Our Chosen Faith
Rev. Grace H. Simons
Rev. Joe Cherry
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A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.
... I believe one is born first unto oneself - for the happy developing of oneself, while the world is a nursery, and the pretty things are to be snatched for, and the pleasant things tasted; some people seem to exist thus right to the end. But most are born again on entering maturity; then they are born to humanity, to a consciousness of all the laughing, and the never-ceasing murmur of pain and sorrow that comes from the terrible multitude of brothers [and sisters.] Then, it appears to me, one gradually formulates one's religion, be it what it may. A person has no religion who has not slowly and painfully gathered one together, adding to it, shaping it; and one's religion is never complete and final, it seems, but must always be undergoing modification.
Sometimes the news isn't. Isn't news, that is. You probably have your own examples, But I am thinking of news about religion. The buzz over parts of the recent Pew Research poll of American religious characteristics, which showed that larger numbers of us are leaving the religious traditions of our childhoods, strikes me as a fuss over nothing. It may be big stuff to the Catholics, Jews, Lutherans and such, but UUs can pretty much yawn and turn to another item. Most of us grew up in other religions or in none at all. Changing to a different religion is nothing new to us. We belong to the faith of our choice.
Those of us who were raised Unitarian, Universalist or Unitarian Universalist also choose - choose to be here, to stay here. Part of UU religious upbringing is the idea that other traditions are respectable options - though not ones our parents think best. Cradle UUs know they can make their own choice when they become adults.
A story from my home congregation illustrates how different that attitude is from other familiar denominations. One year, the older elementary classes used the "Neighboring Faiths" curriculum. [For you longer term members, it used to be called Church Across the Street.] Class sessions look at the different faith communities in the local area, learn some background some things about beliefs and practices. Then they visit the congregation and attend one of their services. At one such visit, their host commented about how wonderful this program was. "Oh," said the UU RE teacher, "do you have something like it?" The question was met with surprise. "Oh, no! Why would we?" In other words, `we want your kids to know about us, but we don't want our kids to know about you or about other religions!' Considering this story, maybe I should understand that they are surprised and concerned about the Pew findings!
One of the outgrowths of our principles stating the importance of each person and the search for spiritual growth is our commitment to diversity in theology. We want to know about different ideas and practices. Almost 500 years ago, Frances David, the founder of Transylvanian Unitarianism, proclaimed, "We need not think alike to love alike." It's a pretty radical idea today, and back then, it was revolutionary. In fact, he ended up in prison for ideas like that. Today, a person who can't accept a certain creedal statement, or who wants to explore the world's theologies and practices may well find a home here. So will many others.
UUs choose this faith for a variety of reasons. Some are unable to accept prescribed teachings, stories and doctrines. Some have been wounded by threats, accusations and censure in other churches. Some like the regard we offer to science, reason and new knowledge. Some want a faith that is committed to being more egalitarian and democratic, or to ecological concerns and awareness. Some honor the teachings of one of the world's traditions but don't believe it is the only way for a person to be good; to be beloved and approved by the Divine. Some are looking for acceptance, particularly if they are part of a group that often faces discrimination. Some find that the people and community draw them in; that they just seem to belong here. For these reasons and more, many new members have explained that they'd been a UU all their lives, but didn't know it.
Choosing a faith implies some understanding of the nature of religion. This can be a problem area for UUs. Conventional wisdom in America says that religion means belief in God and in a certain set of statements about God's nature, history and standards, along with stories and writings contained in Scripture. Judaism is something of an exception because of its focus on practice and inheritance along with ideas about belief. Unitarian Universalism has a different understanding. The Rev Forrester Church wrote that "Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die." He says that these two facts give "a special intensity and poignancy to the time we are given to live and love." He goes on to talk about how courage is required to love, knowing that we cannot keep those we love. They do not belong to us.
D. H. Lawrence was not a Unitarian. In the passage I read earlier, he was responding to a sermon of his mother's pastor - a sermon that argued the necessity of conversion, of right belief. Clearly, Lawrence had a different idea, one much more in line with Unitarian Universalist thinking. I remind you of the end of the passage: "A person has no religion who has not slowly and painfully gathered one together, adding to it, shaping it: and one's religion is never complete and final, it seems, but must always be undergoing modification." It's a far cry from accepting a set of doctrinal statements. Perspectives like these undergird the choice to be a Unitarian Universalist.
So what does choosing this religion mean? Back in the early 1800s, when the Unitarians were trying to get their act together, the Rev William Ellery Channing preached what he called "practical religion." It still sounds pretty good today, for he spoke of the renewal of the spirit, intellectual integrity, and the application of one's moral insights and aspirations to daily living and social existence. [Buehrens and Church, p 28.] I'd say that the UUA's current slogan, "Nurture Your Spirit, Help Heal the World" is clearly related to Channing's message.
