|Sermon: A Positive View of Human Nature|
A Positive View of Human Nature
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Kathy Schmitz on June 3, 2012
At First Unitarian Church of Orlando, Florida
"We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association,
covenant to affirm and promote:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person."
~From the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association
Recent attendance at a liberal Christian conference has left Rev. Kathy pondering contrasting views of human nature and how they inform our theological perspectives. This morning she shares some of that pondering with you and invites you to consider these diverse perspectives as well.
This Sanctuary of Ancient Dreams & Wisdom & Beauty, Rev. Jack Mendelsohn
Words for All Ages:
"A Pretty Good Day After All," The Rev. Kenneth Sawyer
Still and Alone, Rev. Paul H. Beattie
What is Evil?, Patrick O'Neill
Who says Unitarian Universalism's Principles are Easy?, Meg Barnhouse
We Have Reached The End, Rev. Michael A. Schuler
Permission is granted to quote freely with attribution. Permission is granted to use as a whole in worship with notice to the author. To reproduce in print, please contact the author.
I have a confession to make. I am really glad that you can’t read minds.
Because, sometimes, I think things that are not so nice… and sometimes, I remember things that I have done that were not so good.
I’ve been thinking a lot about such things as I was getting ready for today, because the topic for this morning is human nature. In particular, what do Unitarian Universalists tend to think about human nature?
So I’ve been thinking about good and evil. I’ve been thinking about the word sin and whether or not it has any meaning for me or for most Unitarian Universalists.
I’ll tell you up front, that I came up with more questions than answers. I feel more prepared for a long conversation over a cup of coffee or a juicy discussion in a small group, than I do for a sermon. We often try to reduce human nature to simplistic terms – people are good – or – people are bad. Yet, it’s a complicated and multifaceted topic. So, by necessity, we will scratch only the surface of one aspect today.
But one thing all this pondering has done is make me very aware of my own imperfections and shortcomings. So, I’m glad you can’t read my mind right now. And yet, I am also reassured by the knowledge that I am in good company. As a minister, I often know things about people that most other people do not. This is a both privilege and a huge responsibility. It is also a source of insight. My experience is that many, if not most people, have secrets, sometimes awful or painful secrets, that even people quite close to them do not know. Few of us are perfect or have lived our lives according to our highest ideals. And yet, most of us get up each morning, committed to trying again. Believing in the possibility that today we will do better. Hopeful, perhaps unconsciously, that our better selves will hold sway as we make our way through this new day. Why?
My recent pondering on this topic was triggered by a comment I heard recently about Unitarian Universalists.
I was in Atlanta, attending a conference on preaching with a friend and colleague. The conference had 1,400 attendees and I estimate 10 of us were Unitarian Universalists. The event was unabashedly Trinitarian – meaning most people were from traditions that believe in the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I knew this going in and, as I was there of my own freewill, I did my best to relax into that. I expected to get a lot out of the conference in spite of having a different theological perspective, and I did.
Less expectedly, I also got a lot out of the conference specifically because of having a different theological perspective. Hanging out with people who believe something different from yourself can help you get more clear about your own beliefs. This is what happened to me.
My new insights can be summarized as follows. While I am more certain than ever that I am not a Christian, I have a deeper appreciation of why some people choose to be Christian. I believe that clarity on both of these points will make my involvement in the interfaith dialog and work that I so value more respectful and more meaningful.
Before I continue, I want to make a point about the particular type of Christians I was hanging out with. I was curious, on the drive to Atlanta, whether we would hear anything about President Obama’s, at that time very recent, disclosure that his thinking had evolved to support gay marriage. My companion reported that the previous year, such issues had not been discussed. I was delighted that commentary in support of gay marriage, and our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in general, was sprinkled generously throughout the week. This, among other things, led me to conclude that the conference, or at least the speakers, represented the more liberal or progressive trends in Christianity. I thought once again about how important it is to remind those folks who have had difficult experiences with conservative Christianity of these more liberal trends. Too often, the media portrays conservative trends as if they represent the entirety of the tradition. Christianity is rich in its diversity.
It was in that context, that during one session, a Lutheran pastor made a Unitarian Universalist joke. The pastor was young and energetic and part of the emergent church movement – that is, folks trying to figure out new ways to “do church” in our changing world. She might not have thought of her comment as a joke. Perhaps to her, it was just a statement of fact.
Speaking of her own difficult past, Nadia Bolz-Weber quipped (paraphrasing here) that she had tried being a Unitarian Universalist but found that they had a high view of human nature. This she said indicated that they clearly had not read the newspaper. Listening to her speak, I realized that for her, the flaws in humanity and particularly in herself were so significant that only divine grace could make life bearable. For her, this divine grace is found in the salvation offered by Christ. I felt the depth of her conviction, and understood it, and yet, I could not share it.
