Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ellen Cooper-Davis: The Five Smooth Stones of Unitarian Universalism [Guest Post]

Reverend Mother, a self described heretic whom I am enjoying interacting on the interwebs with
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Unitarian Universalism is a religion without a creed. Instead of creed, our membership in this faith rests on covenant. We agree to walk together in the ways of Love, to serve one another and the church, to seek truth.We are a direct expression of Liberal Religion. That is to say, we are a religion--one created fifty years ago through the mutual cooperation and partnership of two other religions- -and we use, in our common endeavor, the forms and language of religion. We are a church, engaged in ministry to and with its members and our community.

We are a religion, indeed, but being a Liberal religion means that while some of those forms might be similar to others’, our use of religious language, ritual, and the ways in which we minister to and with one another may not point to the same ultimate truths as other churches. In this faith, we pray, we speak of grace, we learn from Jesus, we do ministry to make lives better and to bring healing and wholeness. There are thousands of congregations and churches that do the same. But for many of them, the conclusions that they will come to about Life, the Universe, and Everything will be very different. We approach the questions, while many of them are sharing answers. The opposite of Liberal, here, is Fundamentalist. We do not belong in this faith because of our affiliation with any particular political party or outlook, or because we prefer either coffee or tea. We belong to this faith because our approach to the questions of ultimate value and worth and meaning and purpose is a religiously liberal approach.

Fortunately for us, while we have no creed, we do have a heart. A center. While we have no dogma, we do, in fact have doctrine--core understandings of what Liberal Religion and Unitarian Universalism are that are teachable, sharable, and can even be said concisely. I have made a commitment to all of you and to myself to find a better way to share the heart of Unitarian Universalism and Liberal Religion, most especially in my Southeast Texan context. It names our religious identity--how we fit into the world of religious context. It also names our doctrine--the beliefs we carry that help us slay giants in our lives and in our world. Here’s how it goes:

Unitarian Universalism emerged fifty years ago out of two historically Protestant denominations, which asserted the unity of God, the humanity of Jesus, and that there can be no hell because nothing can separate us from Ultimate Love. We believe in Possibilities, Love, Courage, Responsibility and Hope.
James Luther Adams, Unitarian minister, liberal religious theologian and professor at both the University of Chicago and at Meadville Lombard Theological School, articulated this heart for Liberal Religion. He called them the five smooth stones of religious liberalism, after the five smooth stones used by little David. They are our center, the heart of our shared faith, names for the tools that we carry with us and which help us find our way.

The first smooth stone is this: Revelation is open and continuous. There are those on the opposite side of the religious spectrum who believe that revelation is set down in one book only, and is sealed. Sealed! We, on the other hand, believe that not only is revelation not sealed, but it comes in a variety of forms. The truths that we learn, that get us closer to being the people we are capable of being and the world we are responsible for building, come to us in many ways. A bible verse, yes. But also a Buddhist sutra, a therapist’s observations, a work of fiction. In words, yes. But also in the particular tension of a chord in a particular song, in the way the light hits the trees just so, in the silence of a Quaker meeting. Revelations--glimpses of truth, of meaning, of purpose--may break into our lives an any moment. Any person we meet, like us or different, may contain just the next piece of revelation that connects our personal lives with the broader human and cosmic story. Thus, we covenant to promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people. They are all potential instruments of revelation, along with our books and learning and contemplations and dreams and scientific conclusions. We are open to all of that. We believe in possibility.

