This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained more than the usual number of ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.
The readings were extensive excerpts from a poem by Everett Hoagland titled “The Pilgrim.” This poem may be found in his book …Here…: New and Selected Poems, pp. 116-117.
When I tell people that I belong to a Unitarian Universalist church, one of the first things they ask me is: “So what do Unitarian Universalists believe?” Every time someone says that to me, I’m not entirely sure what to say.
You see, when someone asks a Unitarian Universalist, “What do you folks believe?” — well, it’s completely the wrong question to ask. We don’t have a creed, and therefore we don’t have a certain set of beliefs we are supposed to adhere to. But here we are in New Bedford, a city dominated by the Catholic Church on the one hand, and conservative Christianity on the other hand, and those good folks all have creeds. They know what they believe. Catholic kids have to memorize the catechism. Conservative Christian kids know that they are supposed to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior (or whatever the exact phrasing is of their particular denomination). For most people in this area, religion equals belief.
Our whole country is dominated by this religious idea that religion is defined as a set of beliefs. Our neighbors want to know what we believe. Our politicians, in order to be elected, have to tell people what they believe. Our scholars, the anthropologists, write books in which they define religion as a set of beliefs. But we who are Unitarian Universalists know that religion cannot be defined merely as a set of beliefs. We know that the scholars who write books defining religion as a set of beliefs haven’t been able to escape their own cultural and religious prejudices. We Unitarian Universalists know this, because our religion is not defined by a set of beliefs. We know this, but try telling a professor of cultural anthropology that he or she is wrong; you’re not going to get very far. Try telling a politician that we don’t really care what she or he believes, and that politician will reply, You might not care but everyone else does. And then your neighbor asks you, “So what is it that you Unitarian Universalists believe?” — you know you are going to have a hard time explaining that your religion doesn’t have a creed.
Speaking from my own experience, when you try to tell your neighbor that we Unitarian Universalists don’t have a specific set of beliefs, there are five common responses that you get back. Your neighbor might tell you, “Why, that’s not a religion at all!” Your neighbor might ask you, with faint horror in their voice, “You mean you don’t believe in anything at all?” Your neighbor might ask you, again with faint horror in their voice, “You mean you can believe anything you want?” Your neighbor might say, “Well, I know you believe in something,” and then proceed to tell you exactly what it is that they think Unitarian Universalists believe in. Or — and this is the most common response in my experience — your neighbor just stares at you blankly, and then changes the subject.
So when someone asks me, “So what do you Unitarian Universalists believe?” — I find it difficult to respond. But over the years I have come up with three possible responses we Unitarian Universalists might give to that impossible question, “So what do you believe in anyway?”
(1) The first possible response you might give to that impossible question is to talk about the so-called “seven principles” excerpted from Article 2 of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We read those seven principles aloud together in the responsive reading. And they’re a pretty good statement of the values we Unitarian Universalists hold together. However, this can also confuse your questioner, who is liable to respond, “Well but those sound like a creed to me.” So you might have to explain to that person just what a creed is.
A creed is a statement of belief or a profession of faith that is binding upon a group of people, and those seven principles do not meet at least two parts of the definition of creed. First of all, those seven principles are not binding on any individual: in Article 2 of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, it is explicitly stated that they may not be used as any kind of creedal formula, because freedom of belief is a bedrock principle of Unitarian Universalism. Second of all, the seven principles are not a statement of belief: those seven principles don’t tell us that we have to believe certain specific things about God or the absence of God or about anything supernatural or natural : those seven principles don’t tell us to believe anything ; they ask us to affirm and promote certain values and ideals. So the seven principles are not a creed.
Unfortunately, when a couple of respectable religious educators put the seven principles into the child-friendly language which we heard in the response to today’s responsive reading, they (in a moment of weakness) used the word “belief” which has greatly confused the matter, so that too many people now think those seven principles are some kind of creed.
Even with all these explanations, if you are asked what Unitarian Universalists believe and you mention those seven principles, many people think you are telling them that we Unitarian Universalists have a creed. Therefore, when I am asked what I believe, I prefer to reduce confusion by not mentioning the seven principles right away.
(2) A second possible response you might give to the question, “What do you Unitarian Universalists believe?” is to say something like this: We don’t have a creed or a statement of beliefs at all; instead what holds us together is our covenant.
This is the most accurate answer you could possible give. But if you give that answer, you’re liable to get a response that sounds like something out of an old Bill Cosby comedy routine: “Rrrright…. What’s a ‘covenant’?” Which means you have to be prepared to be able to give a short and easy-to-understand definition of “covenant.” So what is a covenant?
In our religious tradition, a covenant is a formal voluntary agreement, made by and voluntarily agreed upon by the members of a church, an agreement which constitutes those individuals into a formal religious organization. Typically, a covenant will outline how individual members of the congregation intend to treat each other, and it outline the relation they intend to have with something that is greater than themselves. Typically, a covenant is a written document, developed by the membership of the church along with the minister (if they have a minister), voted on by the entire congregation, and often actually signed by all church members.
Now this is a wonderful answer to give when someone asks you what “you Unitarian Universalists believe anyway”: simply say that we don’t have set beliefs but we do have a covenant; then brief describe what a covenant is; and you will have given an answer that is both accurate and satisfactory.
