A Not So Little Faith

(Excerpted from "The Marketing of Liberal Religion", a paper presented by Rev. David Bumbaugh at Meadville-Lombard Theological School Convocation Address, January 8, 2009.)
A couple of years ago David Bumbaugh, a professor and mentor of mine at Meadville Lombard Theological School, delivered a paper in which he argued that regardless of our many, diverse individual conceptions of God, or that which is larger than ourselves, we Unitarian Universalists share are a common core theology.  How’s that for a UU heresy?!  He meant "theology" in the academic sensea shared understanding of how the world works and, therefore, what really matters.  Here’s the way he described it.   See if you think it fits…

"We believe that the universe in which we live and move and have our being is the expression of an inexorable process that began in eons past, ages beyond our comprehension and has evolved from singularity to multiplicity, from simplicity to complexity, from disorder to order.
We believe that the earth and all who live upon the earth are products of the same process that swirled the galaxies into being, that ignited the stars and orbited the planets through the night sky, that we are expressions of that universal process which has created and formed us out of recycled star dust.
We believe that all living things are members of a single community, all expressions of a planetary process that produced life and sustains it in intricate ways beyond our knowing. We hold the life process itself to be sacred.
We believe that the health of the human venture is inextricably dependent upon the integrity of the rest of the community of living things and upon the integrity of those processes by which life is bodied forth and sustained. Therefore we affirm that we are called to serve the planetary process upon which life depends.
We believe that in this interconnected existence the well‐being of one cannot be separated from the well‐being of the whole, that ultimately we all spring from the same source and all journey to the same ultimate destiny.
We believe that the universe outside of us and the universe within us is one universe. Because that is so, our efforts, our dreams, our hopes, our ambitions are the dreams, hopes and ambitions of the universe itself. In us, and perhaps elsewhere, the Universe is reaching toward self‐awareness, toward self consciousness. We believe that our efforts to understand the world and our place within it are an expression of the Universe’s deep drive toward meaning. In us, and perhaps elsewhere, the Universe dreams dreams and reaches toward unknown possibilities. We hold as sacred the unquenchable drive to know and to understand.
We believe that the moral impulse that weaves its way through our lives, luring us to practices of justice and mercy and compassion, is threaded through the universe itself and it is this universal longing that finds outlet in our best moments.
We believe that our location within the community of living things places upon us inescapable responsibilities. Life is more than our understanding of it, but the level of our comprehension demands that we act out of conscious concern for the broadest vision of community we can command and that we seek not our welfare alone, but the welfare of the whole. We are commanded to serve life and serve it to the seven times seventieth generation.
We believe that those least like us, those located on the margins, have important contributions to make to the rest of the community of life and that in some curious way, we are all located on some margin. We believe that all that functions to divide us from each other and from the community of living things is to be resisted in the name of that larger vision of a world everywhere alive, everywhere seeking to incarnate a deep, implicate process that called us into being, that sustains us in being, that transforms us as we cannot transform ourselves, that receives us back to itself when life has used us up. Not knowing the end of that process, nonetheless we trust it, we rest in it, and we serve it."

When Martin Luther King delivered his "I have a dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963, it was the clearest, most deeply felt expression of faith he’d yet been able to muster.  To a whole assembled nation that was holding its breath, he proclaimed that faith in words that will reach into eternity.     It was couched in the language of his Christian tradition, but this was a declaration of faith in the fundamental power of people, the ultimate mutuality of our existence, the faith that in the end we human beings would answer to our better nature and, ultimately, would make good to triumph over evil.   Later, when he was paraphrased our Unitarian prophet Theodore Parker, he declared his faith that, through our nonviolent actions together, we would be the ones to "bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice."
After so memorably recounting all his dreams— that our nation would finally live up to "the true meaning of its creed: . . .that all men are created equal," that systematic southern oppression would give way to compassion, and that his own little children would grow up to be judged by the content of their character, he went on to say that these were more than dreams, they were ideals worthy of faith.

"With this faith," he said, "we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing [KNOWING] that we will be free one day."

I’m sure some or you know the lore, that while Martin was a seminary student at Boston University he became very well-versed in Unitarian history and theology.  In fact, he and Coretta attended Unitarian churches from time to time and found much to love there.  He also delivered the Ware Lecture at General Assembly in 1966. You may also know that later Coretta spoke about how they might easily have become Unitarians, but it just wasn’t a practical religion in which to base a movement that was trying to activate the whole of black America.#   As a practical matter, we were just too little.   And we were virtually nonexistent in the African American community.  That was probably the right call. . . but isn’t it a tragedy?

