How to Be a Good Unitarian Universalist

How to Be a Good Unitarian Universalist
8-28-05
Douglas Taylor

There is a story told of an old rabbi who was worrying over his weekly talk to the people.  He spent the whole morning walking up and down the village square trying to think of a fresh way to give the old message of God’s love to the people.  He spent all afternoon walking around the lake in the park, and still had not discovered how to say the old important message in a fresh new way.  He grew frustrated.  When the congregation gathered in the evening for worship and the old Rabbi rose up into the pulpit he looked out at the people and said, “Do you know what I am going to tell you?”

They were a little taken aback by this and no one responded at first.  “Do you know what I am going to tell you?” he asked again.  The people looked at each other, confused.  One of the bolder men finally spoke out saying, “No, Rabbi.  We do not yet know what you will tell us.”  The Rabbi threw up his hands in disgust, “Then why should I bother.”  And he stormed out of the pulpit without further explanation.

The following week, the people gathered again for worship.  There were a few more of them than normal for word had spread of the Rabbi’s strange behavior of the week prior.  As the old rabbi rose into the pulpit, he looked out at the people and asked, “Do you know what I am going to tell you?”  Now, the people had anticipated this and had take steps in case there were to be a repeat of last week’s question, as indeed there was!  “Yes,” several people called out.  “Yes, we do know what you are going to tell us.”  The Rabbi smiled a little and said, “Well, then, why should I bother.”  And he left the pulpit and walked home early again.

Well, you can imagine the crowd that gathered the following week!  This was a small town and something this interesting had not happened in quite some time.  As the Rabbi rose up into the pulpit this week, however, the people were ready for him.  He asked, “Do you know what I am going to tell you?”  And many voices responded in unison: “Some of us do and some of us do not.”  The old Rabbi smiled and said, “Well, in that case, those of you who know shall tell those who do not.”  And he stepped out of the pulpit and went home early.

Now, I am guessing that at least a few of you had seen my given title for this morning, “How to Be a Good Unitarian Universalist.” And I would suppose that several of you thought you might know just want I would be talking about.  So, tell me, do you know what I am going to tell you?

Do you know what it takes to be a good Unitarian Universalist?  Do you have some ideas about what it takes to do this well?  I imagine most of us feel we would qualify as a good Unitarian Universalist, and why not!  Most of us are above average, right?  Isn’t there a statistic that says over 75% of people feel they are a better than average driver?  And Ron Clupper would remind me that 87% of all statistics are made up on the spot.  But I imagine most of you have a few ideas about what it takes to be a good Unitarian Universalist and could indeed make a fairly accurate guess at what I am about to tell you.

What does it takes to be a good Unitarian Universalist?  Who gets to decide the definition for that?  If you were here last week you’ll remember … (How many of you were here last week?  Maybe I should say regular attendance at Sunday worship is what makes for a good UU!)  If you were here last week you’ll remember that we talked about how ours is an evolving faith, bound by reality and a commitment to the freedom of individual conscious.  Therefore who we are keeps changing.  So how do we define the characteristics of a group that keeps changing?  Who gets to decide on the definition?  Well, thankfully we have the internet to help sort some of this out!

I recently read a short article about a survey being conducted on the internet by Boston University.  The survey is called “Religiosity Scales Project.”  And the title of the short article that alerted me to the survey read, “What makes a ‘good’ Christian?”  Well, as you may guess, I was curious!  So I followed the suggested link in the article to the internet site and took the survey.  Interestingly, the survey was not trying to find out if I am a good Christian, but how I would define a good Christian.  And allow me to note, “The researchers say that practicing Christian could be substituted for good Christian.  They are trying to measure the importance of numerous variables to Christians rather than make judgments about how good or bad people are.” (From Christian Century August 9, 2005, p6 article entitled “What Makes a Good Christian?”)  So, how would I define a practicing Christian?

