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[Chalice] Unitarianism as a Culture [Chalice]
And Unitarian Religious Education

Presented March 3, 2002, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

You might not be aware of this, but this summer while I was at Cornell I lived for five weeks with a wonderful older couple who are Unitarians. The night I came into Ithaca for the first time the couple in whose house I was supposed to live, were out at a party. They gave me their cell phone number, and I called it and they explained that they were not at home but they said they left the door open and that I was to just go right in when I found their house.

So when I peered into their living room and then walked right in, without them being there, I had the odd sense of sort of spying in my hosts' lives. I looked through the screened front door into the living room and then walked right in. The first thing I noticed was the classical music radio station was playing on the stereo. And the living room was a bit cluttered, mostly with books and with sheets of music. And the most prominent feature of the room was the piano. And I noticed the lack of a TV set. Talking this scene in, I thought to myself: oh, yeah. These people are Unitarians all right. And though this was a foreign place to me and I'd never been there before, the scene and that thought gave me the comfort of the familiar.

I wonder, would you feel the same way and have the same thought? Would this scene have prompted in you the sense of the familiar, of recognition, that the scene conveyed Unitarianism? And if that is true, would it convey the same thing to the outsider, to the non-Unitarian? If you weren't Unitarian yourself, would this scene, with the music, the books, the piano, would you connect all the dots and make out of the scene anything related to Unitarianism? Would there be anything in the scene connected in any way to Unitarianism so that it prompted you to wonder what Unitarianism is all about? And if this scene does signify Unitarianism to us, speak Unitarianism rather clearly in fact, is the language of the scene in a certain sense, only a language for us, for Unitarians, a private language? And should we be concerned about this? Should we think of ways to speak and to signify Unitarianism not only in a private but in a public language?

Would we be comfortable, for example, with a big image of the chalice on your house the way some Christian homes display a cross? Would this be a good way to speak a public language and say, yes we are Unitarians in a public way?

The Sophie Lyons Fahs Lecturer on Religious Education at last year's UUA General Assembly was a Catholic. Thomas Groome was a professor of religious education at Boston College. It would be hard to get more Catholic than that. Now why was he speaking to us at the UUA? Well, he said that he had great respect for Unitarianism and that one of his best friends was a Unitarian minister and that he was a frequent visitor to the church. He said in fact that on the flight to the conference he found himself converting someone to Unitarianism. The person next to him on the plane asked why he was coming to Cleveland, and Professor Groome explained what Unitarianism was to him, and the man didn't know there was a denomination like that and said he would definitely check out a Unitarian church. So Professor Groome started his talk on religious education basically by saying: look what a great religious movement you have to offer people. People actually think it's great when they find out about it. So one thing you need to do is find more public ways to explain and articulate who you are. He said from his perspective as an outsider, it seemed to him that we UUs have a very strong tradition for defining what we are not. We are not hell and damnation types, not saving souls, etc, but that we don't have such a strong tradition in defining what we are and saying it in a public way. I was thinking about what he said when I went to Cornell, so I asked my colleagues at the NEH what they knew about Unitarianism. Of the 15 professors who were in the seminar, probably only 3 had any clear idea of what Unitarianism is.

Of course Professor Groome came as the Sophie Lyon Fahs lecturer in Religious Education, and it was religious education he really came to speak about. But the way he started his talk, he was clearly saying to us: If you UUs have a hesitancy to publicly state your identity, then what do communicate to your kids? How do you convey to them what it is to be a UU? And he said how wonderful it must be to approach religious education from the vantage point of UU, because we have the whole world and all its wisdom to teach our kids about. It's not that we don't have enough to teach our kids, or some clear doctrine. Rather, we have so much to teach them. And Professor Groome said that we should remember that we are not teaching our kids about Buddhism, or about Confucius. Rather, we are teaching our kids wisdom, Buddhist wisdom, Confucian wisdom, Christian wisdom, human wisdom. I think it is too easy to slide into thinking that we are teaching a subject, that we are teaching about a particular thing, and too easy to lose sight of the fact that we are instead teaching wisdom, wisdom with many faces, from many traditions, the wisdom we always both have, know, and pursue and desire. That is why our symbol is the chalice, and maybe we need to go back again and again to the chalice so that we always remember that and convey that clearly to our kids. We want them to grow up loving and pursuing wisdom and not just knowing a lot.

