Presented on Zoom – January 10th, 2021. Rev. Fiona Heath
Earlier this week I was feeling that a reflection on our fourth aspiration – that we aspire to be theologically alive: we seek to be ever-evolving in our understanding, open to new knowledge – might be missing the mark.
But as I lit a chalice for meetings, for writing this reflection, even the scented candles I light in the living room, as I watched these flickering living flames, that energy of life full of light and heat, I remember that it is UU theology that saves me from despair.
The way we approach the world reminds me of what matters. The principles and values we hold in common are vital to helping me navigate stormy weather. The chalice is a beacon of light which guides me forward even as the wind bears down and rains fall. The light of the chalice does not go out in the storm.
We are so fortunate to be theologically alive – to evolve in understanding, adjusting as knowledge develops over time. UU is a living tradition which takes in new ideas to fuel its light ever anew with each generation.
I grew up without religion but I had a great deal of what I know now is religious curiousity. I wondered about how to be a good person, about how humankind engages with the earth, the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
But I didn’t really know where to find the answers. I read a lot seeking guidance and at some point I actually read Pilgrim’s Progress. Pilgrim’s Progress was written in the late 17th century and is a not-at-all-subtle parable about how to be a good Christian.
The pilgrim whose name is Christian, after many trials and tribulations comes to a gate and meets Good-Will, the gatekeeper, who says: “Look ahead of you — do you see that narrow way? That is the way you must go. It was built by the patriarchs, prophets, Christ and His Apostles; and is as straight as can be. This is the only way you must go!”
Good Will goes on “…there are many side paths which intersect with the narrow way — but they are crooked and wide. This is how you may distinguish the right from the wrong — only the right path is straight and narrow!”
This is a retelling of the Gospel of Matthew text which speaks about entering the narrow gate. These days much of Christianity does not speak this way. But as a young person I heard this message – the right path is straight and narrow – and absorbed it more deeply than I realized. In my mind it was a secular path – more about there being a right way to succeed at life – go to university, get a career, get a partner, get a house, get a child – all in that order.
And I suffered from this sense of the narrow path because I kept wandering off it. I spent much of my twenties feeling that I was failing at finding the right way.
I went to university but then I stayed there for years, but not on the get a phd and tenure track career way. I found a partner but didn’t get married. Money was in short supply. I had the child long before we had a house.
And still all along I wondered about the meaning of life, the universe and everything and what being a good person really was – it seemed like it was about succeeding at a career – which I was failing at – and so I struggled.
I wanted religion – I began to understand I needed a community that considered the bigger picture – the amazing wholeness of life – but I also knew I rejected what I saw as the rules and dogma of church life. As Amy Farrah Fowler of the Big Bang Theory said, “I don’t object to the concept of a deity, but I’m baffled by the notion of one that takes attendance.”
Then in my thirties I found Unitarian Universalism. And Unitarian Universalism – with its open, non creedal stance – welcomed me in as I was – a confused earth based spiritual atheist. By then I was also exploring neo-paganism which was closely aligned to my sense of communion with the divine – being grounded in the seasons – attentive to the rhythms of the earth.
I joined the congregation’s women’s ritual group that was based in neo-paganism and eventually we called ourselves “women on a not so rigid path”. A not so rigid path.
When we agreed to this name I knew I was in the right place – part of a religion with a clear direction – with the chalice lighting the way – but a not so rigid path.
This is Unitarian Universalism – we have a living theology that is shaped by time and circumstances and the people present – we are theologically alive.
Theology at its most simple is the narrative we tell about humanity’s relationship to the Mystery of all that is. This understanding shapes our behaviour. How we understand the world shapes how we live.
Our theology speaks of mutual relatedness – we are all connected. Connected to our inner self – a fount of deep knowing. Connected to one another – that nurturing community. Connected to the earth – the living planet of which we are a part. And connected to the mystery – whether that is God or Goddesses or the infinite universe.
We begin with connection, that we are all part of a very great whole.
I picture our theology as the pattern of the golden spiral, based on the golden ratio – known as the divine proportion. Exponential expansion
We live in an ever increasing spiral, with the self at the centre, surrounded by community, then the earth, then the mystery. The self is small – a beginning place – and the Mystery is infinite and all encompassing. This is a meaningful image to me.
