Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism: Another Case Study

In response to one of my earlier post, Rev. Peter Morales, the UUA President, sent me a copy of a sermon that he gave in 2012 to the Arlington, Virginia congregation.  I suspect that he gives versions of this sermon in many of the places that he speaks.

It's called Beyond Belief.  Here is the heart of it. 

True religion is about what we love, not about what we think.
True religion is about what you and I hold sacred. The practice of true religion is faithfulness to what we love.
The key religious questions you and I must answer are these: What do we love so much that we are moved to tears? What gives us unspeakable joy? What brings us peace beyond understanding? What do we love so much that it calls us to action? What do we care about so deeply that we willingly, joyfully, devote our lives to it? 
When we focus on what we truly love, we ask life’s essential questions. We ask questions like, “How shall I live?” When we ask the question together in community, it becomes, “How shall we live together? What shall we do together?” When we focus on what we truly love, we discover something wonderful: we discover that we love the same things. 
We realize that we need one another. We want to be compassionate and gentle with one another. We want to raise children who are kind, joyful and responsible. We aspire to create a religious community where we can come to know one another more deeply. We want to create a place where we can cry together, laugh together, sing together, learn together, and act together. We want a place where we can come together to remind ourselves of what is truly worthwhile. That is what worship is—it is literally an affirmation of worth. 
And we want to make a difference in the world. We are not content to be a club. We know there are hundreds, thousands, of neighbors who love what we love. And if they love what we love, they have the same religion we do. We open our hearts and our doors to them. 
Religion beyond belief is the religion millions of people long for. It is religion that transcends culture, race and class. It is religion where we can grow spiritually, a religion where we can forge deep and lasting relationships, a religion where we can join hands to help heal a broken world.... 
The central issue before us as a religious movement is not to decide what we believe. That will just set us to arguing among ourselves until the theological cows come home. (Trust me, the theological cows have been gone for millennia and they’re not coming home in our lifetime.) 
No, the central issue before us all is whether we will accept the challenge to become a religion beyond belief.
Believing in theological diversity is another form of a belief based religion.  And that is where, theologically speaking, a lot of Unitarian Universalism is stuck.  We celebrate our own diversity of opinion and belief.  But what is there beyond belief?  What is the purpose of religion if it is not to promote beliefs in its people?

Rev. Morales sets out to answer that question.  He says that we ought to base religion, which for is Unitarian Universalism, on "what we love."

He is asking the right question, and proposing a good answer.  Liberal theology has to answer the question: what is true enough to base our theology on?  If we cannot count on our knowledge of divine revelation, what is the truth we are starting from?  And if we can no longer assume that there is a truth that can be universally comprehended by all people (objectivity), where do we start?

"What We Love" is one answer to that question.  It is open-ended in that Morales doesn't define it, except situationally and relationally.  (This by the way is similar to President Obama's speech in Newtown, in which he based the moral case for "sensible gun safety" legislation on the love we feel for our children.)

The problem is that "what we love" is vague and open-ended.  We all love our children.  Do we love other people's children?  Maybe, maybe not.  Many people feel a love of country, which can have a very different content from person to person.  Everybody, especially including "white" people who are mist unaware of it, have an affinity for people of their own race or ethnicity.

Rev. Morales is confident that we will find that "we love the same things."  I am not sure, but I do believe that most of us love some things in common.  What are they?  Love of our children?  What else?

The one "sacred" belief of contemporary Unitarian Universalism is that religion should never be prescriptive.  It is thought that Religion (especially religious leaders) shouldn't tell people what to believe, or how to act, or what to value as most important.  Far too often, UU religious leaders have accepted this restriction: that the most we can do is to suggest a question for the people to consider.  That tentativeness comes out in Rev. Morales' sermon.  He does not tell us what to love.

But, I wish Rev. Morales had told us what to love: what in human life is worthy of our highest loyalty, and makes demands on us.

As contemporary people, we all know that we don't have to agree with him, or mindlessly follow his instructions.  After all, a thousand different people, companies, and institutions pitch messages to us everyday, and we are quite skilled at evaluating them and rejecting almost all of them.

What is the final message of a sermon?  In this sermon, Rev. Morales defines the central message as whether "we will accept the challenge to become a religion beyond belief."

So like so many UU sermons do, Rev. Morales ends up talking about what kind of religion UUism ought to be.  We should be talking about what kind of people UU's and others should be.

I think that the alternative to a belief-based religion is a virtue and character-based religion.  Our message should be that our lives, and the world in general, would be better and happier if we developed our capacity to act to fulfill what we love.  And we can better love if we develop certain virtues, life habits: compassion, wonder, truthfulness, humility, graceful giving, openness and self-possession.

So, I go to a different place than Rev. Morales, even though I agree with his starting point. To me, what is "beyond  belief" is virtue and character. If we go there, I believe that we can reclaim our voice to speak directly to people about what we think liberal religion asks them to do.

I am grateful that Rev. Peter sent me his sermon, and was open to me making a public comment on it.  It showed great grace.  He has a hard job, in that there are so many who are sure that they could do his job better.


  1. Clyde Grubbs12:38 PM

    Sermons seldom go deep, seldom probe theological assumptions, much les thelogical implications. Sermons are pastoral, and at best reflect a theological direction. Sometimes tentatively.

    What I observe in your recent ponderings on theology and in your case study of Peter's short homily is a move away from a cosmovision. I read you as saying, the Christian way of doing theology based on "idea of god" and an "idea of the human condition" resulting in an "idea of salvation" by "an idea of a witnessing church" is impossible for UUs given our lack of consensus relative to God.

    Can we not make even the basic statement witnessed by Carl Scovel that "the heart of the cosmos is good intent." That the creation in which we live and move and have our being is (created) good, and we are called to live in awareness that we children of that goodness?

    A theology without a cosmovision strikes me as existentialism light.

  2. Cosmovision. Let me take that up in a separate post.

  3. And to add a somewhat more poetic response to Rev. Grubbs, there is the following from Iain Banks, one of my favorite authors, who died today of cancer at age 59.

    In one of his books, one of his characters, in defending his liberal "Culture" from an opponent who argues that "life isn't fair", says the following:

    "No, life isn't fair. Not intrinsically...It's something we can try to make it, though. ..A goal we can aim for. You can choose to do so, or not. We have."

    I don't think "the creation in which we live and move and have our being is ... good". Certainly not when people can die of cancer at age 59 or even younger. But the universe is sufficiently just that we can try to MAKE it good.


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