Two congregations I served have art works portraying events in Jesus’ life behind their altars. At one a reproduction of Da Vinci’s Last Supper adorns the front nave wall, with decorative wooden doors folding over it. The other boasts a mosaic of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and has a huge curtain that opens and closes over it.
In both cases, whether the art would be on view Sunday morning had long been an issue. Some wanted it; some did not, and everyone left it to the minister to decide. By the time I was an interim minister at the second church, and was asked to decide, I knew enough to say, “No. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me. But as a consultant I would advise you to take the curtain down and either embrace the mosaic as part of your heritage or remove it.” They did not follow my advice.
We Unitarian Universalists grow anxious about the theological differences among us. Perhaps we can expect that in a non-doctrinal religious tradition seeking to include people on different spiritual paths, all held together by a covenant to support one another. We can expect it from human beings who all want to be with others who think and feel and believe as we do.
At the same time, the bond among us runs deep. When the late minister of that first congregation received a bomb threat for support of Planned Parenthood, the congregation functioned with solidarity. Last year, after Neo-Nazis defaced the beautiful, recently restored front doors of the second church, the congregation pulled together and became a meeting place for the interfaith community in hard times.
The world looks different than it did a few decades ago when Unitarian Universalism quarreled over theology: more tribal, more driven by extremism; more violent. The mass shootings this week in Las Vegas stand as horrible testament to just how inhumane we become when either ideologies or unchecked marketplace greed result in decisions that enable people to wreak such destruction. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say our fate and the fate of the planet are bound up in finding a way to see the “other” as less threatening, a way for all to find sustenance here on this earth., My message today is simple: our very purpose as Unitarian Universalists includes living a pluralism that reaches beyond tolerance to acceptance. We can live that ethic of pluralism in a way that enriches our lives together, teaches our children to live in a new world, and builds the Beloved Community that depends on heart felt acceptance diversity of all kinds. We can do that.
In the theological realm, moving beyond tolerance to acceptance means we encourage each other to partake deeply of what we need, and we bless that meal. Several years ago I was diagnosed as having Celiac Disease. When I eat gluten, food that nourishes most human bodies causes my immune system to prevent me from absorbing nutrition. Learning to eat differently took effort, but the greatest challenge came in a question. What did it mean, I wondered, that the food that nourishes most people harms me? At times I felt like an alien.
Then it occurred to me that it’s like religious pluralism. What feeds one person does not feed another. The spiritual life isn’t about judging one another for that; it is about encouraging each other to eat in a way that provides life to heart and soul and body. I had to learn to find joy in taking meals others would spurn. When they share that food with me, it feels like a blessing.
Theologically, going beyond tolerance to acceptance means accepting how people define themselves. An early lesson for me came on my first day in Hebrew Bible class in Divinity School. Our professor made clear through example that we would not refer to the text from a strictly Christian point of view as the Old Testament; we would call it the Hebrew Bible or Scriptures, which of course, it was for the Jewish people a very long time before Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John came along. So inspired was I by this paradigm shift that I went on to elect courses in Jewish Life Cycles and in the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Bible. I came away from seminary with my knowledge of Judaism transformed while also understanding the Christian tradition and Unitarian Universalism better. It’s like loving children: there is not a finite amount of respect in our hearts and minds, my friends; it is can be a feast.
We need to regard our spiritual affinities and longings the same way. During our Transition workshops last year, we found that one portion of our people yearn for more theological reflection, more “god talk,” in our community life, while nearly as many think we have too much. Perhaps that the difference is not a problem to solve, but, rather a variation that we are better off for having. The question is how to empower both groups to eat well. If you are a rationalist for whom the language of reverence does not have meaning, and you are sitting next to someone who longs for a bit of God- talk, that does not mean either of you is wrong; it means different foods feed your spirit. Everyone here deserves to explore their questions and the paths that speak to them. And we owe it to each other to make that happen. The key, I’m pretty sure, lies in cultivating a spirit of celebrating with others even at moments when the object of their craving is on the table. It means taking deep, heart- mending pleasure in accepting what is important to them.
Aware that we were not doing enough to feed those who wanted more theological exploration, last spring I facilitated a small group that I somewhat lightly referred to as “the God Group.” Each week we read a meditation or two that touched on the what you might call divinity, reflected on it, and shared experiences. Nobody was interested in doctrine, and we spent very little time talking about the concept of God per say, much more time offering experiences of the sacred, moments that had changed our lives. What fed us, I believe, was accepting each other and honoring the mystery we call life.
We must learn acceptance, beginning with each other. And that means letting others tell us who they are. If you are a humanist, a rationalist, and you hear another Unitarian Universalist want to explore God, before you dismiss that, ask yourself if you are sure it’s the same God you have rejected. Ask the person. After all process theologian Alfred North Whitehead said, “God is the binding element in the world. “ If you are someone who needs to explore God, ask yourself if the atheist and agnostic might have experiences of the sacred as well, just calling them by another name. Talk about it. Consider that a UU Christian, who follows the teachings of Jesus within a pluralistic setting, sits in complete sympathy with the longest Unitarian and Universalist histories. In the end, all of us need to ask ourselves, does it matter more what labels we adopt or which language we use, or does it matter more what we give our lives to, whether we affirm something higher and deeper than the materialistic drive to grab as much as we can?
In this very sobering week, I would not suggest that we can stop events like the Las Vegas terrorism with love and prayers. I believe we need courage in the halls of legislatures, people willing to lose their positions by saying no to powerful lobbies in the name of what is right. But I do believe that every person who learns to go beyond tolerance to acceptance when it comes to race, gender, gender identity, ability or even theology, increases the possibility of our evolving a better way. Every community that lives a true ethic of pluralism makes a difference in some people’s lives, and they go out and make a difference in lives we cannot imagine.
This past week, the Mayor gathered an interfaith vigil in Market Square in remembrance of the lives taken in Las Vegas and as a call to action for better gun control laws. Aside from the fact that you should never provide that many clergy a chance to speak unless you want to end up overly stuffed with theological inspiration, it was a good event. What stood out to me more than any prayer or thought was the acceptance of one another by members of different faiths in this town.
That gives me hope that there is a better way to live. It gives me hope that if we survive long enough, people can realize the sacred nature of what we create together as the bread of life itself. It gives me hope that what I call God moves among us, offering us the taste of peace and acceptance, if only we will take it.