©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
I would like to tell you that this is going to be a sermon on Hinduism. Hinduism is the majority religion in India, and is practiced by over a billion people worldwide. Hinduism is ancient and fascinating, and in every way deserves a sermon. But Hinduism is also incredibly diverse. It is practiced across ethnic and linguistic divisions. Over the centuries, local worship, local gods, and local religious practice have been absorbed into Hinduism, and Hinduism has been changed by them. The people of India have been worshiping in ways that can be traced to modern Hinduism for more than ten thousand years. There is no way I could grasp “Hinduism” as a whole in one sermon.
And I, as a Westerner rooted in the Protestant tradition, speaking to you, who are mostly Westerners and mostly rooted in Judeo-Christian traditions, confront difficulties in trying to preach on a religion of India at any rate. If I share my fascination with Hinduism, I risk putting this rich tradition up on a pedestal. If I make too much of the differences, I risk comparing it to religious traditions with which we’re more familiar. Perhaps the best approach is to explore some of these basic similarities and differences, to see what we can learn about Hinduism together, and what the religion of more than one billion people, the religion of one of the fastest-growing nations on earth, has to teach us about our own spirituality. We will proceed together with humility and curiosity about Hinduism. We will wonder together how Hinduism teaches humans to live a good life. We will see what we can learn.
You may not know this, but the Unitarians had a missionary presence in India in the nineteenth century. The American Unitarians sent a man named Charles Dall, who worked in Calcutta from 1855 to 1886. The British Unitarians were represented by Mary Carpenter, an educational reformer from the north of England. Both of these people worked with an Indian group called the Brahmo Somaj, the work of a Calcuttan Brahmin named Ram Mohan Roy. In the 1820s, he had come to the conclusion that Hinduism needed to pursue a form of monotheism, in order to grow as a religion and in order to meet the challenge of Christianity.
This view was never adopted by a majority of Bengalis, let alone a great number of Indians generally. But the movement thrived among Brahmins who felt called to leadership of their people without wanting to become priests. Ram Mohan Roy and his successor, Keshab Chandra Sen, met and worked with American and British Unitarians, including Dall and Carpenter. But the Indian leaders ultimately decided that they were destined to pursue their own path to monotheism. While the Brahmo Somaj did not become a Unitarian religion, it remained in fellowship with its Unitarian cousins in the West.
Carpenter and Dall were not necessarily interested in native forms of Unitarianism, anyway. Carpenter wanted to found schools for Indian girls, as she had done for working class girls in the north of England. Keshab Sen, on the other hand, wanted girls and women to receive education in the home and remain within their feminine sphere. Carpenter’s reforming zeal was laudable, but she could never escape her sense that India was backwards and England was better. She wrote on one occasion, “Some native houses where I had the pleasure of visiting in Bombay, had quite the air and appearance of English residences, the families living alone, the lady of the house being the central spring of all, and no more secluded than suited her own taste (61).” For Carpenter, being more like England was better.
Dall, perhaps frustrated himself from having to work with a woman who considered herself his equal, wrote, “Miss Carpenter has been very cooly received on her return to Bombay, the mischief being, in the one hand, that she walks roughshod over everybody and meets her best advisers with rebuke, saying, ‘she knows better.’ This style of hers has become so inveterate that the old lady has hardly a friend left. If she could begin to see how little she knows of India (Lavan).” Meanwhile the Brahmo Somaj would have been happy for western financial support but did not want to become more English at all. Unitarians may not have traveled the globe trying to convert people to Christianity. Yet our history of missionary activity is no less fraught with difficulties. Yes, we had a mission to India, but we were not as respectful as we could have been.
Working with and learning from other cultures can be so hard. It is very hard for us humans to recognize how many of the truths we take for granted are cultural and not absolute. We are always ready to think that the way we do things is the right way to do things. We understand that some things are cultural, such as the language we speak, the food we eat, and the way we worship. But our cultural heritage may run even deeper than that. Think about giving directions, for instance. When we give directions to someone coming to visit us, we usually say “turn left” or “turn right.” We might start on a large scale by including cardinal directions: for instance, we might say, “Head north on Route Three.” But once into the neighborhood, we give directions based on the person doing the navigating. We ask our visitor to start with her own body, and then move forward or backward, left or right. But there are cultures and languages that rely entirely on the cardinal directions. Aboriginal Australians living in north Queensland speak a language called Guugu Yimithirr. In this language, all directions are given using the cardinal compass points. As one journalist put it,
If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward (Deutscher).
This linguistic detail requires that the Guugu Yimithirr, the speakers of this language, know at all times which way north, south, east and west are. Speakers of geographic languages learn from childhood how to recognize the directions, and they encode their memories with these directions so that stories can be retold later. They always know which direction is north, regardless of whether they are indoors or out, in a familiar location or a strange one.
