Drawing Inspiration from Many Different Faith Traditions: A Unitarian Universalist Story
by, Rev. Leslie Kee
Until William Ellery Channing delivered what is considered to be the most important Unitarian sermon ever preached anywhere, diversity was not a defining feature of Unitarianism. Historically, Unitarian theology differed from Christian theology on several important points, but it wasn’t until 1819 in New England, that Channing set Unitarianism on a path which would come to be defined, in large part by how we value diversity.
It was Channing, the prophet, preacher, and hero of New England Unitarianism, who began a new epoch by proclaiming its faith fearlessly and unmistakably to the world. The occasion was the ordination of Jared Sparks in the new Unitarian Church in Baltimore. The leading Unitarian ministers were there, including Henry Ware. Even before the sermon was given, arrangements had been made to print 2,000 copies of this sermon Channing had entitled “Unitarian Christianity.” The first part of the sermon showed how Unitarians interpreted the scriptures, the second outlined the Unitarian beliefs in God, the Trinity, Jesus, and Christian virtue.
What came to be known as ‘The Baltimore Sermon’ gave the Unitarians a platform and an advocate. It placed them for the first time on the offensive in relation to the orthodox.
Channing’s religious thinking had evolved from early belief in divine election to a belief that God bestowed his love on all persons; and from a belief in human depravity – including his own – to a conviction that we have an innate moral sense by which we perceive and can choose the good. His reading of the New Testament led him to see the unlimited potential of human goodness, but he was a grown man before he arrived at the basic affirmation of his theology namely, that God’s perfection is identical with our own, that through humane living all persons are, like Jesus, made one with God.*
So if we fast-forward to today, 2019 – a mere two hundred years later – what are the contemporary features of the assertion that Channing’s Baltimore Sermon “…for the first time (placed Unitarians) on the offensive in relation to the orthodox.”
One dimension of this ‘offensive’ movement is found in our Principles and Purposes and the Living Tradition we share (and which) draws from many sources, in particular ‘wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.’ Over the past twenty years or so, UU scholars, ministers, and many others active in our faith tradition have been working very hard to figure out how should we actually draw upon ‘many sources’ – which has come to include the wisdom emerging from how seriously and deeply we believe in social justice.
In 2019, it seems as if ‘valuing diversity’ has grown to mean more than just the academics, it also means inclusion.
So, for example, the importance of what is popularly called ‘political correctness,’ wherein the features of our relationships, especially the embedded power-dynamics, are moving to the forefront of our awareness and are just as important as our theological tenants, like the humanity of Jesus.
This heightened awareness of embedded power-dynamics between people and the words we use to communicate with each other, is one of the reasons UUs are so insistent on, for example, taking cultural appropriation very seriously. Cultural appropriation is a really difficult concept for many of us to get our heads wrapped around because first, none of us means to be disrespectful of other traditions. And second, most UUs are intellectually inquisitive and enjoy learning, and more often than not, want to share what we’ve discovered with each other.
So, for example, there has been an on-going discussion in the UU Musicians Association about the appropriateness or not-appropriateness of UU congregations whose congregants are almost 100% white, singing traditional ‘black songs.’ In our gray hymnal there is a whole section called ‘Freedom.’ In fact, the words to the song #156 Oh, Freedom are: “…and before I’d be a slave, I’ be buried in my grave, and go home to my God and be free.”
How many of us can, in our heart of hearts, summon up the courage to robustly sing a song about being a slave, when we, nor any of our great great great family members were slaves?
The same goes for #152 Follow the Drinking Gourd, which refers to The Big Dipper star constellation used by the runaway slaves to guide them north. And to hear a room full of black folks singing #149 Lift Every Voice and Sing will bring you to tears, especially if you know that it is the Black National Anthem; an anthem sung during the Jim Crow hanging times; the Civil Rights Movement, and now the Black Lives Matter movement. Again I ask, how many of us have blood ties to these songs and deep ancestral roots into their very real histories?
The same consideration is germane when it comes to things like, for example, the mandalas we created and display in our sanctuary. Yes, creative freedom is creative freedom, but what is the point of balance between our personal interpretation of a religious tradition, and what, for someone else, is a symbol of their deeply held beliefs, life, and ancestral experience?
And this is where academia comes into to the equation. Thank goodness for Comparative Religion courses. Thank goodness for friendships & teachers, libraries & books, and yes, thank goodness for the world wide web! By the time a religious tradition’s content has made its way into a university class, or has established a good shelf-life at the local library, it’s probably fair to say this content has been vetted enough to be used by everyone. It’s sacred material in the public domain.
So, for example, if we took the mandala Jani made for Christianity and we did a little research, we’d see the dove is an appropriate symbol of the tradition. It also is appropriate that Jani was a practicing Christian until a few years ago when she added Unitarian Universalist to her religious repertoire.
The cultural appropriation conversation continues as UUs are attempting to create an existential and practical space where we can learn from many different sources; while, at the same time, bring a respectful awareness to our engagement with them. When anyone of us finds ourselves in this particular conversation, a practical rule of thumb is this: it’s actually not about us. So the bottom line question to always ask ourselves is: ‘if someone visits our church who is a devout member and/or practitioner of, take your pick: the Humanist Philosophy, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Earth-based, Hindu, Traditional African, Buddhism, or the Native American tradition – what would they see? How would our UU version of their sacred symbols make them feel? Do our beautiful mandalas convey an appropriate balance between creative license and informed respect? And this rule of thumb is applicable not just to, for example sets of mandalas, it should inform so many of our decisions, like music, rituals, or even sermonizing about a tradition other than our own.
We have invited the creators of the mandalas to talk about why they picked the religion/tradition they did. How they decided upon the symbolic elements? And, how their mandala reflects their practice of Unitarian Universalism.
Each mandala not only reflects the beauty and sacred symbolism of each faith tradition and spiritual philosophy, the whole set of mandalas in itself is a powerful symbol of Unitarian Universalism and our shared endeavor to nurture and honor the living tradition of which we are all a part.
*Source: The Epic of Unitarianism: Original Writings from the History of Liberal Religion. David B. Park, 1985