Why I Am (Still) a Unitarian Universalist
Rev. Dan Schatz
Unitarian Congregation of West Chester
June 3, 2018
To all who seek comfort:
Let the warmth of this community feed your soul.
To all who seek knowledge:
Come in.Let the gathered wisdom of humanity feed your minds.
To all who seek justice:
Let the liberation of freedom feed your work.
To all who seek renewal:
Let the transforming power of religion feed your life.
Whoever you are,
whatever you may seek,
come into this house of the divine.
“No,” said my friend, “It’s Yanni.”
“I kind of hear both.”
“What kind of monster hears Laurel?”
At issue was a recording that hit the internet about three weeks ago, and then got forgotten almost as quickly. It was a voice from an online dictionary, pronouncing, and it was intended to be, the word “laurel.” But through a quirk of the way it was recorded and the differences in each of our ears, half the world heard “yanni.” Some people listened to the same recording on the same speakers on two different days, and heard two different words.
The phenomenon made national news. Celebrities weighed in. People joked about going to see old “Yanny and Hardy” movies. Recording engineers advertised their services saying, “See? See? This is why eq is important.”
Half the world heard Laurel. Half heard Yanny.
Some people thought this was creepy. Some people thought it was fascinating. Some thought it was annoying and irrelevant. Some of you, no doubt, are annoyed right now. I thought – this is theological. This is why we need Unitarian Universalism. Some people hear Yanny. Some people hear Laurel. Some people hear something different each time they listen.
But we’re listening to the exact same thing.
Two people can encounter the same objective reality and come away with completely different understandings. But the reality is still the same. We’re all listening to the same thing, and for all that the word really was intended to be “Laurel,” the fact is that it is just as much “Yanny.”
Different people can have the same experience and come away with different meanings. I can walk through the woods on a late Spring afternoon and feel a deep sense of rootedness and the interconnection of all of life. You might walk through the woods on a Spring afternoon and feel the love of God for all of creation. Someone else might walk through the woods and see a collection of plants. All these experiences are equally valid. The core reality of the world is objective and unchanging, but the meaning that we make will always depend on each of us, our personalities, our experiences, our ways of looking at the world, our ways of thinking and feeling, and being. We are different.
So it makes sense that we come to this religious home where we embrace Humanism and Theism and Christianity and Buddhism and Paganism and Judaism and Hinduism and Zoroastrianism and Islam and half a dozen other ways of seeing the world. It makes sense that we come together in one community to honor the path of truth seeking each of us follows and the one that all of us follow together.
I think part of what was so funny and a little sad about the whole “Laurel and Yanny” episode is that so many people were convinced that they were right and other people were wrong. It took some shaking out to realize that both could be true at once.
Sometimes, I’ll admit, this religion of ours frustrates me that way. Sometimes we forget that two things can be equally true to different people. Sometimes we get caught up in literalism and we miss wisdom, story, and depth. Sometimes we allow ourselves to be caged by the limitations of what we have left behind. Sometimes we care too much about the dictionary definitions of words. Sometimes we fail to see our own biases, whether they’re about theology, race, gender expression, or something else. Sometimes we jump on bandwagons. Sometimes we’re just silly, and not in a good way.
In other words, we are human, just like everyone else.
The reason I am still a Unitarian Universalist is that my religion holds before me the ideals of respect, freedom, spiritual growth, inquiry, integrity, community, and diversity. My religion teaches me not only that all of us interpret the world around us in our own ways, but that when we listen to each other, we learn from each other and we grow together. My religion teaches me that science is real, and that the wisdom found in ancient stories is also real. My religion teaches me not to confuse the two, or dismiss either. My religion teaches me respect for difference.
