Sermon: Questions From the Heart

The Heart Nebula

 16 August 2009


Rev. Fred L Hammond

I thought it would be fun to hear what people in the congregation are thinking about regarding living their Unitarian Universalism. Were there any questions that were being unsaid or not being answered in a clear manner? The questions fell into a theme for the service and I am always amazed when that happens. I don’t think it is important to identify who asked the questions. These are questions that almost anyone in the congregation could have asked and you may resonate with the questions yourself. So let us begin with a history question.

 At one time, both Unitarians and Universalists believed in a Christian God. That’s no longer part of the Purposes and Principles, though. When did an explicit belief in God get phased out—and how did that happen?

Unitarian Theology as it was developed in the United States in the early 1800’s was a belief in One God. This was the God of the Jews. It was a return to the monotheistic belief that was held at the beginning of the Christian era. What we consider the Christian God didn’t become orthodoxy until the Nicene Creed in the 4th century, when the concept of a Triune God, three personas in one was established. This is the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the Trinity of Christian doctrine. God for the Unitarians was still a father figure, still a personal god. Jesus was the son of god, but so was all of humanity, all were the children of god. Jesus was fully human.

Unitarians in William Channing’s famous sermon on Unitarian Christianity did not believe that Jesus was crucified as recompense for humanities sins. Channing pointed out that no loving parent would punish a stronger child to atone for the sins or wrong doings of a weaker child. So while Unitarians believed that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected from the dead, it was more of an unfortunate consequence of people not heeding his message. Unitarians believed that salvation was through the following of Jesus’ teachings to develop moral character.

Universalists started out as trinitarian but they soon shifted to a Unitarian concept of God as well. Universalists believed that all of humanity would be saved because the death of Jesus on the crucifix paid the price for all of humanities sins; past, present, and future. There was no ever-lasting torment in hell because God was too good, too loving to condemn people to everlasting hell.

Rev. Thomas Starr King who was an ordained Universalist minister and then became a Unitarian Minister is quoted as saying the only difference between Unitarians and Universalists is that the Universalists believed God was too good to condemn people to hell and the Unitarians believed they were too good for god to condemn them to hell.

By the mid-1800’s Emerson, Parker and others were espousing transcendentalism. This was the belief that revelation was available through intuition that transcends the physical and empirical. Personal experience had to be accounted for in one’s exploration of faith. The Bible was not the only source for revelation- Emerson had said no one book could contain all the revelations of god. Emerson and others found some translations of the Vedic texts of Hindu teachings. These were badly done translations so there were misconceptions but the impact of these writings was profound on American thought and the development of transcendentalism.

Parker in his famous sermon, The Transient and the Permanent, announced that if Jesus had never lived there would still be a Christian religion because the values and concepts that Jesus taught were readily available to everyone. There were some aspects in Christianity that were transient and others that were permanent. He suggested stripping away the transient in order to find that which was permanent.

The civil war had a devastating effect on the heart of America. This country had never seen such a bloody war of this magnitude on its shores before. Abraham Lincoln revived the national fast day where people were to fast from food and repent for national sins and return to God’s ways.

There was in the Unitarian Church a move to list in their preamble that they followed the Lord Jesus Christ in their convention in 1865. This caused heated debate. Unitarians already had a strong non-creedal tradition and this was seen as developing a creed, a doctrine that people had to agree on. Two years after the civil war ended, there was a split in the Unitarian Church with the founding of the Free Religious Association. This group rejected the notion of a personal god. And the Free Religious Association leaned heavily on the teachings of science and the implications of the Origin of Species.

Someone asked a question regarding the Ethical Culture Society and Unitarian Universalism. As a side bar, the Free Religious Association while it later reconciled with the Unitarian Church and rejoined, one of its members was Felix Adler, a reform Jew in NYC. Felix Adler was the founder of the Ethical Culture Society in the mid 1870’s after the Free Religious Association dissolved and rejoined the Unitarians. They have four principles to our seven and these four principles are similar in concept to ours. So in genealogical terms, the Ethical Culture Society would be cousins to Unitarian Universalists. There is one ethical cultural society that has joined the UUA in recent years. This is the society in the Washington, DC region.

When the Free Religious Association disbanded and rejoined the Unitarians, the Unitarians had shifted in their thinking closer to the notion that god was not a personal god. There was an emphasis once again of their non-creedal heritage. By the late 1800’s the Christian world was no longer calling Unitarians a Christian faith. Unitarians still called themselves Christian but the rest of the Christian world did not recognize Unitarians as such. The Universalists were right behind the Unitarians in their evolution away from Christianity as their core identity.

