The Question Box Sermon: 2015

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This is the sixth year that I have presented a “question box” sermon, meant to give our church members and friends an opportunity to ask questions about a variety of church-related topics. The questions are submitted in advance and the responses are written out. This year, questions were asked about the nature and role of our seven principles; the meaning of church polity; my personal theology, especially concerning Christianity; the attractiveness of the devil; and the role of discussion periods following sermons.

  1. I’ve heard that UUism is a “creedless” religion. Do we have to believe in the seven principles to join?

That’s a good question, and it’s a living question in some Unitarian Universalist circles. In the Preface of our hymnal, the one called Singing the Living Tradition, “the Principles and Purposes of our Association (are called) the touchstones of our decision to proclaim our diversity.” Some Unitarian Universalists don’t like the seven principles because they seem too close to being a creed, and being “creedless” holds a high value. A “touchstone” literally is a stone that was used to test alloys of gold by observing the color of the mark the alloys made on it.

Symbolically, the dictionary tells us, a touchstone is a certain “standard” or “criterion” by which something is judged. Hmmm… sounds like an element of a creed to me. It’s also referred to as a “barometer” or “bellwether.” Well, that sounds more like an indicator, a sign, something that points in a certain direction, not a creed then, but a guide. There may be no perfect answer.

A look into the history of the formation and adoption of the seven principles is helpful in gauging a sense of why the principles exist at all and what they attempt to do. Warren Ross wrote such an article in the UU World magazine in the year 2000. Maybe the most important thing that we can say about the seven principles is that they are a work in progress.

In 1960, as the American Unitarian Association prepared to consolidate with the Universalist Church of America to form the Unitarian Univeralist Association, the principles were looked at especially carefully, as they now had to serve as one of the principle bonds between the two traditions. The discussions that led to the meeting where the two church traditions worked to forge a union were so heated that they almost derailed the whole process.

Especially raising contention were the phrase “love to God and love to man” and a reference to our Judeo-Christian heritage (Ross). In fact, the all-night discussion that culminated in the final language ended up changing one word so that the principles now referred to “the Judeo-Christian heritage” rather than “our Judeo-Christian heritage.” The statement was examined, and changes resulted in both 1984 and 1995.

The fact that our statements of principle are open to change reflects the fact that we acknowledge that there is no such thing as a changeless truth for social institutions; we are aware that societies change as their values are questioned and all truth is relative to the emerging factors which encourage us to look more deeply at what we say we cherish.

Currently, our fourth principle states that “We covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The phrasing in 1961 referred to a “free and disciplined search for truth and meaning.” I actually prefer the older language. “Responsible” is a good enough word, and if we all undertake a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, I guess we have little ground for complaint.

But, the word “disciplined” has a greater feeling of commitment behind it. It connotes a search that is ongoing and truly dedicated. And the words “free” and “disciplined” balance each other nicely. The argument that prevailed was that the term “responsible” indicated that the spiritual community as a whole–and not just the individual–needs to undergo this search. Personally, I think the community the undertakes a “disciplined” search for truth and meaning, if we take those terms seriously, has a greater chance of meeting that goal.

There were only six principles listed in 1961. With the passage of time and a greater knowledge of how the Earth works as a single complex ecosystem called a “biosphere,” it became apparent that a very important truth about our understanding of ourselves as religious persons embodied in the natural world was missing. In 1985, the seventh principle was overwhelmingly adopted from language that generated right from the floor of the general assembly: “We covenant to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

One objection that I’ve heard raised is that if this list of principles is meant to reflect our spiritual values, why is politics interjected into it in the fifth principle, which promises that we affirm “the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”? The first objection is that politics has been incorporated into a document that is meant to be spiritual and religious in nature. A second objection is that democracy, while appropriate in some places and times, may not always be the best way for a particular nation to organize itself, given its present situation and the fact that another, transitional form of political organization may be more suitable.

So, what’s the answer to our question? When someone is seriously contemplating becoming a member of the church, I usually read aloud the seven principles and ask them, after reading each one, if they find themselves in agreement. This is not meant to be a litmus test, but an introduction to a conversation if the prospective member finds a particular principle to be questionable or objectionable. Personally, I take the principles as a general guide, remembering that the statement begins “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association,” not each individual member, covenant and affirm these principles. A guide for our behavior as a congregation rather than an individual loyalty oath is my working understanding of how the principles are best used and understood.

  1. What is Polity?

There are four dictionary definitions, and the one that applies here is listed as “4.b,” “the form of government of a religious denomination.” All churches and religious groups have to have some way to govern themselves. Some, like the Roman Catholic church are highly hierarchical. The Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Episcopal churches have a governance structure which is hierarchical; the local authority is a bishop who governs a diocese, a conference or a synod, depending on the denomination.

