How much more difficult is it to communicate about the ineffable, about the deep intangible layers of life, about concepts like love, or truth, or diversity. Our words are just fingers pointing towards a concept, each of us privately translating in our own minds.
I grew up in a UU church that was very influenced by humanism. We rarely used traditional theological words like “god” or “heaven” in our Sunday services. When I would go to Sunday school with my friend Suzanne they used words like that all the time, and I figured everyone at that church knew what those words meant, and everyone had the same picture of “god” in their minds whenenver they used that word. After all, there was a picture of God right there in our Sunday school booklet. I didn’t believe in a bearded white guy who sat in a cloud judging and punishing people, which was the composite image I had drawn up in my mind. I couldn’t believe we all went to a place in the clouds where the streets were paved with gold, you could have any ice cream you wanted, and bad people were kept out with a pearly gate.
But I also grew up believing that the interfaith dialogue was important. It says right there in our sources that the wisdom of the world religions and earth-centered traditions are sources of our UU tradition. So when I went to worship with other faith communities, or talked to friends from a different tradition, I had to figure out how to engage with them. I had to figure out how to ground myself in my own integrity, in my own beliefs while still trying to find meaning in what my interfaith neighbors were saying.
So when I went to seminary at the Graduate Theological Union, with 8 seminaries and a bunch of centers from Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and our UU tradition, I took many classes with my neighbors. One day in our theology class the professor broke us into small groups to talk about what we believed about the afterlife, and what we believe about heaven. One of my Methodist colleagues said yes, she did believe in Heaven; not a place in the clouds with gold streets, but a reunion, a return to a loving source after death. I had to ask her to repeat herself. “But you’re Christian!” I said. Here all these years I’d believed that all Christians believed in the heaven pictured in my Sunday school workbook.
It was an Episcopalian teacher who first suggested that we stop using pronouns for God, because God was not a man or a woman, God was God. I’d assumed that only UUs and pagans were concerned about the gender of god, daring to imagine that God might not be male. That God could be female, or might be both or none at all. Visiting a Catholic Mission in Guatemala, I was surrounded by the phrase “Dios es Amor” God is love. And began to imagine what that might mean.
Another teacher, at the Center for Jewish Studies, introduced us to the idea that God does not exist, because to exist implies living a finite duration in material form. God does not exist in the way that you or I or this pulpit exist. It occurred to me that maybe if God was love, had no gender, was not a person, and didn’t exist, I was no longer sure that I didn’t believe in God.
The more I talked with people of diverse faiths and beliefs, the more expansive the word “God” became for me. The more it could hold. Now when I heard people talk about God I had to wonder, what do they picture when they say that word?
UUS share not only 7 principles but also 6 sources. We believe there are universal truths that are common among human beings across widely divergent religious and philosophical traditions. At one point in the 20th century the Universalists were even exploring the idea of a “religion for one world.[i]” Could we find essential religions teachings and practices that could truly include everyone?
As a practice, we tend to emphasize our commonality of our shared humanity. That’s why I love to use metaphors from science and nature instead of traditional religious language. Anyone who lives in the northeast as we do has a common experience of the lengthening nights, and the bare and dormant deciduous trees common in winter here. And we can all see with our own eyes that each year the days grow long, and the seemingly bare and lifeless things become green and grow again.
When our differences threaten to divide us, when they seem insurmountable or scary, it is a useful practice to look for the things we have in common, the universal experiences that connect us with al of life, and to establish that foundation.
Here’s the tricky bit- in the part of California where I used to live, the rains come in autumn and the dry brittle grass and dormant trees spring back to life. In a good year the drenching rains turn the hills a beautiful emerald green in time for the winter solstice. By summer the rains have stopped, and the hills turn yellow and the dry season begins. If I wanted to talk about those times when your spirit feels barren, and hope is hard to find, I could say “like March” to you folks, and you would know what I mean. Oh my …that long grey month where we begin to fear that spring will just never come. But if I said “like the hills in March” to someone from the San Francisco area, their mind would conjure images of brilliant green hills at the peak of life.
We UUs are very theologically diverse even in our little congregation. We were raised in all kinds of different traditions, or without any tradition at all. We have different life experience, and have biologically unique eyes and brains and ears. Part of the reason we have 7 principles is that we figured that, diverse as we are, here are 7 ideas that could unite us, principles we could build community around. But if whenever we talk about theological ideas at all, we are going to run into our differences.
And some differences matter. In this region after the deciduous trees bare their leaves, we see the green patches on the hills where the evergreen trees become visible in a new way. For us the Evergreen is a reminder that life persists even in the cold snowy season. Donna told us a beautiful story one year from a native American tradition that lifted up the shelter and food that evergreens provide our small animal friends in winter. Evergreens were part of a winter celebration called “Yule” in the Germanic peoples, whose seasons were much like ours. At some point the evergreen tree got folded into the Christmas celebration even though the part of the world where Jesus was born is not known for its Douglas fir trees. So when you see an evergreen tree over the winter, maybe it reminds you of the birth of Jesus. Or maybe you think of it as a winter solstice tree, honoring the cycles of the earth. Or maybe it’s just something fun that Americans do, part of the great shopping party that happens at this time of year. For many folks who are don’t celebrate Christmas, the image of the classic evergreen tree is a symbol of cultural imperialism.
That’s the wonderful thing about symbols -- each of us imbues them with a lifetime of experience and observation and cultural associations. A fir tree in winter means something unique to each of us will be different, even when we are looking at the exact same tree.
This is the challenge and the gift for we who are Unitarian Universalists. When we gather in community on a Sunday morning, some folks who are humanists or atheists are relieved and feel fully included when we talk about our human commonality using the language of the real observable world. When we talk about the hushed beauty of a winter’s night drawing us to introversion and contemplation, the reassurance of the scientific surety that days will soon be getting longer and the inevitability of spring is all the reassurance a person could need.
Others of us who gather in these same chairs, miss spiritual language when it is absent. They find words like “God” and “spirit” and “prayer” a helpful reminder that they are not alone, that they are part of something bigger. For some hearing the story of a child born 2000 years ago helps make sense of this season and this time of year.
Our challenge is to listen beyond the words. Sometimes words that seem to separate us actually reveal hidden similarities when we inquire more deeply. Sometimes we use the same word to mean totally different things. We lose something in translation when we minimize or silence our differences
The gift of our UU tradition is discovering those places of connection, the places where we are united. Our gift is also uncovering the amazing depth of the true diversity of our experience, like all the bright lights in a dark winter’s sky hiding behind the word “star.”