The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] Gosh Darn: [Chalice]
A Unitarian Among the Christians

Presented November 2, 2014, by Sharon Buzzard

Listen to a recording of "Gosh Darn: A Unitarian Among the Christians"
27:13 minutes - 24.9 MB - Gosh Darn: A Unitarian Among the Christians .mp3 file.

Let me describe a scenario you may have been in. You're having lunch or a coffee break with a group of colleagues--it's a politely friendly group, around a work lunch table, those with whom you maintain the necessary boundaries. As the chat rolls along, someone mentions an event she attended at church over the weekend. Right then, your stomach begins to clinch and consider a trip to the drink machine as you can feel it coming, the courteous, around-the-table, certification that goes with being a Northside Methodist, a Third Baptist, or a member of St. Francis' parish. Your turn. Time to admit and take your hit--the curious but blank looks, the don't- want- to- ask- too- much-more deference when you say Unitarian. Some things are best not to know about.

Here's a another scenario. This one, a true story. Several years ago, Sherryl Lang, a former member of our congregation who now lives in Georgia, had invited me to lunch to get better acquainted with several of her friends. Someone asked how Sherryl and I became acquainted and we mentioned our QU connection, and also that we both attended the Unitarian Church. The typical quizzical looks began, but given that this was Sherryl's party and Sherryl's friends, I deferred, happy to sit back and wait for the Q&A that was bound to follow. These friends were at a level beyond the one I mentioned at first, and ready to go in a little deeper. One said, "You mean you have not accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior." Those of you who know and remember Sherryl will recall the tenor of her loud, sweet southern Magnolia voice, when she said emphatically, "NO." I didn't want to complicate the issue at the time, but I did accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior, when I was about 11 years old, dunked so my sins could wash away. Not sure for how long this is good for, though.

So Christians eye UU's with a certain amount of suspicion. They think we're odd, but we think they're are odd too, and for me this comes from the curious language they speak. Theirs is a distinctive code. "Everything happens for a reason." "God doesn't give you more than you can handle." "God needed another angel in heaven." These phrases provide answers yet deny all thought. Unitarians set to work and think. Chains of events do unfold; could they have been changed, could outcomes be different? Yes, things do happen because of reasons. And people are more often than not given more than they can handle, especially occupy a marginalized niche in our society. The terrible loss of a child is not salved by platitudes about God and angels. And there's the peculiar logic that has God blowing away one house, but saving the one across the street. It's enough to drive a Unitarian insane.

I'm sure I'm talking now to quite a few used-to-be Christians, so I know many of us have strong reactions to either side of this lingo. Instead being protected, folded in his protective arms, safe in a world that is designed just for you, the other side is one of sin, damnation, salvation for the elect, and doom for the non-believers. We may have wandered in a metaphorical desert of our own for a while. Years are spent in anger, resentment, and general rebellion, rejecting anything that smacked of orthodoxy. We may have been as Robert Frost said (A Masque of Mercy)

''The kind of Unitarian
Who having by elimination got
From many gods to Three, and Three to One,
Thinks why not taper off to none at all.''

After I read this quote, I got curious as to why Frost would take on Unitarians. For the most part, he is insistently ambiguous about theology, and many other things too for that matter, and I know a lot of Frost's work, but this one was a new one for me. The quote is spoken from the voice of the prophet Paul in " A Masque of Mercy," as he is engaged in a debate with Jonah about his resistance to God's prophecy. The context is too much to go into here; Frost wrote two masques--a Masque of Mercy, that I quoted from, and The Masque of Reason is about Job who gets into an argument with God about the horrible things that happened to him. Written in l945 and 1947, respectively, when Frost was an old man, both weigh humankind's need for reason and a sense of justice. Both offer a highly irreverent God. He speaks to Job, saying, "I've had you on my mind a thousand years/ To thank you someday for the way you helped me/Establish once and for all the principle /There's no connection man can reason out/ Between his just deserts and what he gets./ Virtue may fail and wickedness succeed./ Twas a great demonstration we put on/.... Too long I've owed you this apology/....It had to seem unmeaning to have meaning/And it came out alright. You realize by now the part you played/My thanks to you for releasing me from moral bondage to the human race/ ...... Unless I liked to suffer the loss of worship./ I had to prosper good and punish evil/You changed all that. You set me free to reign/You are the emancipator of your God/ And as such I promote you to saint."

