Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
What's It All About?"
Rev.Samuel A. Trumbore September 29, 2002
Ever since I was boy, I wanted to get away from the limitations of being a kid as quickly as possible. I learned to ride a bike before I started elementary school to increase my mobility. I associated with kids my own age and older, never spending time with younger kids. I was eager to have my own bank account and when I got my driver's license, I never looked back. I wanted to be an adult, get a high paying job, a car, a house, a great stereo system, a super light bicycle, and maybe someday my own computer! If I thought about having a family when I was 18, I envisioned just two people in a love nest without any eggs.
The idea of having children grew on me though as I got older and saw my friends get married and have their own rug rats. The little creatures, when they weren't puking, pooping and drooling were sort of cute and a few even adorable.
So when I met Philomena during my internship in Rochester, New York and she was very intent on children, I thought, gee, maybe I can schedule this in. After all, ministers ought to have children. They help us empathize with the misery of our parishioners. So Philomena and I got married and after deciding we were competent to parent two kittens, we were ready to upgrade.
Fast forward to the hospital and waiting for Philomena to get to 10 centimeters. That night, we walked the halls impatiently looking at all the funny looking babies in the nursery and wondering what our soon-to-be-born son would look like. We didn't have to wait too long. Philomena broke blood vessels in her face pushing Andrew William Trumbore out into the world as the midwife gently guided his body through the birth canal. Tears came to my eyes as I watched him slowly emerging from Philomena's womb into the bright hospital lights. What I witnessed changed me. Now I get dewy eyed whenever I see birth scenes on television or on a movie screen.
Holding Andy for the first time, I was amazed at how handsome he was. In fact those other ugly babies in the nursery started looking a little better, too. Any clouds of doubt I had about human nature dissipated. Looking into his amazing eyes and touching his tiny fingers convinced me he was extremely special. Not only he was special, all newborns were special. They come into this world not as depraved sinners in need of redemption, but as beams of light already full of potential and promise.
A great way to appreciate the inspiration that drives Unitarian Universalism is in a maternity ward. Holding a newborn baby is an excellent way to directly experience our first principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person. The new parent has no doubt that their child at that moment has tremendous potential for goodness. Mothers, in particular, feel a biologically programmed passion for their newborn flowing in with their milk the likes of which they may never have known. It is a bond that cannot be broken, even by death. The mammalian impulse to nurture children and form families and tribes to support them is a fundamental aspect of our neurological anatomy.
The first Universalists clothed this recognition of human value in the language of Universal salvation. The early Universalists in the late eighteenth century examined their Bibles and could find no convincing evidence of the eternal damnation preached by the Calvinists. Universalist founder Hosea Ballou described how, as a young boy, his father would pray for a sign of his election to be one of the redeemed saints. In the early nineteenth century as revivals swept across upstate New York, the Universalists battled Calvinistic hell fire and damnation rhetoric. These first Universalist heretics believed that Jesus' death and resurrection was for all humanity not just a few saints selected before their birth. Since salvation was assured, one needed to focus on this life, not the next.
About the same time, William Ellery Channing was mounting the pulpit in Baltimore in 1819 to preach the sermon that defined American Unitarianism titled "Unitarian Christianity." Channing had also been reading his Bible and applying reason to it. Channing fervently believed that the errors that crept into religion could be swept away through the application of reason. If we applied reason to its pages, separating the time-limited historical passages from the ones that conveyed eternal truths, the Bible could be our guide to develop our character and to live a moral life.
This brings us to the next central idea of Unitarian Universalism: The cardinal value of reason and free thought. The Unitarian Universalist is a student in the university of life. Each student arriving from the womb has unique talents and the potential to discover and develop them. Throughout that student's career, she or he will have many, many teachers. The best of those teachers will do more than fill each student's head with information. The greatest teachers, like Socrates, will help the student discover who they really are. The student's knowing is independent of any of the teachers or teachings, for the greatest of both are to be found within each person. And the best way to find these truths, is through the free exchange of ideas and experiences.
Unitarian Universalists believe we need no mediator with the divine. We stand in the Protestant tradition that claims the transmission of the holy is not dependent on the one and only one holy Catholic Church. Religious institutions exist to serve our growth in self-awareness and morality. In our vision of religious institutions, they should not exist to control and deform the self into an idealistic vision of what is acceptable to God. Rather, we are responsible for shaping our own individual path to truth and meaning.
Attractive as this is to us, many people would rather not take responsibility for finding truth. They'd much rather have someone else tell them what to think and do and escape this burden. It may surprise you to know I honor this way of doing religion. I believe this is a perfectly acceptable way to live out one's religious life.
This path just doesn't work for us. For whatever reason, be it intellectual doubt, religious abuse, institutional conceit, or personal experience, the people who are attracted to Unitarian Universalism can't follow the script. We find traditional religion doesn't lead us to the truth and meaning we need.
