The Paradoxes of Unitarian Universalism

By Kevin Murphy, M.D.

August 5, 2018

This morning, I invite you to contemplate 5 paradoxes of our shared denomination. Unitarian Universalism really is like no other. The first is that

  1. We travel together on separate paths. In most denominations, it is presumed that although one may be an individual, everyone is on the same spiritual path, framed by a common belief system, lined by the same trees, the same mountain view in the distance, winding through the same valleys, the same effort to make the crooked places straight, and the rough places plain. Our Faith calls on us to encourage each other in spiritual growth, even though we grow in different ways, in different directions, come from different places, travel in different ways, and tread very different paths. To be together, respect each other, on different spiritual paths is our paradox.

Many of us come from other religious traditions, and although we may reject all or part of those traditions, they have left their marks on each of us. We are human representations of those ancient manuscripts, called palimpsests, which have been erased in order to inscribe a more important, pre-emptive view of the world and way of believing. The word comes from the Greek palimpsestos, meaning “scraped again”. Often the Romans and medieval scholars would wash the manuscript with milk and oat bran. The manuscript material was made of calf, lamb or goat skin and was very valuable; hence it made sense to reuse it, rather than obtaining a fresh skin. Alternatively, there was the motivation to sanctify pagan texts by overwriting them with the Word of God. After some years, the old text would begin to show through, which scholars called scriptio inferior, or the “writing below”. Similarly, our own human spirits are too important to simply discard, and instead we erase or scrape away the beliefs that no longer serve us well, that seem silly or outworn or unreasonable, and we re-inscribe a new spirituality on the lambskins of our hearts. Yet at the same time, words or phrases or ideas from those older traditions show through faintly, and do color and texture of our new spirit. And it leaves each of us living our shared values from a different perspective.

I was raised in a Congregational Church in Oroville, California. A Rev. Seymour had come west to preach in this raucous, tumultuous, gold rush mining town in the 1850’s and founded the First Congregational Church under an oak tree. My parents were pillars of that church for 50 years. Recall that the Congregationalists were the Pilgrim church, from which the Unitarians split in 1828. So when I drifted leftward into the First Unitarian Church of Dallas in 1981, I didn’t really drift far, at least historically. When my mother was dying of lung cancer 8 years ago, a lady of the church visited her and inquired if she had prepared for the hereafter. My typically self-assertive mother, straightened up and protested, “I don’t care about the Christian after life, I care about Christian ethics, about how we live this life.”

Karen Armstrong, the religious historian best known for her “History of God”, said something similar: “I am not interested in the afterlife. Religion is supposed to be about losing your ego, not preserving it eternally in (rarefied) conditions.”

When Mom related this story to me, I realized that in a certain way, I had been raised a Unitarian without knowing it. That at a certain unconscious level, I had absorbed the sense that New Testament eschatology was far less important than the values that Jesus preached: loving one’s neighbor, respecting even those different from one’s self, not returning evil for evil, working for the common good, placing greater store on kindness than wealth, believing in the work of peace and justice….

So we support each other in traveling different spiritual paths, developing different theologies or even no theology, but it is shared values like these that bind us together. I’ll come back to that.

  1. Another UU paradox is that this most liberal of denominations grew out of the most rigid, rigorously hidebound Calvinism. Paradoxically, the denomination that was founded on notions of predestination, the total depravity of the entire fallen human race, the salvation of the elect, the grace of God shown in saving just a few of us, known by God from the beginning of time, should evolve into a faith in individual freedom to seek an independent spiritual path. Contrast our call to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person with the Calvinist affirmation of the utter depravity of all of us.

We have emerged from a Calvinist faith that the sacrifice of Jesus resulted in limited atonement, sparing only the favored few, the Elect. These early puritanical Congregationalists ultimately gave birth to this most welcoming of denominations.  My wife, Rachael, recently opened the door to a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She tried not to encourage them, but they wanted to know what our Faith was.  She answered that she was an atheist, but her husband was a Unitarian Universalist. One of them said, “Oh, yeah. We had to look them up. They’re that church on Del Monte Lane where even gay people can go.” Yes, that’s the one.

