Our Theological House 9-17-17
We’ve got a feast for the spirit here, and a feast for the mind. Mango thoughts and jalapeno talk. There is nothing bland about the Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma, right? Oh, yeah.
But church should be more than interesting dishes on a potluck line. A church should be a sanctuary, a place for respite from a sometimes painful and frightening world, and a place to give us the energy to live our lives in ways that can make a meaningful difference in the world.
While I was in seminary at Starr King, I studied both preaching and theology with Rebecca Parker. Several years later, I took a class taught by both Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens, a former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We discussed the instructors’ recent book: “A House for Hope, the promise of progressive religion for the twenty first century.” If you are interested in reading it, you can order it online from the UUA bookstore.
Their book contains some serious and meaty theology, and presents, I believe, some critical understandings of Unitarian Universalist theology, a theology that help us hold onto both hope and purpose in these challenging times. It is important enough and complex enough, that I am going to do a sermon series on it. For three weeks in a row, we are going to dive fairly deep into theology. I hope you are ready for the ride.
Parker and Buehrens use the metaphor of a house to explain the theological basis of progressive religion, including, but not limited to, Unitarian Universalism.
This metaphorical house has a foundation and is built in a particular place. It has walls and rooms, a roof and a doorway. All of these correspond to categories in systemic theology, which is simply an organized way to look at the different aspects of various religions.
Briefly, because this might give some of you a headache, the foundation is how we understand God and the relationship of humans to the divine. This is theology. The walls are what gather us into a collective space. This is ecclesiology and includes how our religious community is organized and governed. The rooms are how we create a welcoming home for the spirit: pneumatology, which includes our rituals and worship practices. The roof is what protects us from harm: soteriology, the theology of salvation, is what saves us from evil. The doorway is how we engage with the world: missiology, our mission or reason for being. Finally, there is our location, which is obviously here on this earth, this planet, but how we see this earth, especially the end of the earth, the end of time, is eschatology.
We are going to start with the last one: Eschatology, our location and relationship to the earth, the end of the earth, the end of time.
But first, some context:
There is a lot to Unitarian Universalism. We have our seven principles and six sources. We read the principles earlier, and both the principles and our sources are in the front of the grey hymnal.
The sources help to explain who we are and where we come from, and the principles are good guides for living. But neither the principles or the sources are actually theology.
Some folks confuse theology with creeds, so let me clear that up immediately. As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t have a creed, no one tells us what we have to believe. As the song goes, we welcome atheists and redneck Hindus, as well as Pagan Buddhist Jews. That is part of what we offer to those who would join us. No one needs to check who they are and what they believe at the door.
I know that is very important to many of you. It was to me when I first found Unitarian Universalism.
We don’t have a creed, but we do, my friends, have some particular theological perspectives that influence how we interact with each other and with the world.
These perspectives are made up of the various parts I mentioned earlier: theology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, soteriology, missiology, and eschatology.
If you can’t remember the definitions of those words, don’t stress. Think about a house with a foundation, walls, rooms, a roof, and a doorway.
Just like a house, none of these theological parts can stand alone.
How we conceive of the divine affects how we organize our churches. How we see salvation affects how we determine our mission. How we worship together reflects all of the above.
Let’s start with how we see the world and the ultimate purpose of existence. The most common eschatology in our wider culture here in the United States is the one that goes something like this: God created the world and in the end humanity will meet its maker, be judged and end up in either heaven or in hell. The end of the entire world will come at the end of a cosmic battle between good and evil called Armageddon. The world will be destroyed, but the faithful will be saved and taken to a new paradise. This is not what most Unitarian Universalists believe. As it said in the song, in case of Rapture, pack a snack, ’cause we’ll be left behind.
The major problem with that eschatology is that this world, this life, has meaning only so far as it gets us to heaven. If we believe that, we don’t have to worry about degradation of the environment as it will all be destroyed anyway. The pain and suffering in our own lives, the oppression so many are forced to live with, doesn’t matter because the rewards will all come after we die.
Most Unitarian Universalists don’t believe any of that. We do worry about the end of the world, more at some times than others, but our fears are about climate change, war, and other disasters, and not the wrath or judgement of some God.
There are three eschatologies that can be defined as liberal, all of which have been around at least since the beginning of Christianity.
Briefly, these three can be defined as Social Gospel, Universalist, and radically realized eschatology.
All are fairly popular within Unitarian Universalism and many are also shared by other faith traditions. As I go through, think about which one fits what you believe.
Quite of few of our hymns reflect the social gospel eschatology. “We’ll build a Land” is one of the more obvious.
We are here to build the Kingdom of God here on earth where justice shall roll down like waters and peace like an ever-flowing stream. This social gospel eschatology is also very popular with Methodists and many Catholics. The only problem with it is that building heaven on earth is hard work. You have to feed all of the hungry people in the world, end all oppression, and probably be extremely nice all the time too. It can also be frustrating when the arc of the universe seems to be bending away from justice. The approach can be inspirational, it can feed the spirit, but if it the only dish served at the church potluck it can also be overwhelming.
The second of the more liberal eschatologies is Universalism, which holds, basically, that “God’s love embraces the whole human race: another line from one of our hymns. If God loves all of us, then we should try to get along. The Universalist faith is in a God of Love who works to bring all into relationship with the divine.
The third liberal eschatology is radically realized eschatology. It is radical, because it says heaven is right here and right now. This world and this life are sacred. We stand on holy ground. Our task is to recognize that fact and to treat each other and the earth with gentle care and respect.
Jesus said, the kingdom of God is among us. Moses was told to take off his shoes for the ground he stood on was holy.
With this understanding, we are drawn to repair and heal what is broken, not because it will bring about some perfect future world, but simply because the dance we are doing here is a holy dance. As Rumi says, there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Personally, I like some of all three of the progressive eschatologies. I still dream of a better world and want to help that come about. I believe in a God, a sacred source of love and compassion, that loves each and every one of us. But for my house of hope, I want to live in the radically realized vision, because with that one, heaven is already pretty much here. Yes, there is pain and suffering, but life is also to be enjoyed and treasured. Let it be a dance we do, another line from our hymnal, reflects this attitude.
As I said earlier, the parts of a theological house need to fit together. I am not going to go as deeply into the other parts today, simply because there isn’t time. We will do more in the next couple of weeks
But briefly, some of what we try to do in our worship services relate directly to radically realized eschatology. We have fun. We sing joyful songs and we recognize that life itself is a blessing, that it can be simply awesome. And yes, we can work hard for justice in so many ways, but we also have fun while we do it. It affects our mission, how we organize ourselves, and how we see God. It helps us figure out how to “let nothing evil cross this door.
It tells us that heaven can be right here, that comfort and healing can be found, not in some far-off place, but right here, right now.
That is the hope, a hope that is here because we can feel it among us when we gather together. We all know about hell. We all see the damage that is being done by those who believe that this life doesn’t matter, who don’t really care about protecting our planet because they think God will destroy it anyway.
We also know heaven. We see it in the sparkle of our children’s eyes. We see it in the tenderness of our caring committee. We feel it in our chalice circles, where we share our stories from deep inside.
Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens say that to thrive, hope requires a home.