WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE(LIEVE) WHEN YOU GROW UP? ON ...

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Feb 19, 2012 ... matter if our beliefs “make sense” – what matters is their emotional valence, ... This idea started when I read What Makes You Not a Buddhist by.

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE(LIEVE) WHEN YOU GROW UP? ON WHAT IT MEANS TO BE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST, AND OTHER MUSINGS Delivered 2/19/12 At the Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga Les Kertay, Ph.D. The original description for this sermon indicated that I planned to talk about the importance of beliefs, how they both help and hinder us in living a meaningful life, and how beliefs pose a particular challenge for UU’s and others of a liberal religious persuasion. Mostly that description is still accurate, but it’s the sermon has morphed into something a little different. That morphing was inevitable given that there is now an elephant in the middle of the room and it would be both foolish and a waste of time to ignore it. How I got to be “lucky” enough – and I use the term “lucky” in the most extreme version of “tongue-in-cheek” possible – to have the service immediately after our minister’s resignation is a mystery, especially since it was decided more than 6 months ago. But that fact is as fate will have it, and so here I am. Fair warning: I am about to deliver a sermon that may upset a few people, perhaps more than a few. It’s a little longer than some, & for that I ask forgiveness. I may stimulate some important thinking and discussion; I hope so. I may in fact lead to some irritation if not outright anger; I’d rather not, but long ago a dear friend and mentor told me, referencing my work as a psychologist, that if I wasn’t annoying at least one of my patients every day, I probably wasn’t doing my job. The sermon begins with a rather intellectualized description of religious belief, proceeds to the role that it plays in defining who we are as Unitarian Universalists, and ends with some observations of where we are as a congregation and a call to some serious debate. Ready? Here we go … As a prelude, I should tell you that I believe that the human mind has one fundamental endeavor: to make sense of our world. We take in our world through our senses, we integrate that sensory information in our brains in the context of our memories and thoughts and hard-wired temperamental dispositions, and we make choices about what we believe. We make those choices in such a way that we are comforted; beliefs reduce the anxiety of living in a chaotic universe by turning it into something sensible. It doesn’t really matter if our beliefs “make sense” – what matters is their emotional valence, the degree to which they help us to get through the day without running screaming into the night. The best belief system is one that allows us to live close to the facts but with some sense of comfort; the worst belief system is comforting but relies on the most

outlandish of illusions. Most of us live somewhere in between. The most important feature of a belief system is that it saves us from feeling the world is chaotic and nonsensical; for that way madness lies. Beliefs allow us to make sense of the world. In making sense, we find meaning and purpose. That is what the mind, and the brain that makes mind manifest, do. Originally, I thought that I would talk to you today about the core beliefs of Buddhism, which on a spiritual level is the belief system that best allows me to live in the world in a meaningful way. This idea started when I read What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. Khyentse describes the four central beliefs that make up the core of Buddhist thought. They were first stated by the Buddha himself as the “four seals,” a seal being something that confirms authenticity; believe in these four things and you are a Buddhist, whatever else you do or believe or say. Deny one of these beliefs and, whatever else we can say about you, we cannot say that you are Buddhist. The four beliefs are disarmingly simple to say, alarmingly complex to live: 1. All compounded things are impermanent – nothing lasts forever 2. All emotions are pain – feelings leading to craving, avoidance, or ignorance, and all three of those lead to suffering 3. All things have no inherent existence – nothing exists except in relationship to everything else 4. Nirvana is beyond concepts – we cannot describe a state of being beyond suffering and ego, we can only live it Initially I thought, “This is interesting; I think I’ll talk about the core of Buddhism and teach a bit about what Buddhism is, and isn’t.” And then I started to think, “Huh … I wonder how we’d describe the core beliefs of Unitarian Universalism.” This, it turns out, is harder than it seems. There are, of course, the seven principles the Unitarian Universalists promote: 1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person 2. Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations 3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations 4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning 5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations, and in society at large 6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all 7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part Frankly, I don’t find these particularly satisfying as a central definition; they are

statements of values, of things we agree to hold as common aspirations, but they don’t feel like much of a definition to me. They feel a little like “mom, the flag, and apple pie” – I mean, who is really willing to say that they don’t believe in human dignity, or that we should accept one another, or that we are free to choose what we believe.” We don’t all live that way, and living by these values can be hard, but they don’t differ much from the values of any other religious tradition. So what is it that makes us Unitarian Universalists, as opposed to members of any generic religion? To answer this question, I did what any self-respecting modern person does – I went to the internet, and there I found a few things that supplemented what I’d read and what I’d learned in my tenure as a member of this congregation. First off, I found that I’m not the only one who struggles with the question, what’s makes someone a UU? Do you know the NPR series, “This I believe?” I went there first, wondering if UU’s had posted essays about what they believe. It turns out there are 36 essays that reference “Unitarian,” 22 that reference “Universalist,” and 19 that reference “Unitarian Universalist.” There is a lot of overlap, but not entirely. One essay that struck me was in the under 18 age group. Here’s what one young woman named Rebecca said about her experience as a UU: •

