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[Chalice] The Worship Question and [Chalice]
the Ties that Bind

Presented October 11, 2009, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

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29:23 minutes - 11.8 MB - The Worship Question and the Ties that Bind .mp3 file.

A few week ago our board president, Ellen Taylor, gave a talk titled "Why Church? Why This Church?" Ellen posed the question of why people go to church, and for most people and for most churches there is a ready, built-in answer: worship. People go to church to worship God. Christians of all kinds go to worship God as God's self is understood through the God-Man Jesus. Jews go to Temple to worship God as God is understood/revealed (and both of those are of course to say too much) through the Torah and Talmud, Muslims go to the mosque to worship Allah as he reveals Himself to Mohammad through the Koran. All these different religious people and religious traditions have no difficulty saying why they go to church and what they do when they get there: they worship God, the Supreme Being.

This quick analysis of other churches and traditions raises an obvious question about us, a question I will call the worship question: Do we come to this church to worship God? Is worship what we do when we come here on Sunday morning for services?

Now it might be shocking to churchgoers who go to all the other churches than ours, but I'd have to say that the answer to the worship question is no; we don't really come to this church to worship God and that is not really what we do here on Sunday mornings. But why not? Because we are a community of atheists and agnostics? Does the fact that we don't worship on Sunday mean that our church is not really a church and that our liberal Unitarian religion is not really a religion but is more like a liberal book club?

The reason we don't worship God is not because we are all atheists and agnostics. As a matter of fact, I'd be willing to bet most people in our congregations consider themselves theists at least in some minimal sense. I think the reason why we don't worship God and we don't come here to worship God is that to worship God entails communal agreement about an answer. It means that we all agree that there is a God and that that God is worthy of our worship and that we adore that God so much that we all feel the need inside of ourselves to come together and worship that God together. Now if everyone here agreed on those fundamental beliefs we could all come together and worship God. But that is precisely what we don't do. We do not all agree on what God is like or whether or not there even is a God. Some people in this church do consider themselves religious and probably would like more prayer time in the service and more God language. Some people in this church do not consider themselves religious, do not believe in any kind of God, and come to this church partly because here they can get away from all that religious stuff like prayer and worship that they don't want. These two different people with two different theological positions come to this church and are both completely welcome and accepted in this church. If what we did every Sunday morning was worship God, if we all agreed that that is why we come here, then the latter group of people wouldn't be welcome or they would be invited, encouraged, or compelled to change themselves to fit in with us.

That is what churches have always done. Churches, temples, mosques have always gathered people together around an answer. But our church here - and whether or not this is true of every UU church everywhere is an open question - is an attempt to be new and different. New and different in the sense that we do not gather people together and form a church based on an answer we all agree to in common. We try to construct a church community on another basis than common agreement on even the most basic theological affirmation about the existence of God. This Unitarian Church in Quincy is an experiment in establishing a religious community on some other basis than agreement about a common theological answer.

And isn't it high time that religious communities do this, find another way to bring people together than through a common answer? Has this more traditional way, bringing people together into community on the basis of a common answer, has this ever really been a good basis upon which to bring people together as a community? Doesn't it tend to divide off and separate those who agree with the answer from those who don't? And does it really unite together those people who do say they agree with the answer? Is this really the inner life of churches as we actually know and experience them, that the people in the particular churches are really united together, love each other and support each other because of their agreement about a common answer? Don't we know that so often within churches the people's agreement about a theological question really doesn't take them very far in being a community where the people know, support, care about, and feel connected to each other, and this is probably why most churches have such a difficult time in really being loving and friendly communities?

So if in this church we do something new and different and create a church community on a basis other than common agreement on a theological answer, then what is this other basis for our church community? I know it seems sometimes that the basis of our church community is that we are progressive or politically liberal or even that we like to socialize, have fun, talk politics, etc., but I would still say there is a more important and more fundamental basis for our church community. I'd say it goes back to the very root meaning of religion itself, legare, bind, tie or connection. Here in this church we do not unite together around a common theological answer but we do live out the truth of legare, the tie or connection or bond among people. We don't bond over theological answers; we disagree about even the most fundamental theological questions, but we still live out the truth that beyond their agreements or disagreements about certain ultimate questions, humans are still bonded or tied to each other. We don't become tied together by agreeing about things. We are tied together already simply because we are humans. Here in this church I would say we live out religious truth, the truth of legare, connection. We are tied together as humans and we don't believe any difference eliminates our tie with our fellow humans. No difference of religious belief, or culture, or language, or racial or ethnic identity or sexual orientation entirely overwhelms or defeats the reality of the connection among humans. We live out the truth of that connection, which is why we are concerned about anything and everything human, which is why in this church we talk about all religious traditions and philosophy and politics and social issues and pretty much anything that concerns human beings here or anywhere. I know probably many people outside our church have a hard time understanding us. Why would a church talk so much about racism, about politics, about the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, the events in Iran over the summer. Why would they even come close to talking about things that people just disagree about, like gay rights or gay marriage? Everyone should understand that this conversation is our legare, our living out our connection to other people everywhere. This place here is where we come to live out the truth of legare, our connection with all humans of all kinds anywhere and everywhere. With this truth of legare as the basis of our church community, this then becomes I think a good place for God to enter as a genuine question. Awareness of the mystery of human connection, of the tie that binds us to all our fellow humans anywhere and everywhere, is the spiritual ground upon which the question of God appears. Our awareness of and living out of our connection to all humans everywhere inoculates at least to a certain extent from bad and dangerous theology. We don't have a God who is our God, who specially favors us because we believe in Him. A God who takes care of us and enables us to close our eyes and ears to people far off and very different from us and who don't believe the same thing as we do. This God is the very opposite of our own religious community based on our legare with all other humans everywhere. We don't believe in this God and this type of theology. That was never more obvious than in those difficult days and weeks and months after September 11th. When it seemed everyone else in town had a God Bless America sign in the window, we came here to this place and sang instead "This is my song, O God of all the Nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine. O hear my song, thou God of all the nations, a song of peace for their land and for mine."

