Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Letting Go of What We Know — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on January 22nd, 2012.


Once someone knows that you are a Unitarian Universalist, there is an almost inevitable question… and one that is very difficult for many of us to answer.

“So, what do you Unitarian Universalists believe?”

Over the years, I’ve had many different answers to this question.  I’ve talked about the 7 principles as things that we believe… about inherent worth and interdependence.  I’ve responded to this question by stating the historical UU Christian beliefs in the Unity of God and the Salvation of all.  I’ve talked about our history, and told the old Unitarian joke that Unitarians believed in the Motherhood of God, the Sisterhood of humanity, and the Neighborhood of Boston.  I’ve also shared an old pre-merger Universalist joke, that Universalists believe that God is too good to damn anyone to hell… and the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned…

Why retreat into jokes at such a question?  Because it is a hard, difficult question for Unitarian Universalists to answer, even those that have been to seminary and wear a stole… because we are not really about belief.  In a world where religion and beliefs are treated as almost synonyms, we are a counter cultural religious movement.

Our theme for the life of our congregation this month is “Letting Go”.  When I sat down to think of what I have had to Let Go of in my life, I remembered a day in the first few weeks of my ministerial internship at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois that I was riding in a car with my internship supervisor, the Rev. Barbara Pescan.  Barbara was telling me about another young seminarian that she had met, who had been interested in studying with her as an intern.  When I asked Barbara why she had chosen him and not me, she said “Well, he just KNEW so much, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to teach him anything.”

Now, many of you… especially those of you here who are committee chairs, and those on the board know that I LOVE to know things.  Especially things about church.  I read research studies on church.  I read books on church finance.  I go to lectures and workshops on church dynamics.  I both love and teach about church governance, or how churches make decisions.     I’m currently reading a sociological study of the trends in congregational religion in America since WWII.

Whenever Rev. Jan hears of all the books on church life, business, and dynamics I’m reading, she usually rolls her eyes at me and says “Well, better you than me…” and then thinks about it and says something like “Hey, once you are done reading it, you can come tell me what the important parts are there “Assistant Minister”, and then smiles that cat with the cheese smile she has.


So, I love to know things… especially about church.  That is why there is something else I think I now know…  I think I now know that there was not another seminarian who had come to Rev. Barbara Pescan, my internship supervisor.  I think the young man who “knew” so much, and who she wondered if she would be able to teach anything, was me.  I think it was Barbara’s way to see if I could let go of enough of what I thought I knew so that I could actually learn.

I’ve talked about two terms this morning that are close in meaning, but are not the same thing… and I think I need to close the gap between them:  Believing and Knowing.  The difference is more subtle than we might realize.  My working definition of belief is that it is a type of knowing in which a person has invested some of their identity.  It is something held to be true, that if it were not true would in some way alter how a person understands themselves and the communities they are involved in.

This is why we must always be cautious when we are working with things that someone believes, especially when we may not agree with them.  When touching on beliefs, we are touching on not just a fact that the person thinks is true… that if we could show them that a different fact was true they could accept that and agree with is.  No, when we are talking about beliefs with one another, what we are really talking about is our identities.

The line between believing and knowing is actually not as clear as I am making it out to be.  There are things we “know” that we invest our identities in as well.  Human beings have built our identities on what we know since the dawn of time.  The first cavewoman to invent fire perhaps became humanity’s first “expert”.  Whenever you needed fire, you called her.  She handed down that important information by teaching another.  And another.

Knowledge is power among human beings.  When you go to a hospital, it is the Doctors who have most of the power, because they have most of the knowledge… although I know some nurses who would disagree with that statement.  In a church, some of the power of the expert falls onto the minister.  When you need your car fixed, you are often subject to the power of the mechanic, because they are the expert in all the thousands of things that can go wrong, and how to fix them.

Many of the things we know are the sources of both our identity in this world, and the source of our power in this world.  So, when those things we know are brought into question, when those things we know are brought to doubt, either by us or by others, is there any wonder why such questioning and doubt can often feel like an attack?  Is it any wonder why humans often feel comfortable around people who believe and know many of the same things they do?

I said a few weeks ago in a sermon that one of the things that I believe is that Unitarian Universalism is one of the most difficult religious traditions one can aspire to.  And I really do believe that… there is some of my identity as a human being tied up in that understanding of our faith.  One of the reasons I believe that Unitarian Universalism is a difficult religious path to trod is because our faith, at its best, should not let us rest on unchallenged, unquestioned, and unexamined beliefs.  No matter how expert we may be, and no matter how much of our identity may be vested in an idea, part of the religious practice of being a Unitarian Universalist is the constant evaluation of what we think we know to see if it still remains in tune with our values, our principles, and all of what we know of existence.

Now, this is one of those moments when I look out and I see faces in the congregation that seem to be saying “Really?  To be a Unitarian Universalist I need to question everything that I believe all the time?  I don’t think I can do that…”  Well, you are right.  None of us can.  We human beings are simply not wired that way.  It is an ideal that none of us can ever achieve.

Mark Twain perhaps said it best.  In his essay “What is Man?”, he held up the ideal of the permanent seeker of truth as the ideal, as something he had searched his whole life for, both within and without… an never found.  He said that many people begin as seekers of truth, but that over time the quest becomes long and tedious, and so they find a comfortable place of some beliefs and stop, build those beliefs into a shack they can live in, and spend the rest of their lives propping that shack up, patching up its leaks, and praying it doesn’t cave in on them before they die.