My church is complicated … Being Unitarian Universalist is a big responsibility. It would be easier if something just jumped out at me and made me feel whole, but I’ve been taught never to believe one religion “the best.” I’m supposed to create my own faith, but I don’t even know where to begin … My biggest fear is: how do you find faith when the only thing you’ve ever been taught is that faith is right for the people who practice it?”

Doesn’t that say it all? Part of the human condition is that we look for meaning and comfort, and yet as UU’s we don’t seem to be able to accept things at face value. I love that Rebecca talked about the responsibility that comes with a creedless faith – if no one tells us what to believe, we have to decide for ourselves. Throughout the rest of the essays I found a few recurring themes: •



Many people became Unitarian Universalists because they had been raised as one – they were UU’s because they had always attended a UU church, and that was all they knew Others became UU’s because they lost faith in other religious teachings,

and the local UU church became the only place they could stand to explore spirituality without dogma





Most felt it would be easier to believe in something, anything, definitive, but nothing worked so they went with a church experience that allowed room for uncertainty and changing beliefs Almost all struggled with a vague sense of dissatisfaction, feeling that they were somehow compromising between a need to believe in something and a need not to be trapped in someone else’s dogma

Does this ring any bells for you? I’m guessing it does. I kept looking, because so far what I saw was what Unitarian Universalism isn’t, more than what it is. The website of the South Nassau UU Congregation in Freeport, New York, has an interesting description of Unitarian Universalism on their website. They note that every religion requires sacrifice of its adherents. In the case of UU’s, we don’t require dietary restriction, or rigid following of particular rituals, but we do require something difficult; namely a “degree of humility that is hard to live out. We must subject ourselves to constantly considering opinions that we don’t currently agree with or understand. Simply having your own opinions about God, the universe, and everything doesn’t make you a Unitarian Universalist. What makes you a UU is a commitment to sharing your thoughts and beliefs with your community of faith, in the most humble way possible.” Or, as some of you may have heard me say, in quoting a friend from my early days as a practicing therapist, “Community includes those people you can’t stand.” Along these same lines I came across an online essay by Rev. Cynthia Landrum, of the Clarklake, Michigan congregation, who asked the question, “Can you be a Unitarian Universalist without belonging to a church?” She notes that in the 2001 Census data 629,000 respondents listed themselves as Unitarian Universalists, and yet in 2002 the UUA listed 214,738 members. How is that possible, she asked? Arguably, since we are without a creed, if you don’t belong to a church you can’t really be a UU – you can believe in the 7 principles, but we’ve already described them as too non-specific to form the basis of “belonging” to a religion. Perhaps the most interesting essay I came across was written by Rev. Dr. Tony Larsen, minister of a Racine, Wisconsin congregation, published on downlode.org and titled Why You Should Not be a Unitarian Universalist. I was pretty excited when I found it, because I thought perhaps here was a parallel to Kyentse’s book about Buddhism. Larsen says that Unitarian Universalism is not for everyone. First, he says, “You’ve got to know how to sin. This is very important to us, and not everyone knows how to do it.” His point isn’t that UU’s are all sinners, but that we recognize that we aren’t perfect, and we don’t think much of people who pretend to be. If you can’t accept your human foibles, we’re not likely to think much of you – nor, for that matter, are you likely to want to be a UU, since if you’re perfect there’s not much reason to question or search

