Grace for Mavericks
by Rev. Dan Schatz
Unitarian Congregation of West Chester
January 26, 2020
Imagine a conversation with a group of Unitarian Universalists.
One says, “I believe in God.”
One says, “I am an atheist.”
One says, “I meditate on the Spirit of Life”
One says, “I pray.”
One says, “I have a deep and abiding faith.”
One says, “I am spiritual, but not religious.”
One says, “I am a Christian.”
One says, “I am a pagan.”
One says, “I am a Humanist.”
One says, “I am not a Christian, but I think Jesus was an important teacher.”
One says, “So, er, what did we think we had in common?”
The others all turn to the last speaker. “Everything,” they say. Weren’t you listening?”
Unitarian Universalists can have an awkward relationship with religious language. Some of us are very comfortable talking about God, prayer, faith, sin and salvation. Others would rather avoid religious words entirely, choosing to express our ideas in language we feel is more precise or meaningful for us. Some get uncomfortable when we hear others using terms that stir memories and emotions we would rather not face.
Sometimes we respond to this state of affairs by avoiding religious language entirely. We don’t want to force anyone to say something they don’t believe, so we might carefully edit the word “God” out of a reading, make sure not to talk too much about Sunday “worship” services and bristle if anyone calls us a “church” instead of a “congregation.”
This works for us, to an extent, but it can also get in the way. Religion is not just an intellectual exercise – not even for us. As highly as we value religious thought, it becomes meaningless if it isn’t connected in some way to the other elements of religion – feelings, memory, ethics, symbolism, and wisdom teaching. While for some, religious words evoke strong negative reactions, others have a powerful connection with them. For many, there is simply isn’t any other language up to the task of expressing something so important and sacred.
We might be tempted to demand that all words be precise – that they have a fixed meaning understood by everyone – but truth is that language doesn’t work that way. Besides, our feelings are seldom precise, and when we stand in awe at the wonder of the universe, what language should we use? Theologians have come up with all kinds of fancy terms – the ineffable, the holy, the Ground of Being, Ultimate Being – but what do these words mean, exactly, except that we don’t know how to express what we’re feeling? Isn’t “ineffable” really just a four syllable word for “Wow?”
At the same time, some words are legitimately hard for some of us to hear, because the feelings and memories we associate with them are not wonder and awe, but a painful religious past. The word “faith,” for some, means creeds and dogma, an enforced set of beliefs. “God,” for some, means a punishing giant, a self-centered power who craves constant adulation and intellectual capitulation.
These qualms get reinforced by those in our society who do preach that kind of faith and that sort of God. This month Jerry Fallwell, Jr. and Liberty University announced the launch of a new think tank with these words: “Bemoaning the rise of leftism is no longer enough, and turning the other cheek in our personal relationships with our neighbors as Jesus taught while abdicating our responsibilities on the cultural battlefield is no longer sufficient.” “We will go on offense,” he said, “in the name of Judeo-Christian principles….”
It’s disturbing, and it’s hypocritical, but it isn’t new. Years ago, when our neighbors in Dover, Pennsylvania voted out a school board who had called evolution into question and encouraged instead the teaching of something called “Intelligent Design,” the televangelist Pat Robertson came right back at them. He said, “I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover, if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God; you just rejected him from your city. And don’t wonder why he hasn’t helped you when problems begin…. If they do, just remember you just voted God out of your city. And if that’s the case, then don’t ask for his help, ‘cause he might not be there.”
That kind of God could turn almost anyone into an atheist. This is exactly the kind of God so many people have rejected. They don’t want to hear about God, or faith, or sin, because for so long those words represented everything that was hurtful and nothing that was loving. I can understand exactly why someone who has suffered that kind of religious abuse would not want to hear those words – ever again. It’s hard to get past that level of pain.
At the same time, that kind of misuse of religion brings up the rebel in some of us. Do we really want to allow God to be defined by the Jerry Falwell Jr.s and the Pat Roberstons of the world? Do we really want to abandon our language to those who abuse it? Even when we choose not to use these words ourselves, will we condemned ourselves to hear them only as the extremists do? If so, then we also condemn ourselves to a kind of theological prudishness, an insistence that our religious world must never be polluted by words that have become sullied.
Perhaps we could establish a list of seven dirty words that must never be said in a Unitarian Universalist congregation: God, Heaven, Lord and Father, Christ, grace, salvation and sin. “Jesus” is acceptable, but only when we fall down the stairs.
There are times I worry we already have established a list like that.
The truth is, they’re good words – some of them more meaningful to us than others, perhaps. All of them mean different things to different people at different times. To some, “Christ” means “Jesus who is God and who literally died to save us from our sins so we can all go to Heaven when we die.” To others, “Christ” means, “the teachings of Jesus that lift humanity to hope and love.” “Christ” and “Lord” are words some of us would never consider saying or singing in a hymn – unless that hymn is a Christmas carol. Then, we might miss them – because the joy and tradition of singing favorite songs is more important than the language we use. It’s all the same word – but what a difference it makes when we learn to say and hear it in a new way. “Grace,” “faith,” even “sin” can become incredibly important in our own searches for truth when we allow ourselves to get past the baggage and find meaning in them.
And of course, not everyone either or rejects all religious language. Some people, like myself, don’t find mean much meaning in some words one way or the other. Growing up at Cedar Lane Unitarian Church, the word God was not an important part of my childhood. It didn’t have any more emotional significance than “truth” or “universe” and considerably less than “love.” I never had the sense that we were afraid of the word God in my church – it just wasn’t the most important part of religion. It wasn’t really what we were all about.