You just gotta love Twain’s imagery, right?  And we grow so attached to the shacks of belief and knowledge that we build to live in.  It is a place of comfort and of safety.  A place where the things we know and believe are not challenged.  In fact, if we find a group of people who believe as we do, we can turn generic for imitrex at walmart that little shack into a house that doesn’t leak.  If we find even more people who believe as we do and share our knowledge we can turn that house into a castle or a fortress… and then dare those who disagree with us to attack our knowledge and beliefs all they want to.

The modern term for this is “siloization”, or groups of knowledge and beliefs forming their own little silos that protect those inside the silo from encountering any views that might challenge their basic assumptions, knowledge, or beliefs.

We can all name these kinds of silos or echo chambers, can’t we?  I mean, I love to get my news from MSNBC… and most especially from Rachel Maddow.  I’ve been a fan of hers since the early days of Air America, when she was the best daily source of news on the War in Iraq.  I also just have a soft spot in my heart for snarky gay women.  Give them a Doctorate in Political Science and an expertise in making mixed drinks and you have my perfect friend.  And yet, I know that one of the reasons I watch her show every day is because I know that she shares many of my basic assumptions, opinions, and beliefs.  She is in my silo, and I am comforted by that.

When we are not at our best, our Unitarian Universalist Churches can also become another silo… another echo chamber where we are comforted by being around people who share our beliefs, who hold similar knowledge, and who do not challenge our basic assumptions.  I’m not saying that this comfort, this sharing of belief, values, and assumptions is a bad thing in our congregation.

We need that bond in order to be comfortable with one another.  But that comfort is not an end in itself.  It is a means to an end.  The purpose of church is not for us to be comfortable… it is for us to be able to grow spiritually into the most realized human we can be… and then through the transformation of that personal growth help to transform the world.

I began this sermon with a question that we Unitarian Universalists receive all the time, and that is “So What do you Unitarian Universalists believe?”  In many ways, this entire sermon up to this point has been my preparing you for the answer that I now give.

My answer to the question is now this… Unitarian Universalism is not about what we believe, but it is about how we believe.  Unitarian Universalists might believe many different things about God, or about the meaning of life, or about the nature of the universe, or even about politics.  What binds us together is not what we believe, but rather that we come to those beliefs, and experience those beliefs in a way that is different from much of the rest of the world.

For us, no answer is ever final.  We realize that we can only ever see a little part of all that is truth.  We accept that we have to always question the things we think we know, and be willing for the experiences of life and the thoughts and beliefs of others to transform us.  And, in accepting that truth is larger than any one of us, we come together in religious communities to learn from one another, to grow together, and to transform the world.

Now perhaps you can see some of why I say that I believe that Unitarian Universalism is one of the most difficult religious practices that anyone can aspire to.

And that really is it… Unitarian Universalism is a religious practice.  It is a way of engaging life, belief, knowledge, and truth with the spirit of a seeker.  It sets as our ideal Mark Twain’s impossibility… the permanent seeker of truth, and accepts that none of us will ever, alone or in community, ever actually catch the truth that we seek.

That practice requires that we “Cherish our doubts”, as our reading this morning said.  It requires that we come together and share our quests for belief, knowledge, and understanding in our religious community… because together we have a greater chance at those things than separate.   It is a practice that requires we get out of our silos, and listen as openheartedly as we can to those who disagree with us.

Which is why, from time to time, someone who is riding with me to a retreat or a conference has to occasionally put up with conservative talk radio.  Or why I make the commitment to read at least 5 articles from the Wall Street Journal every week.  Learning not to get angry at them and really listen has been one of the greatest challenges of my life.  Why do I get angry?  Because the part of me that wants my own little silo feels threatened by them.

To do that, to not get angry, to really listen requires that I be willing to admit that my very liberal and progressive beliefs are not Gospel Truth.  That there may be something of value to me in listening to what they have to say and letting it shift me as it can.  This is not letting go of what I know… it is allowing what I know to not become so rigid that it turns into fundamentalism.

I want to close with a story, one that is very personal to me and to my life.  It is about my father.  You see, I did not learn this about silos and about being willing to listen to those who disagree with you from Seminary.  I learned it from my Dad.  Now, my father was slightly to the political and religious right of Attila the Hun.  That’s not me saying that, those were his own words, said with a mischievous little grin.  He grew up in the hills of East Tennessee, and to be quite frank, he did not the best of beliefs about people of color.   He would occasionally say racist things, and was blunt about some of his prejudices about people of color.  In fairness, he did not always have nice things to say about a lot of other people as well, including progressives and liberals… or as he called us “Pinko-Communists”.

When we were in Hawaii, and my father was a Master Sergeant in the U.S. Army, he was assigned to work with a Major who was a large, strong willed, proud black man.  Not just work with him, Major Carter was his boss.  They worked together every day.  They depended upon one another.  And over time they trusted one another… and I saw my father change.

I do not know all the conversations that happened.  I do know that Maj. Carter spoke with my father about growing up in an inner-city, and that my father saw that though they had grown up in different areas, their lives had not been that different.  Both had come out of poverty.  Both loved their country.  Both had a commitment to the work they were doing together.

It was in that time that I was with a group of my friends, and I repeated one of the racist jokes that I had heard my father tell.  My dad was not far away, and he heard me say it.  I will never forget that he walked up to me, grabbed me by the lapel of my shirt, and pulled me around to face him.

He said, “I know you heard that from me, but let me tell you something.  I expect you to be better than me.  I expect you to grow up to be a better man than I am.  That is the last time I ever want to hear you say something like that about someone who is black… do you hear me?”

I hear you dad…

So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: