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[Chalice] Our Unitarian Universalist Theological House[Chalice]

Presented September 18, 2016, by Rev. Krista Taves

This sermon series is inspired by a lecture series delivered by Rev. Rebecca Parker to the Liberal Religious Educators.

Many of us in this sanctuary have claimed Unitarian Universalism or are considering Unitarian Universalism because somehow, somewhere, and in ways that are a mystery, Unitarian Universalism claimed us. If you were born into Unitarian Universalism, your parents likely dedicated you to its values when you were too young to remember and as an adult you chose to continue claiming them. If you found Unitarian Universalism later in life, it touched something: your need for community, for an affirmation of your deepest self, the freedom it offered. Perhaps it reflected your deepest convictions, giving you a sense of hope and purpose. Maybe it fired your curiosity and your intellect. There are so many reasons that we claimed this as our faith and allowed it to claim us, and because we see revelation, or divine truth, as constantly evolving, our reasons are constantly evolving too.

And yet, because of that continuous evolution, there are always those moments when someone asks you, "So what does your church believe in?", "What does it mean to be a Unitarian Universalist?" We stammer, we hem and haw. We struggle to find the right words that could possibly give a sense of this very deep experience we have had and are having. And sometimes, we answer in ways that affirm misunderstandings about Unitarian Universalism, like that we don't believe in anything, or that you can believe in anything that you want. None of which is true. You can't believe in anything you want as a Unitarian Universalist because what we believe in must be true to our conscience and our commitment to reason, compassion, and respect for all people and the earth we live on.

And I find this public uncertainty curious because most Unitarian Universalists consider themselves pretty smart people! We tend to be better educated than most Americans, and many UUs are movers and shakers. We are not generally known as a people with a lack of confidence. We make a big difference out in the world, so why this this uncertainty?

Rev. Rebecca Parker, the former President of Starr King School of the Ministry and a Unitarian Universalist minister says that somehow we have forgotten our center. In all the theological shifts that our faith has experienced, from Christianity to Transcendentalism to Humanism, and then the broadening of our theological circle to include feminine spirituality, paganism, Buddhism, and Earth Centered Traditions, we forgot our center. None of these transitions are bad things, they have made us who we are. But somehow, we bought into the notion that there isn't a center to Unitarian Universalism, that being a non-creedal religion means we really are just a collection of diverse beliefs and personal practices.

Rebecca Parker and many of us, me included, don't believe this, for a minute.

We often don't know who we are, not because there's no center or because there's nothing holding us together. We have forgotten how to say it. Rebecca Parker says that even for all of our individual diversity, we have core beliefs and values that have anchored us for almost 500 years. But we have reached the point where our theology has become implicit, vague and unspoken. This has not been good for us. It make us less able to be the fullness of who we can be as individuals and as a people.

So over this church year we are going to take the time to be exceptionally explicit about our theology. We're going to do some retelling of our history and interpreting that history to reveal to us the theology we have never stopped living, to remember our center and to claim it, lovingly and fiercely, as the theology that has kept us alive that offers healing and hope to ourselves and to this world.

The image that that we are going to use is the image of the theological house developed by Parker to help us understand what grounds our faith. She says that every religion asks the same six questions.

Each of these theological words, she says are like " a fish hook - throw your line into history of theology . . . . each word points to a sea of thought." Today, we're going to spend some time swimming through that "sea of thought." I'm going to briefly introduce each theological question that through our church year we will devote an entire service to.

Let's begin with the foundation of our Unitarian Universalist House. For this we're going to go back two hundred years to New England after the American Revolution. Protestant Christianity at that time saw humanity as depraved and sinful, and God as all-powerful, and ready to punish and reward. Most Protestants at that time also believed in predestination. You were predestined for heaven or hell. It was pretty dismal, black and white thinking, and some Christians were really uncomfortable with this. What a waste, to spend your life worrying whether you were saved or damned?

These Christians worked up new ideas about God and humans. They gave up the idea of God as punishing and harsh. God was good, loving, kind and strong. They gave up the idea of humans as depraved. We weren't. We were made in the image of God, meaning we were also good, loving, kind and strong.

The religious task, as these Christians understood it, was to cultivate these god-like characteristics so that our god-given potential could come out and shine. The religious task was also to promote a partner-like relationship between humans and God. We were co-creators with and through God, made in the image of God, who works through us. When we nurture our goodness, God comes to be in the world. This is the theological foundation of Unitarian Universalism - that we are called to kindness, love, and goodness in trusting relationships. Even when Unitarianism moved into humanism, and left the concept of God behind, this idea of human goodness and partnering with all of life, has been carried forward. As theism has come back into Unitarian Universalism, the older Unitarian and Universalist concept of God and humans as being in a divine partnership, with no division between what's earthly and what's divine, has been resurrected.

We move now from our foundation to the walls of our theological house. Ecclesiology - or the theology of church - what holds us together. This part of our house happened in resistance to a form of church that is hierarchical. When Unitarianism first emerged in Europe 400 years ago, there was only one way to do church - with God and Pope and King at the top, and the people at the bottom. There were some Christians, called Radical Reformers, who thought this was wrong. The early Christian church had none of this hierarchy. There was a radical equality between members who decided together what the church was. There was a real belief that God works best when people worked together as equals. The fancy word for this is congregational polity. Our ecclesiology is congregational polity. Church is formed by human beings who come together of their own free will and make a covenant to walk together. This way of church has defined what church means for all kinds of groups, including Baptists, Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, the Puritans who first settled this continent, and Unitarian Universalists. Even as we have become more theologically diverse, we have held onto this powerful belief that we come together as equals and that the church is created by human beings in sacred covenant with each other. But it's more than this, in our ecclesiology, we are the walls, we are the presence of God, or the embodiment of the spirit of life to one another. We witness to one another.

