemical imbalance, and it may have no meaning, except...

Well, except that you could say that life has no meaning either, it just is. Happiness is what we experience, it doesn't have meaning except to us as we experience it. Everything we value is based on what we experience, what we feel, just chemicals. So the mystical experience is no less important or worthy of our reasoned exploration than any other area of life. Reason by itself may be cold and unfeeling, but following it into mysticism can bring us to some surprising places.

Only once in my life did I meet someone whose life had been changed; turned upside down is more like it, by his religious experience. He was so changed that he was a little nuts, only partly functional. I met him at the San Jose church. He was an intern minister, a man in his late 30's who had been in a technical career in Hawaii and living a normal American style life. After his religious experience he gave up all that and went looking for some way to make sense of what had happened to him. He ended up at Starr King, studying for the ministry.

He was living in the back of his truck, having spent all his money getting into school. He was what I call institutionally dysfunctional, he just couldn't seem to get it together enough to do the basic things like remember dates, or return phone calls. Registering for courses was barely within his capability.

But this would-be minister was really amazing to talk to, since he spoke as someone who had experienced the ultimate mystery, not just talked about it or read about it, but had really been there. Needless to say he did not receive his fellowship and flunked out of Starr King. I'm afraid we have no place for such as he, and I'm sorry for that. Of course he would never have been able to be a minister in the usual sense, but still, we should have a place for him, for the unexpected.

Life is uncertain. Individual lives are subject to abrupt and sometimes unpleasant changes. The simple progressive philosophy of humanism with its emphasis on science as the answer is, I believe, more closely modeled on the 19th century science where everything had its place. Matter and energy were separate, plants and animals were placed neatly into categories based on their physical appearance and the new science of psychology was going to solve any remaining issues for us humans. But 21st century science looks different.

The basic particles we learned about in school, the protons, neutrons and electrons aren't the basic particles after all. The basic particle is a string, something not even describable in any normal sense, no fixed position, no fixed mass, just a one dimensional vibrating piece of something. Time isn't universal and gravity is just a warping of space due to the presence of matter. Psychology is a lot more complex than we hoped and now that we know a lot about the basic functioning of our own brains, what we see doesn't look much like what we expected.

In fact, today's science looks a lot more like yesterday's mysticism than it looks like the humanism of the 50s. That's why I like to extend the idea of reason to include unreasonable looking things like meditation and prayer, maybe even drumming.

I think that reason should point us to being happy and doing what makes us feel good. Unlike the hippies of the 60's, however, I would add that if whatever you do to feel good leaves you with a hangover, be it the classic alcoholic sort, the overspent credit card, or even the overhang around your middle, then it probably wasn't happiness you felt, just momentary pleasure. For happiness you have to look a little further.

Reason may be the largest part of our faith, perhaps it's too large, but there are two others I would like to at least mention.


While reason is a mental activity of thinking and talking, religious practice means getting out there and doing something. That always seems to be more difficult that just thinking and talking. The old UU joke is that given a choice between going to heaven and going to a discussion group about heaven, UUs would choose the discussion group every time.

Religious practice for UUs was always more like political action than meditation and prayer. Our purposes and principles have a lot more words about democracy and justice than they do about spiritual practices. Our critics say that we are more like a political action group than a religion. I see that changing, however. I believe that many people need and want a spiritual life and that we can help them find one.

Many religious practices seem strange, illogical, based on primitive beliefs no longer valid in the modern world. Some of them, no doubt, are obsolete. But religious practices can, and I would argue, should, be judged on the same standards as beliefs, that is: do they work, are they effective.

What we used to think of as Eastern practices, like meditation and yoga, are now nearly mainstream and they do work. At least they convey measurable physical benefits on the practitioner. Do they also lead to a mystical enlightenment? Maybe only if you believe that they do. Does homeopathy cure physical ills? Perhaps only for the believers, but then so do placebos.

I have recently started meditating and I'm so no expert; in fact many of you are a lot more expert than I am. But after an entire life of reading about it, I'm finally doing some. So naturally I recommend it to everyone. It's the latest chapter in my own religious journey.


Let me wrap up my assessment of our UU faith with one final leg, one that we talk about all the time: community.

Because we use this word so much, I have come to dislike it, but I haven't got a substitute to offer, so, community it is. Without the regular support of our fellow UUs, it would be difficult indeed to follow our own religious path. And in our increasingly separate life styles, we do need face time. How odd that we should have to seek something that everyone used to have, even if that was all that they had.

I'm not going to say a lot about community, but I would like to point out our concept of it drives our model of the church organization. Size, that is. We think of our community as "close knit" and therefore small. And it is.

But I do believe that we can have closeness as well as size, if we plan for it. I have come to believe that we need size, growth, simply because small doesn't make it in our world today. The first step is too high, whether it be a building or publicity or making a difference in the community where we live. We don't live in a small town, so a small-town-size church is not easy to keep going, and doesn't have much influence outside its own walls. I like the small group, but I have to believe that it isn't where we should be. I believe that more people need us and that we can figure out a way to reach them.

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