A journalist tells one story of a Guugu Yimithirr who happened to be filmed, twice, telling a story about how, as a young man, his boat “capsized in shark-infested waters. He and an older person were caught in a storm, and their boat tipped over. They both jumped into the water and managed to swim nearly three miles to the shore, only to discover that the missionary for whom they worked was far more concerned at the loss of the boat than relieved at their miraculous escape (Deutscher).” The story is thrilling enough on its own, but it becomes even more interesting to the viewer from another culture.
In both tellings, as the man describes how the boat tipped to the north and the south, and how the sharks were coming at them from the southeast and the northwest, he gestures in these cardinal directions. Even though he is oriented in different ways in the two retellings, and so must gesture in different directions relative to his own body and to his listeners, the cardinal directions remain the same. Directionality is cultural, not innate. Since we don’t think about the directions behind, in front, or next to, we think they are universal. But they are taught to us in our language, our culture, and our lived experience.
When we learn about a religious tradition other than our own, we come with the same cultural expectations. So much of what we know and practice in religion is cultural, not absolute. We may be surprised when we encounter different religious ideas. In the Christian tradition, religion is a matter of the spirit and the mind primarily, and only secondarily a matter of the body. Many of us grew up in traditions where the real world of fulfillment and promise was the next world, which we would only encounter after a good life and death. In Hinduism, religion is woven into one’s entire life. Hinduism proclaims four aims of humankind, which are also related to four stages in life. These aims are dharma, worldly success, pleasure and release (Doniger 201).
Dharma is a Sanskrit word meaning that which holds fast, or the right way of the world, or the way things should be. We might translate it “duty.” Release in Sanskrit is the word moksha. As a fourth aim of life, moksha was actually appended later to the original list of three. It means release from the striving after goals, enlightenment, and ultimately release from the cycle of karmic rebirth. Righteousness, enlightenment, release from the cycle: these we are familiar with in our western, Christian heritage. But prosperity and pleasure? As religious aims? This can take us outside of our understanding of religion. We must recognize that our religious values are cultural, and not absolute. We must set aside our preconceptions about religion and enter into a space of appreciative curiosity about Hinduism.
The four aims of life in Hinduism are sometimes divided up as aims over the course of a man’s lifetime. I say “man” purposefully, here, because these goals were specifically for high caste men, not for lower castes or for women. (Neither classical Hinduism nor traditional Christianity focus on women’s pleasure or women’s salvation.) So over the course of a high caste man’s life, he would first pursue worldly success as a young, chaste student; he would then become a householder, pursuing pleasure as a husband and a father. Once his children had grown he would leave his wife (as you can see, her enlightenment must follow a different path) and become a forest-dweller, seeking enlightenment and release from seeking after goals. During all these pursuits, he was carrying out his duty, or living his dharma.
The Buddha was one such man, according to legend. As a young man, he studied; then he married. After learning about the reality of suffering among humanity, he left home to become an ascetic. But after several years of wandering and deprivation, he realized that enlightenment could not be sought in this way. Finally, under the bodhi tree, the Buddha found enlightenment and release from the cycle of desire.
This is just one idealized story about how a man might pursue these four goals. Not all Hindus pursue all four. Some strands of the tradition emphasize one over the other three. Some traditions within Hinduism seek enlightenment through pleasure, and some Hindu holy symbols are the male and female organs of the gods. There are traditions alive and well within Hinduism and Buddhism that seek religious fulfillment in the earthly, the relational, and the here-and-now. There is some love imagery in the Sufi traditions of Islam–the great Sufi poet Rumi likened his love for his friend Shams to love for Allah–but seeking enlightenment through earthly love is not part of our Protestant heritage. Through encounters with other traditions, we learn other ways people approach the mundane and the holy.
Western, predominantly Christian cultures have a long history of imposing their values, often through violence, on eastern cultures and their diverse religions. American and British Unitarians were not much different in their missionary efforts in the nineteenth century. Religious liberals have spent the later decades of the twentieth century (and continue into the twenty-first) trying to undo this legacy of colonialism and oppression. We try, now, to have an understanding of our own cultural values and to learn, humbly and earnestly, from other traditions.
One of the twentieth century’s most profound lessons was one that came from India. This is another Sanskrit word, ahimsa, or non-violence (Doniger 9). This began as a value opposed to animal sacrifice, came to mean the avoidance of violence to animals, and then became the goal of nonviolence among humans. One historian of Hinduism points out that it is a shining goal more than a reality in Indian culture. Yet it is a goal which has moved our entire world toward greater freedom and understanding in the last one hundred years. This goal of nonviolence, espoused by Gandhi in his resistance to the British, influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. in his leadership of the civil rights movement. Recently Palestinian prisoners have used nonviolent protest to win more rights in Israeli prisons. Nonviolence has spread from India outward to the world, influencing western culture for the better. Recognizing what is part of our culture helps us understand it, embrace parts of it, and rid ourselves of parts of it in favor of other cultures. Sharing cultures and religions with honesty, humility and curiosity expands the possibilities for world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.
Carpenter, Mary. Six Months in India. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1868.