The second smooth stone reminds us that authentic human relationship is consensual. It is mutual, and never coerced. Our churches are built on covenant, not on hierarchies. Our membership, too, is based in the mutuality of covenant, and not on the tests of a creed. Likewise, our relationships with one another are mutual ones. “We need not think alike to love alike” said the 16th century Transylvanian Unitarian minister, Francis David. Our love for one another does not rest in our willingness to be persuaded. Our love for each other does not depend on the same understandings of God. Our community does not depend on a pecking order. Rather, it depends on all of us choosing to be a part of this faith of our own free will. It depends on our walking together...and on helping one another back to the path when we stray from it. We believe in love.
We know that the love between individuals must find expression in the community as a whole, as well as in the wider world. The third smooth stone of Liberal Religion is our obligation to the establishment of a just and loving community. When a certain political commentator recently attacked the pursuit of social justice in churches as an expression of communism and nazism, I recoiled. Does Glenn Beck know nothing of the life and work of Jesus? I stand with James Luther Adams, who notes that “a faith that is not the sister of justice is bound to bring us to grief.” In this faith, we understand that we have a moral imperative to create communities, large and small, that are just and loving for all people. We believe that we must be on the side of justice and love--we believe in the courage that such building can take.

We must gather our courage because of the next truth, the fourth smooth stone: We deny the immaculate conception of virtue. Good does not appear, set down among us by a giant heavenly hand. There is no goodness, as such. There is, instead, goodness in specific forms and expressions, like policies, institutions, or actions. Good is brought about by hard work, and our human hands must be set to the task of building the forms of goodness. While the moral arc of the Universe may bend toward justice, it will only do so when we are engaged in helping to direct it. Our hands and lives must take on the obligation that we acknowledge as part of our very humanity. The just and loving community is not created ex nilhio, anymore than the earth was created in six days. It is created when we look into the eyes of another, when we walk together, when we bridge divides, when we insist on equality for all people, when we change our personal and social systems to heal this wounded earth of ours, when we speak up for the voiceless, when we raise our fists against oppressions, when we acknowledge our own participation in broken systems and seek to make amends. We can not sit on tidy porches, sipping tidy drinks, while off in the distance the battles rage on. The just and loving community does not just appear. We know that ultimately, we must get in there and be part of its birth.
We believe in human responsibility.

God knows that there is work, yet for us to do, and that task of building the beloved community can seem, at times, impossible. But our faith does not fail us. In the fifth smooth stone, we are given hope. The fifth smooth stone assures us that resources are available--both human and divine--that can help to bring about the changes we seek. These resources are a reason for ultimate optimism. James Luther Adams, writing on the other side of World War II, is quick to point out that this does not always mean immediate optimism, but rather in an enduring spirit of humility and renewal which is the foundation of continuing progress. Optimism and hope is a part of our tradition--our Unitarian forbears proclaimed their unwavering faith in “the progress of mankind onward and upward forever!” There are resources that are human--our collective knowledge and experience, our never-ending drive toward life, our capability to love, our ingenuity and creativity. There are resources that are divine--the mysteries of grace and coincidence and synchronicity, the unfolding book of the Universe, an unassailable and ever- present interconnectedness and overarching Love. Because revelation is open and continuous, no doubt we will discover more resources along our way. Our optimism is justified. Thus, we believe in Hope.

Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. "I cannot go in these," he said to Saul, "because I am not used to them." So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd's bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.

There are giants in our midst. Forces that stand between us and wholeness, between what we are and what we are capable of being. Forces that seek, by their own might and power, to render the beloved community merely a pipe-dream, a naive vision of silly liberals and our disgusting bleeding hearts. There are giants in our midst. Consumerism. Polarization. Fear. Hatred of the stranger. Intolerance. Jingoism. Violence. Apathy. Greed. These are the battles of our age. These are our battles. And we will not fight these with a sword; we will not shield ourselves with unwieldy armor. It is not our way.

Here, on the front lines, we can stand with our feet firmly planted, holding the legacy and the tools of our faith. Five smooth stones. Possibility. Love. Courage. Responsibility. Hope. Used with a little skill, giants don’t stand a chance.
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Rev. Ellen Cooper-Davis is the minister of Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in The Woodlands, Texas, and a proud Twitter-follower of John. You can find her @Rev_Mother online, or on her blog, Keep the Faith.

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