Baptists and Unitarian Universalists may not have much in common, but one thing that they share is their mode of governance, which is called “congregational polity.” This simply means that each congregation is responsible for its own governance. This church, like many UU churches, has adopted a governance model where a Board of Directors is elected to conduct its business. (Some churches use the term “Board of Trustees.” One church I know just calls that body the “Standing Committee.”)

Presently, our bylaws state that “The business and affairs of the Corporation shall be managed by its Board of Directors in accordance with the provisions of these Bylaws.” Also, presently, a Bylaws Revision Task Force has been appointed to determine whether the bylaws need updating. That’s something that the Board of Directors, if they want to be responsible, will ensure happens from time-to-time.

Just as our Seven Principles were updated to be more inclusive of the changing roles of women in the 1970s and 1980s, the language in our bylaws needs to be updated to be sensitive to and inclusive of our expanded understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation.

We are not told by a central authority (such as the UUA) to modify our language. We determine for ourselves that we see a need to be explicit in our acceptance of these aspects of being human; we decide, as we have decided, to initiate a Welcoming Congregation program to educate ourselves, and we move forward in our understanding of what it means to practice our first principle, “to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

As we have moved forward with forming our polity in this church, we have discovered that the relationship between the Board and the committees has nowhere been established. In fact, in our current bylaws, there is no mention of committees at all. One of the tasks of the bylaws revision task force is to suggest what that relationship is and to present their recommendation to the Board. Once the Board has approved the language, it goes to the congregation, who will then vote on the proposal. It’s a fairly lengthy process, but an important one, and I think we owe a debt of thanks to John Downing, Jan Garrett, and Janeen Grohsmeyer for taking it on, and the Board for recognizing that it needed to be done.

The Board and various committees have been working on policies, as well. We are working on an improved policy for background checks: who gets one, how often, what agency conducts the checks, how the office handles the process. All of this may seem technical and tedious, but if we are concerned about the safety of our kids, we need to follow through on this.

So, “polity” is the method by which a religious denomination governs itself; Unitarian Universalism uses a model of congregational polity; this congregation elects a Board of Directors to conduct its affairs; a Nominating Committee ensures that candidates meet a minimum set of criteria; the congregation votes for their representatives at an annual meeting; this year’s meeting is on May 31, the day after our “South of the Border” fundraiser.

  1. You quote most often from Buddhist texts. Would you say your personal orientation is mostly Buddhist? You also seem to have difficulty with Christianity, I presume based on your personal background. Would it be fair to characterize your orientation to Christianity as essentially negative?

 No, I don’t think that that would be a fair characterization. Those who have been attending the early contemplative service, during which we have been studying the teachings of a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh, know that I have encouraged our members and friends to do as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, to seek out the “jewels” of their early religious training, to reconnect with that tradition, and to embrace those teachings that have fed our souls, so to speak, that have helped form our moral systems and our outlook on the world.

You may know that I chose to attend a liberal Christian theological school, rather than one with an explicit UU outlook. While there, I chose to take the Christian preaching course, even though a UU preaching course was available, because I thought that it would challenge me more; I was the only UU in the class.

I am a member of the Bowling Green/Warren County Ministerial Association, a group that meets monthly at the Medical Center. I am the only minister from a church that is not explicitly Christian. I attended the ecumenical Good Friday service each of the past two years. I instituted not just a Christmas Eve, but also a Christmas Day service in this church during my first year here in 2009 and we’ve held to that tradition ever since. If you were here on Easter Sunday, you know that my sermon encouraged our congregation members to find value in the teachings of Jesus and to live out those teachings as they best understand them.

When I applied to be the candidate for your first ordained minister, I identified myself primarily as a liberal Christian. During my time here, in order to serve our members who embrace a wide variety of theologies and a-theologies, I have challenged myself to investigate various other paths in a way that finds their meanings and brings those meanings to light for me and for our congregation.

If asked my spiritual orientation, I say “Unitarian Universalist” because that is the best description I know. I believe that a definition of one’s spiritual orientation must be fluid because life is fluid, and we change and develop over time as we investigate new things and come to deeper and broader understandings. One facet of my current theology is “liberal Christian.” That means that I have what is called a “low Christology.” The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are important to me. Christian icons are on display in my home. But, I don’t find it necessary to believe that Jesus took on my sins and if I believe in his salvific work, I will attain some kind of salvation in a world to come.

