The Reverend Mark DeWolfe Sermon


January 4, 1987

Bob Carter, professor of philosophy at Trent University, told last September’s Couchiching Conference that Unitarians “never did as well as when we had a solid orthodoxy to fight against”.  While I have not done an exhaustive study, it’s my impression that he’s right: we have grown historically in the wake of vigour on the part of the orthodox.  In fact, reflecting on how the Unitarian churches in Transylvania emerged from a court debate; how the British churches emerged from laws specifically designed to prevent them from happening at all; and how the American churches sprung up in rebellion to cold Calvinism; I have come to formulate DeWolfe’s First Law of Orthodoxies, applicable to orthodoxies of all kinds: economic, philosophical, political, sexual or religious.       It is this:

Orthodoxies maintain their existence by consciously excluding some aspect of human experience from the portion of the world they are willing to consider. Consequently (DeWolfe’s First Corollary to DeWolfe’s First Law) Heterodoxies (that’s us folks) emerge when human beings articulate experience which is not within the limits set by the orthodox.

The religious examples are probably most familiar: think for a minute how Protestantism emerged and diversified when the ability to interpret the Bible spread with the growth of printing.  People were able to experience the Bible in new ways: and their opinions of its revelation led to variation in churches.  Churches had to split, inquisitions had to be held, to enforce conformity to the old, more limited view.

But let’s take two examples from the economic world to show the calcification and rebellion of orthodoxies.  John Morgan, my colleague who is now minister emeritus at Toronto First, has had frequent opportunity to travel in Eastern Europe.  One of his most striking memories of East Berlin was visiting the now city hall.  When it came to decorating the new building the authorities offered the local artists a rare opportunity at complete artistic freedom.  The result: the walls fairly drip with a sense of rebellion and the rebellion is a spiritual one. Here in the capital of the most officially Marxist state west of the Soviet Union, in the city hall, are walls which fairly cry that, the material is not all there is to life.  And the state of East Germany,  an officially Marxist and atheist philosophy, which claims that our spiritual needs are but opium to our material alienations, produces just this rebellion,  In John’s considered opinion, a major failing of socialist governments is their inability to countenance the expression of the longing for the spiritual, for the sense of transcendence, for the expression of the inner life of women and men.  Moving east, is it no surprise that Poland finds the most effective opposition to the government is the church? And is it no surprise that the form of Catholicism which finds favour in the eyes of the Polish people and the Pope they have given to the world is Catholicism at its most spiritual — and its most legalistic? An economic orthodoxy tied to materialism finds its complement in a religious orthodoxy tied to not spirituality but spiritualism.  The extremes of spirituality in the Russian Orthodox Church forced the extremes of Materialism in Soviet Communism — and vice versa.  Their extremes force a conflict in which there is no middle ground.  Hence, DeWolfe’s second corollary: Orthodoxy of one sort provokes an equally intense orthodoxy on its opposite side, that is, materialism/spiritualism; communism/catholicism; with no social expression of a middle ground.

We Unitarian Universalists have made a business of being a haven for those who are victim of religions orthodoxy.  In certain parts of the world, this job still continues. In his 1986 Berry Street Essay, John Wolf, my colleague in Tulsa, spoke eloquently of the need for us to be those who comfort the ones hurt in exclusion from their own churches. M John is minister of All Soul’s Church, one of two UU churches in Tulsa.  Tulsa has a population roughly that of Mississauga’s – 360,000 or so.  Yet John’s church alone has a membership almost ten times that of this church — and the second church is six times the size of this one. Tulsa creates Unitarian Universalists because it is the home of extreme conservatism in religion. Tulsa is the home of more evangelists of the extreme fundamentalist type than any other place on earth. Oral Roberts is the best known, but there are many others who make Tulsa their home.  And Tulsa is the kind of place where the number two question they ask on meeting you (number one being, what’s your name?) is, and where do y’all go to church?  It’s a friendly question, but it betrays much about the community. Tulsa is a place where attending church is not a question of whether, but which.  And when the predominant religion is an orthodoxy which tells the battered wife to submit to her husband, which tells the lesbian to forfeit her emotional life or rot in hell, which tells the woman with an unwanted to pregnancy to submit to her predicament, that kind of city is a factory for Unitarian Universalists –– if the mission for Unitarian Universalists is to provide a haven for the victims of religion.

In our time, and in our cities, here in the north, in the land of the comfortable pew (or in our case, the stackable chairs), our growth has not matched that in the South. We are fighting a battle with no enemy — though lately the Catholics show signs of ossifying into a good orthodoxy for us to fight.  I suspect the Catholics will forge their own internal opposition, though, and we will catch the ones who cannot bide within the system.  Nonetheless the religious tempest brewing will not, I predict, lead to a dramatic swelling in the numbers of UUs, not here.  Because, I submit, Christianity long ago ceased to be the dominant religion in Canada.