Now when we sing those words together we don't all agree even that the God of all the Nations exists. We don't sing theological agreement, but we do sing our legare, our connection to all people everywhere. That is the spiritual ground of our church, and that spiritual ground becomes a good place for the question of God to appear as a question. The question of God appears here on this ground and in this place as a genuine question and not as an Answer, with a capital A!

Now I have to confess here what might be a serious failure as your minister, but I really don't feel any desire in myself to bring you all closer to a certain Answer to the genuine question of God. I don't get to be around other UU ministers nearly enough or as much as I would like to, but when I have I have sensed a few times that they are people with an answer and that part of their being a minister is to lead their congregation to a deeper awareness of the Answer. The Answers are not the same. One UU minister I got to know was a Buddhist and he was leading his congregation toward a negative answer to the God question and other UU ministers were leading their congregations to the positive Answer of a rational, scientific theism. At such times when I have been with other UU ministers I have really had to look inside myself and question myself, but I have not been able to find in myself this desire to bring you all to a certain Answer. I know most people not in this church would probably think that this is just what the minister does, this is what the minister is for, to help convince you of an answer, but it's not true of this minister. For me, the question of God always remains a genuine question. I live my life constantly in dialogue with so many philosophers and theologians who take God, the possibility of the impossible as Derrida would say, seriously, from early Christian thinkers like Augustine up to postmodern religious philosophers like Levinas and Marion. I can also understand and respect why people would think that it is better to give up the idea of God as a possibility altogether and live freely without it. I have a dog named Nietzsche after all in addition to my dogs named after essentially religious thinkers like Kierkegaard, Hegel, and Heidegger. As Kant argued centuries ago, diametrically opposed answers to the God question both have rational grounds. I certainly want us as a church community to live open to God as a genuine question just as we live open to each other and to our various answers to the God question. But I really don't feel any need or desire to move you to a certain Answer with a capital A to the question of God.

So here in this church we don't really worship God, we do live with God as a genuine question, and we do live out of the truth of our connection to our fellow human beings everywhere. This makes us pretty unusual as a church. But we really are not as odd as a lot of people in our community take us to be. I do believe our church would actually appeal to lots of people out there who really do want to do church and do religion in a different way and who do want a church and a religious tradition that helps them live out their connection to all humans everywhere. I know I constantly feel my own life enriched in so many ways by being involved with this church, and I think there are a lot of people out there who would feel the same way if they knew about our church and gave it a try.

Over the summer the UUA elected a new president, Peter Morales, who ran on a platform of growth. He writes in the most recent edition of UU World: "I founded my campaign on the conviction that Unitarian Universalism has the potential to become a religious movement that includes far more people and that we can have far more impact in the world. I spoke repeatedly about growth as a moral imperative akin to feeding the hungry.. . We are not reconciled to being a declining part of American religious life."

This sounds like a direct challenge to our congregation and to all UU congregations. In Ellen's talk a few weeks ago she talked about how much the congregation has changed since her last presidential talk in 2000. We have lost people to death and some very important families have moved, but also in that time new families and individuals have joined us and revitalized us. Our membership has remained fairly steady and certainly right now our church is very healthy and stable. We have a solid membership and many friends too who are a big part of who we are, but should we try to grow? Do we believe that our church could and should be bigger and that we could have a bigger impact on the Quincy area? Can we envision our church having 100 members? Is this an important goal for us? Do we agree with the new leader of the UUA that growth is a moral imperative?

If I look into the future I can see our church with 100 members. It doesn't look all that different from the church we have right now, just a bit bigger, more diverse, even more fun. Speaking of the future, it looks like I will probably be teaching at QU next academic year but after that Dana, Sebastian and I would like to move away and live in Romania for 3 or 4 years. When we move away in a year and half or so I can see our church with 100 members and excited about having a new minister. I can see that in the future, and it looks pretty good to me.

©2009 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob 2009. The Worship Question and the Ties that Bind, /talks/20091011.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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