Channing preached out of a very different context than our own. Strict Calvinism was the prevailing religious doctrine, especially in New England, so Channing was something of a rebel - though one with a gentleman's manners. Christianity was by far the dominant religion, albeit with some different understandings. Science was relatively primitive and the American experiment with democracy was still in its infancy. We live in a world with political, technological and religious diversity Channing could never have imagined. Yet his ideas still inspire us.
Choosing Unitarian Universalism implies other things, too, some of which Channing would simply have assumed. Thoughtful church membership is one of them. The idea of "church shopping," which we hear about pretty regularly, would have been unthinkable to him. And truly, religion is not a consumer item. It's more a way of living and moving in the world, which may or may not seen as our proper home. We are free to choose our religion - but when we find a "fit," it's not like buying a pair of shoes or choosing a flavor of ice cream.
We ask religion to addresses some pretty basic questions. Who are we? Where do we come from? What is the meaning of our lives? How can we attain spiritual health? How shall we live? We look for answers, or at least approaches, to those questions that fit our experience and understanding. We want something that rings true for us, that somehow resonates. But at the same time, religion asks something of us. How will we respond to the gift of life? How will we contribute to the health of the world? How can we live a life worthy of our gifts? What will we do to shape the future, to make the world a better place?
Belonging to a religion - becoming a UU - involves commitment, a commitment about our actions. We embrace a set of values and aspirations that address that fundamental religious question, "How shall we live?" Our guiding principles [which are printed in your program] have to do with the ways we want to move in the world, the ways we treat each other and all the creatures and features of Earth. They lay out some expectations about the continuing search for integrity, for wisdom and for love and justice. We covenant to be part of a community, to support it and to companion each other in our journeys through life. We expect to encourage and continue our spiritual growth and to keep our minds and hearts open to new insights. We set out to be of service to others, to find or build paths toward justice and peace. We take these commitments seriously, and strive to meet them. We do this in different ways, but our purpose is one.
I've laid out a pretty big order here, one that holds lofty aims. At the same time, when we choose a religion; when we become part of a religious community, we know that community is made up of people. By our very nature, we humans have our limitations. We seem ever better at stating our high ideals and principles than we are at living up to them. Though we don't much like it, we know that we will fail at times, that we will fall short. And so will those around us. We are imperfect creatures. We will at times need forgiveness, and at other times, need to forgive others. We will need to begin again.
That's part of what it means to belong to a religious community. It's part of our covenant to walk our religious journeys together. We are mindful that we begin as we are, and know that our hope and vision exceed our practice. Part of being good companions to one another is the willingness to help each other through the rough spots, to forgive the scrapes and pain of the wrong turns, the stumbling along. Part is admitting mistakes and trying again. We make the way by walking.
When we choose a religion, we choose the tension between our highest aspirations and the limitations and imperfections of being human. At the same time we can imagine the ideal, we are social creatures and cannot be fully human alone. We help each other; challenge, support and inspire each other. We do it imperfectly, but we hope to keep improving. We want to be good companions to one another and responsible citizens of earth. In this, we can take comfort and solace from certain parts of Scripture. I remind you that in the Genesis creation story, when God finished his work, he looked at the world and pronounced it, not perfect, but "good." Perhaps our dreams of perfection push aside our appreciation for the good. Perhaps `good while imperfect' is exactly the condition we need to grow and flourish.
And from the prophet Micah, an answer cloaked as a question: "What is required of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with the Sacred, with your God?" Humility seems to be out of fashion these days. Yet the limitations of being human call for it. Knowing ourselves to be human, we do our best to keep learning and keep working to bring justice and mercy into the reality of our days, our shared lives. This is the kind of faith I can commit to. These are the kind of companions I want to share my religious community, my journey through life, my chosen faith.
September 20, 2009
[Ed. note: The "a" in Frances David's last name should have an accent mark over it. It won't work in our character set. His surname is pronounced "dah-veed".]
Copyright by Rev. Grace Simons. If you enjoyed it or would like to use part of it, please contact our web wizard,
Rev. Grace Simons left us a
collection of her sermons
when she retired in October, 2011.
We have a brief biography
of Rev. Grace, and the last edition of
a column she wrote for our newsletter.
2172 Kiernan Avenue
Modesto, California See a map
We have no mail service on Kiernan;
PO Box 1000
Salida, CA 95368
We are a liberal church and the only UU congregation in Stanislaus county. We serve Ceres, Denair, Escalon, Hickman, Hughson, Keyes, Manteca, Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Riverbank, Salida, Turlock and Waterford. We welcome Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Deists, Free-thinkers, Humanists, Jews, Pagans, Theists, Wiccans, and those who seek their own spiritual path. We welcome people without regard to race, physical ability, ethnicity or sexual orientation.