for anything. The second reason not to be a UU, according to Larsen, is that “we are intolerant of intolerance. You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you support the Nazis or the KKK or any other group that believes in oppressing people. We may be open in this church – but we’re not that open.” Point taken, but hardly all that controversial. As Tom Lehrer said in the introduction to his song National Brotherhood Week, “I know there are people in the world who do not love their neighbors, and I hate people like that!” Here’s the rest of the list, adapted from Larsen’s essay: • You should not be a UU if you don’t like getting offended • You should not be a UU if you are a Christian who doesn’t believe atheists belong here; nor should you be a UU if you are an atheist who doesn’t believe that Christians, Buddhists, Zorastrians, or any other spiritual belief has a place here. • You should not be a UU “if you want all the answers because we don’t even know all the questions.” • Finally, Larsen, says, you shouldn’t be a UU if you can’t stand being called names, because if you tell people you are a UU you will be labeled, misunderstood, and ostracized on a regular basis. Unfortunately, Larsen’s essay still ends up defining Unitarian Universalism more by what it is not than by what it is, but perhaps it gets us to a point where we can define a few things about who we are. Thinking it through, I have what I think are the core tenets of being UU, at least for me. As I see it, meet these tenets and you are a UU; fail to meet them and you are not. No judgment there, by the way, just a distinction, and a decision. 1. We practice tolerance in all things; this doesn’t mean we agree with all beliefs equally, nor that we believe in nothing. Tolerance is not a belief, it’s a practice. Tolerance is what we do when faced with beliefs and opinions that differ from our own. I have come to call this practice “Radical Civility.” 2. We believe that questions are more important than answers. 3. We believe that everyone is imperfect, but also that everyone is “good enough.” 4. We belong to a community, and within that community we share our beliefs with one another and, more importantly, we share our search for our own personal truth and meaning with one another. Now I happen to think that this last one is the toughest, and in the end, it’s the point of today’s sermon. Let’s look at that again. I think one of the fundamental requirements for being

UU is that you must belong to a UU congregation. More than belonging, it means participating in the shared search for meaning in such a way that we support one another. Simply put, because we do not have a common creed, we cannot be UU if we aren’t part of a UU community. This I believe. If I choose to be a member of this community, I will be a UU. If I choose to leave it, I will still be someone who practices Radical Civility, I will still believe that questions are more interesting than answers, and I will still believe that no one is perfect but everyone is at heart “good enough.” But I will not be a UU, because I will not be engaged in sharing my search with others who also choose to share their search. This, I believe. And that leads me to the part of the sermon that may be the most challenging. Perhaps I should say that I hope it’s the most challenging. Given what I’ve said, I am in the middle of deciding whether or not to remain a UU, because I am in the middle of deciding if I will remain a member of this church. We – the members of this church - are at a crossroads that will determine what we become as a congregation in the future – what we become “when we grow up.” And what we become will be determined by what we believe, here and now, about who we are and – more importantly - how we will be with one another. We are in a crisis. Our minister has resigned. Some members of the congregation believe that is happening because there are a few people who are out to “get” him, who want to drive him from the pulpit, and that those few people are being unfair, unkind, and un-UU. Let me remind you that those “few” became leaders in this congregation out of two things – heartfelt commitment and willingness to give freely, and because no one else was willing to step up. Others believe that our minister resigned because he received a poor evaluation by the Committee on Ministry, and wanted to resign rather than change those things that were asked of him. Since he wasn’t doing his job, it’s time for him to change or leave, and he chose to leave. Good riddance. Let me remind you that our minister is neither perfect nor without redeeming features. Both of these scenarios require “good guys” and “bad guys,” and both will lead to dissention within the congregation. Neither will lead to a solution for the long term. Since I first came to this church in 1998, we’ve had two “failed” ministries. Some people

might quibble with the word “failed;” perhaps it’s better to say that we had ministers who took us a distance and then could do no more, and it was time to move on – and yet it somehow feels like failure, doesn’t it? If we are to avoid a third, whatever we call it, we have some decisions to make. And this isn’t about a particular minister, or particular members of the Board of Trustees. We need to decide what kind of minister we want, and whether we want to hold our minister accountable to what we ask of him or her. In other words, we need to decide if we mean what we say. Do we want a minister who does a good sermon, or one who ministers to the congregation during the week, or one who does both? We have to choose, and then we have to be clear about our expectations. We need to decide if we want to invest in our future. Invest financially, but more importantly investing in our future by being truly welcoming to families and children. Notice I said welcoming, not “tolerant.” We need to decide if we want to invest in each other. Are we willing to speak with intention, saying what we really believe and want? Are we willing to listen with attention, really taking in what others have to say with respect instead of formulating our “arguments” before they are finished? We need to decide if we will have “good guys” and “bad guys,” or if we will be a true community. We need to decide if we want to invest in the direction we take as a congregation. We can lead, follow, or get out of the way, and anything other than a willingness to step up and lead will fall short. I said that I believe the 4 basic tenets of being UU are to act with tolerance, to question, to accept one another’s imperfections, and – most importantly – to share our thoughts and beliefs with one another as part of a community. Answer carefully, for yourselves. Our collective answers will shape who this congregation becomes, and whether we become a community or continue to be a rancorous collection of refugees from other religions who have no place better to be on Sunday morning. This, I believe.