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

The Method is the Message — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle


Last preached October 28th, 2012


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.


It has been a project of mine for some time

to try to 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.


As our theme this month is Vocation and Calling,

I want to share something that I think

not only binds us together,

but might just be part of our Liberal Faith’s calling in the world…

part of our Good News… Our Gospel.


Now, this is a dangerous topic for anyone,

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

or lay out some of what may bind us together,

we risk 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 this sermon

is my own thoughts and observations,

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

So, if anyone feels excluded by something I say today,

I hope that you will come and speak to me about it.

And with that said, I begin with the basis of my sermon…


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 in 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 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.


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 Unitarians and 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 18th Century Unitarians

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.

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 truth

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 long as I practice this faith, my entire life could never be a lie.


So may it be, blessed be, and Amen.

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