You don’t have to be like any of us to belong with us, to be welcomed into this beloved community. We invite you to share our vision of a world of peace, a community of justice, a house of love, but we do not expect you to believe like any of us. This welcome is not an invitation to accept a doctrine, or any particular concept of the spiritual structure of the universe. We do however invite you to accept us with our weirdness, just as we accept yours.  We simply say with Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  And we are committed to lending the little weight we can to bending that arc closer. Parker elaborated on this idea to say that our vision is limited, that we cannot see the full range of the moral universe or calculate its trajectory, but we divine it by conscience.

Later this year, we will celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Edict of Torda.  In 1568, the only Unitarian king in history, Jan Sigisimund, convened the Diet of Torda, which issued the first edict of religious liberty, that nascent idea that people in the same country could embrace different religions and yet live peaceably and respectfully together. The paradox of UUism is that we can happily embrace different spiritualities, different theologies, within the very same denomination, and this same Fellowship. Our very liberalism is the paradox we live.

  1. A third paradox of UUism is that we embrace diversity with such conviction, yet have not been able to achieve it. Well diversity of opinion perhaps. But certainly not racial diversity. We have a diverse array of colors of Priuses in the parking lot, but not much diversity of race or national origin. Our doors are open, our hearts are open, and a few African American, Hispanic and Asian members have risen to the highest echelons of our denominational leadership, but overall, our denomination has had little appeal beyond the white middle class. According to a 2014 Pew Religious Landscape study, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists and Muslims are all substantially more diverse than we are. If we are to succeed in growing more diverse, we may have to take our 3rd principle of encouraging spiritual growth more seriously than we have. We must be seen not just as welcoming, but as a nurturing spiritual home for a wider spectrum of people.

Paradox 4.  Other denominations regard our very lack of theological doctrine as paradoxical. How can UUism be a religion without it? The lack of formal creed has been a cause for criticism from some who argue that Unitarian Universalism is thus without religious content. In September 2003, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn ruled that Unitarian Universalism was not a “religion” because it “does not have one system of belief”; she stripped the Red River UU Church in Denison, Texas, of its tax-exempt status. However, she was overruled by her own general counsel, based on a similar case previously decided by the 3rd Texas District Court of Appeals.

The word religion is derived from the Latin “religere”, to bind together. There is a widespread presumption that religions are bound together by doctrine or dogma. However, we choose to bind ourselves together not by a common doctrine, but by common values of justice, fair dealing, kindliness, work for peace, compassion, love, and by respect for each other.

Our 4th Principle is “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” One can argue that it should not seem so paradoxical after all, when those searches, if free, do not lead to precisely the same truth. Science does tend over time to lead to an agreed and common truth eventually, as paradigms shift and as hypotheses are tested.  Spiritual truth is altogether different. I may believe in a divine spark in every human being, and Al Ferrenberg may think that is nonsense, and that what appears to be a soul is nothing more than the interaction of peptides at a complex array of synapses in the amygdala! Either of us can doubt both ideas.

On the other hand, external verifiable truth is essential to sound political policy decisions, and for the pursuit of justice in our society. The crisis of “truthiness” in our current political discourse, was addressed by the recently sacked Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, in a Commencement address to the Virginia Military Institute in May *:

“When we as … a free people, go wobbly on the truth…, we go wobbly on America. If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society, … then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years.”

“… nondemocratic societies, (are) comprised of people who are not free to seek the truth. … A responsibility of every American … is to protect our freedom by recognizing what the truth is and is not, what a fact is and is not, …by holding ourselves accountable to truthfulness, and demand our pursuit of America’s future be fact-based, not based on wishful thinking; not hopeful outcomes made in shallow promises; but with a clear-eyed view of the facts as they are and guided by the truth that will set us free to seek solutions to our most daunting challenges.”

Our paradox of a religion committed to truth seeking, rather than pre-committed to a sealed revelation of the truth, is actually a model for a free society.

  1. Another UU paradox is the use of doubt in pursuit of truth. We have the freedom to doubt even what we believe to be true, and in fact, we can use doubt to test truths in just the way Descartes suggested in his basket of apples metaphor. So we are not original in this. The method of doubt was developed by Descartes and foreshadowed by Plato and Socrates. Of course, some philosophers have doubted Descartes’ method of doubt.