In the debate between Job and God, Frost shows what has been one of the thorny issues in what can be labeled as faith--- to do without reason, to suggest that the universe is one without a human sense of justice is maddening at best. It may be the contradiction between a natural need to think and a deity who insists that there is no connection between what a person gets and what he or she may deserve, no "just deserts," that has driven many to atheism. And often an angry bunch they are. Their stage of rebellion not only needs to quash, stomp out God, but to deny the very questions themselves, to deny the need to think over circumstances in which things don't happen for a reason. For a time I thought I might be an atheist. But that was before I knew about and understood Unitarianism and I might suggest that the same is true of others. The anger at the narrowness of the teaching, at what passes these days for "Christian values," drives some into that corner, but one evolves, as many of us have. In the words of one of our hymns, "we search for truth, equality, and blessed peace of mind. And then we come together here to make sense of what we find."

Many of you will know the name of Sam Harris, a popular spokesperson, blogger, and author on the subject of atheism. His latest book, called Waking Up, caused quite a ruckus because he describes a trip to the Sea of Galilee, when he walked the path of Jesus to stand where he delivered his most famous sermon, He says, "As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self - an 'I' or a 'me' - vanished." Had a writer whose very identity rests on his atheism found God? Was he ready to announce that his time of darkness was over? In fact, in that he continues to reflect on similar feelings he's had before--at his desk, on his porch, listening to music--and goes on to ask the chicken and egg question: which comes first? The faith or the feeling of transcendence? Could it be that religion merely explains a pre-existing condition, one of simple spirituality? And in the words of the reviewer of his book, the religious "lexicon was grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?" (Frank Bruni). Reflecting on the high that he felt by the Sea of Galilee, Harris writes: "If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit." But instead, he saw his experience as one that he was happy to call simply spiritual.

You may know that there is a growing number of Americans who say that they do not find the answers they need in organized religion. Thirty-seven percent of all Americans say they are spiritual but not religious (The Atlantic, January 2014) but less than a third of those went so far as to label themselves agnostic or atheist. Many had a belief in a higher power but their convictions were not tied to any religious affiliation. These searchers were looking for the emotional grounding that can be associated with a belief in a higher power. Many easily admit that their lives are muddled with unanswered and unanswerable questions so there is ample room for doubt, for science and for faith itself. But here's another annoyance, the highest-ranking politicians mention God at every turn and with little or no fear of negative repercussion. When's the last time you heard one of them wrestle publicly with agnosticism?

Bill Leonard, a professor of church history at Wake Forest University's School of Divinity in North Carolina, explains his essay "Heard of a Language Called Christian" that speaking Christian isn't confined to religion. It has infiltrated politics, as political candidates have to learn how to speak Christian to win elections. Leonard speaks of Abraham Lincoln who often referred to the Bible in his speeches when he was running for Congress in response to his opponent who accused him of not being a Christian. But Lincoln never joined a church or said he was born again like his congressional opponent. Leonard then cites a more recent example. During his 2003 State of the Union address, George W. Bush baffled some listeners when he declared that there was "wonder-working power" in the goodness of American people - drawn from a hymn, "In the Precious Blood of the Lamb." He says Bush was sending a "coded message" to evangelical voters: I'm one of you. And Frank Bruni notes that during his conversation with Sam Harris about his new book, Harris observed that President Obama had recently ended his public remarks about the beheading of James Foley by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which wraps itself in religion, with a religious invocation: "May God bless and keep Jim's memory, and may God bless the United States of America." That struck Harris as odd and yet predictable, because in America, he said, God is the default vocabulary....There's truly no secular or rational alternative for talking about questions of meaning and existential hopes and fears." (NY Times, 8/31/14)