When I took the survey, I rated as “Absolutely Essential” statements like “A good Christian emulates Jesus in being of service to others,” “A good Christian is someone whose faith provides meaning and purpose in his or her life,” and “A good Christian does not judge or condemn others.”  Conversely, I indicated that “Watching or listening to religious programs or television or radio,” “Opposing abortion,” and “Believing that the Bible is the literal word of God,” are Not At All Important marks of a good Christian.  I know lots of people I consider “good” Christians who wouldn’t be caught dead watching Pat Robertson and the 700 club!

But all that is merely academic.  It does not matter how I define a good or practicing Christian because I am not a Christian. (Good, practicing, or otherwise!)  I am a Unitarian Universalist, and that survey was just the starting point which got me going.  The deeper and more pertinent question for us today is, “What makes a good Unitarian Universalist?”  How would you define a practicing Unitarian Universalist?  Perhaps: “A good Unitarian Universalist is tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs.”  “A good Unitarian Universalist actively seeks social and economic justice.”  “A good Unitarian Universalist is a vegetarian, a registered Democrat, a PhD candidate.”  What does it take to do this well?

Well, let me begin with some clear statements about what it is not.  Being a good Unitarian Universalist has nothing to do with staying true to traditional and historical doctrines.  It has nothing to do with conforming to a creed.  Indeed one could almost say one trait of a good Unitarian Universalist is non-conformity, it is to always push the envelope of innovative beliefs, it is to seek after novelty and deeply unique ideas.  But that is going to far because how then could we gather as a community of faith and hope if our binding force were simply that we all agree to disagree?  We could not be the community that we are if each person were chasing the latest novelty.  A good Unitarian Universalist will seek a balance between honoring the past while considering new possibilities.

Another statement has been suggested from time to time that I would also like to debunk.  Being a good Unitarian Universalist has nothing to do with supporting a particular social or political cause.  Be it abortion, gay marriage, or the current war in Iraq, there is no single issue that is a litmus test to whether or not you are a good UU.  There were some questions on the Religiosity Scale Project survey along these lines that made me shudder, because I know there are people who would say that one of the Absolutely Essential qualities of a good Christian is that they oppose abortion, or they do not drink.  Those issues seem such narrow definitions to the breadth and depth of how to be a good Christian.  Likewise, one can not wholly capture the essential quality of being a good Unitarian Universalist in a set of social issues.  However, a good Unitarian Universalist will be thoughtfully engaged in these sorts of issues, a good Unitarian Universalist will be involved.  To abstain entirely from social issues, to say you are not going to muck around in that political stuff is a disservice to the faithful pursuit of a spiritual life.  “Faith without works is dead.”

If anyone read the article I wrote about faith and good works that the Press and Sun ran yesterday you’ll have already seen my thoughts on this topic.  The title the press chose for my article was “A deep faith requires the faithful to act for justice.”  In other words: your beliefs and your behavior ought to line up. They are two sides of the same coin.  One follows the other as night follows day.  The day does not cause the night or vice versa: they just go together, that’s how it works.  At least, that is what a good Unitarian Universalist will tell you.

It has been said many times, for indeed it is true, that one defining characteristic of our faith tradition is that highly prize the use of the intellect in discerning truth and meaning.  Religion is not simply received whole-cloth from somewhere else and hand-down.  The use of reason, while not unique to Unitarian Universalists as a source of authority, does stand out for how high we rank it as a source of religious authority.  Some have taken this a step or two to far and in noticing the preponderance of well-educated individuals in our membership, have suggested that rigorous intelligence and a good education are qualities of a good Unitarian Universalist.

I recall visiting a congregation a few years ago where I delivered a sermon that extolled the virtue of our intellectual inheritance but tweaked it as well saying to think about deep things is not enough.  After the service a member of that congregation came up to me and said, “Maybe I don’t belong here because I’m not smart like you say everyone here is.”  I remember smiling and saying, “Of course you belong here.” Meanwhile inside I was kicking myself.  And I think I also said something like, “It is not intelligence that counts as much as wanting to figure it out for your self.”  A good Unitarian Universalist has a holy curiosity driving them to seek out deeper and better understanding.

