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

Method, Message, and Meaning Making — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on July 18th, 2010


Reading  Excerpt from “The Method is the Message” by Angus McLean

The liberal is beginning to discover that she is more in tune with natural processes than are her maligners. The liberal has been accused of not knowing where he stood, or of walking precariously and uncertainly in the middle of the road with Christian orthodoxy on his right and communism on his left. It is true that her genius is only partly articulate. It becomes clearer everyday, however, that the liberal is much better off than those who stake their life and soul on such convictions as that the earth is flat, that Jesus rose from the dead and disappeared in the clouds, or that a certain prelate has been appointed by the sovereign power of the universe to be God’s spokesman on earth. Such so-called truths cannot be supported for long by experience, and must find support in authority and coercion of one sort or another.

In a very good article appearing in the Journal of Religion, William Christian puts it nicely in these words, “The liberal has a problem on his hands, but he is not in a dilemma. The liberal is not the person in the middle of the road, but, instead, the person in the middle of a journey.” Our faith may not know the end-all of life, but if it has assurance of direction, it has what matters most. To many this faith of ours hasn’t arrived or matured.

It, no doubt, needs maturing, but in a sense it will never arrive because nothing in the universe ever arrives. It does arrive, in another sense, because the universe is always arriving. The kingdom of love arrives in the act of love, the reign of justice in the act of justice, the era of freedom in the exercise of freedom. Our wisdom is that of direction, and this is in great measure the source of confidence. We shall always have to deal tentatively with many things, but we rest on assured principles of operation. It took us a long time to abandon the effort to build permanent and unmodifiable theological houses for the human spirit on life’s way. Well, here we are, on the way in the middle of a journey, and that is where our spirits belong.


Sermon “Method, Message, and Meaning Making”  Rev. David Pyle


One of the most common questions that my chaplain colleagues,

both civilian and military,

ask me about Unitarian Universalism

is how in the world we all stay together

in one church, one faith, one religious tradition

when we all “believe such different things”.

The idea that people who are

atheists, theists, secularists, humanists, pagans, Liberal Christians,

and even the fastest growing American religious affiliation

(spiritual but not religious)…

the idea of how all these different people

with different ideas, beliefs, and journeys

can come together and create not just a church,

but a liberal faith tradition

seems incomprehensible to many of my colleagues.


What is even more incomprehensible to these colleagues of mine

is when I tell them that, despite all these differences,

we Unitarian Universalists are a lot more alike than we are different.


A lot.  Most often they go away shaking their heads,

as if I had just declared up to be down,

the sky to be made of cows, and a library to be a collection of butterflies.


But it is true…

we Unitarian Universalists do have more in common

than what separates us…

or at least so it has always seemed to me.

I remember my first few weeks at the UU Fellowship

on Galveston Island, in Texas.

I remember thinking about how odd it was that I,

a (at the time) moderate Republican,

Christian Deist, former soldier

felt such kinship with a group of radical hippie humanists…

and why they recognized me as one of their own.


It has been a project of mine for some time

to try and identify what is at the core that

which binds us together as Unitarian Universalists.

It is not an easy task,

and there have been many proposals and attempts

over the years to try and identify that center among us.


I’ve heard it said that we are bound together by a shared history,

and yet other than the names of a few famous

Unitarians and Universalists, most UU’s know very little

about that history.

I’ve heard it said that we are bound together by a covenant,

or a sacred agreement,

and yet few of us understand the sacred nature of covenant,

and we are challenged by the fact that religious covenants

have historically been between a people and their God,

something that does not seem to apply for many of us.

I’ve heard it said that we are bound together by love…

and yet that would seem to imply that all of those

not in our congregations are not bound together by love,

even those we say are not “standing on the side” of it.

I have trouble reconciling that

with the inherent worth and dignity of all.


So, during the four sermons I will be preaching this summer,

I want to explore with you some of the commonalities

I see that bind us together as Unitarian Universalists.


Now, this is a dangerous topic for anyone,

and since you all ordained me, thank you by the way,

I no longer have the “cover”

of just being a seminarian trying out my wings.

It is a dangerous topic because anytime we try to define,

or lay out some of what may bind us together,

we take the danger of inadvertently drawing a boundary

that excludes someone.

I will do my best to be broad,

and I want to fully own both that

the basis behind these sermons are my own thoughts and observations,

and that I consider it to be a work in progress.

If anyone feels excluded by something I say

from this pulpit this summer,

I encourage you to come and tell me.

It is my hope that the work we begin here will have

a further life within our denomination,

as I continue to explore that which binds us together

into religious communities,

and our communities into a living, breathing,

and changing faith tradition.


And, I will admit, the dangerous nature of this undertaking

is why I have brought it to the congregation that loves me the best…

If anywhere will know that I am exploring this with good intent,

it is UCE.


So, with a sheet anchor thrown to the wind,

I step to what may be the first commonality

I see among us as Unitarian Universalists…


We Unitarian Universalists really, really, really

don’t like anyone else telling us what we have to believe.