I think that kind of respect is at the heart of who we are as a religion and why we are the way that we are. When we start with that basic foundation of respecting differences, all the rest of it falls into place. With respect for difference comes the freedom to bedifferent, to explore, to ask questions, to search for our own truths without being weighed down by dogma, and to take seriously the words and experiences of others. With respect for difference comes a call to justice making, because at our core we hold that no human being is without value, no matter who they are, what they have done, or what they believe. Sometimes, that value can be hard to see, and we may raise our voices loudly in resistance to what we believe is wrong, but we do not dismiss the inherent worth of a human being. With respect for difference comes an invitation to diversity, an understanding of interconnectedness, and ultimately a recognition that we are connected to all of existence.
With respect for difference comes our Unitarian Universalist answer to the injustices that are now being perpetrated in this country. This is our answer to bigotry. This is our answer to nativism. This is our answer to the blatant racism of a celebrity tweet and the insidious racism of our immigration policies. No human being is without value. We respect differences.
A few weeks ago, the President of the United States referred to a group of undocumented immigrants as “animals.” He was speaking about members of a gang, he said, and he later repeated, “They are not people. They are animals.” The same week, a Federal judge excoriated the government for attempting to deport a DACA recipient on the false claim that he was a gang member. And I wondered how many other innocents are suffering right now because they are accused of not being people? How many children?“ They look so innocent. They’re not innocent,” the President said. These are children.
The language of dehumanization has an ugly history, and when spoken by leaders of nations has too often been the seed of genocide. The formula is the same each time – label a hated group as dangerous, strip away their human worth in the public eye, and then strip away their human rights. We now live in a country that separates children from their parents with no cause, justifying itself in the foulest and shallowest possible ways.
I am a Unitarian Universalist because we need a religion that addresses not only the evils of racism, bigotry, and dehumanization, but also the root of that evil. We need a religion that sees difference as reason for celebration and growth, instead of fear, judgment, or division. We need a religion that bids us to build relationships across cultures, across genders, across ages, across ethnicities, across nations, and across the world. We need a religion that honors wisdom, whether it comes from the Bible, the Qu’ran, the Tao Te Ching, or the Griots of West Africa. We need a religion that teaches children to love the differences. We need a religion that rests on our common humanity.
In the words of our own congregation, “Unitarian Universalism holds that great good comes from wide diversity.”
I believe our Unitarian Universalist respect for difference calls us to live our lives, as best we are able, with a deep and abiding love. Sometimes that moves us to acts of social protest and justice making. Sometimes it moves us to reach across the world. Sometimes it moves us to reach across the street, to the person whose political yard signs we might disagree with. Sometimes it moves us to reach out our hand in caring or in helping, when our hands are needed. Sometimes it moves us to reach out to each other, to work through whatever we’re working through, whether it’s a budget or a difference of opinion.
And sometimes it moves us to tears.
Earlier in our service we read some of the promises you wrote as part of our covenanting service in May. To help the writing team, I typed up all of those promises, everything each person who was at the service that morning wrote down. And I found myself starting to cry, because there was so much love, so much respect, so much dedication, so much wisdom, so much willingness to listen and engage, and so much commitment to Unitarian Universalism, to this congregation, to each other, to the world. I cannot describe how deeply it touched me.
I sat in my office upstairs, literally wiping tears away as I typed. A week later, when I sat down with the team, I read those promises again, aloud this time. And darned if I didn’t tear up again, and so did others. That’s how much this congregation, this community, this religion of Unitarian Universalism means to all of us.
And I fell in love with Unitarian Universalism all over again.
Our broken world needs reminders that all is not broken. Our divided world needs reminders that there is wholeness and common ground, love and laughter, and compassion. Our hurting world needs healers, and Unitarian Universalists have it within ourselves to be healers.
Why am I still a Unitarian Universalist? Because we do it all. We work for justice and we sing for love. We listen to children and we learn from each other. We seek out differences with excitement and wonder, and we ask questions, and we look at the world, and we look at ourselves, and we ask, how can we be even truer to our ideals? How can we make the world better and more compassionate? How can we love more deeply, seek more widely, live more truly?
The faith we share calls, teaches, heals and lifts us. And there is nowhere I would rather be.
From this place,
go with love and joy,
that you are a gift to life.