The Language of Faith

Adapted from a sermon by Rev. William G. Sinkford as preached at First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church, Jan. 12, 2003

I believe that Unitarian Universalism is growing up. Growing out of a cranky and contentious adolescence into a more confident maturity. A maturity in which we can not only claim our Good News, the value we have found in this free faith, but also begin to offer that Good News to the world outside these beautiful sanctuary walls. There is a new willingness on our part to come in from the margins. 

I spent some time in early November in Dallas with the President’s Council, a group of staunch UUA supporters who serve as advisors to the Association. The evening keynote presentation was given by Marlin Lavenhar, the dynamic young senior minister serving at All Souls, Tulsa. In his talk, Marlin wrestled with finding a way to describe and talk about Unitarian Universalism. He told us about a painting he had commissioned to describe our faith, a painting which now hangs in the vestibule of All Souls. The painting depicts a colonial table, representing the roots of Unitarian Universalism in this country. And there are some books on the table: the Bible, recognizing the Judeo-Christian origins of this faith; a volume of Emerson, who taught that individual experience was a key source of religious faith and life; and one unnamed volume indicating that, for us, revelation is not sealed. There’s a spray of flowers representing the diversity of persons who call themselves Unitarian Universalist and the diversity of spiritual paths we follow. Marlin is clearly trying to find another way to talk about our faith, and this works for him.

The next morning, Jim Sherbloom led the worship-he’s a successful business person who is now, in midlife, a divinity student. He tackled the same subject, but from a liberal Christian perspective. The interesting thing was that neither speaker drew heavily on our Purposes and Principles, which is where most of us turn when we are asked to describe Unitarian Universalism. So I went and reread the Principles and Purposes. I know, I know…I’m supposed to know these by heart. But as I re-read them, I realized that we have in our Principles an affirmation of our faith which uses not one single piece of religious language. Not one. Not even one word that would be considered traditionally religious. And that is a wonderment to me; I wonder whether this kind of language can adequately capture who we are and what we’re about.

Our Purposes and Principles date to the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist movements in 1961, when the effort to find wording acceptable to all-Unitarian and Universalist, Humanist and Theist-nearly derailed the whole process.

The current revision of our Purposes and Principles dates back to 1984. It deals with the thorny question of whether or not to mention God, or the Judeo-Christian tradition by leaving them out of the Principles entirely, but including them in the section on the sources from which our living tradition draws. It was here that we placed reference to “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves,” as well as “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” And even that compromise went too far for those in our movement who feared “creeping creedalism,” and not far enough for those who would have preferred more explicitly religious language.

Given the differences of opinion that needed to be bridged in one document, it’s really not surprising that the wording adopted completely avoided anything that smacked of traditional religious language. And the Purposes and Principles have become an integral part of our denominational life. Many of our congregations print them on their orders of service. They open our hymnal. They hang in our vestibules. Many of us carry them in our wallets.

They serve us well as a covenant, holding out a vision of a more just world to which we all aspire despite our differences, and articulating our promise to walk together toward making that vision a reality, whatever our theology. They frame a broad ethic, but not a theology. They contain no hint of the holy.

Now while Unitarian Universalists reject any hint of a creed, we do affirm the importance of the individual credo: we are all charged, individually, to pursue our own free and responsible search for truth and meaning. And I wonder whether the language of our Purposes and Principles is sufficient for that purpose. UU Minister Walter Royal Jones, who headed the committee largely responsible for their current wording, wondered aloud how likely it is that many of us would, on our death bed, ask to have the Purposes and Principles read to us for solace and support. I fear, in words borrowed from former UUA President Gene Pickett, that “they describe a process for approaching the religious depths but they testify to no intimate acquaintance with the depths themselves.”

I would like to see us become better acquainted with the depths, both so that we are more grounded in our personal faith, and so that we can effectively communicate that faith-and what we believe it demands of us-to others. For this, I think we need to cultivate what UU minister David Bumbaugh calls a “vocabulary of reverence.”

Now David is a Humanist. And he believes that Humanists, who “once offered a serious challenge to liberal religion, now find [themselves] increasingly engaged in a monologue,” largely because of a vocabulary inadequate to engage other people of faith. “We have manned the ramparts of reason and are prepared to defend the citadel of the mind,” Bumbaugh writes. “But in the process of defending, we have lost…the ability to speak of that which is sacred, holy, of ultimate importance to us, the language which would allow us to enter into critical dialogue with the religious community.”