Anyone feeling excluded by that one?  Whew!


There is an old Unitarian Universalist joke.

A man visited a UU Church for the first time.

Afterward, one of the greeters went up to him

and asked what he thought of the service…

“I can’t believe half the things that minister said!”

the man sputtered his reply.

With a big, welcoming grin, the greeter said

“Oh Good!  You’ll fit right in here!”.


It is amazing to me that, amidst all of our diversity,

amidst all of our theological difference,

lies such a commonality of practice, of method.

This commonality is, in my experience,

much larger than whether or not we want anyone else

to tell us what to believe.

While my military and civilian chaplain colleagues

may be astounded by the theological diversity among us,

what they do not see is that in method, we are very similar.

We Unitarian Universalists may come to very different beliefs

about the order and nature of things,

but how we come to those beliefs, the practices and methods

we use follow similar patterns.


Dare I say it… we Unitarian Universalists

could almost be classified as “Method-ist”

in the purest sense of the term.

I believe we find part of our common center not in what we believe,

but how we believe.


Our reading this morning was from an essay written by

the Rev. Angus MacLean, long-time Minister of Religious Education

at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago.

He also served as the Dean of the St. Lawrence Theological School,

and as one of the formational voices

in Unitarian Universalist Religious Education.

Among his many contributions to how

we educate youth and ourselves in our congregations and beyond

is the idea that how we teach is as

or more important as what we teach.

In a congregation’s youth religious education program,

the values that are shown by the method of education

are as if not more important

than whether the program is about Buddhism,

or stories of the Hebrew Scriptures,

or even the sexual education curriculum Our Whole Lives,

common in many of our congregations, including this one.


Let us stick with youth religious education for the moment.

We allow our youth some say in what they want to learn.

We engage them in the content,

seeking to draw out the deeper meaning of their experience.

We engage them in different modes of learning… hearing, seeing,

speaking, playing, creating, performing.

We set a standard for behavior,

but within that standard allow room for youth

to express their own personalities and to explore possibilities.

We affirm them as unique and individual human beings,

with their own gifts to offer.

We understand that our Religious Education teachers

are also learners, just as our youth are not only learners but teachers.


What are some of the values that are the imparted message

in this method of Religious Education?

That each person has a voice.

That you never imitrex online no prescription stop learning.

That you always have something within you worth sharing.

That the boundaries of our behavior should be a mean

that allows all of us to express ourselves in safety and respect.

That learning requires doing, creating, being.


That learning is not about importing someone else’s values and beliefs,

but rather about experiencing and encountering the world,

and learning to make your own meaning from it.

That the meanings we derive from the world

should be shared in community.


All of these things and much more are a part of

what our youth learn from Unitarian Universalist Religious Education,

and they are learned not primarily from the content of the classes,

but from the method by which the classes are taught.

They are learned not through rote memorization or required adoption,

but through experiencing them practiced in the classrooms,

every Sunday morning.


How powerful a foundation do these values impart

to the youth who learn them in our congregations?


Now, let us broaden our lens, our vision a bit

from our youth religious education,

and see that so much of what we find in common among us

as Unitarian Universalists falls within this same understanding

of the Method of Liberal Religious Faith.


We place a premium on personal experience

as a source of religious meaning-making.

We seek to engage with the thoughts of others in a community

where our individuality will be respected.

We believe that each of us has something to share that is of value,

just as each of us is of value.

We have standards of behavior,

from right relationship guidelines to our democratic practices,

which allow us to be in that respectful community with one another.

And, doing has a heavy value for us…

being engaged in the wider world

in support of justice and understanding.


We sometimes try to frame the

Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles as an almost creed…

as a statement of things we believe.

I want to think of those seven ideas

through a different lens this morning,

that of a methodology.


Rather than say that we “believe in the inherent worth and dignity

of every person”,

I think it is more accurate to say that

we strive for a practice that respects the inherent worth and dignity

of every person.

Rather than say that we “believe in the use of the democratic process

in our congregations and in society at large”,

I think it is more accurate to say that

we strive to practice democracy in our congregations

and in society at large.


In other words, what binds us together as Unitarian Universalists is,

in part, how we practice our religious faith.

The commonality between a UU Atheist, a UU Pagan,

a UU Christian, a UU Humanist, and a UU Buddhist

is not necessarily what they believe,

but how they have come to hold those beliefs.

Our religious community is not formed around what we believe,

but around supporting the methodology

of how such liberal faith beliefs are arrived at…

and imparting that methodology to others.


What Angus MacLean said

about Unitarian Universalist Religious Education

I would like to say about our liberal religious faith movement

as a whole… the Method is the Message.


Perhaps something can be learned from our Christian friends

who call themselves Methodists.

Some of you may have heard of the clearest expression

of the Methodist Method, known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

If not, don’t worry about it…

it is one of those things that UU Seminarians

pay tons upon tons of money to learn about.

