I was asked to preach in a traditional Presbyterian Church the last Sunday of 2012. Then I was asked to preach in a Unitarian-Universalist congregation the first Sunday of 2013. For each congregation I spoke about the many changes that have taken place and are taking place with increasing rapidity. Especially, I wanted to share with them what is happening in the larger church and within global religion. This amounts to a challenge to Presbyterians and also affirmation of freethinking that is going on there. This amounts to a celebration of Unitarian advantage in the year ahead for the UU's, who don't always have high self-esteem among other churches and religions. I chose Diana Butler Bass’ book, Christianity after Religion: The end of church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening, as a way of approaching the subject.
There are a lot of books coming out about what is changing
in religion in the US and around the world.
[I asked the UU’s: “Have you read any books on religion or spirituality this last year?” “What have you read?” I received a big response of 20 or more books and authors, from Marcus Borg to Shirley MacLaine to Thich Nhat Hanh.]
One of the books I read this year is called Christianity after Religion.
It has been a big seller and Diana Butler Bass, the author,
is invited to dozens of churches a year to speak about her ideas.
She grew up as a Methodist and is now an Episcopalian.
I now know Diana through Facebook. [think about that:
now you can converse with the author of a book you read, on social media!]
We have known that churches are in trouble.
Now it is not just mainline Protestants.
Even the southern Baptists now report a decline.
Since 2008, megachurches aren’t so mega.
Basically, she says – Everything has changed in the church
since her early experiences 40 years ago in the ‘70's,
which covers my career in the church.
She says that now we can see that a new spiritual awakening was beginning then.
But we either didn’t see it or we misinterpreted what was going on.
There have been waves of nationalism and nativism
and religious movements that called people back to old traditions and
rear guard attacks on non-whites, women, gays, union members, and others.
But what began in the peace movement of the ‘60's has held underneath it all.
Diana sees this in the broad support for a Black president and for
willingness to move forward into a difficult future
rather than hold tight to the old ways.
A fundamental thing that has changed (that she writes about in the book)
is how Christians, Unitarians, Muslims, and Jews relate
to their churches, mosques, and synagogues, or temples.
It used to be not so long ago, that you had to believe certain things
before you could belong.
After believing the right things,
the religious institution would teach us the rituals; how to act;
how to worship and pray.
Then you could have membership and belong;
Believing, behaving, and belonging were quite rigid.
There were often strict lines between
believing what is right and believing the wrong things.
Belonging had to do with people in authority accepting you,
beyond your wanting to belong.
All these things added up to “the Christian life,” “Judaism,” “Islam.”
Now, these three things have turned upside down for most people.
People are more free and willing to choose which church they will join.
Belonging comes first.
More and more people have been looking for the spiritual side of belonging.
This has to do with finding positive relationships with others
who will help us grow.
Bass notes that Jesus did not found a church, but first formed a community.
He called disciples and did not ask what his disciples believed,
but asked them to follow him. Very basic.
Later when Jesus taught his disciples about the Kingdom,
he sent them out into the world to practice living their new vision
as if the kingdom were now.
Only later when the gospels were written,
did believing have to do with confessing that Jesus was Son of God.
Only later than that - 4th century - did believing have to do with assent
to many more propositions that obviously no one can prove.
[I say things like that to Presbyterians, too. I am prepared for discussions of systematic theology, if challenged.]
Community is still the first and most important thing about congregations.
People are building new community within and outside of old ones.
We are now at a place where the congregation that welcomes everyone
will be the one to survive and thrive.
[To the UU’s I said: Sounds like the UUA to me.
And the Uus have grown by 15% in the past decade.
In USA Today there was an article about UU growth in the south:
I thought you would like this description:
“Unitarian Universalists are a group of people who believe in organized religion
but are skeptical about doctrine.”
(Not so much organized as some others!)
Bass said about the UU in the south --
"I think there is a role for these kinds of more open and liberal spiritual groups," Bass said.
"They provide a nice counter-cultural community." (laughter)
Even up north here, that’s true.]
I think community means people need to care for each other, sometimes
even intervening in families where there is abuse and other problems.
Children are important. Anything we do for children is a great thing.
In today’s society, caring communities of the spirit need to foster
One big learning: We can no longer live with the illusion
that we live in a closed world or system
in which our beliefs are the only true and right ones,
as if there aren’t others who think and believe differently.
[UU’s know that.]
What more can we do?
We need to learn other traditions; world religions; other practices.
Maureen Dowd, writing about the Newtown CT massacre, quoted a priest:
“I believe differently now than 30 years ago.
First, I do not expect to have all the answers,
nor do I believe that people are really looking for them.
Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil.
I don’t expect comfort to come from afar.
I really do believe that God enters the world through us....
One true thing is this: Faith is lived in family and community,
and God is experienced in family and community.
We need one another to be God’s presence.”
To me that is a big change, hearing words like those from a Roman Catholic priest.
Community still means talking with each other face to face.
And talking with those of other viewpoints.
We need not be shy or ashamed of thinking differently than did our parents.
And all of us need to continually find new words
to express our feelings about life, love, spirit, God; and truth.
[I suggested to the UU’s that the world is becoming more like them.
Anyone can feel at home in a UU congregation because of the sources of the UUA, which we read together:
1. Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
2. Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
3. Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
4. Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
5. Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
6. Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.]
(Note: As a trained Presbyterian, I see a lot of potential problems with #1, which is why I am skeptical of all spiritual renewals. Many Christians live in #4. I wish they would make more use of the rest -- #2, #3, #5, and #6.)