There’s only one problem: our church doesn’t have a covenant any more. That is to say, while we do have an implicit covenant, we no longer have an explicit written covenant. We haven’t had a written covenant since William Potter’s day, and William Potter was minister of this church from 1861 to 1893. Now I know Potter has a high reputation, and look, we even have a statue of him standing over in the corner of the sanctuary. But I’m not a fan of Potter, and my main criticism and complaint about him is that he did not seem to understand covenants, or why they are so important. Potter thought he was a very advanced thinker, and he got this church to leave the American Unitarian Association and join a new religious group he helped found, the Free Religious Association. The FRA was so free that it never amounted to much of anything — rather than an organization, it would be best to call it a disorganization, and it didn’t live past Potter’s generation. Fortunately, Potter’s successor, Paul Revere Frothingham, got us back into the American Unitarian Association. Unfortunately, we never got a new covenant.
Yet although we no longer have a written covenant, over the past three years, I managed to piece together an implicit covenant. I started with the little cards that you have to sign when you become a church member; I added in a few bits from the church bylaws; then I started reading what I pieced together at the beginning of each Sunday morning worship service. When people came to me and suggested changes, I’d make the change, and start reading the changed version. It’s been a year now since anyone suggested changes, and this is what our implicit covenant now sounds like:
Here at First Unitarian, we value our differences of age, gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, and theology. We are bound together, not by some creed or dogma, but by our covenant: We come together in love to seek after truth and goodness, to find spiritual transformation in our lives; and in the spirit of love we care for one another and promote practical goodness in the world.
However, this is not a real covenant: the members of this church have not voted on it, nor do we ask new members to sign it. So if you try to tell someone that we Unitarian Universalists don’t have set beliefs but we do have covenant, then you will have to try to explain that our church doesn’t really have a covenant but we sort of have something that might be a covenant…. by which point the person who asked you that question will be thoroughly confused.
(3) So let me give you a third possible response to the question, “What do you Unitarian Universalists believe?” You might choose to give a poetic or metaphorical answer to that question. You might answer something like this: We are like a group of spiritual pilgrims who have banded together to become companions on our spiritual journeys to,– well, we don’t quite know where our spiritual journeys are headed.
This is the answer that I am most likely to give these days. I like this answer because then I can show my questioner the image of the pilgrim in this huge mosaic here behind the pulpit. (Since this image is on a free postcard that you can pick up by the front door, and since this image is also on our church Web site, you don’t even have to be standing here in church to show this image of the pilgrim.) You can point to this image and say: — See, this is what our church is all about.
Just to make this perfectly clear, let me describe and explain this image to you:
We know that each one of us is a pilgrim on a spiritual path that is more or less difficult. While we each have to make that spiritual journey on our own, those of us who are here know that it is best if you have companions on your journey. That is what we see in this mosaic: A pilgrim walks up a steep and dangerous mountain path, a path so steep that one false step could send him plummeting into the gorge below. But behind the pilgrim we see a guardian angel, ready to extend a steadying hand if the pilgrim stumbles.
To me, that guardian angel is the embodiment of our congregation, infused with that which is highest and best in the universe. We know that people in this church can extend a helping hand to us when we need it. We know that our congregation, this band of spiritual pilgrims, can exert a steadying influence on each one of us, keeping us from stumbling or falling. This is not the stuff of high drama and excitement: — the mosaic doesn’t show the pilgrim plummeting into the depths with the angel about to perform a heroic rescue. It may be that all we need is to show up here on Sunday morning and know that there are others like us.
And at some point you reach a high point in your spiritual journey. When you reach one of those high points, those transcendent experiences that Emerson wrote about, you may get further insight into the nature of covenant and religious community; as we hear in Everett Hoagland’s poem about a pilgrim who has reached one of those high points:
. . . From here
on the mountain peak the lakes look
like the great, rainfilled foot-
prints of a god. I turn
around and see The Other’s track
merge with mine. . . .
Sometimes we experience moments when we have this incredible sense of deep interconnectedness with other people. It doesn’t matter what those other people believe; it matters only that we are connected. This gets at the essence of who we are as religious people: we are a religious people who sometimes manage to turn around and see The Other’s footprints merge with our own. Then we know, in our deepest being, that connection between all beings.
Everything else about our religious faith can follow from that. Once we experience that — once we turn around and see The Other’s footprint merge with our own footprint, then we must affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. Once we know we’re all interconnected in this way, then we have a gut-level understanding of what a covenant can be. All our deepest values spring from this sense that we are connected with one another, and connected with something greater than ourselves, which some of us might call God and some of us might call the Web of Life; and others of us will have different names and different beliefs, but they all add up to being interconnected.
In short, if someone asks you “what you Unitarian Universalists believe anyway,” you don’t even have to show that person this image of the pilgrim, you can read them Everett’s poem.
We know that when we get hurt by life — when illness or accident strikes; when we get bitter and angry at the world; when someone hurts us deliberately; when life hands us one of its disappointments — we know that when we are hurt by life, there are others around us who can exert a steadying influence on us if we let them; there are those who will offer us a helping hand if we need it. Our church is a place that allows us to be supported and guided and comforted and healed by others. We don’t have to believe in a certain set of beliefs in order for this to be true. We don’t have to be healed by some supposedly holy priest or minister — we are healed and comforted simply by showing up on Sunday morning, and knowing that there are others in our religious community, a community which hovers behind us and which can help us, if we let it, when we need help.
That’s why I am a Unitarian Universalist. That’s why I go to church. Not because I think I have to believe in something. But because every once in a while, when the going gets tough, I need to know that there is a sort of guardian angel in my life. As an independent New Englander, I probably won’t ask for help, and would refuse help if it were offered, but I do need to know that kind of help is available if I wanted it.
And then, when I get to those high points of existence, I know I will turn around, and look back at the footprints I am making as I go on my spiritual journey, and once again see that the footprints of The Other have merged with my own.