A fourth quality that I feel I must raise up is in some ways a basic distinction between liberal religion and conservative religion.  Conservative religions tend to have fairly clear and set lines between who can be in the group and who cannot, who is saved and who is not, which are the good practices and which are not.  Conservative religions tend to have very rigid lines around which behaviors are considered sins or evil deeds and which behaviors are seen as blessed and good deeds.  In their extreme they see diseases and natural disasters are God’s justice, and assume that if terrible things happen to you, well you either deserve it, or God is testing your faith.  Liberal religions, on the other hand, tend to see life as a little less cut and dry, more complex and random.  Liberal religions tend to emphasis God’s love despite the disease or natural disaster.

Unitarian Universalism has certainly embraced the view that sometimes bad things happen to you that may be caused by genetics or weather patterns over the equatorial Atlantic over which you have no control.  These things are not God’s justice and they don’t happen because you are a bad person.  But then again, you may have made certain risky choices, such as your diet or choosing to buy a home in an area prone to hurricanes; and these choices may contribute to your situation, but these choices don’t make you a bad person.  It’s more complicated that a simple cause and effect moral relationship.  A good Unitarian Universalist has a taste for complexity and ambiguity.

For us this branches out well beyond explaining why bad things happen to good people.  Unitarian Universalist embrace complexity and ambiguity on may issues and levels.  Do you believe in God?  Well, yes, and no.  It depends on what you mean by God.  Do you believe you should always tell the truth?  Well, I can imagine situations where there could be something more important than the truth at stake, like another person’s life.  It is complex and depends on the situation.  If you come asking me for answers I’m likely to give you only my answers for today, … or perhaps I’ll only give you more questions.  A good Unitarian Universalist has a taste for complexity and ambiguity.

Which leads me to my final statement:  Unitarian Universalism is in some ways a very easy religion to be a part of.  We don’t demand that we adjust our beliefs to a set traditional pattern, rather we invite you to be open to what your religious conscience tells you is true.  We don’t tell each other who to vote for and which social issues God cares about, rather we bid one another to be involved and engaged.  We don’t require that you pretend to be smarter or dumber than you truly are, rather we encourage each other to use your gifts including your head and your heart to discern what is right and true.  We do not insist that life and faith fit in neat little boxes, rather we allow nuance, complexity and reality to exist in all its changing beauty.  Indeed, in some ways Unitarian Universalism is an easy religion to be a part of because it allows for so many freedoms.  But therein lies the secret difficulty that may make this one of the hardest religions to practice well:  It is on your own motivation to take up the responsibility to use that freedom.  We do not affirm and promote the free search for truth and meaning, rather it is the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  If you would be one to practice Unitarian Universalism well, you must have the where-with-all to take up the challenge and engage in the complex mysteries that make life worth living.  A good Unitarian Universalist is someone committed to the search for truth and meaning, truly committed to finding some satisfying answers, even if they are not answers to last for eternity.

I hope most of you are not all that surprise at my suggested list (and notice it is a suggested list: I’ll stick by it, but I know it is not authoritative.)  Would you have known what I was going to say back at the beginning?  As with the old Rabbi in the story, my effort today was to offer a fresh way to deliver an old message.  Indeed, I am pretty sure I have said all of this at various times over the past couple of years.

A good Unitarian Universalist will seek a balance between honoring the past while considering new possibilities.

A good Unitarian Universalist will be thoughtfully engaged in these sorts of issues, a good Unitarian Universalist will be involved.

A good Unitarian Universalist has a holy curiosity driving them to seek out deeper and better understanding

A good Unitarian Universalist has a taste for complexity and ambiguity.

A good Unitarian Universalist is someone committed to the search for truth and meaning, truly committed to finding some satisfying answers, even if they are not answers to last for eternity.

May we all find the courage and where-with-all to be good Unitarian Universalists, for our faith tradition does call us to fill the world with beauty and goodness at every turn.

Ina world without end

May it be so.