Spirituality and Unitarianism Universalism: Sharing What We Believe

A sermon by Jordan Young and Margy Levine Young, delivered July 19, 1992

Hymn #88:  “The Indwelling God”

Invocation and Candlelighting – Jordan

Spirit of holiness, as we light this candle representing the light of wisdom and truth, speak now to us.  Speak in the language of tradition, in words from scripture and poetry, in myths that capture the holy. Speak in the language of faces – faces that tell of pain or longing or fear or joy or contentment or hope.  Speak to us in the language of music, with voices and rhythms that vibrate through body and soul. Speak to us, holy mystery of the universe, in the language of summer, with its languid heat, lush green shade, and the chirping and buzzing of a summer’s day.  Speak in the language of color, the language of form, the language of motion, the language of stillness. And help us to listen. Help us to hear the many languages that speak to us of our own possibility within the impossibility of life.

(Adapted from Into the Wilderness, a meditation manual by Sara Moores Campbell)

Unison Affirmation

This is the unison affirmation we share each Sunday at First Parish in Lexington.  It is, I believe, adapted from several of the readings in the back of the blue hymnal.  It’s been said that Unitarian Universalists make uninspired hymn singers because we’re so busy reading ahead in the words to see if we agree with them that we forget to sing along.  That notwithstanding, we invite you to share this affirmation with us.

Love is the doctrine of this church,

The quest for truth is its sacrament,

And service is its prayer.

This is our great covenant:

To dwell together in peace,

To seek the truth in love,

And to help one another,

To the end that all souls shall grow

into harmony with the divine.

Welcome and Announcements – Margy

Good morning!  My name is Margaret Levine Young and this is Jordan Young.  We’d like to thank Austin/Bud Fisher for inviting us to join you here today.  We live just down the road in Lexington, and go to First Parish there. We gave this service at First Parish a couple of years ago, after seeing several young people in the church share their beliefs in the Coming of Age program, a UUA curriculum for mid-teens.  We were so impressed with what the teens said that we wondered why we adults don’t do more of that same kind of sharing. Well, as they say in the Unitarian Universalist church, don’t suggest something unless you want to volunteer for it. When it came time to schedule the summer services, we found ourselves committed to doing one.  This service is the result. We’re honored that Austin/Bud found out about it and invited us to share it with you. We hope you find it as enriching an experience to share as we did to create.

That having been said, we’d like to especially welcome anyone else besides us who may be here for the first time.  We hope to get to know all of you (new and old) after the service during refreshments and conversation.

Are there any other announcements?

We will now receive the morning’s offering.



from “Unitarian Christianity,” William Ellery Channing – Jordan

Revelation is addressed to us as rational beings.  We may wish, in our sloth, that God had given us a system demanding no labor of comparing, limiting, and inferring.  But such a system would be at variance with the whole character of our present existence; and it is part of wisdom to take revelation as it is given to us, and to interpret it by the help of the faculties which it everywhere supposes, and on which it is founded.

If revelation be at war with [reason], it subverts itself, for the great question of its truth is left by God to be decided at the bar of reason.  It is worth of remark, how nearly the bigot and the skeptic approach. Both would annihilate our confidence in our faculties, and both throw doubt and confusion over every truth.  We honor revelation too highly to make it the antagonist of reason, or to believe that it calls us to renounce our highest powers.

Adapted from “The Ascent to Truth,” Thomas Merton – Jordan

Our minds are, by their very nature, a participation in the intelligence of God, Whose light illumines the conclusions of rational discourse.  Faith, without depending on reason for the slightest shred of justification, never contradicts reason and remains ever reasonable. Faith does not destroy reason, but fulfills it. Nevertheless, there must always remain a delicate balance between the two.  Two extremes are to be avoided: credulity and skepticism, superstition and rationalism. If this balance is upset, if we rely too much on our five senses and on our reason when faith should be our teacher, then we enter into illusion. Or when, in defiance of reason, we give the assent of our faith to a fallible authority, then too we fall into illusion.  Reason is in fact the path to faith, and faith takes over when reason can say no more.

from “Our Chosen Faith,” John A. Buehrens and F. Forrester Church – Margy

Some people hold that anything which is not rational is irrational and, therefore, to be rejected; but reason suggests that beyond the rational lies a transrational realm.  We enter it in our dreams; we enter it in moments of worship. We enter it singing, when the tunes are good, even if the words are not. We enter it in lovemaking and dancing and stargazing.  We break through to a transrational realm, beyond knowing or naming.

Prof. Frederick J. Streng, quoted in “Our Chosen Faith” – Margy

A dialogue … requires risk.  The risk includes the possibility of arousing anger and hostility in the expression of strongly held conflicting views.  Perhaps an even greater risk is the surprise in receiving new insights that require changing your own perspective. It is possible that you could discover unexplored horizons of meaning and truth.  In real engagement with another person, you cannot fully foresee what will happen. At the same time, risk must be matched by trust. Dialogue depends on trust that the other person is caring, is secure enough in his or her view to allow for differences, and is open to learning new dimensions of his or her orientation that may be evoked in dialogue.