Let me say that it's a crying shame what has happened to the word Christian and the idea of being Christian thanks to the lingo of the right-wing its voting power. Leonard's point in the essay I just mentioned is that even Christians don't speak the language of the bible and that modern Christians are steeped in a language so distorted that it has become a stumbling block to the religion, You get to a point where you wonder if the language hasn't become a mechanism of control over those who are afraid to do anything but "speak Christian," and thus to think Christian according to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. I want to be the first to "name and claim" the fact that I have many Christian friends who are good, good people. They treat their neighbors as themselves, avoid judgment, and as the saying goes, preach the gospel with their deeds rather than their words. They have offered me their prayers, lent me their interpretations of how to survive troubled times, been my bridge over troubled waters. They do not ask the questions I ask, nor sustain the doubt I can tolerate, but they, like most of us, are trying to make their way through the world as best they can. I respect their journey.

While I was writing this talk, the NY Times last week kindly ran an editorial called "Does Everything Happen for a Reason" (Konika Banerjee, a graduate student, and Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology, both at Yale). The writers cite studies that say that the need to believe there is a design in life is common to the religious and to atheists alike. Perhaps it is with Sam Harris' moment of transcendence, they note a universally human need to have things make sense, to believe in a design no matter what language we put on it. In other words, to believe that everything happens for the best of all possible reasons, that there really are no accidents. Carried, however, through the next few steps in logic, the consequences of such thinking are, they say, to tilt us towards a view that the world is fundamentally a fair place where goodness is rewarded and badness is punished. Seen this way, Poverty, inequality and oppression become a part of a meaningful plan. But it no plan that either I or you can accept.

The atheist Richard Dawkins (from that same article) offers a particularly gloomy summation when he says, the universe exhibits "precisely the properties we should expect if there is , at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference." The thing that makes Dawkins' opinion a particularly painful one to accept is that he has personified, anthropomorphized a universe that by his very description is not operating on human principles, one whose blindness and pitiless indifference sounds downright personal, especially on this lovely Sunday morning where everything feels just the opposite. The ways of God, in other words, are not ours to understand. Human events, on the other hand, can unfold in fair and just manner when individuals and society work to make this happen. And as Unitarians, we understand our calling to this work as we endeavor in our ways, great and small, individually and as a church to make a difference in our Quincy community, in the family of our church, and in the lives of those who may need a loving touch. Not all meaningful deeds unfold on a cosmic scale. A phone call to a lonely friend, a bag of diapers given at First Friday, a welcome to a gay or transgendered guest feel like a good enough answer to the question of a purposeless universe.

I like to believe I've grown in wisdom if not in stature and luckily I have someone to dispense my wisdom to, in the form of Anna Louise, who is, of course, thrilled when oracle announces she has advice to give. She sits down, attentive, ready for the delivery of The Word. My last piece of advice to her regarded the development of a spiritual practice. I remember hearing a speaker who said in answer to those who define themselves as spiritual, not religious, "what then is your spiritual practice?" During the years that I wandered, denying that there could be a church that could provide what I needed, I had never considered cultivation within myself a place of spiritual nourishment. So my advice to Anna on this particular day was to start a practice while she was young, one that would become habit and sustain her. That I thought it a mistake that I let so long go by without attending to that particular facet of self for surely it can be seen as necessary as the daily walk or multi-vitamin . Perhaps it is the freedom, the buffet of thought that Unitarian Universalists are welcome to choose from that makes those who question whether ours is a "real" religion skeptical. Some may need the more defined formula that others resist. Beneath the all too insufficient language given us to explain our common search, is the human need for answers that make sense. And it seems that in our caring for spiritual selves, for one another, and for our world, we can be a be an unambiguous answer.

Works Cited:

©2014 Sharon Buzzard

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Buzzard, Sharon 2014. Gosh Darn: A Unitarian Among the Christians, /talks/20141102.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.