BEING GOOD AND DOING GOOD
A sermon by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, March 4, 2018
This morning we will investigate the first Principle of Unitarian Universalism: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” I hear people talk about that one in particular a lot. The Principles are a recent feature of our movement. They were first adopted in 1985, a little more than 33-years-ago. I’ve heard some ministers regard them as trite and lacking in true theological depth. While I do think there’s something to that argument I cannot deny how meaningful they are to people who call themselves UUs.
The only way to counter my colleagues’ claim that the Principals are trite, and lacking is to prove that they’re the opposite of just that; we have to live them, we have to enact them in the world. Living as though every single person in the entire world has inherent worth and dignity isn’t easy; or, perhaps I should say it’s not easy for me.
But before we can properly talk about the first Principle we have to see if we can figure out why we adopted them in the first place. It bears mentioning that just 24 years before the Principles were adopted the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged into the Association we all know today. Prior to that we were happy to be liberal Protestants, no doubt some of our churches were predominantly humanist, while others practiced more traditional Unitarianism or Universalism. But just 24 years after the merger we needed something that spoke across the theological spectrum; we needed something capital-T-True for not just the atheists and humanists, but also for the liberal Christians too. And, as the result of a lot of hard work we got the Principles.
But as good as the Principles are, they’ve been entirely unable to prevent religious controversies within our movement. One of the questions we often get is this: Are we, UUs that is, religious liberals or liberally religious? I first encountered this question years ago, in John Buehrens and Forrest Church’s book A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism.
Historically, the question was a bit easier to answer. For the vast majority of Unitarians throughout history they would have had no trouble describing their faith, and themselves even, as practitioners of a liberal religion. What gave our tradition this descriptor was our inclusion of reason and the sciences into our understandings of the authorship of the bible, the human mind, and even life itself. Therefore, our spiritual ancestors became and thereby gifted to us a liberal religion.
James Luther Adams, the late Unitarian theologian, often described Unitarianism as an “Examined Faith,” he even published a book with that title. To have an examined faith one must be willing to expose it to the rigors of science, reason, and philosophy. Doing so, as the argument goes, expands one’s faith by quieting the risk of supernaturalism that does more to limit than it does to inspire. And, to varying degrees, that faith in science and reason has won the day for most UUs, many of whom took the invitation to expose religion to science and reason to a point that the mysterious artistry of religious faith has been all but quieted; and, using the example of Christianity, been rendered into a category pejoratively labeled as nothing greater than an ancient superstition, which is unfortunate.
One of the beautiful things about practicing a religion is that doing so is a creative, if not artistic act. It reaches beyond the unknown and grasps on to love and hope and charity in an act of faith. I find devoutly religious people inspiring. While I may disagree with their interpretation of the bible and scripture, the depth of devotion and their sense of the world as something sacred and animated by a loving god is, at least to me, a near-magical feature of being human. We’re the only creatures capable of living by faith, after all, a fact that only adds to its charm.
But as liberal religion evolved, and the sciences continued to progress many people in UU congregations grew less-and-less tolerant of faith for faith’s sake; many people preferred philosophical humanism, moral psychology, and grew more accepting of the view that this life is the only one we’ve got, and therefore we’ve got to try and make heaven right here on good old planet earth. For the record, this evolution in religious thought isn’t just a feature of Unitarian Universalism; we’re not that special. These same preferences and demands were felt in Christian denominations as well.
In effect, UUs took the challenge to practice a liberal religion so seriously we ended up putting the whole question of religion under so much scrutiny that now, here in the 21st Century, we’re having to ask ourselves, “Are we even a religion any longer?,” which brings me to the second half of the original question, “Are we practitioners of a liberal religion or are we religious liberals?”
Religious liberalism, on the other hand, places the emphasis not on religion, but instead on liberalism, which begs the question, “Are UUs really a collection of liberals who just so happen to enjoy gathering together in churches?”
As the story goes, claiming ourselves as practitioners of a liberal religion began as a statement boldly spoken by people suffering religious oppression. The first people to practice the liberal religion that would one day become Unitarian Universalism were, in fact, the Puritans. Those centuries’ old immigrants to this nation who fled their homeland in search of a land upon which they’d be allowed to practice and organize their religion around the very notion of freedom. Freedom to choose a faith, freedom to question, freedom from religious taxation, and freedom to name their own ministers.
Our spiritual ancestors were people bound by oppression and persecution; we aren’t, we’re no longer bound at all. One of Forrest Church’s great insights about our religious movement is that our problem has moved from being bound to a near boundlessness; and it is this lack of definition that gives us so much trouble.
We practice a unique and diverse faith. This fact I am reminded of each year when I attend General Assembly. The topics discussed range widely, from lectures entitled Jesus Christ for Unitarians to Communion without Controversy, and Worship with Dogs to Faith for the Faithless. But who can blame someone for being a dog loving, Jesus questioning, communion curious, controversy-averse seeker of faith without faith? You only live once after all.
No longer are we bound together by a common faith, per se. I get emails from people sometimes who tell me they come to this church because here they can actually practice their Christianity or Catholicism in accordance with their faith. On the other hand there are others who’d likely not bat and eye if I said I’d never read passages from the bible ever again. In sum, we’re a diverse group of people with very particular spiritual, emotional, and religious wants and needs. That’s one of the great features of our churches: diversity.
But in my heart of hearts I firmly believe that if there is one thing that can bring a lot of UUs to the table it’s our commitment to affirming and promoting the seven Principles, the first of which states: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
Let’s break that down a bit: the first half of the sentence clearly states that everyone’s life has value just because. That you don’t earn your worth, you can’t change your worth, and there’s nothing you can do that would decrease your worth; it’s inherent: your worth as a person is essential to your personhood, which is a fancy way of saying “You’re pretty special.”