Deutscher, Guy. “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” The New York Times Magazine. 29 Aug. 2010: 42. Nytimes.com. 26 Aug. 2010. Accessed 8 June 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html?pagewanted=all.
Doniger, Wendy. The Hindus: An Alternative History. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Lavan, Spencer. Unitarians in India: A Study in Encounter and Response. Chicago: Exploration Press, 1991.
©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
William James’ biographer begins with the story of James in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Plagued by insomnia, he was awake just before five in the morning when the quake hit. He rode out the 48-second quake on his bed, and then went to find his wife, who was unhurt. Once he realized they were both safe, James ran out into the street. He spent the rest of the day talking to everyone he could about their experience of the earthquake: where they had been, what it was like for them, what they had seen and felt.
This is no surprise from the man who is the best known proponent of a philosophical approach called “pragmatism.” Pragmatism, and in particular the writings of William James, is one of my favorite theological and philosophical approaches. Pragmatism says, at its core, what matters is what we do–that belief will be shown through action. It says that the test of any belief is its consequent actions. It says that there is not one unified truth, but as many ways of experiencing the world as there are human beings. This is what I love about Unitarian Universalism. Our beliefs can be quite diverse, and our actions can still converge around the love within our fellowship community and the good we can do in the world.
At the core of pragmatism is the concept that our beliefs are shown through our actions. The issue of who believes what often takes center stage in our divided world. We believes that our beliefs divide us. But what do we believe, really? Take the example of two women interviewed in Pennsylvania, during the last presidential election, about whether or not they supported then-Senator Obama.
One woman looked right at the camera, and said with complete conviction that she thought Obama was an incarnation of the devil and would be terrible for America. She turned to her neighbor and said, “Don’t you agree?” And the neighbor looked at the camera and said no, she was going to wait and see what his policies were, and she might vote for him. The interviewer thanked them, and the women went back into their houses. We can imagine that the two women went on about their day and watched themselves on the evening news (Doherty).
Now the woman who believed that Obama was the devil stated her belief with every indication of really believing it. She was asked what she thought and she said it; there was no indication that she was lying or playing a joke. But in some sense, she must not really have believed it. If you believed that Satan himself was going to be incarnate in the president of the United States, it would not be all right with you for your neighbor to disagree with you on that matter. It would be a matter of the gravest concern, a matter that might prompt you to take whatever action you could to change the outcome.
Imagine that you are upstairs in your house at night and you become convinced that a strange person has entered your home downstairs. Maybe this person is a burglar; at any rate, you know they’re not supposed to be there. The nature of this belief would cause you to take immediate action. You might try to confront the person or scare them off. You might call the police. You might hide in the closet. Whatever your response, it would come as a result of an overwhelming belief that something was not as it should be. The belief that something was wrong in your house would have become real to the point of requiring action. Pragmatism is the philosophy which says that the test of our beliefs is the action we will take. Pragmatism would say that while the first woman in the interview is considering the possibility that Obama might be an incarnation of the devil, she doesn’t quite believe it yet, or she would be acting on it.
As I said, pragmatism was made most widely known by philosopher and psychologist William James, brother to the novelist Henry James and diarist Alice James. The word was coined by Charles Sanders Peirce and the ideas were explored by other friends of theirs, including George Santayana, whose poem we heard earlier. William James was a pioneer in the field of psychology in the late 19th century, and is also well known as a writer of philosophical and theological works. He pioneered the idea of a “stream of consciousness,” a flow of our ideas which was a more accurate way of understanding our minds than thinking that “mind” was a static thing. He believed that what we call our “mind” came to exist through the constant stream of experiences which make up our lives.
James arrived at his conclusions about the nature of belief and experience through his absolute commitment to the theory of evolution. He was interested in philosophy, theology and psychology that arose from the experiences of human beings. A creature’s experience in the world would select for adaptations and fit the creature for that world. When James looked at the animal kingdom, he saw that some creatures in it had consciousness and some did not. Therefore, James thought, consciousness must be an adaptive solution. We are not automata, with an observing consciousness along for the ride. And we are not divinely endowed to lord it over creation. The process of evolution has provided us with a faculty which can consider our experiences and options in time and make decisions which are not merely driven by sense experience. Each person’s consciousness is the hallmark of their free will to respond to the universe in the way that is right for them.
The freedom of this appeal to experience is bound, on the other side, by the limits of achieving a universal vision of reality. If each person interacts with the world in her or his own way, then it is hard, as an individual, to say anything conclusive about the nature of the universe itself. Many philosophies of James’ time were concerned with trying to explain life, the universe and everything. James was concerned with building a philosophy outward from the individual and collective human experience. And he was not going to leave out any experience, because everything that we perceive is part of what it means to be human.
In a way, our beliefs become our biography. What we believe becomes who we are. William James believed that part of what our mind does for us is help us select the stimuli in the world to which we wish to pay to pay attention. Animals with less consciousness, James believed, were required to pay attention to stimuli regarding food, shelter and safety. These things are still important to humans, but with the tool of consciousness, we can choose to pay attention to other things too. Even homeless people may create art, in other words, because having a mind allows people to choose to pay attention to beauty over shelter.
