In honor of 9/11 (also the date Salvador Allende was ousted in a US-backed coup in 1973) and the International Day of Peace on September 21st, I am reprinting a recently rediscovered essay I wrote in 1991 about why I was a Unitarian Universalist. (I was a member of the church for a few years in the early ’90s.) On Sunday, November 10th, two weeks before my thirty-ninth birthday, I addressed the congregation. Enjoy!
It’s been a month since Phil [Zwerling, our minister] asked me to speak about why I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and since then I’ve been trying to stuff twenty years into five minutes, which believe me is no mean feat. I guess it doesn’t get any easier. But as we should all articulate our beliefs from time to time, I’m grateful for this opportunity to share some of my thoughts with you here today.
When I sat down at my computer to write this, I had to come up with a file name—I know many of you are familiar with naming files on a computer, so you’ll know what I’m talking about—and the pithy choice was “Why?” (for “Why I’m a Unitarian Universalist”). When I sat down a week later to start completely over, I wanted to keep the first file and so had to come up with another name. This time it was “Why Not?” That about sums up my whole approach to religion, folks.
Seriously, I have managed to narrow the reasons why I’m a Unitarian Universalist down to two. First: I think being a UU is a call to action. So far, in my work with the children’s RGL [Religious Growth and Learning, “Sunday school”], my action has been directed primarily toward the church. I’ve been able to fulfill certain fantasies such as playing my guitar and singing in front of a group of children; I’ve also learned a lot about UUism and about some of the early Unitarians: Clara Barton, Joseph Priestley; Florence Nightingale, Jane Addams; Louisa May Alcott, Beatrix Potter; Benjamin Franklin, Adlai Stevenson…many more familiar names than you may realize. All abolitionists, suffragettes, humanists dedicated to preserving the integrity of the individual, and willing to risk their lives to do it. The operative phrase for me is “They had the courage of their convictions,” what Harlan Ellison referred to in his talk here last week. That’s how I think we Unitarians hope to live our lives, directing our focus outward through the church to advocate fair treatment of all people.
The second reason why I’m a Unitarian Universalist is the church’s religious tolerance. I’m relieved to be able to come to this church and leave my hair shirt at home! I can attend a service here and yet retain my own, somewhat unorthodox, “theosophy,” one that’s taken years to develop because I’ve had to find all my own answers.
You see, unlike Joe LaFerriere, who came up here about a year ago and said that he “used to be an ex-Catholic” (a great opening line), I’ve never really been an ex-anything. My family regularly attended the Congregationalist Church in my hometown of Garden City, KS, but we stopped all religious activity after moving to Tucson in 1960.
My spiritual “quest,” if you will, began in 1970 at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA. There I found myself a stranger in a strange land, with little conviction about anything other than each person’s obligation to help others. I soon came down with an acute case of “existential angst.” My steady diet of Nietzsche and Sartre and Unamuno, of books like The Tragic Sense of Life and Being and Nothingness, filled me with contempt for organized religion and forever dashed any hopes I might have had of becoming a Christian (the only option I knew of at the time). Besides, I got scared when I realized that people around me actually believed the Bible as literal truth! Fortunately at the time I discovered a different approach to religion: that embodied in the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching, in Buddha and the Eight-fold Path…here I found metaphors that worked for me.
Even though I never “became” a Buddhist, I practiced yoga and martial arts and studied Buddha’s teachings: that there is an eternal, endless universe of Absolute Being, of which we are temporary incarnations. As such, we are subject to delusions and temptations, pain and trouble, illness and death. But—and this is essential—by studying to find wisdom, living to do good, and concentrating to achieve control over mind and body, we can transcend the physical world of suffering.
My immersion in Eastern thought culminated in Zen, which speaks of satori (or “enlightenment”), a state of being in which we are able to look beyond our immediate world into the universe of Absolute Being, and in this condition know ourselves to be part of the Great Oneness of all. We then become aware that everything in the world is part of Absolute Being and is thus essentially holy.
And beyond this awareness comes a sense of the interpenetration of all things…a concept described in the allegory of Indra’s Net, as follows: There is an endless net of threads throughout the universe. The horizontal threads are in space, the vertical in time. At every crossing of threads is an individual, and every individual is a crystal bead. The great light of Absolute Being illuminates and penetrates every crystal bead; and every bead reflects not only the light from every other crystal in the net, but also every reflection of every reflection throughout the universe.
Thus we learn that we live in all other beings, all other things—and that they live in us.
It’s clear that Unitarian Universalism embraces these concepts. We feel connected with all things on earth. We value people of all races and colors. We don’t insist that our way—or our prophet or our God—is the true way.
Imagine if you will a perfect world, one in which ignorance and fear were no longer the basis for religious belief; a world in which no wars were fought in the name of religion; a world in which religious decisions were the right—and the responsibility—of each individual.
It could happen in a Unitarian Universalist world!
For someone who has assiduously avoided labels all my life, joining this church a year ago was a somewhat uncharacteristic act. But I’m glad I did, and I’m proud to call myself a Unitarian Universalist.