Check Your Sources Please
People have asked me about my theology, am I a humanist, a theist, or a pagan. My answer is simple – I am a Unitarian Universalist and I look to all of our sources.
Most of us are pretty familiar with the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism. If you are not, they are listed in the front of your hymnal and on the order of service..
The principles are guides for living, an ethical framework for how we are called to live our lives. They are what our member congregations have covenanted, promised, to affirm and promote. We care about the worth and dignity of all, about justice, equity and compassion, about spiritual growth, the search for truth and meaning, the democratic process, creating a real world community, and last, but never least, respect for our living planet. The nationwide climate watch is taking place today. The big one is in NYC, but some of us are BARTing over to Lake Merritt after the service to participate in a rally there.
But why do we care about those things that are in our sevn principles? What do we use in our searches for truth and meaning? How and why do we work for justice?
The answers to those questions are, I believe, contained within our six sources. The sources are also listed in your hymnals. They quite literally define Unitarian Universalism unique place in the world of ideas and world religions. I quote, “The living tradition we share draws from many sources.” Living is a key word here, as well as the word tradition. Our sources are from our history; they are where we came from. But even more importantly, they are what we can use to find out where we are going.
In our reading this morning, Paul Oakley makes a similar point. He says that the sources lead us to specific actions like loving our neighbors and working for justice. I agree with him, but I want to take it a step further. Our sources are not just about our history and they are not just guides for the present, but they are a list of research materials as it were. A reference library we can go to when we have the need, when the world or our lives have changed in ways that we no longer understand.
These sources are incredibly rich, every single one of them. I want to encourage all of you to look at them and think about them. Some of you may feel more drawn to some of them than others. Some of the sources may have little personal meaning for you. That used to be true for me. But if you pay a little more attention to those sources that haven’t moved you in the past, I think you may be surprised at what you will discover. It is a living tradition after all. We need to give it ways and room to grow. The sources are the wells from which we draw spiritual water. Sometimes one of the wells can get a little dry. Californians understand about water shortages. A reservoir can be empty or the groundwater from a particular well that has been over used may no longer quench our thirst.
The first source is:
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
What does that mean? Several things I think. Revelation is not sealed. We are not a faith that believes that all religious truth was written down in ancient scriptures. Mystery and wonder are all around us. We need to trust our own experiences and our own senses. If we see a rainbow and think it is a miracle, maybe it is.
Many of us have had, in our own lives experiences which some would name spiritual. There have been times where a deep realization of an important truth has left us in awe and wonder. It is a knowing that not everything can be understood by the simply rational. It is a sense that there really are forces that both create and uphold life, even if they are forces that are beyond our understanding. This direct experience could be a sense of having a personal connection to God, but it doesn’t have to be exclusively theistic. One of my former congregants who defines himself as a humanist tells a story about the feeling he had when he visited the Smithsonian in Washington DC. He had a moment there when he realized that everything in that fabulous museum actually belonged to him. He was part of something much larger than himself. We should never discount our own experience of the world around us. This source reminds us to think, see, and feel for ourselves. It doesn’t mean we will always be right, but we should not substitute someone else’s judgment about what is right and good for our own. If we aren’t sure, we can check other sources.
The second source is:
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
This is where we could say, “What would Jesus do?” Who are your heroes? Who has inspired you? It could be someone famous, but it could just be someone you know. Many members of this church community have inspired you both with their words and deeds. There are awesome role models here, both in service to the fellowship and in working for justice. This source also leads us to look at our heroes and who they were as well as what they did. Did they confront evil not only to bring about justice, but did they do so with compassion and love? No one is perfect, but those who would lead us to hate others are not those we should try to model ourselves after. Martin Luther King is one of my inspirations as well as Ghandi, both of whom held strongly to love as their guiding force. My namesake, Mother Theresa is not a bad role model either, although I do not share her Catholic theology. This second source is a place we can go to discover more effective ways to bring about a more just world.
The third source: Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
This one is incredibly varied. The religions of the world are many and varied. What do they have to teach us? What spiritual practices from other traditions can give our lives more meaning?
Yoga, Buddhist meditation practice, the Hindu concept of Namaste, and the daily prayers of Islam, are only a few places we can go for help in our spiritual and ethical lives. This source is a place awaiting our discoveries. Most of us have not looked too closely at what the different world religions have to offer us. It is important to understand context, however. If we simply cherry pick or grab onto the low hanging fruit, we don’t do this source justice and may even be drawn into cultural appropriation.
The fourth source is: Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
This source is our immediate history and heritage. Both Unitarianism, the belief that God is one, and Universalism, the belief that God loves all of creation and that there is no hell; both have their roots in very early Christianity. Unitarian Universalism arose from Christianity just as Jesus was a follower of the Jewish faith. This history speaks very strongly to those of us who attended exclusively Christian Churches or Jewish Congregations in the past and loved the many inspiring messages contained in both those scriptures. One point, that bears repeating: We are still Christian, we are just not exclusively Christian anymore. It is just like we are not exclusively humanist, agnostic, or pagan. There is so much to learn from study of the Bible. Inspiration is everywhere in the parables of Jesus and the stories of the Hebrew prophets.
Our fifth source is: Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
This is the one that I think can help keep us honest. Whatever we believe and do must make some sense in the real and rational world. Yes, we can have understandings of mystery that are beyond the realm of the scientific method, but it is dangerous ground to rely on something that is in direct contradiction to what reason and science tell us. Angels might fly, but we humans are subject to gravity. The Bible might say one thing, but if science tells us the world is much older than 6000 years, I am going with science. Science and religion are not in conflict.
They should both be about increasing our understanding of the universe and our place in it.
That brings us to our sixth source, the last official one, which is: Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature
How can we not live in harmony with nature when we are part of it? This is the favorite source for many of us who have come to Unitarian Universalism from pagan traditions and practices. There are seasons to our lives just as there are seasons in the year. The need for harmony with nature is also in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures as well as in the various world religions. Sometimes we just need to go up on a mountain and watch the sunrise.
Sometimes we need the peace that can come from sitting by a river or watching a flock of birds fly by.
Those are our six official sources, places where we can go for inspiration and for solace. Is anything left out?
What would you add to this list? It is not written in stone, we can add things to it, just as we can rewrite the seven principles. There is a democratic process to do that at our national assemblies. The sixth source was added to the original five in 1995. There was also a proposal to revise the wording of the sources a couple of years ago. It did not pass, but it could have.
What would you add?
One I might add would be something about the arts, about music and poetry. Beauty and meaning both can come from artistic creativity. It is worth thinking about adding them more specifically to our list of reference materials.
Our sources are in some senses a reference library. They aren’t just history and they aren’t just an action plan as Paul Oakley suggested.
He said that, “We irrigate the fields not by worshiping the water but by doing something with the water.”
He is not wrong, but we also need to go back and drink from the wells the water comes from, again and again. Living is thirsty work.
We can’t afford to ignore any of these spiritual wells just because we might like the flavor of one of them a bit more.
We are an open minded and openhearted people. Our sources are rich and life sustaining. May we drink deeply and be satisfied.