In a somewhat simplified form,

the Wesleyan Quadrilateral states that,

for a person looking to find meaning in something,

they should look to four different areas of authority for that meaning.

They should look first to Scripture,

then to Tradition, followed by Reason,

and lastly human experience.

Meaning, be it of a life event or of one of life’s great questions

should come by looking at these four sources of authority,

in that order.


More than a few Methodist ministerial colleagues,

and a few Lutherans I know as well,

have told me that they thought that it should really be a Tri-lateral,

because they did not think that Human Experience

should be considered a source of authority for meaning making.


Do you see where I’m going with this?

It strikes me that much of our Unitarian Universalist Methodology

can also be contained in the categories of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral,

just in a different order.

I would propose that the modern day Unitarian Universalist

Quadrilateral would look first to Human Experience,

followed by Reason, then Tradition,

and lastly Scripture in our process and method

of making meaning of life, the Universe, and Everything.


Now, what a Unitarian Universalist understanding of Scripture

might look like is the topic of next week’s sermon,

so I will beg off walking into that particular minefield for now.


There are two other parts of Unitarian Universalist Methodology

I want to touch on this morning,

before I close with a short story,

an experience that I have made meaning from.

As I have thought about how I have defined

a Unitarian Universalist Quadrilateral,

it strikes me that this is not the way that Angus MacLean

might have ordered those four sources of authority.

It is not how many of the Unitarian Universalists

of the 18th Century might have drawn the quadrilateral.

It is not how some of you might have ordered

those four sources of authority for meaning making.


It strikes me that there have been many through our history

who would have rated Reason first, and Experience second.

There may even have been a few who placed Tradition

higher than I have in my formulation,

and I know for certain William Ellery Channing

would have been aghast at Scripture coming in dead last.

And I call myself a UU Christian…


This shifting nature of how we might order

these four sources of authority for meaning making

highlights another part of the methodology of Unitarian Universalism,

and that is that we are not a static faith tradition.

Not only can what we believe change over time and cultural place,

but how we come to those beliefs can change.

When I think back to the sources of tension in our faith tradition

over the decades and centuries,

almost all of them trace to shifts not in what we believe,

but in how we believe.

During the Black Empowerment Controversy,

the tension that nearly unraveled the Unitarian Universalist Association

was not a question of whether we believed in civil rights,

but how we were going to show that belief within our faith tradition.

In a sermon at the end of August on Justice and the prophetic voice,

I am going to highlight a continuing tension in our faith

between whether we are called to focus internally

on our own spiritual development

or externally on the salvation of the world.


Much of the tension during the last forty years

of Unitarian Universalism,

and  why many of our more Rational Humanist members

are feeling as if our liberal faith movement

may be moving away from them,

I believe can be traced to the shift in our common methodology

toward Human Experience replacing Reason

at the top of our Unitarian Universalist Quadrilateral.


There is a legend that a Universalist minister was once asked

where the Universalists stood on a particular issue.

His answer was “We don’t stand.  We move.”

Part of our methodology of Liberal Religious Faith

is that we have to be willing to change,

not just our beliefs but how we come to them.

As such, our faith is a continuing conversation

that rests upon the shifting sands of the universe.

As those sands move, we have learned to move with them.


To do that, to move with a universe that moves

requires one last aspect of our liberal faith methodology

that I want to highlight this morning,

and that is the importance of doubt.

Our entire methodology rests upon the ability,

the humility to know that full and eternal truth

is always beyond human understanding.

This does not mean we do not strive for it.

If anything, knowing it is unattainable seems to me

to be a challenge that most Unitarian Universalists readily accept.

No, it calls us to always be ready to change our beliefs

when they do not fit the universe as we find it.

It calls us to leave space enough in our understanding of the world

for others to believe differently than we do.

And, it calls us to not invest the whole of our being

in something as fragile as a human belief.


I would like to close this morning with a story,

with an experience of my life that I have made meaning from.

One afternoon in a class break at the U.S. Army Chaplain School,

I was having a conversation about religious faith

with a Southern Baptist Minister and Military Chaplain.


He had asked me many questions about Unitarian Universalism,

and even about why I had left the Southern Baptist faith

to become a UU.  After answering his questions,

I asked him one of my own.


I said, “What if they were to find Jesus’ body

in a tomb outside Jerusalem?

What if it was conclusive, there was proof that you

could not help but believe that this was the body of Jesus,

lying in that tomb?  What would that mean for you?”


His answer has haunted me,

and has highlighted for me one of the reasons

I am a Unitarian Universalist,

and why I am so drawn to

the Liberal Faith Method of Meaning Making.

He looked me in the eye, and with what I can only describe

as a bit of spiritual pain he said

“It would mean my entire life has been a lie.”


And I thought… thank God I’m a Unitarian Universalist.


So may it be, blessed be, and Amen.

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