This concept of mind also suggests that our minds are an organ of our functioning, like other organs in our body. And our minds can function more or less well, just like other organs. Sometimes, the organ of our minds does not work as well as we wish it did. All of us have either experienced serious depression or known someone who has. I can think of a friend of mine who watched her marriage fall apart because she did not have the capacity, at that time, to take the steps necessary to improve her situation. It was as though she had a broken leg, and the thing she needed to do to heal was to hike a mountain.
Rather than see depression as a failure of the person, we can see it as a difficulty with the organ of the mind. A therapist can even use consciousness as a tool in treating depression, by helping someone see the depression as something external to themselves. Even choosing to get help is often ambivalent. Therapists may use therapies which identify “the depression” as something external to the patient. Theory of change–pre-contemplation, contemplation, change, backsliding are part of the process.
William James believed that experience formed the core of human existence. He was interested in building up a philosophy of the human mind which was based on experience. When he considered experience, however, he did not exempt anything. In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, James notes the real power and of conversion and mystical experiences. He discusses many kinds of conversion: conversion to religious belief; conversion away from religious belief to atheism; and conversion from drunkenness to sobriety are just a few. He notes that people can go to sleep one night believing one thing and wake up the next morning believing something different–even something, in the case of sobriety, which they may have been contemplating for some time. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous were in fact inspired by The Varieties of Religious Experience to form Alcoholics Anonymous, which relies on the experience of conversion to bring people to sobriety.
The building up of experience in oneself, which finally results in a conversion, is another way of looking at the evolution of ideas. Just as James believed that consciousness, or mind, had evolved in humans as a trait selected for the survival of the species, he believed that ideas evolved in us as competing efforts until one idea was selected as the one upon which we would act. He went so far as to say that the action itself selected the idea; in other words, it is when we get out of bed that we have the idea, “I will get out of bed now,” rather than the idea, “I will stay under the covers where it is warm.”
The moment the alcoholic decides to stop drinking is the moment at which the idea to not drink truly emerges; every moment before when she has thought to herself, “I really need to stop drinking” while pouring another drink, the idea of not drinking was not yet fully present. It was one of several competing ideas, but the idea to drink was still winning. The idea to seek treatment for depression is also a thought that may have had to prepare itself before becoming real. Psychologists encourage patients to see the all the stages of change, including the contemplation that goes on before making the change, and the backsliding that can occur later, as being integral to the change itself. The end result did not emerge out of nowhere, but was built up as a result of our experience with the world. All the experience which went into the change was part of the change, and we could not necessarily have changed without it.
William James’ father was obsessed with the reality and presence of God. He belonged to the Swedenborgian movement, a religious gathering that sought to move away from the traditional forms of religion and get at the mystical truth. After his father died when James was in his late thirties, he wrote, “[Religion] is not the one thing needful, as [Father] said. But it is needful with the rest (Richardson 233).” To return to conversions, James noticed that people experienced real conversion both to and away from religious faith. He sought to explain this by naming that source of religious faith the “More.”
Most experiences, James believed, came to us through the world of our senses. But we could not discount the experiences of mystics and dreamers, even experiences stemming from intoxicants or what we might call mental illness. James was out to build up a philosophy based on human experience, and he was determined to include all human experience. He called this source of experience that seemed to be outside the sensory world the “More.” He was open to the possibility that it was divine, or that it was some untapped part of our own brains, some sense we had not yet learned to name. But James insisted that we could not ignore the More, which was the source of religion, art, mystical experiences and conversion.
James’ philosophy is one of my favorites because he makes room for everybody. He insists on no dogma, but only on the test of action that comes from sincere belief. It does not matter to me whether a person labels their belief Christian or Jewish, or theist or humanist, although all those words signify rich traditions worth celebrating. What matters to me is what you will do, as the poet says, with your one wild and precious life.
Many thanks to Carolyn Stevenson for her helpful insights into clinical depression.
Doherty, Alex and Clive Hamilton. “God, Sex and the Left (Part 1).” New Left Project. 9 Nov. 2011. Accessed 22 Dec. 2012.
Richardson, Robert D. William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
“Starr King Fellowship is a multigenerational, welcoming congregation where different beliefs come together in common covenant. We work together in our fellowship, our community, and our world to nurture justice, respect and love.”
That’s our Who We Are statement, drafted following mutual interviews done by dozens of attendees at worship services and adult education sessions two years ago. A small group of people went through piles of anonymous interview notes, collected the responses into thematic groups, and distilled our thoughts and hopes about what kind of community this is into those two sentences. We read them this morning as after we lit our chalice. They are printed every week on the back of your order of service and in our weekly and monthly newsletters.
All of the words in this statement are precious to me. I want us to live up to every one. But the part of it that resonates most for me right now is in the first sentence: “[We are] a welcoming congregation where different beliefs come together in common covenant.” There are fewer and fewer places in our society where different beliefs truly come together. The more Starr King Fellowship can be one of those places, the better we will fulfill our mission.