Meditation- Jordan

Please join with us in a moment of spoken and silent meditation.

Let us take a moment together to reflect on what we believe. Choose from among the things that you believe, to focus on one belief.  What experience was central to that belief? What experience made you realize you believed it? Go back to that experience. That experience, and the belief that came from it helped form your life in some way.  Take a moment and let that experience and the belief speak to you.


Jordan M. Young II and Margaret Levine Young

[Afraid of Answers? – Margy]

A Unitarian-Universalist church ought to be a very safe place to share what we believe.  After all, the history of tolerance in our church is very long. In the book “Our Chosen Faith,” from which some of our readings came, John Buehrens tells the story of Francis David, court chaplain to Unitarian-Universalists’ favorite monarch, King John Sigismund of Transylvania.  During the theological debates that preceded David’s appointment as court chaplain, he said to the other contending theologians: “If I win, I shall defend to the death your right to be wrong.”

But we Unitarian-Universalists don’t often talk about what we believe.  As someone asked at our church recently, “As Unitarian-Universalists, we are allowed to have questions. But are we allowed to have answers?”

We discuss (endlessly) what the questions are:  What is the purpose of life? What happens when we die?  Are there universal truths, or is truth relative and changing?  What is morality based on?

But we rarely offer answers to these questions, even tentative answers that seem to work for ourselves.  Our ministers offer their answers and talk about how they arrive at them, and we value these insights enormously.  But we do not make opportunities for others to share their beliefs in public, and we rarely hear such discussions in private.

As soon as anyone offers answers, we feel threatened: they may be trying to proselytize us, or we may have to disagree with them.  Dialogue requires risk, and we would rather not take it.

We all have answers.  We all live our lives according to some philosophy.  All of us have created a working set of beliefs with which to get through the day.  

Why don’t Unitarian-Universalists talk about what we believe? We think there are several reasons.

[Where Beliefs Come From – Margy]

One reason is that our beliefs are not easy to describe or prove. This is because beliefs come from both rational and non-rational sources.  Some beliefs come from a rational exploration of theory, while others are based on our own experience.

Our Unitarian-Universalist and Western scientific heritage emphasizes belief based on rational thought.  Rationalism is the prevailing ethos in our culture, and the mode of learning our culture validates. This makes beliefs based on rational thought easier to communicate to others.

But belief can also be based on our own experience.  This type of belief has a less tentative, less theoretical quality:  you know what you believe because you were there and had the experience! This sort of learning has not been emphasized in liberal religion lately, although it was central to the religious experience of our forebears.  (Think about Parker and Thoreau.)

It is hard to communicate belief based on experience.  No one else can have our actual experience. We can only describe what happened.  I prefer chocolate ice cream to strawberry. I believe this because I have eaten both often.  I can describe my belief to you, I can describe my ice cream-eating experience to you, but you cannot share the same belief until you try both, because it is impossible to communicate the experience of eating ice cream.

We accept the limitations of rationality for the trivial, but not for the profound.  We accept the fact that we do not know what ice cream tastes like until we taste it. But we are reluctant to accept that we don’t know what a particular religious experience is until we’ve had it.  Ideally, rationality and experience should complement each other. When William Ellery Channing talks about revelation, he is talking about belief based on experience. He has too much respect for the lessons of experience to think that rationality would produce different results.  If we do not regard our experience as the touchstone of our religious belief, we risk becoming the dry church that Emerson condemned so bitterly a hundred and fifty years ago.

[Types of Experiences – Margy]

All of us have experiences that teach us what we believe. Life-changing experiences throw our beliefs and values into sharp relief.  There are the obviously momentous experiences of our lives: death, birth, commitment to relationship. One role of the church is to provide a context from which to learn from these experiences, to see past the pain or joy of the moment and use the experience to deepen our understanding of all aspects of life.  To Jordan and me, this special role of the church distinguishes it from the many other organizations within which we spend our lives.

Quieter experiences can bring similar insights: perfect moments where everything makes sense, or where everything falls apart.  Some of these experiences just happen. Others can be created deliberately to explore what we believe. We don’t have to wait for a dramatic life change, or the fortuitous insight of a perfect moment.  For example, a good sermon seeks to create a shared experience for those present, based on our common experience and the guidance of the minister. It is that experiential quality of the sermon that distinguishes it from a good lecture.  (We’re striving for sermon here, but we know we may not make it.)