At the turn of the 20th century there was the first world war which again profoundly impacted Unitarian thought. The rise of the social sciences led to the hope that humanity could perhaps evolve beyond violence. In the 1930’s there was the Humanist Manifesto, signed by many Unitarian clergy. And by World War Two, the Unitarian Church no longer declared itself to be a Christian denomination and the belief in a god, personal or otherwise was no longer assumed. There are other evolutionary factors that occurred along the way.

Why are UU’s not considered a denomination? Follow-up with are we a denomination or something else—a school of thought, a movement, a unique religion?

This notion of Unitarian Universalism being a denomination, a school of thought, a movement, a unique religion is still being debated. There are many among us who still see us as a denomination of the Christian religion. Remember the term denomination refers to being a sub-set of a larger whole. The World Council of Churches, which prides itself as being the most inclusive ecumenical organization of all of Christendom does not recognize us as a denomination since we as an association of congregations do not proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Our heritage came up through the reformation of the 1500’s and then through the puritans in the American Colonies. Congregationalism is the governance that we adopted as opposed to an Episcopal or presbytery format. This had to do with the fear of any one person or body having control over another group as experienced in England in the late 1500’s and 1600’s. So while our governance structure is similar to other Congregationalist faiths, like Baptists and United Church of Christ we are not a Christian denomination.

I suppose one could argue that we are denomination of the free church which would include The Ethical Culture Society, Unity, and Science of Mind, all cousins to Unitarian Universalists and descendents of the thoughts and teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The next two questions I am going to read together because they are essentially the same question from two different poles.

“What is the role of atheism and religious skepticism in a Unitarian Universalist congregation? I ask because I’m occasionally uncomfortable with references to God, Jesus, heaven, and even spirituality in our sermons or music. Are UUs really welcoming in this regard, or welcoming only in hopes that that skeptics will “come to religion (lite)”?”

 “If it is okay for members to follow their own path, then if a member wants to follow the path of Christianity (and actually talk about it) why are UUs sensitive and touchy about that? If somebody wants to follow the path of, say, Hindu. That’s fine. If you say you’re a Christian, many (sometimes angrily) want to know ‘what are you doing here?’”

It is a challenge, isn’t it to be a non-creedal group and be willing to be together in covenant regarding a set of principles? Remaining in covenant with one another is hard work. Yet that is what we are called to do. We have a purpose in the greater society to show the world that a diverse group of people can indeed be in community with one another. We can honor one another’s view points and conclusions as being valid even when they seemingly are contrary to everything we have processed in our lives to date. As congregations we have covenanted together to affirm and promote a set of principles and to draw upon a living tradition that derives from many sources.

There are two principles that address this polarity directly. Our third principle states “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” Our fourth principle states “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Can we be accepting of one another here, even when the person in the pew next to you has not come to the same conclusions you have regarding the ultimate questions?

Last April we affirmed as our mission statement that we saw ourselves as being “an open and nurturing Unitarian Universalist community made visible by our actions to make a better world.” In order to show ourselves as open and nurturing out the world we need to be open and nurturing in here.

To me that means I choose to be in covenant with you to listen to your journey with my heart, accepting your words as your best expression at this moment in time AND you in covenant with me, choose to listen to my journey with your heart, accepting my words as my best expression at this moment in time. Together, we may learn some new piece of wisdom that can only be revealed when these two expressions come together.

I recently heard of a story of a rabbi who met a person who had a Jewish surname. The rabbi said “your surname is Jewish yes? but I don’t recall ever seeing you attending Shabbat.” The person answered, “yes, rabbi, my surname is indeed Jewish but I am an atheist so I do not attend Shabbat.” The rabbi answered, “What does being atheist have to do with being Jewish?”

Actually, everything. The Jewish faith is founded on a covenant with God / the ultimate other. Remove the ultimate other from the covenant and you are left being alone. Even if one is using God in the metaphorical sense of the cosmic unknown, if that is removed then there is nothing.

One could argue I suppose that the community is metaphorically god and that is where the covenant lies but the metaphor as presented in the Abrahamic text breaks down with that notion. Abraham was alone when he made his covenant with god; there was no community present. And that paradoxically becomes the strongest argument for the atheist who is also Jewish. His covenant is first and foremost with himself. The Jewish community invites him to expand that covenant to be inclusive of others. Our UU congregations could be said to do the same. We invite you to expand your covenant to be inclusive of others.