But what do we witness for? Well, it's pretty simple. Our foundational theology - the bringing of goodness into the world, being vessels for the movement of God in the world, and the nurturing of every soul into their full potential. You can see this ecclesiology in all the different ways we are Unitarian Universalist - whether humanist, Christian, pagan, atheist, agnostic, Jew, and all the other ways we do religion.

The roof of our house - how we protect ourselves from the danger in living, represents soteriology, or the theology of what we need to be saved and protected from. Every religion sees some kind of danger for humanity and develops ways to protect us from that danger. For instance, some conservative Christians believe that salvation is about saving your soul from an otherworldly hell. We are evil, and we have to be saved from our own evilness. You do that by accepting Jesus as your savior, and you get to heaven. But our roots are in liberal Christianity, which focused less on right belief and more on right action.

Our Universalist ancestors rejected the idea of heaven and hell, saying that God is so loving he would never condemn his creation to an eternal punishment. Heaven and hell aren't otherworldly places you go to after you die. Heaven and hell are right here on earth and they are created by human beings whenever we "relate violently, oppressively, or cruelly to one another. (Parker)

We need to be saved from the hells that we create on earth. Those are personal hells, that happen in our individual lives, and collective hells, where there are unjust systems that create hell in bigger ways. War, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and the need for enemies.

Hell happens when we fail to allow the spirit of God, or the life-affirming power of love move through us. We protect ourselves from these hells through love. In that love, we commit ourselves to the building of heaven on earth. We open ourselves to the truth of our shortcomings and take responsibility for them. We do our personal and collective homework, looking at all the ways we hold back goodness in this world, and then become agents for the building of heaven. This is how we become the roof of our theological house.

That brings us to missiology - the windows of our house- how we relate to our neighbors. Given that we see the potential for good in all human beings, given our trust in the potential for good when we come together in covenant, given our understanding of evil and what we need to be saved from, and given our "love always wins "eschatology. . . . It's not hard to know what our missiology is. We see the potential for good in our neighbors, just as we see it in ourselves. Just as we have a partnership relationship with the holy, we want that same trusting relationship with people who are different from us. We believe in the spiritual practice of hospitality. We want to learn from other religions and other ways of being. We are not afraid of having our house changed by what we learn from our neighbors. Now, this doesn't mean we let everything in. . . This is definitely a window with a screen that separates out the harmful from the life affirming, after all, you have to protect your house. You don't want the roof to leak, the walls to be drafty, a door that never closes, or worst of all, a cracked foundation.

Another part of our missiology is understanding the window that we look through. Our window is our lens into the world. Your race, your gender identity, your sexual orientation, your physical ability, your culture, your class, your age, these give the tint to our windows, which is why so much of our work is about understanding the tint so that we understand our how our window helps and hinders us from seeing what is happening out there and responding to it with that healing salvific love.

Our missiology asks us to be open to the world, and to reach out to the world in a loving, trusting, way, knowing that any time we connect with another living being, our connection becomes a vessel for the movement of the love that will heal us. A hymn that best expresses this is hymn 189, Light of Ages and of Nations.

Finally, the doors of our house, or Eschatology, is a fancy way of saying the theology of where we come from and where we're going. To give you an example, in many Christian understandings, we started off perfect, in the Garden of Eden. Then there was the fall, where Eve eats the apple. Since then, we've been trying to get back into the Garden of Eden. At the end of time, Jesus is coming back, and this whole world is going to be raptured so the Kingdom of Heaven comes here. Those deemed worthy make it, and the others go to hell for eternity.

Unitarian Universalists have taken the Garden of Eden metaphor in a different direction. We see that there are both gardens of eden and hells on earth. There is beauty and perfection and there is a deep and painful struggle. All of our social justice work is about reclaiming the Garden of Eden, where there is no more unnecessary suffering and sorrow, no more inequality, no more racism or homophobia or classism, ableism, transphobia or sexism, no more destruction of the earth. Where every person and every being is affirmed in their inherent worth and dignity and is fully able to enter the covenant. Our social justice work engages this eschatology of right relationships, this eschatology that love is absolutely going to win.

Pneumatology: All of this comes together in our pneumatology, our theology of that which is beyond ourselves and beyond our theological house. For us, the holy is everywhere and in everything. It is in the earth with its elements - earth, air, fire, water. It is in every living being. It's all permeating, and pervasive, always moving and it's bigger than any of us, and we can access it when we connect to our highest selves - the best people we can be. Our pneumatology came into being as we stripped away from God all those things that seemed to keep people from being able to connect to the holy. God as King, God as male. God as a punisher. God as a particular race and age. God as some disembodied being able to intervene in this world. God even as having human characteristics all. And for some people, even the word God itself. Unitarian Universalism has consistently deconstructed how we talk about the holy, transforming it into a force or presence that is with all things and in all things and moving through all things.

This is our theological house. We are the foundation, the walls, the door, the window, the roof, and we are one with all that surrounds it. We need to be able to talk about our theological house to other people. We need to talk about our theological house amongst ourselves. We really need to be able to explain our theological house to our children and to the youth so they can make it their own. Unitarian Universalism has a living theology of hope and trust in the transforming power of love. We save lives and hearts and reassure souls. When we do our faith well, we are a beacon of light in the darkness, a promise that the sacred and the holy moves in all things in all times, in all places and in all ways.

Amen and blessed be.

©2016 Rev. Krista Taves

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Taves, Rev. Krista 2017. Our Unitarian Universalist Theological House, /talks/20160918.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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