A Faith That Chooses Us

A Faith That Chooses Us
by Rev. Gary Kowalski
Delivered March 4, 2012 at First Parish of Sudbury.

Choice is an important value for Unitarian Universalists. One might say it’s a sacred precept.

Faith for us is not so much an heirloom handed down as a matter of living more intentionally and graciously here and now. Few of us were born into this tradition, and even those who were reared as Unitarian Universalists had to make a conscious decision at some point to embrace this movement as our own.

You might be a Jew or a Catholic out of habit or family history. But you have to choose to be a Unitarian Universalist, not necessarily abandoning your past, but not allowing it to define you either. Ours is religion where we determine our own convictions, hammering out our own beliefs, writing our own credos, and building our own theology.
When we consider our children, we recall the words of William Ellery Channing, who said that the great aim in religious education is "not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own," not to indoctrinate them with pre-digested answers but to arouse their own spiritual curiosity. We may teach them how Hindus celebrate the New Year and what the Buddha taught, but want them to form their own convictions when they finally grow up. That’s what growing up means, not just maturing physically but developing the inward compass that lets you set your own direction in life.

And when it comes to social witness, Unitarian Universalists have gone on record supporting reproductive choice for women and end-of-life choice for the terminally ill. In wartime, our congregations have been havens for conscientious objectors who believe that military service should be a matter of individual conscience rather than forced conscription. We went from defending inter-racial marriage in the 1950’s and 60’s to gay marriage in the 1990’s, but in both cases the logic was the same, that one’s choice of mate is a profoundly private decision.

Personal predilection, not the government censor, should determine what we read and the opinions we’re allowed to express. As liberals, we cherish the autonomy of the individual.

Perhaps that’s why one of the most popular guidebooks to Unitarian Universalism is a volume titled Our Chosen Faith. There we’re reminded that the word "heresy" comes from a Greek root, hairesis, that means "to choose." From the earliest days of the Christian empire, when the church under Constantine began to assemble the trappings of worldly power and pomp, there were some who chose not to cooperate with the new world order, who challenged the powers-that-be. They were mavericks, our forebears, who insisted on doing and saying things their own way rather than sticking to the prepared script. Though our beliefs may have evolved beyond those early Christian beginnings, we still hold that any genuine spirituality has to be freely embraced, not imposed by the hand of external authority.

Supporting this faith monetarily is another choice we make.  Our ancestors were instrumental in separating church and state, to insure that people could contribute to the religion of their own choosing.  Our congregations are voluntary associations, self-governing and self-financing, which means that all of our ministries depend upon the choices we make about the allocation of our resources.
And yet there is an important sense in which the faith we live by is not a matter of choice or preference or individual decision. There is a sense in which religion or spiritualitywhatever you want to call itis not an option we select so much as an encounter with realities not of our choosing.

That was the case, for example, with a thirty-two year old man wandering the streets of Chicago. He had just been fired. His daughter, only four years old, had died recently of spinal meningitis. He had begun to drink and had no money.  Everything in his world seemed to be falling apart. According to his own account, "Finally I reached a point where I found myself saying ‘Am I an utter failure?’ If so, I’d better get myself out of the way. But I said to myself, ‘You do not belong to you, therefore you do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You belong to the universe."
At that point something strange happened. "I was on Michigan Avenue, about three or four blocks south of the Chicago River, when suddenly I found myself in a sort of sparkling kind of sphere … And I heard a voice, such as I had never heard before, saying ‘From now on you need never await temporal attestation to your thought. You think the truth.’ I couldn’t believe I was not touching the ground and that I was hearing this extraordinary thing! It was after that I started writing feverishly. I said, ‘I think I must write everything down, because I was thinking the truth." And it was also in that year, 1927, that I was inspired by the birth of a new child, Allegra … I said, ‘I’m really going to give the rest of my life to this new young life.’ I pledged, both to the daughter who died and to the daughter now born, that I was committing myself to humanity."

By now you’re probably wondering, "Who was this guy?" Certainly not one of ours, you’re thinking, because Unitarians aren’t supposed to hear voices. We’re a people whom the psychologist Abraham Maslow described as "non-peakers," not ordinarily given to religious raptures or conversion experiences. The Beacon Hill lady who, on being told of the need to be born again, replied, "Why should I be born again? I was born in Boston!" was of this type. And when a worshiper in one of our New England congregations became so excited by the minister’s remarks that he began to holler "I got religion," he was reportedly approached by an usher  who whispered, "Please say you didn’t get it here!" But religion is not something we get so much as an inexplicable force that gets us, as it got Buckminster Fuller that day, hovering on the brink of suicide. From almost total breakdown he went on to become one of the great innovators of the twentieth century.

"In 1927," he said, "I resolved to do my own thinking and see what the individual, starting without any money or creditin fact with considerable discredit, but with a whole lot of experiencecould produce on behalf of his fellow men and women." Out of the chaos of a life in which all his dreams lay shattered, there emerged a new life as inventor, architect, and visionary.