The role of the atheist in our congregations is a prophetic role. As we ponder on the mysteries of the universe, we humans have an amazing ability to develop matrixes with things that simply are not there. Seeing Jesus in a water stain on a wall is one such example. Our minds are always searching to make meaning out of everything we see. The devout catholic might in response set up an altar with candles. The atheist is there reminding us to use our sources which include “humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science…” to say “nope just a water stain, nothing miraculous to see here folks, move along now.”

The covenant that we seek with one another is not based on a doctrine or belief. So as time evolves, the pendulum between the two poles of atheism and theism within our congregations are allowed to swing. There is a need for both in our communities. The one that says nothing miraculous to see here folks, move along now and the one who sees the face of Jesus in the water stain and from this regains the hope and vision to rebuild a disintegrating community. This is the wonder of the possibility. Both have a role in our congregations. Both can help us find the transcendent reality.

It is true that this congregation was founded predominantly by secular humanists over fifty years ago. But we are no longer a collection of secular humanists; we are of many different beliefs, of many different paths. The question these two questions are really posing is this: Can we be in covenant with one another today given that we are as diverse theologically as the spectrum of humanity?

This seems to be our growing edge as a beloved community. Some of us are uncomfortable with the language of religion in our midst. Some of us are uncomfortable at the lack of spirituality in our midst.

I wonder if you would be willing to identify where you resonate theologically so that others will know that they are not alone here. You may resonate on several areas so as I mention different spiritual paths would you raise your hands? And be free to look around, you may realize for the first time that there are people you have more in common with than you thought. Now these words are all complex and there are multi-layers as to how we define them. And I will talk about that in a minute, so with the broadest of brush strokes that these words might encompass…

With a show of hands, how many here resonate with being atheist? How many here resonate with being agnostic? How many here resonate with being Buddhist? How many here resonate being Bahá’i? How many here resonate with being Christian? …with being Hindu? … with being Jewish? … with being Muslim? … with being Mormon? … with being Pagan? … with being Pentecostal? … with a Native American religion? … with being New Age? How many here resonate with some other spiritual path?

We are a diverse group. We should all feel free to discuss our beliefs here with out worry of ridicule and scorn. Unfortunately, I know that is not the case here. If we have felt uncomfortable with words and ideas being expressed here, can we examine where we sit with our third and fourth principles? Do we truly honor these principles in our lives?

I guarantee that if you were to move to another community and sought out a Unitarian Universalist congregation there, you would find a different configuration of spiritual paths. You might not be comfortable attending King’s Chapel in Boston with its common book of prayer revised when that congregation left the Anglican faith and became Unitarian in the 1700’s. You might not be comfortable attending All Souls in Tulsa, OK where Bishop Carlton Pearson’s former congregation has now joined as members and meets with them every Sunday with hands in the air. ( Bishop Pearson, you might recall had one of the largest mega Pentecostal churches in Tulsa and then he discovered the message of universalism and his congregation was reduced to a fraction of its size.)  You might not be comfortable in a Unitarian church in Transylvania where they serve communion to honor and renew the covenant they believe Jesus was making with his disciples. You might not feel comfortable in First Unitarian in Chicago with its dominant humanist message. These are the varieties of expression of Unitarian Universalism.

However, if you believe that the principles in which we covenant to uphold is a useful guide then all these expressions in the final analysis should not matter because all of our paths can enrich our lives and be made better for them. I am enriched by the presence of Christians here. I am enriched by the presence of Atheists. I am enriched by the presence of our diverse theology. Each offers a gift that will enable my faith to grow, and I believe that for you as well.

Theologian James Luther Adams said, “An unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident. A faith worth having is a faith worth discussing and testing.” This statement is true for all of us regardless of our path.

+++++ Let’s look for a minute at the multiplicity of the words here. Someone identifies as an atheist here what does that mean? It may mean they do not believe in a personal God as defined by Christianity. Or It may mean that they do not believe there is any divine or otherwise force that created the universe. That definition of atheist is different from the first.