When the Unitarians were first finding their voice and defining themselves as a religious movement in the early 19th century, they paid a lot of attention to what beliefs would be acceptable within their group. We might not like to think that, because Unitarianism, and later Unitarian Universalism, have always been religions without a creed, where no one need sign or assent to a statement of belief in order to be a member. But the men who gathered to consider organizing the several Unitarian churches at the beginning of the 19th century were just as eager to protect their “brand” as any creedal faith.
They called themselves the “Anonymous Association” at first. When a discussion was held about whether to form a Unitarian Association, so that they could promulgate their views of religion and organize liberal Christian churches together, some were in favor. But some were opposed. One historian writes, “[This] opinion was expressed by George Bond, a leading merchant of Boston, who was afraid that Unitarianism would become popular, and that, when it had gamed a majority of the people of the country to its side, it would become as intolerant as the other sects (Cooke IV).” Bond and others saw the danger in creating a name which would bring only like-minded men and women to their side.
The early Unitarians knew that once they formed an Association, many different kinds of people ascribing to liberal religion would join them. When that person was Theodore Parker, before the civil war, who offended the sensibilities of many Boston Unitarians with his militant abolitionism, they didn’t exactly throw him out–although all the other Boston ministers stopped exchanging pulpits with him.
Now, in our modern society, we face a new threat to the diversity of ideas. It is very possible to navigate our social and electronic worlds and only encounter people like ourselves. I have shared some of this before in terms of class: one summer I went in close succession to a show at the Silver Center, where I saw dozens of people I knew, and to a race at the now-gone Dirt Track Speedway in Wentworth, where the only person I even recognized was a check-out clerk at Hannaford grocery store. There are worlds of class difference in our area, and those worlds do not have much cause to overlap. I find the overlap at (coincidentally) the grocery store, at the hospital, and on the Concord Trailways bus. But it’s possible to go through much of your life in our part of New Hampshire, which probably has more class diversity than some parts of the country, and only interact with people like yourself.
We can also spend time only with our political allies. One of my best friends in the Plymouth area is my across-the-street neighbor. She and I run together, our families celebrate birthdays together, my son goes to her house after school three days a week. She was an incredible support to me when I was at the end of my second pregnancy and at the bottom of my emotional reserves. I enjoy her company and her friendship.
The thing is, I’m not sure, if she hadn’t moved in across the street from me, that we would have become friends at all. My friend is politically very conservative and I am very liberal; she is religiously conservative and I am liberal; our views on topics falling within the political spectrum almost always diverge; our views on religion are brought together only in the broadest sense. But the happy coincidence of becoming neighbors has allowed us to become friends nevertheless. We both enjoy crafts, we both enjoy parenting (and struggle with its frustrations, as well), we both enjoy getting outside and playing board games. We have plenty in common to be friends, and we have that enjoyment of each other’s company that is included in any good friendship. If we had vetted each other first for how we would agree, we might not have found our friendship. As it is, we are able to be friends despite our differences, and we have broadened each other’s understanding of those areas where we disagree. I wouldn’t give up that kind of connection for anything.
In our digital age, it is easier and easier to only see the opinions and ideas of those we agree with. Many of us encounter digital media through Facebook, where we can see the articles and ideas of our friends. We can watch movies recommended by friends, read books recommended by friends, get our news from the same sources as all our friends. It is possible to interact with the outside world through the bubble of our insular communities, never really learning how the other half lives and thinks, whoever that other half may be.
It has always seemed to me, however, that there is something special about our little corner of the world here in central and northern New Hampshire. Perhaps it is the same sort of thing I have heard said about Alaska, that people may be bitter political enemies, but it is still a community’s responsibility to make sure everyone gets through the winter. Our congressional districts are big enough that it is not practical to move just to be in a district with like-minded people. We live together, in our economically diverse region, helping each other and practicing the arts of neighborliness even when we disagree.
This congregation was founded as a home for liberal religion and Unitarian Universalism in the Plymouth area. As we have grown, our reach has grown, and we now welcome individuals and families from all over central and northern New Hampshire. We are diverse in many ways. We are intentionally welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, having gone through the Welcoming Congregation process ten years ago. We have had some racial diversity, as permitted by the very racially homogenous nature of rural New Hampshire. I believe we have a great deal of class diversity, which we may not even see. One of my hopes for our fellowship is that we will become a spiritual home to people of all economic backgrounds and circumstances whose journey has brought them to our liberal congregation.
One way to express the mission and values of an organization is to contemplate what difference will have been made in the world–in one year, in five years, in one hundred years–because we have been here. Let’s go back to our statement about Who We Are to see if we can paint a picture of what kind of world we will help create. First, we say we are multigenerational. Every year, as we continue to welcome children into our community, and send them out into their futures, I see a world with young people full of the commitment to tolerance and justice which they have learned here. I see them as young adults, bringing their understanding of the value of reason and the truth of diversity into their friendships and their workplaces. I see families supported by the programs we offer for young children, for elders, and for parents. I see our community continuously strengthened, not only by the support we offer directly to those who come to our programs, or those whom we serve in the community, but by the inspiration people get in worship and in the life of the fellowship to be kind, respectful, justice-making people in all aspects of their lives.