And, as far as I can tell, most UUs live lives according to this principle.
Throughout our history we’ve seen time and again Unitarians living this principal out in the world by championing things like religious freedom, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, desegregation, and on and on.
The second half of the first Principle says that we affirm the inherent dignity of all people, which, put in simpler terms means all people are equally worthy of respect. Moreover, everyone deserves a basic degree of grace and good manners.
This is the part of the first Principle I have the most trouble with. Nobody questions the worth of good old uncle Frank. He’s just as entitled to the turkey as everyone else it, but that didn’t stop you from lecturing your kids on the ride over to grandma’s house about how they’re not to bring up politics during Thanksgiving dinner, that is, unless they want to risk losing every single Christmas present ever. Nor does it change the fact that you still haven’t accepted Frank’s friend request on Facebook because in his profile pic he’s wearing a Make America Great Again hat in a selfie he took in what looks like a truck stop bathroom.
The moral of the story is this: the first Principle isn’t a description of how the world is, it’s a statement about our attitude towards it; and that attitude requires a lot of emotional and spiritual effort. It’s hard to live every day and act in every way that promotes grace and kindness to everyone. Just try to live by the first Principle while driving in Atlanta during rush hour, or while shopping at the Whole Foods in Boulder, Colorado. I can revert to Calvinism real quick when someone’s blocking an entire aisle because they’ve decided to shop for quinoa like they’re buying a wedding ring. Life, if nothing else, is a sustained endurance test, a wrestling with the tension to be good and to do good when people like Frank seem to make it their life’s purpose to turn a family meal into political rally.
But living in tension isn’t unique to UUs in the 21st Century. We’ve faced and to some degree continue to struggle with certain religious attitudes that started centuries ago.
My friend and colleague, the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, who serves the UU church in Columbia, Missouri, writes that “our Unitarian forbearers’’ belief in the moral perfectibility of humankind, sic evolved into a moral perfectionism that no longer allowed the admission of personal transgressions.” In other words, moral perfectibility resulted in us creating a cathedral of lies, a false belief that asserts we need not admit to ever doing anything wrong because in effect we’re just somewhere along the great spectrum of becoming morally perfect.
Furthermore, belief in moral perfectibility risks making of someone’s life something to achieve; and it fraudulently prioritizes self-importance over communal responsibility.
Moral perfectibility stays focused on number one. It falsely claims that the wrongs of the world can be righted by reason and science and money. It neglects to admit to the fact that many of the problems we face as a human society have everything to do with a lack of connection to other people, especially people who live under the poverty line, people who live with addiction, as refugees, and slaves.
Moral perfectibility refuses to admit that not only does society have problems, but we, as individuals, have problems too. This is a truth our religious movement has had difficulty admitting. We don’t like the word sin, it’s just too religious, too traditional.
But maybe if we’d let the floodgates of vulnerability open from time to time we’d discover that we have regrets deep within us. Perhaps we’d discover that the void we feel in our hearts is a result of our alienation from neighbors. Perhaps we’d be forced to admit that we’ve put our own self-interests before others’ needs a little more than necessary. Maybe we’d find ourselves wanting to atone for these feelings by giving not only our money but also our loving compassion and elbow grease back to people.
An old Jesuit priest mentored me when I started my ministry as a hospital chaplain. One of the toughest lessons I learned from him is that nobody and I mean nobody wants charity. Most people would take a quiet moment with a person who cares over pants or shoes any day. If you’ve ever worked in a soup kitchen then you’ve probably witnessed that the magic happens after the food has been served. It’s when the cooks grab a bowl of soup and one of those Sunday school plastic cups that’s had 10,000 mouths on it and sits down across from a person who spent last night sleeping on the ground. It’s when you meet their gaze and look beyond their dirty fingernails and body odor and see a human being, a fragile, beautiful, worthy, and dignified soul sitting across from you.
It’s when we take the church of our hearts out into the world that the church actually comes alive. What happens within these walls is just the beginning. It’s what we do that matters.
It’s when we put our beliefs into action that religion comes alive. Two Sundays from today I want to start a conversation about what we, as a church, can do for our community. I want to know how you think we can reengage with this community, how we can have a positive impact on the quality of peoples’ lives right here in Wausau.
If we are to claim the first Principal as the bedrock of our faith, then we have to prove it in the way we conduct our lives. WE have to see ourselves in the eyes of the beggar, in the eyes of the meth addict, the refugee, the prisoner, the prostitute, the uneducated, and the loathsome; and even uncle Frank.
We have to see ourselves in the actions of the greedy and the powerful, the selfish and the violent.
Whether you are a UU Catholic or Christian, Buddhist of Pagan, the only question worth asking once you move beyond these walls is “How can I be of use to this world?” “What is needed of me?”
Marilynn Sewell, minister emerita of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, tells a great story about her admissions test to Starr King back in the 80s, an era when women in ministry wasn’t nearly as common as it is today.
The admissions board asked Marilynn rather glibly, “So, what do you want out of life, mam?” To which Marilynn responded, “I don’t want to leave anything left when I die; I want to be all used up.”
To be good is to do good. That is the first Principle in a nutshell. A world awaits you; a world needs you. Give it everything you’ve got, and then give it a little more. Leave nothing in the end. Amen and Blessed Be.
 Molly Housh Gordon, “Sin is personal, not just systemic,” UUWORLD (Boston: UUA, Spring 2018), 36-38.