Someone identifies as being Christian. What does that mean? It may mean that they believe that Jesus is the son of god, both divine and human and that Jesus came to take away the sins of the world. And that he will return again to judge the quick and the dead. Or it may mean that they try to follow the teachings and example of Jesus as a great human teacher. They may not believe the other aspects of the orthodox faith. Or it may mean that they identify as a Christian as a cultural identification. They grew up in the Bible belt and therefore they recognize the cultural aspects of Christianity as their own but they adhere to the specific teachings only to the extent that these have influenced the culture in which they live.

So when someone wears a Cross and attends a UU congregation what does that mean? Can we assume it means they are bible thumping evangelicals who believe that Jesus is the only way, radically pro-life, and they are anxiously awaiting the rapture to whisk them away so they will avoid the demonic forces of the Great Tribulation? Please don’t.

If this thought washes across your mind, please keep it to yourself because we have a mission that we are seeking to fulfill. We want to be an open, nurturing Unitarian Universalist community and by questioning someone that they don’t belong here because they wear a cross or that they pray to Jesus when they feel in need is not open nor nurturing and it is certainly not Unitarian Universalist. See principles 1, 2, 3, and 4 and read our sources again, where we state that we draw from the Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves. God’s love could be interpreted as the warmth of community, feel free to translate as needed to increase comfort level. I say that not to be facetious but in the honest truth that we sometimes, in order to understand within our personal contexts, need to translate.

What do you (meaning I) make of the G** word?

I thought it only fair to answer this question. Even though I have had a long history of being a charismatic Christian, I do not identify as a Christian in the orthodox meaning of that word. I do not believe in a personal god. I do not believe that there is a god who is watching over my shoulder to see if I am living according to HIS plan. Gender use is deliberate. I do not believe in an omniscient omnipresent god. So in this regard I would be an atheist.

For me, the concept of god is all that is and all that is not. It is the expanse of everything known and unknown. And I think there is quite a bit that is unknown. But this is a conceptual god not an actual entity or stream of reality.

I recognize the legitimacy for those who believe in a personal god. And I can accept their language to express their experiences of this personal god because the experiences they are describing are universal. The interpretation of what those experiences mean may not be. I don’t have to agree with the interpretation of their experiences but I can find affinity with the experience.

Who has not experienced a love so rich and deep that it was transcendent? Now to a Pentecostal that might be described as being blessed by the Spirit (with a capital S) to an atheist it might be the increase of oxytocin in their brains. The experience is the same. If you or I were to experience this, it would be up to you and me to define its meaning.

Because of personal experiences that I have found no reasonable or rational explanation, I consider myself a metaphysical mystic. This is the best way to date that I have been able to reconcile my charismatic Christian experiences and the paranormal experiences I have had in my life. I no longer seek to define them within a context of religion because those answers are simply too dualistic for me. I have grown comfortable in the mystery and wonder of life and so I let those experiences be and am amazed when they occur. May we all be comfortable in the mystery and the questions of life. Blessed Be.

Published in: on August 16, 2009 at 3:13 pm  Comments (3)  
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  1. I’m not a UU, but I have visited a number of your churches and have been impressed by the way in which your movement has learned and grown and changed, shedding ideas and doctrines that never made any sense and were often the source for a lot of cruelty, not the least of which was the doctrine of Hell.

    I imagine that, especially in the South, that your members often find themselves being confronted by Evangelicals who insist that Hell must exist, often claiming that Jesus himself preached about it.

    However, I would say you can make a very strong case, from the Gospels themselves, to say otherwise.

    I’ve actually written an entire book on this topic–“Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There’s No Such Place As Hell,” (for anyone interested, you can get a free Ecopy of my book at my website:, but if I may, let me share just one of the many points I make in support of the concept that God, as a loving parent, could never torture anyone.

    If one is willing to look, there’s substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: “You don’t know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!” Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

    So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

    True, there is a minority of statements that made their way into the gospels which place Hell on Jesus lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death, most likely due to the Church filling up with Greeks who imported their belief in Hades with them when they converted.

  2. Rev. Fred,

    Thank you for publishing this. I enjoyed your talk, but it was so full of interesting history that I needed to read it at my own speed to start to retain it.

    I enjoyed visiting and am planning to come back Sunday with my sister Celeste Thomas (Rob’s girlfriend). I’m sorry you won’t be speaking again, but I’m sure I’ll hear you another time.

  3. Nice work, Fred. I am doing a Question Box sermon this weekend, and some of these questions I have received are the same as some of yours. I appreciate reading your answers, as I begin to formulate my own. I promise to steal less than half of your material, and give you credit if I use your words.

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