Sermon: Do we tolerate intolerance?
The following sermon was shared at the August 2, 2015 worship service at Chalice Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
Thought for the day: “As Unitarian Universalists, we believe there is no ‘one right way’ for everyone. We also believe that everyone should believe there is no ‘one right way’ for everyone. This is the great paradox of Unitarian Universalism.” ~ Rev. Sharon Wylie
A few months ago, one of you asked me what I thought fundamentalist Unitarian Universalism might look like. I’ve been thinking about that.
In religious terms, fundamentalism is the strict and literal interpretation of scripture or teaching. Fundamentalism says that revelation—whatever it is that God has to teach us or tell us—that revelation is sealed. That God is done speaking, and it’s up to us to strictly and literally interpret and make sense of what God has already revealed.
As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t believe that revelation is sealed. We call ours a “living tradition,” drawing from multiple sources, including our own direct experience. Truth is revealed to us again and again. We discover truth again and again, and we learn, and we understand that what was believed to be true 100 years ago or 50 years ago or 10 years ago or even yesterday may not be true now or tomorrow or 10 years from now.
If we understand fundamentalism as strict adherence to a set of basic principles, then we might imagine that “fundamentalist Unitarian Universalism” could be the belief that everyone, absolutely everyone, is RIGHT to believe whatever they want. Because our principles affirm that people have inherent worth and dignity, that we accept one another, and that truth and meaning is found through a free and responsible search.
So…a fundamentalist Unitarian Universalism might require that we accept those who believe that their belief system is the one right belief system. “To accept” is to receive with approval—we covenant to accept one another; “acceptance of one another” is part of our third principle. I’ll say it again: fundamentalist Unitarian Universalism would require that we “receive with approval” those who believe that their belief system is the one right belief system.
There are many faith traditions that believe themselves to be the one right way to God. It might even be that MOST faith traditions believe that, and where they differ is what they think happens to the rest of us who don’t believe the “right” thing. Some traditions believe the rest of us are going to hell, for example, or that we’re trapped in samsara—the repeating cycle of birth, life, and death—if we don’t follow the right set of practices.
So although we Unitarian Universalists are open to the beliefs and practices of other faith traditions, we aren’t—and can’t be—open to the idea that any of those beliefs and practices are the sole path to God or enlightenment or salvation or whatever language we might use. Because if we believed that, we wouldn’t be Unitarian Universalists, we’d be followers of that other faith.
You’re with me?
BUT…I observe that for many of us, even though we are open to and curious and interested in the teachings and practices of other faith traditions, and even though many of us follow closely and deeply the teachings and practices of other faith traditions, we still believe—in our heart of hearts—that Unitarian Universalism is the one right way…to God or to enlightenment or salvation or whatever language we might use. We wonder why everybody isn’t Unitarian Universalist, and we think they could be, if they’d just stop and learn more about us.
This is a paradox, thinking there is no “one right way” except OUR “one right way.” It’s a paradox of Unitarian Universalism to affirm openness, freedom, and choice but not an openness to opposition to openness, freedom, and choice.
This was brought home to me recently at an interfaith event, where I was the last speaker to share some thoughts about the divine. Having listened to other speakers make reference to God’s judgment and condemnation—and God’s deep love of us that God saves us despite our sin and imperfection—having listened to all that, I was short-tempered in my remarks, and told the people there rather brusquely that we UUs don’t believe God is judging or condemning or that humans need saving.
I know people in almost all other faith traditions, and together and in conversation, our beliefs and practices don’t seem so very different from each other. But, of course, the people I know practice the most liberal versions of those faiths; they’re mystics and reformers. Every Catholic priest I know—and I know several—is openly gay OR married. Or both.
So when I am confronted with dogma or orthodoxy or fundamentalism, I’m startled. To me, religion is one great party of spiritual practice and reflection and sharing our good ideas and working together for justice and a better world. I’m startled when I’m reminded that it’s not just one great party, and that there are real and significant theological differences between us.