I’ve come to see my theology less as one that needs to be defined and more one that needs to be illustrated. I envision it as a kind of jewel where each facet is necessary to compose a beautiful whole. Buddhist teachings appeal to me greatly and I spend most of my devotional reading time with Buddhist texts, though I continue to be puzzled by the concept of reincarnation and my mind is stretched as I try to understand what “nirvana” might mean. But, my recent explorations in religious humanism and natural religion have deeply influenced me. I see nothing in them that contradicts my view of the world and what it means to be a thoughtful and reflective actor in the world.

So, I suppose that I am a liberal Christian natural religious humanist Buddhist Unitarian Universalist with Earth-centered tendencies.

  1. The fourth question that was submitted consists of a single word, “Why?
[sounding the bell of mindfulness]
  1. The fifth question is pretty provocative and I expect that it was written by a young person or maybe a recent visitor: “Is it wrong to think that Satan is pretty cool?”

Yes, a provocative question. Where to begin? Well, no thought is wrong, really. A thought is just a thought. They come and they go and you don’t need to hold on to any of them because there will be another one in a second or a half-second, so, no, no thought is wrong.

But, maybe you mean “Is it wrong to believe that Satan is cool?” Belief being more than a thought, but something that you hold on to as true. Well, then it gets a little more complicated. In seminary, we were taught that the name “Satan” comes from the Hebrew word satan, meaning “obstacle.”

In other words, as you search for the truth, you will confront obstacles in your search; some of them will be quite attractive maybe because they are provocative and you are the kind of person who is drawn to provocation. Or maybe because they are tempting, beautiful, evocative, obscene.

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is a much more interesting character than God– multi-dimensional and attractive in the way waywardness, rebellion and denial of authority, legitimate or otherwise is attractive. And Satan, after all, is a fallen angel and angels are about as close to God as you can get.

I think that there is a certain time in our lives when rebelliousness is attractive, but as you grow and take on the burdens of maturity, you seek a deeper kind of satisfaction than perpetual rebelliousness can provide. You grow up, in other words. The things that bring people together begin to seem more important than the things that separate us.

Identifying authority within yourself and elsewhere that feels legitimate gives a deeper satisfaction because your desires are more coherent. You see the world more holistically and you want the world to make sense. So, the allure of “Satan,” the rebellious angel becomes less strong. Being “cool” seems less important. And a search for truth and meaning assumes a more central place in one’s life. Then, the challenge is not to get burned out from the burden of too much responsibility and not enough room for fun. And there are plenty of things that are fun and yet not Satanic.

  1. How come we have discussion periods after some sermons and not others?

Six years ago, when this church’s ministerial search committee was looking for a candidate to be your minister, one of the members of that committee told me “We want intellectual stimulation on a Sunday morning.” And I probably have told you that my response was “Yes, no one wants to be bored during a Sunday service, but I hope that you want something more than just intellectual stimulation because you can get that by taking a class or listening to a lecture or watching educational TV.”

A minister’s job is to not only stimulate the intellect, but to touch the heart and challenge the spirit. Some sermons are designed to be intellectually and spiritually stimulating and if they are successful, a good discussion can follow.

Sometimes, a sermon just wants to touch you in a way that makes a deeper connection between all of us in the room. In those cases, there is a danger that “discussion” will devolve to intellectualizing and the emotional impact, such as it may have been, will dissolve in a second. In those cases, one is left with a feeling of disappointment and incompletion. The discussion is meant to add something, but sometimes, it can actually detract.

And if a sermon ends with a question that’s a challenge to action, what then? A period of discussion may, in fact, lead to inaction as the world of the mind is not always the world of the embodied spirit. You might have noticed that your order of service now says “Reflection and Response” as a way to suggest that a short period of silent reflection might be the best way to seriously respond to issues that the sermon addressed.

And the minister does not always know in which direction a sermon is going to go. The title and description of the sermon are submitted long in advance of the day. It’s hard, sometimes, to know in advance if a particular sermon will benefit from a period of reflection and response.

  1. You’ve asked the congregation to consider memorizing the seven principles in order to receive a rainbow chalice pin. Don’t you think it would be good for you to model that for us?

Well, I guess so.

We affirm and promote:

 

  • rainbowpinThe inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
[The Reverend Peter Connolly was thereupon presented with a rainbow chalice pin.]

Sources:

  • Google.com: “Touchstone”
  • Wikipedia: “Episcopal Polity”
  • uuworld. org: November/December, 2000: “Shared Values”
  • uubgky. org: Board/Bylaws
  • Merriam.Webster.com: Polity

Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on April 19, 2015

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