We say we are welcoming. This morning we heard two readings about how people get together in a congregation. In the mid-to-late twentieth century, James Luther Adams extolled the value of the church social action committee, which brought people together around a shared passion for justice and fomented change in the community. In the early twenty-first century, Philip Clayton argues that the minister and lay leader must be hosts and hostesses in the congregation, inviting people into shared experience both in person and on-line. We have ever more ways of being in touch with each other since Adams’ time, but our connections have not deepened as they have proliferated. The values of Adams’ committees–that they bring people together, that they provide forums for exploring dominant and minority points of view, that they knit the fabric of community ever tighter–are still present in our congregation. We must become hosts to invite people into these sorts of relationships. By being welcoming, Starr King Fellowship will create inviting spaces in our building, in our community, and on-line, where people’s human and spiritual connections may be strengthened and deepened.
We are spiritually diverse. We are a place where “different beliefs come together in common covenant.” Now, in my mind, the way we know our beliefs is through our actions. Someone said to me recently that if we can all agree to act in concert, to worship in a certain way or combat poverty together, then our beliefs must not be that diverse. But different beliefs can lead to the same shared actions. I was in a meeting with other Unitarian Universalists recently in which one older gentleman spoke fervently about his support for his local Occupy movement. His congregation was considering whether to open their church kitchen to the protesters, who were camped very near the church. He was actively involved in helping to make that happen. Later in the meeting, someone complained about congressional districts being redrawn so that there was no one to vote for except the Republican. This gentleman responded, “What’s wrong with that?” It shows us that principled, good-hearted people can agree on action while disagreeing on philosophy, theology, or religious practices. Our covenant is our agreement of how to be together. Within that covenant, we should be as welcoming as possible to all people and all philosophies of life.
The last sentence of our statement about Who We Are says that we will “work together in our fellowship, our community and our world to nurture justice, respect and love.” This is the great purpose of our covenant. We will not be a chapel, here merely for the spiritual well-being of those within our own walls. We will help to create a fairer community and a better world because we are in it. In the new year, we will begin a project in partnership with the Whole Village Family Resource Center to educate ourselves, and others who will join us from other churches, to learn more about poverty, class difference, and our own location in the class structure of America.
From there, we will see what kind of outreach and support we can offer to poorer families in our neighborhood, or those families with whom Whole Village works. We will not engage as “do-gooders,” offering solutions to those who have none, but as partners, offering our resources and willingness to help to those who might benefit from them. Because we have been here, children have been served in after-school programs, civil marriage rights for all couples have been defended, and intercultural understanding was promoted after September 11th. Because we are here, in the future, we will continue to create a world where more people find justice, respect and love than if Starr King Unitarian Universalist Fellowship was not part of our community.
I want to share with you something I’ve shared with our new member classes this year. It is first that membership in the fellowship means finding that your own mission and the fellowship’s mission are in alignment, and that you can adopt the fellowship’s mission as part of your own. But it also means that we will all be like those 18 people who founded our fellowship in 1980. If we suddenly woke up one morning and this fellowship were no longer here, each one of us would be the stem cells in the body of this community who could recreate it. The fellowship is us, it resides in us, and our spirits will carry it forward into the future. Every one of you here today is a part of what makes our community special and spiritually powerful, and every one of you will help us step into the mystery of faith together.
Adams, James Luther. An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment. Ed. George K. Beach. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.
Clayton, Philip. “Theology and the Church After Google.” The Princeton Theological Review. 43 (Fall 2010): 7-20.
Cooke, George Willis. Unitarianism in America: A History of Its Origin and Development. 10th ed. Project Gutenberg, 2005. iBiblio. Web. Accessed 10 Dec. 2011.
©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
Fundamentalism is a characteristic of the modern world. The word was originally coined to describe a movement in American Protestantism, a movement which regarded the Bible as absolutely true, the community of believers as sacred, and the secular world as fallen and dangerous. Christian fundamentalism is different from Christian evangelicalism, which is an attitude toward spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, as opposed to an absolute commitment to Biblical fundamentals.
Since fundamentalism has been described in American Christianity, however, the world has seen other religious (and a few non-religious) movements arise which are also fundamentalist. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby are the editors of a five-volume work on fundamentalism, titled The Fundamentalism Project. They suggest some defining characteristics of fundamentalist movements. Fundamentalisms offer “an irreducible basis for communal and personal identity (817).” They present “revealed truth as whole, unified, and undifferentiated (818).” The extremism of fundamentalisms “serves a number of purposes, among them the posing of a litmus test separating true believers from outsiders (818).”