In the silence to come I invite you to look at the golden spiral on the screen and consider how you understand the human relationship to the mystery of all that is. This may be your image or you may have another.
To aspire to be theologically alive –to be ever-evolving in our understanding, open to new knowledge – is a challenge. There is a reason why so many religions have sacred texts – writings that are read over and over again over the centuries – words to turn to, to hold in common, and has answers.
As much as they contain deep meaning which continues to resonate, the trouble with sacred texts is that they are also written in context – in languages and cultures that are temporary. They fix humankind to singular points in history.
To be part of a living tradition allows theology to evolve as we do, as we strive to be more inclusive, more welcoming, our theology opens up as well. We began as heretics – as anti-trinitarians and proclaimers of universal salvation – our name identifies the radical theologies that founded our tradition.
We didn’t stop there but kept exploring the relationship between people and the Mystery. By the mid-nineteenth century we said that nature was as much an avenue to experiencing God as reading the bible. We said rituals mattered less then our actions.
We proclaimed the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character and the progress of mankind onward and upward forever. (https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/river/workshop13/178791.shtml)
For its time – the late nineteenth century – this is a progressive and expansive theology! But if that was what I had heard when I first arrived at a UU church I doubt I would have returned.
Without a sacred text, a formal doctrine, our theology evolves as society evolves. We are influenced by the moment – by humanism in the early twentieth century – and by buddhism and neo-paganism in the second half of the twentieth century – and we are better for those integrations.
The criticism is that this makes the path indistinct – that it isn’t a wider path but no path at all. I think that might be right. Over the years I’ve moved away from thinking of Unitarian Universalism as a path – I’ve come to think of it as a framework.
When I was young geodesic domes were very much in style. We had a geodesic metal climbing frame in the backyard.
You could play all over the frame, climbing in and out. You could play inside, sheltered by a sense of enclosure. You could cover it with blankets and hide inside or climb to the top and look all around. The geodesic frame was home base when we played hide and seek.
Theology begins with an understanding of humankinds relationship to all that is – we say we are all connected and part of the whole – and then grows into a framework of principles guiding our choices, sources to renew our spirit, aspirations to challenge us and rituals to ground us.
The framework is sturdy but slender with lots of space to go in and out. It’s also organic, living, alive and grows and changes over time and for each person. Theologically Alive.
I often hear that Unitarian Universalism is the place where you can believe anything or that it doesn’t matter what you believe. And in one way that is true, we don’t prescribe a set of beliefs. But it is also not true.
There is much space in and around the framework – so that you can love God or the Goddess or feel part of the universal energy or be a staunch humanist. You can believe in an afterlife or in becoming compost or in reincarnation.
But there are beliefs – like transphobia – that don’t fit within the frame. And others – like respect for all – that are essential.
It does matter how you understand our relationship to all that is. The geodesic dome is open but has a clear shape. Theology matters.
In these strange and stressful times I realize how much I rely on this sturdy structure. In the worst of times the frame is a net that catches me when I fall, reminding me I am not alone. Sometimes it supports me as I climb high to seek the future I hope for my child and all children. Most of the time it’s homeplace for me – the chalice light beckoning me back to what matters most, sheltering me in its warmth.
As each of you continue to grow as UUs the frame will become clearer as you discover for yourself what aspects of our theology matters most to you.
You may climb high or shelter low. You have to do the work and tend the frame, only you can sort out how the frame fits around you. But it is a shelter that grows stronger the more care you give it.
In the stormy weather of this past week I turned to our fifth principle – that democracy matters – and our fifth source – the guidance of reason and the results of science – that common truth matters.
I have sought the light of these spiritual values as I witness the results of lies and corruption. I have hope democracy and truth will prevail as they did in Georgia – where organizing disenfranchised citizens to vote changed the political landscape.
I am so grateful to belong to a religion that affirms democracy, that reminds us of the value of truth, that speaks to the times we live in.
The chalice light is a beacon of hope.
We aspire to be theologically alive: seeking to be ever-evolving in our understanding, open to new knowledge
May we continue to grow and learn and build this theological frame which embraces us as we are, holding us within the mystery of all that is.
May the chalice light burn brightly and guide us throughout our lives.
So Say We All.