It still isn’t, for me – my theology is focused far more on the here and now – the integrity with which we live our lives, the community we build with each other and also with the natural world, the unfolding process of becoming that is reality. Some call these things God – and that works, too – but it isn’t the word I usually choose in my personal spirituality
When I started seminary – at all of 22 years old – I became a little defensive about this. Here I was, surrounded by people constantly talking in religious terms that didn’t hold much meaning for me, and some of them insisted those words represented the only possible truth. Other times, it didn’t seem to matter how you defined God, as long as you said that you believed. I wasn’t quite willing to make that step – it seemed like too much rationalization and not enough reason. If the word God was more important than its meaning, I thought, really, what’s the point?
Still, I was fascinated. I wrote my first sermon on prayer, trying to find ways in which prayer could be meaningful to a Humanist like me. I started to realize that prayer doesn’t have to mean a petition to a personal deity – it could be any expression to the universe that comes from the depth of the soul. Faith didn’t have to be a set of beliefs – it could be a way of life. Salvation didn’t have to mean that when we died we would be walking around in a place called Heaven – it could happen right here on earth, whenever people are lifted into their truest and best selves.
When I began my chaplain residency in Central Virginia, I was nervous about praying with evangelical patients and families. I had brought myself around to the idea of prayer – three internships and a summer chaplaincy had helped with that – but so many of these Christians would pray to Jesus. I am a born Unitarian. I am the product of a religious tradition that for centuries denied the divinity of Jesus. We may not have always known what we believed in, but we sure knew about some things we didn’t! So how could I, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, pray to Jesus, who I believe to have been an ordinary human being? Wouldn’t that be like praying to Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or Susan B. Anthony? When I did pray that way, I felt like an imposter.
Then I started listening, instead of worrying. I listened to people as they prayed for healing, for peace, for memory. I talked with them about what was happening in their lives, and their beliefs, hopes and fears. And as I listened to them, and talked with them, and allowed myself to enter their world, I began to realize two things. The first was that for them, Jesus Christ was simply another name for God. When we prayed together, it needed to be in their language, and my human Jesus was not who we were praying to. The second was that it didn’t matter what I believed or didn’t believe – these people were hurting and they needed something I had. If I could give them some comfort at the expense of some of my own, perhaps we would both be the better for it.
What was I so afraid of, anyway? How could I have thought that to pray using words that were not my own would somehow damage my integrity? Was I that proud? Did I think I was so important? Besides, I had no problem using Buddhist, Hindu or Taoist terminology.
One of the legitimate criticisms I sometimes hear about Unitarian Universalists is that we are ready and willing to embrace everybody’s religious language – sometimes way out of context – except our own. Unitarian Universalism is rooted solidly in the Western religious tradition; today we seek more widely than that, but we still did come from Christian roots – yet which of these words are you more comfortable with:
Sin, or karma?
Prayer or meditation?
Christ or Buddha?
God or the Tao?
God the Father or God the Mother?
Heaven or Nirvana?
Worship or ritual?
If we really value the insights of all religious traditions except the ones we have much personal experience with, that’s a problem. The truth is that if Buddhism, Taoism and Paganism have wisdom to offer us, so do Christianity and Judaism. With that wisdom comes language – and it can be a beautiful language used to express powerful ideas that have evolved over millennia. If we reject words like “grace” and “sin” because they have sometimes meant something we don’t believe in, then the fundamentalists win. The only possible God would be a personal deity; the only salvation would be through Christ – their idea of Christ. We would miss all the beauty and all the wisdom those words have come to represent – simply because we were unable to hear them in a new way.
This is one reason why Unitarian Universalism is so important. Here, in a community of people who believe different things and use different words to express our beliefs, we can begin to see under the surface. When we enter into meaningful conversations with each other we can discover that our different words may express the same ideas, or that we mean very different things even when we use the same words. If I say “God,” I might be thinking of a loving parent, but you may be thinking of an infinite spirit, or the idea of love, or a process of unfolding. Sitting and talking together in the spirit of openness and growth, we deepen and broaden both our ideas and the words we use to express them. We learn that sometimes, the difference between the theist and the atheist really is just one letter. We might even find new meaning in words that we once rejected.
There is a kind of grace in that experience – by that I do not mean “a gift of forgiveness from an all-powerful deity despite the essentially depraved nature of all human beings.” Instead I mean a feeling of acceptance, despite difference. No matter who we are, what we believe, or what language we use to express our beliefs, we are accepted here. No matter who another person is, what they believe, or what language they use to express those beliefs, we accept and listen to them. We allow ourselves to let go of our own set of meanings long enough to hear each other’s truths. At our best, we’re not listening for the words, but for the feelings, wisdom and spirit behind them.
It can happen every time we come together – at classes, potlucks, and Small Group Ministries – every time we share the truth of our hearts with one another, we experience that kind of grace. To me, this is the best that religion can hope to be. We let go of everything that gets in the way of human understanding, so that when we speak together, and listen together, our souls open.
We might be Christians or we might be atheists. We could be pagans or Muslims. We could give thanks for the grace of God every day, or simply feel awe at the wonder of the natural world. It doesn’t matter, so long as we speak and listen with integrity, compassion, and understanding. This is our gift and grace as Unitarian Universalists.
Spirit of Life,
Sacred wonder of many names and no name,
We are seekers who quest truth.
Ever in search of new insight,
we reach out and up to the unknowable universe
and also to one another.
In our seeking,
we open ourselves to guidance from all sources,
even the unexpected,
even what we though we knew.
When we speak,
let it be in the spirit of openness,
with the words of compassion.
When we listen,
let it be in the spirit of curiosity,
the possibility of growing.
And whether or not we find
exactly the right words
to share our wonder,
may speak gracefully
with the lives we live.
And blessed be.