GREAT CLOUDS OF WITNESSES A Hymn of the New Universalism

A Hymn of the New Universalism

James Ishmael Ford

3 November 2013

Preached at the Installation of
The Reverend Christana Wille McKnight
As the 32nd Minister of
The First Parish Church, Unitarian Universalist
Taunton, Massachusetts


A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion.

Albert Einstein, A Letter dated February 12, 1950, slightly adapted from The New Quotable Einstein, edited by Alice Calaprice (Princeton University Press, 2005, p. 206)

I’ve heard that the larger Unitarian Universalist Association is having some trouble with membership. We’ve always been a tiny part of the American population, being as we are a religion for people with a high tolerance for ambiguity. In these times so unforgiving to religions of all sorts, we’re barely holding our own in constant numbers and actually we are shrinking as a percentage of the population. There are those who fear, and justly, for the future of our spiritual community.

Me, I hear this and I find myself thinking of that old story about the Board of a small church in the Midwest fretting over money. One member says, we’ve tried everything. Another ticked off the fundraisers, the indirect and the direct calls to members to step up to the plate. A third lamented, “What can we do next?” Finally, one of the oldest of the old timers said so quietly it was hard to hear, “Have we tried religion?”

Our spiritual tradition is rich. We are children of the West, heirs to the biblical traditions of Judaism and most of all, Christianity. And, just as truly we are so profoundly marked by the wisdom traditions of Athens as well as many of the currents of earth-centered spiritualities. Because of our radical openness to both theists and nontheists, as hard as the tensions have sometimes been, first humanists and now in recent decades Buddhists and others inspired by Eastern thought have found a home among us, enriching our possibilities, and opening us to new movements of spirit.

So, let me tell you a story about that movement of the spirit, about religion and songs of hope in hard times.

You may have noticed we Unitarian Universalists are fiercely opposed to creeds, statements of faith one must sign on to in order to be a member. But, at the same time there is a deep human need to define. And so, over the years we have made various statements, not in the proscriptive manner of creeds, but in a descriptive way, attempting to capture what moves our hearts as a whole in some particular time and place, while always acknowledging the importance of the outlier, and the fact no one must sign anything beyond a covenant of presence to join our communities, knowing no letter can fully capture the spirit.

And, we make those statements attempting to capture us at some given moment, but also, this means that from time to time we have to revise those statements. So, in 1961, when the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America consolidated, there was a statement of our principles. By the mid nineteen seventies it was pretty obvious it needed updating. Chief among those who took up the challenge were members of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation. The process was hard. As they say, you don’t really want to visit the sausage factory. There were negotiations, there were fights, there were compromises.

Finally, on June 25th, 1984, Unitarian Universalists from across the United States and Canada gathered at the Ohio State University campus in Columbus, for the eleventh General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The great focus of this GA was a vote on a new statement of principles.

As perhaps is appropriate for such a momentous event, people aren’t actually clear on all the details. The official agenda set Thursday morning the 27th for the final debate and vote on the proposed document. However, some people say the vote took place that afternoon, while others say the debate continued on to the next day, the 28th, and it wasn’t until late that afternoon the last points of dispute were resolved and the vote taken.

Whichever hour, when it looked pretty close to done, the document was, frankly, mostly “mom and apple pie.” Hardly a word anyone of most any spiritual tradition could argue with. What I would call the perfect product of a committee. The most distinctive feature was the first principle, a call to the “inherent worth and dignity of every person,” a libertarian focus on the individual that had marked out English speaking Unitarianism for its entire history.

Then the Reverend Paul L’Herrou made his way to the microphones. Everyone who describes the scene say he was lanky and bearded, and stood at the microphone with the ease of an experienced pulpit minister. He looked around, briefly stroked his beard and then addressed the proposed seventh principle, which was a call to “respect for the Earth and the interdependence of its living systems.” In my mind’s eye, as Paul stood there, the hall fell to a hushed silence. I think, I’m pretty sure the world outside grew quiet, as well. Perhaps one or two stars broke through the Ohio daylight, shooting beams in the general direction of Columbus. Out of that silence Paul pointed out how that wording fell far short of what it could be.

Paul proposed new wording for the seventh principal: a call to respect “the interdependent web of existence, of which we are all a part.” I’m pretty sure, although I have to admit there’s no hard record of it, that with those words the ceiling blew off the convention center and a host of angels, devas, and many other celestial beings from all the world’s religions, past, present and future, descended from the heavens, some playing instruments of astonishing beauty, while others sang a Gloria that reached out to the farthest corners of the universe. Even the stars danced in joy at the revelation of this great secret of the universe within a gathering of Unitarian Universalists in Columbus, Ohio, in the United States, on the North American continent of a tiny planet circling a middling star at the edge of one of a hundred thousand million galaxies.

The call: to know that interdependent web of existence, of which we are all a part.

And then it was over. The ceiling resealed, the beings were gone, only a hint of their song remaining in the hearts of the assembled, who then voted. They accepted that proposed change, and with that our little band found itself marked with an astonishing charism, a particular channel of divine blessing aimed at healing this poor, broken world. I suggest in that hour our future was articulated with as much authority as if it were from the tongue of an ancient prophet.

And, what has happened since? Well, many have missed the importance of that moment. Others dismiss it as typical liberal hat tipping to the issues of the day, in this case our looming ecological catastrophe. But, actually, this is so vastly more important, so deep, and compelling, it needs the cloak of myth, the mystery of song to even partially convey its import. It is so powerful a message it is hard to look at it directly. I suspect we will spend lifetimes unpacking and expanding what this all means.

A New Universalism has been proclaimed.

While the Association as a whole may be stagnant, I’ve noticed there are two UU congregations in our neighborhood that are growing and growing significantly. They are the First Unitarian Church of Providence and the First Parish Church of Taunton. While our styles are quite different, we share one thing in common.

Like Christana Wille McKnight here, and following the lead of UU minister John Crestwell, I unashamedly call myself a first and seventh principle preacher. We need both principles to fully ground our message, the dynamic of the one and the many. That older call of individual liberty was a deep and true insight. But it is missing something. With the seventh principle as a calling to the very wisdom of our hearts of how and why the individual is precious, that we are completely woven out of each other and the cosmos itself in a living song of intimacy is where we find our completeness.

This is the New Universalism. And it is preached here.

We find within this insight of I and We an ethic for our individual lives, we find guidance for how we gather together as people, and we see how we need to relate to the planet from which we take our being. We understand it as the heart of Jesus’ message, and the Buddha’s word, and the teachings of sages of the Advita Vedanta, as well as the secret truth constantly revealed within relentless scientific inquiry.

We are surrounded by clouds of witnesses all proclaiming this truth. We are all connected.

Touch this, and you touch the face of God.

We find here, in this place, among this company, a message of healing, for ourselves, and for this world.

It is that simple, that true, that terrible, that wonderful.

A song of hope for all peoples.

Come here and you will hear the song of grace and hope and deepest intimacy.

Sung in this place.


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