I looked for a children’s story this morning about children of differing faiths, but all the stories I could find teach that our different religions have more in common than not. Which is TRUE, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still REAL differences. All religions are not simply the same.
The challenge of confronting theological differences comes up for many of you out in the world, in your lives, maybe especially and most difficultly with family. You KNOW it’s not just one great party.
And the most significant difference, the one I think we can’t just ignore and wish would go away, is the belief of other faith traditions that theirs is the only way to God or enlightenment or salvation. I think we might have to start to speak up about that, when we have the chance.
Because the world is broken and hurting, and our affirmation that there is more than one right way—that message saves lives. Finding Unitarian Universalism saves lives.
I am not a fan of engaging in theological debate out and about in the world. For the most part, I don’t see the point. But where I am today, what I’m chewing on this morning, is the idea that at a minimum, when I see or hear theological discussion that asserts there is one right way—that “Jesus is the way” or something is “the one true church”—that I need to speak up and say, “I disagree that there is only one path to God.” (Or enlightenment or salvation…you choose the language you want to use.)
I don’t think we need to debate all the other particulars—whether or not there is a god or a hell or something we need to be saved from or for—you can debate that if you want to, but there’s a reason “religion” is one of those forbidden discussion topics—discussion between disagreeing parties doesn’t usually go anywhere meaningful. But I think it is worth saying “I disagree that there is only one path.” Or to state it as a positive, “I believe there is more than one path.” Unitarian Universalists need to be banner carriers for this idea. We need to speak up.
Our story for all ages today was about standing up to bullies. The children in the story affirmed: I will speak up instead of acting as a bystander. I accept others for their differences. I am powerful in making a difference.
The world would be an different place if we could all agree that there is more than one way to honor the mystery and more than one way to be in relationship with the divine.
And then, if we’re going to be banner carriers for the idea that there is more than one path, then we need to begin REALLY practicing that in our congregations. Theological diversity needs to be okay here, in our chapel on Sunday mornings, not just out and about in the world.
It needs to be okay for us to sometimes pray together, even though some of us in the room might not be praying or interested in prayer.
It needs to be okay for people here at Chalice to say they believe in God.
It needs to be okay for people here at Chalice to say they believe Jesus was the son of God.
And it needs to be okay for people here at Chalice to say they don’t believe in God.
If we’re going to be banner carriers for theological diversity out in the world, then we need to be banner carriers for theological diversity here in this religious community too.
We haven’t always managed it. In my three years here, I’ve heard that those of you who identify as Christian feel unwelcome here at times, that those of you who believe in God feel unwelcome here at times, and that those of you who don’t believe in God feel unwelcome here at times. Those of you here who have never felt unwelcome here because of your theological beliefs have perhaps not been comfortable talking about what you believe.
The theological diversity we have in this room is a challenge for most of us, at some time or another. Whatever your theological beliefs—you believe there’s a god, you don’t believe there’s a god, or you just don’t know what to believe—whatever those beliefs are, you’re in the minority here. There is no majority of belief. We don’t all believe the same things. And we come here yearning—deeply yearning—to feel like we belong, but the moment will always come—if you are here for any substantive amount of time—the moment will always come when you are reminded that your beliefs put you in the minority here, and your sense of belonging will suddenly feel fragile. Like standing on shifting sand, you will wonder, “Is this still a good place for me?”
I think that moment of wondering “Is this still a good place for me?” is a quintessential Unitarian Universalist experience. To be UU is to feel like you don’t fit in, even at the congregation where you do, actually, fit in. This is just who we are. Our theological diversity is demanding.
I think that part of why we love to sing each Sunday “you are welcome here” is to remind ourselves that WE are welcome here.
I believe in God.
I believe there is more one path to God.
I believe there is more than one path to salvation.
I believer there is more than one path to enlightenment.
May each of us here speak up instead of acting as a bystander.
May each of us here accept others for their differences.
May each of us here know yourselves powerful in making a difference.
May it be so. Amen and blessed be.
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