The irony is that Martin Luther King’s faith the faith that given justice, opportunity and a long enough arc of time, the fundamental goodness and power of people would be our salvationthat faith, is our faith.   It didn’t originate with Martin Luther King; it actually preceded him by at least 400 years of Unitarian and Universalist tradition, which clearly influenced him.  It’s just that his life gave it one of its most magnificent expressions in both word and deed.

I know that "faith" is a loaded term in our circles.  For many of us, the word makes our palms sweat, because it connotes a belief in orthodoxy or the supernatural.   As I mean it here, though, "faith" describes a conviction about that which is worthy of our devotion and our action in this one brief and precious life.   In the face of life’s multitude unknowns, we all have to place our faith in some understanding of how the world works and what really matters, and we all live out that faithwhatever it is— in the conduct of our lives.

Some of you may know David Bumbaugh whose passage I read earlierhe’s legendary for his passion for our tradition and for pulling no punches.   When he was my faculty advisor at Meadville, I wrote a pap
er about marketing Unitarian Universalism which argu
ed that with clearer marketing we could be orders of magnitude bigger than we are.  Let’s just say that he wasn’t thrilled that I’d framed it as a marketing problem instead of a theological one.  But I think it got him stirred up and lo and behold, a couple years later he presented the paper I read from earlier entitled the "Marketing of Liberal Religion."  He not only castigated our many failed marketing attempts, but he made the case that growing our movement would never be accomplished by any new slogans— only by getting much clearer on what binds us together in belief.    As you heard, he argued that we share a very strong common faith, one that demands to be held aloft and shared with the world and acted upon.

I’m convinced he’s right.   Throughout nearly five centuries of radical reformation, our Unitarian and Universalist tradition has been on a continuous progression toward a profound faith in— and of— this world.   From valuing human reason, for which Miguel Servetus martyred himself, to John Murray’s declaration of inherent human worth, to the widening of revelation through human conscience and intuition espoused by Channing and Parker and Emerson, to our early and consistent embrace of science, to the Process conception of God as the verb in the universe, all the way through to the religious humanism and religious naturalism that are its contemporary expressions, we have been on a continuous progression of thought that has led us to a very different conclusion than our orthodox brothers and sisters.   Above all else, we have chosen to place our faith in this amazing, intricate, beautiful and holy creation we inhabit and in our particular human power as instruments of that creation.    

We place our faith in the potential goodness and inherent capability of every person, given freedom from oppression and the right opportunities, to achieve his or her dreams.  We believe that together we can help heal ourselves and the world.   We hope for a better present world to come. We choose to love one another over any one conception of God.   Ours is a faith as big as the world because it is a faith in the world itself.    I believe that it’s the only faith with the power to save us.

Now I don’t mean to imply that the path to salvation requires converting everyone to Unitarian Universalism My God, think what the GA’s would be like! The plenary sessions would be interminable.    I’m also not suggesting that faith in the natural universe or in people is somehow unique to us.   I actually believe that deep down, it’s a faith common to all people because it’s woven into our DNA.   But we UU’s are unique in having made it the center of our religious tradition.   And in our best moments, we are proof positive that we can find a faithful common ground in the here and now and in one another, despite all our pluralism.  These are our gifts to be shared.

In a world that is simultaneously more interconnected and yet more fearful of difference— both more interdependent and more collectively vulnerable— in a world crying out for a path to redemption, we can no longer afford to be "too little" for the likes of Martin Luther King, or any other future prophets among us.   As David Bumbaugh said, we have an "inescapable responsibility" to be the catalysts of this common human faith, and to show it to the world by our example.

I think the work we do together through the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is one of the very best ways we do that. Every partner we select, every project we initiate, every advocacy effort we undertake, begins with a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and with the recognition that we are part of an interdependent web of mutuality.   Our work is based entirely in the faith that, given a just system and equality of opportunity, given real allies and a long enough arc, even the most marginalized among us has the power to realize his or her dreams for a better life, and that working together we can build a more just world for all of us.

A couple weeks ago, on Christmas Eve, The New York Times ran a story featuring one of UUSC’s projects in Haiti.   The article recounted the challenges of relief and the slow progress of economic development in Haiti, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars of aid that have poured in, but it referenced rural agriculture and our project as one potential reason to be hopeful.#

Two years ago this week a 7.0 magnitude earthquake leveled the city of Port of Prince, killed tens of thousands of people and left the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere poorer still.   Today, you still see rubble everywhere you look.  Very few homes have been rebuilt.  The Presidential Palace has a carefully manicured lawn, but the gold dome is cracked and tilts precariously to one side as if it might collapse at any minute. And surrounding the palace on all sides are overcrowded,  dangerous tent cities filling every square foot of public space.