The church can create these quiet moments of life-changing and belief-exploring experiences through events like the UUA Coming of Age curriculum, in which teenagers write statements of belief and present them to the congregation.  But we don’t do enough. Other traditions make these kinds of experiences the mainstays of their religion: Buddhists meditate, Hindus chant, Zen masters teach though enigmatic koans, Native American cultures prescribe vision-enhancing experiences.  Increasingly, religious groups in our culture focus on moments of life change, whether being born again, witnessing a miracle, or speaking in tongues.

One challenge of Unitarian-Universalism is to create experiences from which we can learn what we believe.  This doesn’t threaten rational religion: in fact, we cheat ourselves if we close the door to deliberate non-rational experience.

[Listening – Jordan]

Another reason we don’t share what we believe is that we are not very good at listening to this sort of sharing.  Standing up and saying you what you believe is not comfortable or safe. Too many times, when someone is talking on a subject about which we disagree, we don’t really listen to what they are saying.  We listen long enough to figure out where our opinions diverge, and then say to ourselves: “Aha! What he doesn’t understand is…” or “Where she missed the boat is…” I know how easy this is to do, because I do it myself.

Once I was talking to a very close friend with whom I had fallen out of touch.  I knew she had converted to Judaism, and was curious about the process that led her to this conversion. But as she told me about the things in Jewish ritual and tradition that touched her heart and made Judaism the place where she could experience the mystery of existence, I heard my own interior voice saying, “Ah, but you don’t need so much formalism. Don’t you find this practice or that practice too constraining?” 

I stopped hearing how the wonder and mystery of the universe manifested itself to her through Judaism, and heard only why I am not Jewish.  We do this all the time, in Unitarian-Universalist churches as much as any other. While we are free of the institutional dogmatism that says “Our religion is right, the rest are wrong,” we are much less free of the more subtle personal dogmatism that says “I’ve figured out what I believe, and I’m sorry you don’t believe the same thing.”

The challenge of religious liberalism is not only to accept that we all explain the universe in different ways, but also to see that each of our explanations is valid because of our unique experiences.  Further, you and I can share an experience and describe it in completely different ways: there is an infinite richness in this. In his sermon on “Unitarian Christianity,” Channing, in his wonderfully formal 19th century prose, exhorted his listeners to go beyond religious tolerance, saying:

“We conceive highly the duty of candor and charitable judgment, especially towards those who differ in religious opinion.  We can hardly conceive of a plainer obligation on beings of our frail and fallible nature than to abstain from condemning others of apparent conscientiousness and sincerity, who are chargeable with no crime but that of differing from us on topics of great and acknowledged obscurity.  Charity, forbearance, and delight in the virtues of different sects, these are virtues which, however poorly practiced by us, we admire and recommend.”

Channing asked more of his listeners than just candor and charity.  For the true joy of listening to someone share their beliefs is not in defending their right to be wrong, but in taking delight in the virtues of their beliefs.

As I was listening to my friend talk about her new-found Judaism, I brought myself up short from my critiques, and soon found myself sharing in the wonder of what she had discovered.  So much of what she described echoed my own experience: in each of the experiences she described, I could find an analog in my own. What started as a dry exercise in my mind of checking off similarities and differences became a joyful celebration of the universality of experience.

We have an infinite richness to offer each other by sharing our beliefs.  Aren’t we missing opportunities to develop our beliefs by talking about them?  We were so moved and inspired by a Coming of Age service at First Parish in Lexington that we thought, “Where are the adults? How come we all aren’t doing the same inquiry and sharing?”  It is time for adults in Unitarian-Universalist congregations to share beliefs as well.

[Jordan’s Beliefs]

In “Our Chosen Faith,” John Buehrens gives a wonderful introduction to sharing beliefs.  He writes:

“The secret to dialogue is passing over and then returning. We pass over into an appreciative attempt to understand the experience and insight of another person or tradition.  When we return to ourselves, as we inevitably do in one way or another, we are no longer precisely the same person we were before. We are changed by the experience, in some way transformed and enlarged.  When the spirit of passing over and returning prevails, dialogue, mutual respect, and enrichment are made possible. Differences are not abolished, nor is personal identity, but people are transformed in the direction of a larger wholeness.”

Pass over with me and try to understand and appreciate what I believe.

I believe that God dwells in each of us.  Not that there is a God “out there,” and that a spark of that God exists in each of us. Not that the collective consciousness of humanity adds up to something more than five billion people.  But that the active principle that makes us who we are, the consciousness that I see when I look in to your eyes, is God in all its glory and completeness. And that the God I see in your eyes is the same God you see in my eyes.

I believe that that God isn’t some alien or superior or other force living inside me and you, but that that God is who we are. I am God, you are God.  Everything you do is done by God. I guess that means everything I do is done by God too, but sometimes I find it harder to remember and see that. I was heartened by Channing’s words: “In the proportion we possess the principles from which the universe springs, we carry within ourselves the perfection of which its beauty, magnificence, and boundless purposes are the results and manifestations.  We discern more and more of God in every thing, from the frail flower to the everlasting stars. Even in evil, that dark cloud which hangs over creation, we discern rays of light and hope, and gradually come to see, in suffering and temptation, proofs and instruments of the most sublime purposes of wisdom and love.”