I have actually read the newspaper, and looked at history, and have my own experience in ministry. There is no doubt in my mind that human beings are far from perfect. Yet, I do not reach the same place of despair that Bolz-Weber does, nor do I reach the same conclusion. In spite of the imperfections of people and our world, I continue to believe that it is a worthwhile human endeavor to strive to tap such human potential as there is. I continue to hold out a vision of beloved community.
God or no God, salvation or not, the challenges of our lives and our world, will ultimately need to be addressed by us. Sometimes we will get it right. Sometimes we will not. This reality does not mean we should not try.
As Patrick O'Neill said in our first reading:
"We stand willing to testify for a religious approach grounded in human possibility rather than pathology. Our starting place is the exaltation of the human spirit, rather than its denigration."
Let me step back for a moment and look at some history, particularly the history that causes us today to have a 10 syllable name. Unitarian Universalist. I tend to think that our name does not serve us well as it is hard to say and hard to remember, and comes out of theological arguments in the Christian church that often don’t seem all that relevant today. And yet, perhaps, for the discussion at hand, they are at least a little relevant.
Unitarian Universalism is the result of the merger, 50 years ago, of 2 earlier traditions – Unitarianism and Universalism. There is much that could be said about each of these as well as what resulted in the merger. But let me focus just on the question of humanity.
Unitarians got their name by believing in the unity of God rather than the Trinity. They believed in “salvation by character.” They believed that we can and should be judged by our actions rather than by our professed beliefs. We sometime shorten this today with the phrase “deeds not creeds.” It is how we live in the world that matters.
Universalists, on the other hand, got their name because of a belief in Universal salvation. They believed that a loving God would not condemn people to eternal damnation. They believed that all people would be saved. This was not so much a comment on the nature of humanity, as it was a comment on the nature of God. God, the Universalists believed, is love.
Today, we affirm and promote, the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Like the Universalists, we start with the assumption that all people are savable, lovable.
Like the Unitarians, we believe that all people have the capacity to develop their character, in order to live happy and ethical lives.
Our experience may be that not all people live up to their potential. We may find that it is very hard to find the worth and dignity in some people, let alone love them.
Still, we start from a place of possibility.
Like my Christian sisters and brothers, I acknowledge the troublesome aspects of human nature. However, it seems to me that where I see the glass as half-full, they see the glass as half empty.
And lest it seem that I am labeling them pessimists, it is important to remember that they have a solution. Their glass does not remain half-empty. For they have salvation.
This is the insight I gained about why some people choose to be Christian. Because, if your glass is half–empty and that leads you to a place of despair, then maybe for you, divine grace, is the answer.
But it is not the answer for me.
I found myself wondering about those people who call themselves Unitarian Universalist (UU) Christians. These are people who are Unitarian Universalist and also Christian. I wondered what they would have thought about Bolz-Weber’s comments and her theology.
Fortunately, they have a group, the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, and it has a website, uuchristian.org. I recommend it to those of you who are, or think you might be, in this particular hyphenated camp.
From the website, I learned that there is as much diversity among UU Christians as there is among Christians in general or among Unitarian Universalists.
Two groups within the UU Christian camp stood out for me.
One group is exemplified by the tag line of the UU Christian Fellowship which is… freely following Jesus. These folks see Jesus as a great moral teacher and example. They might say that they practice the religion of Jesus rather than the religious about Jesus. Like our Unitarian forebears, they are interested in how to live a good and ethical life and find Jesus a meaningful example in that quest.
Another group of UU Christian seems to be more descendent from the Universalist side of our tradition. They speak of grace. By this, I understand them to mean the good that comes to us by no merit of our own. In theological language, it is those blessings that are a free gift of God. When all we can see is our faults and failures, still good is possible.
So, how do we come to live an ethical and happy life? Is it through our own efforts? Striving constantly to grow to be our best selves?
Or, is it because of unmerited blessings that come our way? From God or Gods or a benevolent universe?
Interestingly, I think that we find this tension throughout the theological perspectives found in Unitarian Universalism. We have humanists who see the universe as inherently neutral and, yet, we have other humanists that experience a benevolent or creative power in the universe, sometimes described as being a kin to The Force in Star Wars. Among those influenced by Buddhism, there are those who focus on practice and those who focus on our basic Buddha nature. Whether we find inspiration in science, or Paganism, or any of the world’s great wisdom traditions, we will likely find a creative tension between our own agency, that is, our choices and actions, and the world as it unfolds around us. What requires our attention and efforts? What is a free gift, or a challenge, waiting for us?
As Unitarian Universalists we don’t all have to agree. Which is a good thing, because I’m pretty sure we don’t. (I posted on facebook yesterday, so, what do you think about human nature? There really is no consensus in those responses.)
But if I could make one statement about a Unitarian Universalist view on human nature. I would say this. What we do matters.
I find hope in this.
Because even though we don’t always do good, I believe that we can.
Because even though not all of our actions produce the benefits we wish, sometimes they do.
I find this hopeful.
And this, to me, is good news.