That, Christianity is the dominant religion in Tulsa cannot be denied. And so, its victims flock to our churches.  But here in Canada the dominant religion is something else.  Need evidence?  Okay: Sociologist Reginald Bibby at the University of Lethbridge, Alta. , has been studying Canadian religion for many years.  What he has found is that the majority of Canadians hold a nominal church affiliation in their mind  though not necessarily on the rolls of their parishes. You can ask anyone what church they belong to, and they’ll tell you: usually the name of the church they were raised in.  Ninety percent of Canadians tell the census they’re Christians of one stripe or another.  Less than 38% attend church regularly.  This is in contrast to the United States, Where over 63% of the total population attends church. The US has the highest population of church attendance of any western democracy.  Canada with a figure half as high, is closer to the figures of those secularized countries like the United Kingdom, France, Germany.  The Canadian figures vary greatly by region, with church attendance the highest in Saskatchewan and the lowest In Quebec.

In the 1981 census, three times as many people claimed to be Unitarians as we can count in our church memberships.  I despaired that we had so many alienated UU t s, until I learned that the same percentage applied to the United Church of Canada: three times as many people tell the census they “are United Church” than they count in their churches, too.  What that tells me is that the real religion of Canada is not religion.  (It certainly isn’t Christianity, and may not even be religion at all.)

There are those who would claim that the real religion of Canada is hockey, but I think that belongs to a Canada of the good old days before the NHL expansion.  Hockey is too dominated by those church going Americans to truly appeal to the Canadian spirit. No, Canada is dominated by another faith, one that does not appear to be a religion at all: the faith of secularism.  And secularism, though it lacks an organized hierarchy, can be as orthodox as any church.

Secularism is the dominant religion of most Canadians. They won’t admit, and in fact they don’t know it, and no one is going around putting ads in the paper which say, “Are you a secularist without knowing it?”  But if you look at the way most Canadians relate to the world around them, secularism is the religion of their hearts and minds.

Secularism is my term for an attitude that the material world is all there is.  It is what is really real, and all those fine human values extolled by poets and religious types, what is really real is hard stuff like steel and concrete, like dollars and cents, what is really real is how large your house is and whether or not you got your heaven of two weeks in the West Indies to help you get through the hell of Canadian winter.  And whether and how far you have advanced in your career –– that is secularism.

Let me tell you what I mean by secularism, I don’t mean Jerry Falwell’s secular humanism, his term for everything you and I hold dear.  I mean instead a generalized social attitude which I see abundant around us, which says that nothing is sacred, except the economy.  Except full employment.  Except high profit margins.  Except increasing the material well being of the majority of Canadians, and hoping that the minorities and marginalized peoples will be towed up in the wake.  In Tulsa, the second question you’re asked is, And where do y t all go to church?”  In Canada, in every province I have visited, the second question I have always been asked, is “And what do you do for a living?”

A luxury condominium In Toronto advertised along these lines last year: “In New York, they ask, ‘how much does he make?’ In Philadelphia,’who were his parents?’ In Toronto, they ask, ‘where does he live?’  We judge each other, the advertisement claims, on the basis of how well we’ve done in the real estate market.

Secularism is not just materialism, not just the worship of things over people.  Secularism is the attitude that only hard and real things are worthwhile and therefore that nothing else matters.  The message our general culture is giving out these days is, to quote pop singer Madonna, we’re living in a material world, and we are all material girls.  And that means that nothing else has any value.

The orthodoxy of our time has no priestly ritual, but the ritual of Christmas shopping; has no prophetic heritage, but the heritage of marketing; finds its holy writ in the highs and lows of the stock market.

And the orthodoxy of our time was created by the same social forces which created Unitarianism.

Unitarians arose among the same class who demanded from the state the freedom to conduct business without royal warrant and monopoly.  The people who struggled for the freedom to do worship — the dissenters were struggling also for the freedom to associate as they pleased and thee freedom to engage in business.   The 17th century struggle of Puritanism, which gave us the freedom to worship as we saw fit, was also the struggle for free markets.

Unitarian Universalists have argued for centuries that the sacred and the secular are inextricably connected, that the sacred — what is most important in existence––is revealed in the world of women and men the world of the everyday.  We represent a strain in the religious tradition which resisted extreme spiritualism –– which said no to making what is holy so foreign to our experience that we could never know a part of it.