Descartes described it this way in his First Meditation: “ Reason now leads me to think that I should hold back my assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as I do from those which are patently false. So, for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions, it will be enough if I find in each of them at least some reason for doubt.”

I don’t know about you, but I prefer my apples crisp and tart and not all mealy with myths of an immaculate conception, the appearance and intercession of angels, a virgin birth, miraculous laying on of hands (as a physician, I wish I had that skill), walking on water, and resurrection of the dead. Jim Hulse remembers vividly a day during his graduate studies at Stanford that he attended the Unitarian Church in Palo Alto and heard a sermon based on Robert Weston’s text “Cherish your doubt”. Cherish your doubt. That was a revelation and his inspiration to turn Unitarian.

I am an infectious diseases physician. So it won’t surprise you that a key event in the history of cholera occurs to me. It serves as an example of how doubt can lead to the truth. John Snow was a London physician, best known at the time for precisely quantifying anesthesia, and for safely attending Queen Victoria in childbirth. In the cholera epidemic of 1854, it was his willingness to doubt the long prevailing theory of cholera transmission through the air by an ethereal miasma. He carefully mapped out the cases in Soho, interviewed survivors, and recognized that virtually every case had drawn their water from the Broad Street pump. He was the first to use statistics to demonstrate a source of contagion, and is regarded as the father of epidemiology. He persuaded the Board of Governors to remove the handle from the pump and the epidemic subsided, but no one really believed his theory. It was a doubter who reinforced his case and ultimately persuaded the medical profession of the water-borne character of cholera. Reverend Henry Whitehead thought removing the pump handle was ridiculous and offered several arguments against Snow’s hypothesis. Unlike the physicians of the day, he was not content to publish his doubts. He tested each one. For example, if Snow was right, there had to be an index case to account for the beginning of the epidemic. Second, engineers had examined the pump and found nothing faulty in it. Whitehead, like Snow, had interviewed most of his parish in Soho, and in doing so, found that index case, a 5 month old girl, Baby Lewis, whose soiled diapers were dropped in the basement cesspool of her house at 40 Broad Street. Re-examination of the pump demonstrated that it was within 2 feet of the family’s cesspool, which leaked “filth” right to the pump. Whitehead became Snow’s leading advocate and would live to see the bacterial etiology of cholera demonstrated unequivocally. How do you like them apples?

Did any of you watch the royal wedding in May? I thought I was going to watch just for the music, which really was glorious. However, when the Dean of Windsor opened with “God is Love, God is love, and those who live in love, live in God, and God lives in them.”, he had me. Of course, the theology of much of the Anglican liturgy might leave the average UU apoplectic. But my mind went in a different direction. Because…if you just substitute LOVE for God, which 1 John 4:16 here invites you to do, it liberates you from all the barnacles & encrustations of Christian theology.

The first hymn that was sung in the royal wedding, was “Lord of all Hopefulness”, sung to a haunting, ancient Irish tune, “Slane”.  Now Slane is a town on the banks of the Boyne, where St. Patrick, by lighting a Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane, defied the pagan High King, who had decreed that no fire could be lighted as long as the festival fire burned on the Hill of Tara. The High King was so impressed with Patrick’s defiant devotion to God, that he opened the doors to Patrick’s work. The folk tune was unearthed by musicographers in the 19th  century, and by naming it “Slane” they commemorated his courage.

In 1929, the Dean of Westminster Cathedral asked a British writer, Jan Struther, to write a hymn. She is better known to you as the author of the novel, “Mrs. Miniver”. As a Greer Garson film the story inspired British resolve during the Battle of Britain, was credited by FDR with hastening the U.S. entry into the war, and won 6 Academy Awards. Today you heard a unitarianized and universalized version of her words. I don’t think she would mind, since she was agnostic, and the thrust of her words, celebrating the human spirit, seems to me to resolve the paradoxes of our unique denomination. This is the Spirit of all hopefulness, and of all joy,

Spirit of all kindliness, Love of all grace,

Your hands swift to welcome,

your arms to embrace,

Be there at our homing, and give us, we pray,

Your love in our hearts, now,

at the eve of the day.