Professor Groome also said that as a religious educator the bane of his existence was what he called the "drop them off at the church" approach to religious education. Many Catholics see religious education as the job of the church. They believe they are providing their kids with religious education by dropping them off at catechism classes and Sunday School and they leave it at that. True religious education is more a question of the home than the church. If your kids are really going to understand the religious principles you believe in and wish to convey to them, then you cannot just leave that up to the church on Sunday morning. Religious education works best when families integrate religious practices into their daily life as a family. Parents should understand that religious education is their responsibility too, and that the responsibility is not fulfilled simply by dropping the kids off at the church.

This raises an interesting question: What are those religious practices we integrate into our daily lives? What do we communicate to our kids that we believe as Unitarians? What do our children get out of their family's Unitarian religious education? Now for Christians this might be fairly obvious. Christian families may display a cross or a painting of Jesus or religious statue or icon. Christian families may integrate religious education and religious practices into daily life by saying grace at the dinner table. But how do Unitarian families do that? Do we have some image of the chalice, for example, in our homes, or do we display the seven Principles somehow? Do we say the equivalent of grace in a Unitarian way with which we are comfortable? Do we instead of saying grace have a reading every day from Singing the Living Tradition or another source book? Do we read a short, wise passage from Buddhism one day and a passage from the Analects the next day and a passage from the Talmud the next day explain to our kids that this is the wisdom of the world and this is who we are as pursuers of wisdom, as people of the book, as Unitarians? Do we have any means for doing this, and do you feel like you get encouragement and help to do this from this church and from each other and from me as the minister? Or are these ways of integrating our religious life into our everyday family life something we are reluctant to do and something we would rather avoid and eschew, just as we avoid and eschew talk about salvation, or conversion, or even for some of us, talk about God and divinity?

I don't know where you all stand on that question, but unlike the question about the building project, where I feel I need to be neutral, on this question I definitely come down on the side of integrating religious practices into our daily life. One of my favorites is the Mezzezah. I had one years ago and I really need to get one for my house. A Mezzuzah is a little piece of metal or wood with a tiny scroll of the 10 Commandments that Jews put on their doors, and they touch it whenever they enter and leave to remind them of their commitment to practice ethical living. Now how about a Mezzuzah on the door, and the seven Principles somewhere in the house, and perhaps a saying from the Buddha or Confucius or Taoism somewhere, and a saying from a wise person you want your kids to admire, like Einstein, or Gandhi, or Martin Luther King or Margaret Mead, and the Chalice somewhere in the house. Wouldn't this be a Unitarian house? Do we live in such houses, or try to, and do we understand that effort as religious education?

And I wonder also: how effective are we in connecting the things we do and care about to Unitarianism so that we transmit to our kids some sense of how our religious life relates to and fuels the rest of our life. For example, if you believe-as I clearly would-in surrounding your kids with animals and in furthering the cause of the humane society and of ethical treatment of animals in general-do we explain that we do so because we know as Unitarians that there are spiritual traditions other than the anthropocentric Judaeo-Christian ones and that we as Unitarians are spiritual heirs of these other, non-anthropocentric traditions? And if we believe that our children should be raised with an appreciation for art and music, dance and theatre-as you clearly do, with all your loving care to all our talented children in this community-does this have anything to do with the fact that we are Unitarians and that we are trying to raise Unitarian children?

If we want to integrate Unitarian spiritual practices more into our daily family life, then maybe we should begin where we are, for as a wise man once said, "becoming is a movement you make right from where you are." Surely many of us have favorite people and favorite sayings, our favorite bits of wisdom. If we put our heads together, we could come up with a heck of a collection of quotations and words of wisdom we could use in our daily lives, and integrate into our families religious education. I'm sure there would be a great deal of overlap, because we have many intellectual and spiritual teachers in common, but there would also be great diversity. One person might have a lot to contribute in terms of Romantic poetry, or Bogart movies, and another person might have many quotations from, say, German philosophy. What's to stop us from sharing and from coming up with a great collection to use at the dinner table or before bed, to reinforce the truth that as Unitarians we are people of the book, people of wisdom, people of the chalice? Why not? Oh, and if we did that, don't worry. No one has to read ALL the Kierkegaard quotations!

Closing Words:

One of my favorite passages from the Talmud: "Books, even more than the earth itself, nourish our souls and are our support."

©2002 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2002. Unitarianism as a Culture, (accessed July 16, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.