They write, “Fundamentalisms seize upon particular historical moments…[and] arise or come to prominence in times of crisis, actual or perceived (819, 822).” “Fundamentalists set boundaries, protect the group from contamination, and preserve purity (821).” “Fundamentalists seek to replace existing structures with a comprehensive system” and are characterized by their “charismatic and authoritarian male leaders (824, 826).” Fundamentalisms combine an “envy and resentment of modernity [with] a shrewd exploitation of its processes and instrumentalities (827).”
Think of the Taliban extremists, wishing for a rural and patriarchal past, but using modern techniques to build and plant roadside bombs. Most damning to us westerners who are not fundamentalists, Marty and Appleby write, “Not only did fundamentalists draw upon modern organizational methods and structures; they also benefited from the encouragement or direct support of colonial powers and later took advantage of the openness of secular democracies (828).” One example is Hamas, a fundamentalist Islamic group, who won a free and fair election and now govern the Gaza strip. Another example is Protestant fundamentalist groups in the United States who use the legislative process to outlaw women’s health procedures or same-sex couples’ rights.
I am opposed to all forms of fundamentalism, whether they are religious or not. The likelihood that one group of humans has access to ultimate truth seems very unlikely to me. Unitarian Universalism is my religious home for this reason, among others. But even religious liberals, committed to reason, tolerance, and diversity, can be seduced by the attractive proposal of being absolutely right. The group of writers and thinkers called the “New Atheists,” while not fundamentalist according to Marty and Appleby’s definitions above, slip too often into the trap of absolutist and totalizing thinking.
The New Atheists, a group of writers and thinkers which includes Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and possibly Stephen Hawking, now that he has written a book claiming quantum physics disproves God, are characterized by their provocative essays and books denying the truth of all religion. They claim that religion damages human societies. People’s conviction that they are absolutely, cosmically right can allow them to sidestep human morality entirely. The New Atheists are trying to point out the danger of supernatural religious belief.
However, their fight is aimed much more at religious fundamentalists than at all religion. They accept an absolute definition of religion and then apply it to all religions across the board. They set up religion as a straw man simply in order to knock it down. Take Sam Harris’s definition of Christianity, for instance. He claims that true Christianity is the subscription to a certain set of beliefs, including the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also including the trinity, miracles and Jesus’ birth to a virgin woman. Yet from the very earliest decades of the Jesus movement, there have been mainstream Christians who discounted the virgin birth story as ridiculous. There is a prophecy in Isaiah which says that “…the young woman will conceive.” Many Jews in the centuries before Jesus’ time and the destruction of the Second Temple, lived outside of Israel in Greek-speaking regions of the Roman empire. The largest of these Jewish diaspora communities was in Alexandria, and this community translated the Tanakh, the Jewish holy texts, into Greek. In this translation, the Hebrew word in Isaiah for “young woman” became a Greek word which meant both “young woman” and “virgin.” When these Greek-speaking Jewish communities went back to the prophets to read about the prophecies of the Messiah, they read there that the one to come, the “God-with-us,” would be born to a virgin. Therefore some accounts of Jesus’ life, which we retain in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, came to have a story of a virgin birth.
But even at the time, authoritative communities of Jesus’ followers didn’t buy this line of reasoning. The Jerusalem church, led by Jesus’ brother James, read its scripture in the original Hebrew. They knew that the word in the prophecy was “young woman”; the accounts of Jesus’ life coming form this community never included the virgin birth story. From its earliest days, Christianity–like all religions–has been multifaceted and has disagreed on its own basis.
To the absolutist New Atheists, Christianity must be monolithic–and wrong–so it can be disproved. I wonder at their tactics. The desire to pick apart particular religious traditions and show how wrong they are baffles me. People who don’t subscribe to that tradition will agree with the writer, even if they do subscribe to another, equally mysterious, religion. People who do claim that particular faith won’t agree with the writer, and his arguments won’t make any difference to them. Why bother?
When I was talking about fundamentalism with my husband Andy this week, he pointed out that sometimes people have a real interest in convincing others of the rightness of their beliefs. He gave the example of hand-washing as a way of preventing infection. Suppose you are a surgeon practicing in a world without microscopes. You have become convinced that tiny, invisible creatures living in and on our bodies are responsible for much of the illness you see in your patients. You believe that if you wash your hands with soap and water before performing surgery, you will temporarily wash away these creatures and prevent their getting into your patient’s incision. Also, if you wash your hands again following surgery, you will not take any of one patient’s disease-causing creatures to your next patient. How to convince your colleagues that your crazy idea is true?
Well, unlike religious claims, this claim can be tested. You could set up an experiment, high in human cost but ultimately effective, in which you always washed your hands and your colleague never did, and see who reduces infection most effectively among her patients. The outcome has an observable effect, and one hopes a benefit, on the world we live in and our lives in it. Religious fundamentalists believe that religious belief has a real effect not only in this world but in the next as well. They believe they are right and others are wrong, and they believe it matters because the time will come when God will separate between the right and the wrong. Their results will be observable, at some point, when we reach the end of human history; but they are not testable and have no effect on the here-and-now. I imagine that one reason the Left Behind books are so popular is that they imagine a here-and-now world where these ultimate claims become testable and important.