Our resistance to religious language gets reflected, I think, in the struggle that so many of us have in trying to find ways to say who we are, to define Unitarian Universalism. I always encourage people to work on their “elevator speech”-for when you’re on the 6th floor and you’re going to the lobby and somebody asks you, “What’s a Unitarian Universalist?” What do you say? You’ve got about 45 seconds. Here’s my current answer: “The Unitarian side of our family tree tells us that there is only one God, one Spirit of Life, one Power of Love. The Universalist side tells us that God is a loving God, condemning none of us, and valuing the spark of divinity that is in every human being. So, Unitarian Universalism stands for: one God, no one left behind.”  Now, as with every elevator speech, mine is still a work in process. It says where I am right now; and it doesn’t say anything at all about where you are.

Many Unitarian Universalists, I know, are bothered by the use of the word “God.” And I understand that. When I came to Unitarian Universalism I was an ardent, some might say even a rabid, Humanist. If you had told me as a teenager that at age 56 I would be an ordained minister, using religious language in this pulpit, and have a prayer life that centered on thankfulness and gratefulness to God, I would have laughed out loud. The Humanist tradition was mine for a long But we don’t have this all permanently figured out at any discrete moment in time. In my case, it was direct experience of something I hadn’t counted on-the kind of “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder” which we also affirm as a source of our faith tradition-that changed my mind. It was in the midst of a crisis-my son Billy, then 15 years old, had overdosed on drugs, and it was unclear whether he would live. As I sat with him in the hospital, I found myself praying. First the selfish prayers for forgiveness…for the time not made, for the too many trips, for the many things unsaid, and, sadly, for a few things said that should never have passed my lips. But as the night darkened, I finally found the pure prayer. The prayer that asked only that my son would live. And late in the evening, I felt the hands of a loving universe reaching out to hold. The hands of God, the Spirit of Life. The name was unimportant. I knew that those hands would be there to hold me whatever the morning brought. And I knew, though I cannot tell you how, that those hands were holding my son as well. I knew that I did not have to walk that path alone, that there is a love that has never broken faith with us and never will.

My son survived. But the experience stayed with me. That is my experience, and my vocabulary for that experience. But “religious language” doesn’t have to mean “God talk.” And I’m not suggesting that Unitarian Universalism return to traditional Christian language. But I do feel that we need some language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name the holy, to talk about human agency in theological terms-the ability of humans to shape and frame our world guided by what we find to be of ultimate importance. David Bumbaugh observes that a vocabulary of reverence is implicit in Humanism, with its emphasis on human study and understanding of the natural world. Listen to the language he uses:

Humanism…gave us a doctrine of incarnation which suggests not that the holy became human in one place at one time to convey a special message to a single chosen people, but that the universe itself is continually incarnating itself in microbes and maples, in hummingbirds and human beings, constantly inviting us to tease out the revelation contained in stars and atoms and every living thing.

This is religious language, placing us in a larger context, whispering of a larger meaning, and carrying with it implications for how we should live.

“The power which I cannot explain or know or name I call God,” UU minister Forrest Church has written. “God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being. Life force, spirit of life, ground of being, these too are names for the unnameable which I am now content to call my God.”

I urge each of you to work on your elevator speeches. Put a name to what calls you, and ask yourself what it is to which you find yourself called. Do it often; you won’t always necessarily come up with the same answer. Practice telling it to others. This is an exercise that can only help deepen our faith; and with a firmer grounding in those depths, I believe we will be better able to reach out to others. We have Good News for a world that badly needs it. But we may need to expand our vocabularies if we are to be able to develop our faith fully in our own lives, and if we are to be able to share it with others.

I want to leave you with a bit of a poem that came to me in an e-mail, by Tom Barrett:

If I say the word God, people run away.
They’ve been frightened-sat on till the spirit cried “uncle.”
Now they play hide and seek with somebody they can’t name.
They know he’s out there looking for him, and they want to be found,
But there is all this stuff in the way.

I can’t talk about God and make any sense,
And I can’t not talk about God and make any sense.
So we talk about the weather, and we are talking about God.

My growing belief is that, as a religious community and as individuals, we may be secure enough, mature enough to find a language of reverence, a language that can acknowledge the presence of the holy in our lives.

Perhaps we are ready.

Perhaps, this faith we love is ready to stop calling itself a movement, and call itself a religion.

Religion: to bind up that which has been sundered. To make connections in a world which would isolate us. To engage in the real journey toward wholeness.

Who knows? Perhaps we’re ready.

So may it be.

Additional Materials:


James Fowler’s Stages of Faith:

Faith Development Tasks


Brene Brown: The power of Vulnerability TedTalk (20:19)

Benjamin Zander: The Transformative Power of Classical Music TedTalk  (20:43)


Discussion Questions

  1. Can you point to ways in which your understanding of “faith” has changed since you were a child? If you are an elder, how has your understanding of “faith” changed since you were a younger adult?
  2. Do you know someone you would consider “spiritually mature.” What are the characteristics they exhibit that stand out for you?
  3. William Ellery Channing said, “In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.” Can you think of a time when you felt spiritually awake? What made you feel that way?

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