And his Unitarian connections were impeccable. Bucky was the grandson of Arthur Buckminster Fuller, a Unitarian clergyman who happened to be the younger brother of renowned Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller. Her life story includes a turning point just as profound as the one her grandnephew experienced a century latera singular moment when she nearly lost her life and in that same instant found it again.

Margaret had been reared by her fatheralthough "trained" might be a better word. Sparing with affection, he recognized his daughter’s superior mind from early infancy and drilled her incessantly, testing the limits of what one intellect could absorb: Latin, Greek, Italian, French, metaphysics and philosophy. Margaret excelled under this regimen, but as womanhood approached she realized the scholarly attainments that so pleased her papa were not likely to endear her in the same way to any other man. Domesticity and spinsterhood were the equally depressing prospects open to a woman such as herself. And by the time she reached adulthood, Margaret had fallen into a deep depression. Her male friends were finished with their education and heading toward careers in law, medicine, and the church. But her own outlooks were bleak. On Thanksgiving Day, 1831, she recorded in her journal: "I felt within myself great power, and generosity, and t
enderness; but it seemed to me as if they were all unrecognized,
and as if it was impossible that they should be used in life. I was only one-and-twenty; the past was worthless, the future hopeless."

Margaret was pondering all this, walking in the woods, and had seated herself near a pool of water, when "Suddenly the sun shone out with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover." Illumined in that golden glow, she was unexpectedly lifted up out of herself, out of her skin, out of her ordinary consciousness, as she records:

  • I saw there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the All and all was mine. This truth came to me, and I received it unhesitatingly; so that I was for that hour taken up into God.

Like a seed that splits open when exposed to sun and light, the shell of Margaret’s individual persona seemed to be stripped away, as an energy not her own poured in. And from that point on, she began to blossom. She became the editor of the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, writing essays on feminism that would appear in book form as Woman in the Nineteenth Century. She worked as a journalist for the New York Tribune, investigating prison conditions and treatment of the insane, then as a foreign correspondent traveling to Europe where she fell in love and had a child with an Italian revolutionary, fighting for the creation of a Roman Republic. Margaret is perhaps best known for her exultant exclamation, "I accept the universe!" To which Emerson’s friend Thomas Carlyle drily replied, "Gad, she’d better." But accepting the universe for Margaret was no philosophy of shallow acquiescence or weary resignation. Rather it meant a hearty embrace of all that life had to offer—tears and blood and love and passionan unqualified "Yes" to her own birth and death and all that lay between.

This was Margaret’s faith. Not a faith she chose, but one that illumined and enlightened her as she sat alone and hopeless in the woods. And this was also Bucky’s faith, not one he arrived at through rational deliberation, but one that brought him to an understanding, staring into the cold waters of Lake Michigan, that "You have no right to eliminate yourself. You belong to the universe." To use traditional religious language, you could say that each of them was saved, brought from the pit of desolation and despair into all the richness and ripeness and potential of living … hoisted up by some impetus larger than themselves.

And this is what our faith is all about, saving souls, not in the narrow sense in which some churches use that phrase, but rescuing life from cynicism, redeeming it from bitterness and hopelessness and futility, enabling people to live fully and freely and affirmatively. Many of us were reared in denominations where being saved meant taking communion every Sunday, or reciting the creeds. Mark Twain ridiculed that kind of religion a century ago when he defined faith as "believing what any darned fool knows ain’t so."  
But that is not our faith, not the one we support with our dollars. Because religion for us is not about tithing. Not about dogma or obedience, not about ritual or living up to other people’s expectations. Rather, religion for us is an openness to the mystery that sustains and upholds life. It is a sense of kinship with the cosmos. It is an invitation to bolder dreams and more generous action.

For me, being a Unitarian Universalist is not so much a choice I make.  Rather it’s an expression of who I am and who I have to be, if I’m to be true to my deepest self.  I couldn’t choose to be a fundamentalist, for example, because I not only want to believe but have to believe that tolerance and intelligence and compassion will have the last word over prejudice and ignorance and fear.  I have to believe that any deity worthy of the name is bigger than any human conception the infinite.  I have to believe what both science and the great sages of all time tell me, that we’re all related and one family on the earth.

And I have to support these beliefs practically, with my time and money, because that’s when I come alive, when my own efforts seem aligned with some larger energy working through me and beyond me, so that I can understand myself not just as the sum of what I’ve eaten for breakfast, but as a recipient and contributor to something grander and more lasting.  Our religion thrives on Bucky’s motto, "Find something useful to do and do it!"

So get your hands dirty in our Memorial Garden, or teach Sunday School, sing in the choir, or Occupy Sudbury, remembering that the great purpose of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it, to give back to the universe that brought us into being and leave the world a better, richer place for our having been.

This is not only the faith we choose, but also the faith that chooses us.