We have been mystics of the here and now, seeing revelation in the hills and the seas, wisdom in human faces, the holy embedded within the ordinary.  This has been our religious gift — but we have kept it to ourselves.

The gift we gave the world was the gift of scientific naturalism, a philosophy spawned of those same currents which spawned us and fed in the same waters of the human spirit, But out of these waters has come a backwash of an orthodoxy which says that only what is physical is real, only the material has any worth, and only the world is of value.

It is wise to remember that these attitudes in both science and religion were spawned in rebellion to an orthodoxy which placed all value up there in the heavens with a disconnected God and a resurrected Son, up there some where, out of our reach, out of our knowledge, wholly other to our experience.  In religion and in science, Unitarian Universalists have represented a rebellion against that kind of alienation, and an affirmation that what is here and now has worth.

Yet that rebellion is over four centuries old. It is old hat.  It still applies in the Tulsa of the world, yet elsewhere, it has spawned a new orthodoxy which is equally crippling: an orthodoxy of the secular.

The old orthodoxy of the spiritual said you are so far from the holy that you have no worth.  The new orthodoxy of the secular says that there is no holy, that you have no worth unless you are a champion in the material combat of the world.

The new orthodoxy creates its victims, too.  Two weeks ago Friday I was on a beach on an uninhabited coral cay off the island of Anguilla in the West Indies. The only shade on this hot heaven for swimmers and snorkelers was in a bar set up by an enterprising Anguillan, who came over and opened shop whenever adventurers like us found their way to “Prickly Pear Cay”.  A fellow traveller, a professional woman from Colorado, asked me just who it was joined a Unitarian church these days.  I described the diversity of the people who were joining our congregation in Mississauga, but added, “But those who are joining us in greatest numbers tend to be single mothers with preschool children and divorced women in middle age.  For these are the people who have been most isolated by our society and are seeking out a supportive community’.  From the table next to me came a shocked and startled, “What? Say that again!” from a woman who was herself in what we might call late middle age. Taken aback by the force of’ her request, I calmly and deliberately repeated myself, not knowing whether I would be run over by her forthcoming contradiction or approval. And with a force of words and feeling liberated by the beer she had been drinking, this eavesdropper said, “That is so true. That is so true!”   Turning from us, she proceeded to explain to her table mates the isolation felt by her friends who were divorced late in life by husbands seeking themselves at middle age—and the loneliness and isolation of her daughter, struggling alone to raise her child.  There, engaging in that most bourgeois of holidays, a Caribbean adventure, I connected with someone who knew that the orthodoxy of our time creates its victims.

The orthodoxy of our time says that you are only worth what you achieve. In career, in marriage, in child raising, worth is conveyed by how well you’ve done. To paraphrase that advertisement, In New York, by how large are your assets; In Philly, by how well you’ve married; in Toronto, by how well you’ve done  in real estate.  Or by how well your children have done, how long your marriage has lasted, and contradicting all of the above, how well you’ve done at fulfilling yourself. In the orthodoxy of secularism, in the unarticulated religion which at the base of contemporary Canada, the goal of life is achievement. And those who do not achieve along the prescribed lines are left isolated, and abandoned, and without support, victims of another orthodoxy.

It is time to remember the other side of our Unitarian Universalist heritage.  It is time to remember the vision we have for which the victims of the orthodoxy hunger. It is time to preach to a world which is not yet ready to hear in large numbers the blessings of a higher vision.

It is time to remember that Unitarian Universalist vision which says that something is sacred, something is inviolable, something is of worth beyond its material benefit: the human person.  And it is time to take this message out of the preamble to our bylaws and make it a gospel to the victims of orthodoxy: You are worthwhile simply because you are.

You are a living, breathing spirit, a soul who sees the world and responds with love.  You are supported by a world which gives you air to breathe, food to sustain you, and in this community comrades to love you just because you are you.  This is a place to shed the shackles of the world’s ways, the burdens of achievement, and to hear the truth which has always been true: that the holy is emerging around you in every living moment.

We have never done so well as when we have struggled against an orthodoxy. The orthodox no longer wear priestly garb and mount inquisitions.  Instead, they isolate, alienate, marginalize and starve, physically, emotionally, and most of all spiritually, the ones who fail to fit their mold.

May this new home of yours welcome them in, may their wisdom enlarge yours, and may the light of our tradition shine on now and in all the days to come, a beacon of’ freedom, a sanctuary of respite and a fountain of hope.

Reverend Mark DeWolfe

Thank you!

Kathy, Judy, Joan, Bert, Camille, Tisa, Susan, Anthony, Fiona.
Without your help, this work would not have been possible.

Brigitte Twomey