Very few hotels have running water or electricity; still fewer homes do.  Virtually no one has sanitation; there’s no garbage collection.  White UN trucks police the city because there is still no government capacity to police the capital.   Your first impression is not one of hope.

But once you get over the shock, you realize the place is humming with life.  People are up at the crack of dawn setting out there wares, bartering, carrying each other around on every kind of contraption you can imagine, and packing their kids off to school in spotless uniforms.  I cannot imagine how you can do that when you’re living in a shelter with a dirt floor and no water.  They’re not only managing to survivewhich is no small feat— but they are energetically trying to rebuild their lives with whatever resources they can cobble together.   It’s a testament to the human spirit.

After the quake, UUSC and UUA together raised over $2.5 million dollars for Haiti relief, and the first thing we did was hire Wendy Flick as our program manger.  Wendy is a human rights and development expert with a long career in Haiti, and working through her network, she set out to identify those who were being left out of the large scale relief efforts or were being victimized in the process.  Then, working with the rest of our program staff, she selected a series of Haitian organizations that were best positioned to help people build sustainable futures.  As is true in most disasters, the most marginalized were largely women and children, so many of our partner organizations in Port au Prince are run by women working together to provide safety and medical care and education.

Wendy also knew about the work of the Papaye Peasants Movement or MPP.   This is an indigenous organization founded in the ’70’s by a wonderful, charismatic guy, named Chavannes Jean-Baptist.  Rural Haitian peasants have historically been the most marginalized of all citizens.  They were largely uneducated— without access to any public services, transportation or the means to communicate— so they were politically invisible and routinely exploited.    But over the last 40 years, Chavannes has endured death threats and the suppression of various regimes to build a peasant movement that is now over 100,000 strong.  Today they have a voice.

At the time of the earthquake, MPP was busy developing a demonstration farm for training peasants in sustainable agriculture techniques.   They’re teaching people about organic farming and how to build irrigation systems, and they operate a tree nursery and reforestation program.  So when the quake struck and people started fleeing Port au
Prince for the countryside, Chavannes had the b
rilliant idea of creating what he called "eco-villages"— small communities where people could permanently relocate from the city, build their own homes, do their own farming together and build sustainable lives.  The homes would be built to be earthquake resistant with local labor and materials and would include potable water systems, community kitchens and sanitation.  

UUSC sponsored the first village of 10 homes and over the course of the last year our UU volunteers have worked side-by-side Haitian families to help build them.  It’s been exciting and gratifying to see the village rising out of the ground and to see the families moving in.  But it’s been even more exciting to see that other aid organizations are becoming aware of what we’re doing are now joining to help advance the cause.  The Presbyterian church recently committed to build 40 homes; there are European NGO’s signing up and sending volunteers; the new Haitian government has taken notice; and even the New York Times picked up the story.

I share this example because it’s typical of the way UUSC works to live out our shared faith.  Whether it’s establishing access to clean, safe water as a basic human right;  or helping the young Egyptian protesters in Tahir Square understand the principles of non-violence, or overcoming a long legacy of political failure and catastrophe to restore hope in Haiti,  all the work we do begins with a faith in people to create a better future for themselves.  It acknowledges our interdependence.  And just like our faith as a whole, it catalyzes new possibilities, and new hope, for living together on this planet.    

Just this week I learned that Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, is a dues-paying member of UUSC.   How cool is that?   Some of you may actually know Sir Tim.  He was a British physicist working at CERN when he wrote the original code that allowed scientists working across the globe to share the data they were collecting.  Later, he moved to the U.S., had kids, went looking for a church home  and found Unitarian Universalism right here in Boston.  (That’s a familiar story.)  A few years ago he wrote an article drawing parallels between the World Wide Web and the ‘Web of Life’ as UU’s understand it.   I want to read just one excerpt:

"The whole spread of the Web happened not because of a decision (or) mandate from any authority, but, because a whole bunch of people across the Net picked it up and brought up Web clients and services, it actually happened.  The actual explosion of creativity and the coming into being of the Web (were) the result of thousands of individuals playing a small part.  In the first couple of years, often this was not for a direct gain, but because they had an inkling that it was the right way to go and a gleam of an exciting future.  It is necessary to UU philosophy that such things can happen, that we will get to a better state in the end by each playing our small part.  Unitarian Universalism is full of hope, and the fact that the Web happen(ed) is an example of a dream coming true and it’s an encouragement to all who hope."#

That is a great expression of our faith.   Let’s join together in our churches; let’s work together through the UUSC and our other UU justice institutions; and let’s demonstrate by our actions that ours is a not-so-little faith.  It’s a hopeful faith as big as the whole world and all the people in it.