Seeking truth and meaning from within, all by oneself, is challenging. An illustration: Have any of you been in or witnessed an auto accident? Did everyone who saw the accident come away with exactly the same story so the truth of what happened was perfectly apparent to everyone? Or did the angle of your witnessing affect what you sensed?
This is the dilemma of historians trying to reconstruct the past, particularly if they weren't there and must rely on others to tell the tale. Unfortunately witnesses to historic events rework and reorder their memories to fit the story they want to tell. No one's history is exactly the same because of their different social locations. The Native American will write a significantly different version of American History than a Englishman of the same period. And the Englishwomen write a different story as well. And First World person from Third World person. Even using the terms 'First' and 'Third' already biases the discussion.
Even though our senses obfuscate the truth, I believe there is a truth to be found. Without a doubt, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. That is a fact. Uncovering all the truth of his murder beyond a shadow of a doubt, though, is next to impossible. Yet for the good of society, we must try. And I believe one can be closer to or further away from that truth.
The same applies to theology that grapples with an area of even greater fuzziness and abstraction. The Unitarian Universalist approach to theology is to begin by recognizing the limitation of revelation. Words cannot capture for all time the truth to which they point. Our knowledge and understanding is limited. The best we can do is to follow what we think we know and choose operational assumptions.
Rather than build our religious identity on the shifting sands of revelation, we choose the bedrock of our association to be values. We posit the value of the individual. We posit the value of the human reason and emotion. We posit the value of community. We posit the value of justice, equity and compassion. We posit the value of democracy. Posit the value of interdependence. We posit the value of love. These values become the substrate of Unitarian Universalist faith supported by individual beliefs.
To understand how different beliefs can support common values, think of traveling to a distant land with strange customs and a language other than Eglish. At first, the differences dominate the attention as the disoriented traveler struggles to adapt. But over time, the differences diminish and the similarities become more apparent. Every human being on this planet must face many of the same life dilemmas. We are all born, must learn to function, form committed relationships that may or may not nurture children, grow old and die. We must all find and consume nutritious food and drink. We must all excrete and secrete. We must all find meaning and value. As the strangeness wears off, the familiar becomes evident now in different clothing, now scented with different fragrance.
Another central idea of Unitarian Universalism is the unity that can be found in diversity. Rather than a threat, the person who does not share one's beliefs can help one expand one's thinking through creative interchange. We are fellow travelers on the road to greater truth which none of us can know completely. Through honest engagement, one often discovers common threads between beliefs. This was my experience during seminary. My study and practice of Buddhist meditation helped me better appreciate and value Christian and Jewish scripture, tradition and practice. While the seminarians from other schools I sat with in class believed things I'll never believe (like the virgin birth of Jesus), I learned much from and cherished their faith.
Pushing the boundary of our diversity isn't easy. The natural human inclination is to gravitate toward those who are like us. Yet some of my richest experiences have been through engagement with those most different from me. Crossing the divides of racism through my work in community organizing constantly stretches me but also energizes and encourages me as I make human connections across racial and cultural divides.
Which leads me to my last image that informs and describes Unitarian Universalism. It is the image of our blue green earth, speckled with white clouds and capped with glinting ice, photographed from the moon, floating in a black sea of emptiness. There may be a heaven. There may be a hell. There may be alternate universes to which and from which we fade in and out of between incarnations. Unitarian Universalism chooses not to speculate. We are a this-worldly religion. We take an ecological view of our precious and fragile planet. Everything that exists matters. The hummingbird, the spotted owl and the Osprey. The giant redwood, the majestic elm and the pine bush. The whale, the dolphin and the snail darter. The Inuit, the Zulu and the Anglo Saxon … like me. This beautiful interdependent web of life, too, has inherent worth and dignity and must be protected and cherished as the birthright of the next generation.
Embracing the value of the whole ecosystem and the inherent worth of the individual may appear to create contradiction and paradox. I agree--it does. There are no neat and clean solutions to find the right dynamic balance. The community and the individual are always in tension. In Unitarian Universalist congregations, that tension is legendary and the source of many entertaining stories told and retold at General Assembly each year. (Of course, never about our congregation!) Yet the best of what we aspire to is recognizing the value of both the whole and the parts and honoring them both in our living.
From the eyes of the newborn to the eager enthusiasm of the student; from the restless mind questioning evidence to the traveler's discovery of similarities and connections, from the individual to the planet, from all this, comes the shape of Unitarian Universalism as we live it today.
· We claim our way of doing religion is as valid, satisfying and meaningful as any other way of doing religion.
· We embrace every form of inspired word or deed to help guide us toward truth and meaning.
· We claim a vision of divinity that includes rather than excludes.
· We accept responsibility for our own search for truth and meaning.
· We recognize we need others as we do that searching to make sense of what we find.
· We cherish common values that energize our efforts as world citizens to bring justice, equity and compassion into social relations.
We have found a way to do religion that we find satisfying. I've long believed ours is one of the most compatible religious traditions with the American spirit. So if I've peaked your interest, I encourage you to get to know us better. We've been here 160 years and I expect us to be here long into the future.
Copyright © 2002 by the Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.