The New Atheists also claim that their absolute belief in the non-existence of God and the non-value of religion, has an important and observable effect on this world. Namely, they claim that religion is responsible for many of humanity’s ills. Christopher Hitchen’s books is subtitled How Religion Poisons Everything. Sam Harris makes a true list of all the crimes religion has to its name. We are familiar with terror caused by Muslim extremists, but we can also look to the Crusades, militant Zionism, and the efforts to limit women’s agency and health in fundamentalist Christian and Muslim communities. But he also tries to put the crimes of non-religious human systems, such as state communism and Nazism, onto religion as well, claiming that those systems were religious in their nature, even if they were not supernatural in their claims.
I have a different take on this. I see these state systems not as religious, but as totalizing. Just as there are many religious movements and communities which are not totalizing–and which Sam Harris discounts as not being truly religious, according to his strict rules–there are non-religious movements and communities which are totalizing. These movements and communities, whether they are Arab-nationalist, Sunni-fundamentalist Islam, or Soviet-style state communism, or American Protestant conservative Christianity, have as their goal the total control of people’s lives. They promote systems that have all the answers and which demand that other people’s answers to life’s questions be wrong. Systems don’t need to be religious–they don’t need to point to anything beyond the secular, normal world–in order to be totalizing. All totalizing systems which limit human agency and creativity are dangerous to our well-being.
I think of myself as a deeply religious person, but not in any way as a fundamentalist. It’s ok with me if other people are not Unitarian Universalist, as long as they are tolerant of me and live ethical lives. It’s ok with me if we disagree on supernatural truths, and even on some natural ones, as long as the practical ways in which we seek to live our lives do not cause harm to other people. Personally, I’m very pragmatic, to the point that I can disagree with my more idealistic liberal friends. I tend to believe problems are not emergencies and that a slow and steady approach may be just as good as a sudden one. However, I am not without principles, not without my own desire that other people believe as I do. If I had to pick just two fundamentals of religion, just two things I think other systems must have in order to be true, I would pick openness and wonder.
Openness: this is the quality that allows us to live with one another in a diverse world. Since I have lived in town in Plymouth, Latter Day Saints missionaries have come to my door about four times. I like meeting these young people and hearing some of their personal stories. I invite them in, inquire as to where they are from, and introduce myself as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist congregation just down the street from their temple on Fairgrounds Road. They are uniformly polite and helpful–they are required to perform a certain amount of community service, so they often volunteer to help here at the fellowship. One young man once offered to do the dishes that were waiting for me in the kitchen. The last pair who came to visit were two young men, one who was finishing his two-year mission and one who was just starting.
After our small talk, the newer missionary asked me if I had read the Book of Mormon. I said I owned a copy but hadn’t read it. He asked if he could share why the revelations in it had changed his life, and I responded that he didn’t need to do that; I was very firm in my own faith convictions and was not going to become a Mormon. His more experienced friend nodded in understanding. Openness allowed these young men and I to share a little bit about our faiths and our communities without showing any disrespect for the other’s point of view. It’s good for me to meet these young adult visitors to Plymouth, and it’s good for them to meet a female minister and a friendly face in their temporary home.
From openness, I move to a sense of wonder. To avoid fundamentalism, religious systems must not be total. There must be space for wonder in what we believe. Children live in a world of wonder. If tomorrow we discovered that humans have the ability to grow wings and fly, young children would simply accept this as a part of reality they hadn’t seen yet. We adults, on the other hand, can spend a lot of time insisting that new and wonderful things must change, or simply are not so, just because we have never seen them before. I want our religious outlooks to contain curiosity, an openness to the possibility of what’s next, and wonder at the things the universe can produce. Science and mysticism both can be fueled by wonder and hope for the future. Tomorrow may always bring new knowledge and a new understanding of our universe. Let us bring an attitude of wonder to our lives in it.
Please join me in prayer.
Spirit within us and among us, spirit of all, spirit of human possibility, spirit of life, which we name and call upon this morning, be with us now. Bring us a needed humility in the face of life’s wonders. Give us a child’s mind, a beginner’s mind, a seeker’s mind; grant us an attitude of openness and wonder toward the world. Let us see the beauty and possibility in all our experience of the world.
Help us listen to our fellow human beings with an open mind and an open heart. Let our compassion and love for others come before our need to be right. Give us the wisdom to know when we should seek to convince others, and when we should listen with openness to their truths. Give us the art of persuasion before the art of war. Let us pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.
Spirit of love and life, we ask that people everywhere may come to know the fruits of peace. Let hatred and violence cease. Let us value being brothers and sisters together over being right alone. Let us together sing the songs of peace and freedom for all people. Amen.
Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. New York: Norton, 2004.
Marty, Martin E. and R. Scott Appleby. “An Interim Report on a Hypothetical Family.” Fundamentalisms Observed. Ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby. The Fundamentalism Project. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.