It follows that everything that happens to me happens through God.  This is both a heartening and disheartening thing. When good things happen, I feel “Wow, this is part of everything, and everything is connected.  This is just a tip of the iceberg, what a great world, what a great universe. Everything really is perfect.” And when bad things happen, I think, “I don’t get it. This is perfection??”  And I try to experience each and every second of that experience in its fullness, in the faith that sooner or later it’ll make sense.

This is easier since I borrowed a piece of Indian cosmology, or organization for the universe.  It goes like this: At some time God, universal consciousness, you and I, were all one: one consciousness, one being.  For some reason, we all split apart, probably because there is some experience that you/we simply can’t have when we’re all one.  It is in pursuit of that experience that this universe as we see it exists, and it is in pursuit of that experience that we’re alive.  The essential moral tensions between good and evil, between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing, in trying to become (in the words of a popular song) “closer to fine,” is the process of having that experience and reaching that realization for which we all created this universe in the first place.

Fortunately, I believe we get more than one turn on this merry-go-round.  If I’m God, and you’re God, and God is immortal, then that which makes us who we are is immortal too.  And if we’re trying to get to some experience or realization by staging this universe for our own edification, we keep practicing at this business of living and dying until we get it right.

And that, in a nutshell, is what it’s like to live in here.  

[Margy’s Beliefs]

I am more tentative about what I believe than Jordan, I think… I look at my beliefs as the current working hypothesis.  I also have a pragmatic view of my beliefs, and choose to believe things that make my life purposeful and happy.

I look at life as an ongoing learning community, where all of us are given opportunities to learn lessons about truth and love. It is not a school, because that implies teachers and students. Instead, each of us is both student and teacher to those with whom we have contact.  It is more like a graduate school, where we are all learning together.

Sometimes this is very obvious to me.  Life puts me in a situation: for example one, I would be happier if I stopped getting angry at someone at work.  What is interesting is that if I don’t do the learning, if I continue to fume about it, the same lesson appears in another part of my life; someone else comes along who makes me angry the same way.  Sometimes life has to hit me over the head with a lesson three or four times until I get it!  

The faster we can identify the lessons in life and truly learn them, the happier our lives are, and the easier the next lesson is.  With each lesson learned, we get lighter.  

What proof can I offer that this is the way the universe works? None.  But this way of looking at life lets me see positive aspects in almost everything, and feel progress in my life.  It also lets me appreciate the people who are playing the annoying or antagonistic roles that provide the learning situations I need.

My mother died two years ago and this brought me face to face with life and learning.  In some ways, I think my mother died because she had nothing left to learn about the role she had been playing.  She was the quintessential mother and friend. Not that she was perfect, but that her next role, if that’s how it works, can give her new learning situations impossible in this one.

I also learned how I feel about my own death.  Jordan and I both saw how much denial of death there is — not by my mother, but by those around her.  Watching my mother die let me know for sure that I will die too. I am intensely curious about what it was like for her — how it felt, and what happened at and after the moment of death.  Rather than being afraid of death, I now find it comforting that one day my curiosity will be satisfied, and I will know what my mother knows now.

I’m relishing the lessons that having our first child has brought.  I believe that she is the perfect person to teach us things we need to know, although this is not always completely pleasant!  More than anything else, children teach us about love, love based only on direct, irrational, faith and devotion, love not contingent on anything the child does, and that is the most beautiful lesson of all.

[Conclusion – Jordan]

King Sigismund’s chaplain Francis David said, “We need not think alike to love alike.”  So take a moment right now to look around this church. Go ahead, look at the people around you.  Margy and I know a few of you [– Austin/Bud Fisher, and Fran Howell –] but even though we share the fact that we are Unitarian-Universalists, we don’t have a clue about what they believe.  You know each other because you are a community, a community we are visiting and sharing with today. But do you know what others in this church believe? Can you look to your right and look to your left and tell yourself that you know whether or not your neighbor believes in God?  In immortality? In the innate goodness or badness of humankind? In Jesus?

If you know your neighbors’ answers to any of those questions, do you know how they got them?  Do you know what life-changing experiences they have had to bring them to what they believe today?  

The quest for truth is the sacrament of the Unitarian-Universalist church, and seeking the truth in love is part of its covenant.  The beliefs of each of us represent a precious resource to help all of us grow into harmony with the divine.

Hymn #259: “What Is This Holy Church?”

Benediction – Margy

We receive fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight.  Let us gather them up for the precious gifts that they are, and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown.

from Into the Wilderness, a meditation manual by Sara Moores Campbell