Monday, January 13, 2014

Building Your Own Theology

Sermon delivered on January 12, 2014


From “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, …
Strong and content I travel the open road.
The earth, that is sufficient, …
From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the hold that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space, …
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me, …
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.
Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes, …
You shall not heap up what is call'd riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve, …
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe — I have tried it — my own feet have tried it well — be not detain'd! …
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself?
Will you come travel with me?

Building Your Own Theology

June 6, 1971.  That’s the date I graduated from Georgia Southern University.  We had the ceremony in the then NEW Hanne Fieldhouse.  It was before it was air conditioned and we were sweltering as under those long black robes. 

One of my memories that day was seeing all the faculty in their black caps and gowns and their colorful stoles.  And all of the gowns were black.  Those who had doctorates had black velvet slashes on their sleeves and the front of their robes.  Some are more colorful today – but then they were all black – except for one.  The robe of Vice President – and soon to be President Pope Duncan was different.  Here’s a picture that his daughter Mary Margaret sent to me of her dad in that beautiful robe.   

The velvet on his robe was a beautiful, bold, red.  I was told by my Page in-laws – who knew such things – that Pope Duncan’s robe was different and had red velvet because he had studied theology – the very highest and noblest field of all.  I was impressed.  Dr. Pope Duncan not only had the name of “Pope” – but he had studied GOD – and therefore stood out from everyone else as more noble and special.  The robe created a halo effect and I was always in awe of him – not just because he became a great president for Georgia Southern – but because Pope Duncan was a theologian. 

 Fast forward a professional lifetime to the early 2000’s.  I was a student at Meadville Lombard Theological School working on a Masters of Divinity – and as part of my requirements, I had to take three theology courses.  I was a good student – but this scared me.  I had heard that theology was really difficult.  And the professors at Meadville Lombard made sure that this reputation for theology courses would be upheld.  In the courses that I took, I not only had to read about the most famous of these theologians and understand their principles, I had to also read their own writings – and grapple with them.  Professor Thandeka required us to read all of Augustine’s Confessions, and a good dose of Luther, Calvin, Servetus, and many others.  And it was quite interesting to see how Christian doctrine and dogma came to be.   And though their writing was sometimes dense and difficult, it was nothing like that I was exposed to in my Process Theology course.  We read Whitehead, and Hartshorne, and Cobb and others influenced by them – or attempting to explain them.  Their view of God was much different – a changing, interacting God, co-creating with us.  But I almost felt that these guys felt the need to prove that there was a God – even though they no longer believed in the omnipotent, eternal Creator of all.  So they would create for themselves dense theories and even mathematical formulas proving the existence of their kind of god.  I also took a course in modern liberal theology – so much more refreshing, but still very dense and heady. Words and words and books and books and formulas and models – all trying to fit into my little head so that I too – could say that I understood theology – at least well enough to pass the courses and satisfy UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee.  You all would be proud to know – for what it’s worth – that I aced all of these.

But I couldn’t just put theology back up on the shelf – Meadville Lombard and the UUA made sure that I grappled enough with my own theology that I could articulate it.  And I’ll share more about that the next time I share with you.  But in any case – while I was there, I heard folks talk about a curriculum called, “Building Your Own Theology,” that was written for lay folks to take as a Religious Education class.  And I thought then – I’m going to do that for the folks in Statesboro.  Do you know what this is folks? 

I just got this. 

It’s a round Tuit.

I ordered the books and will begin with a group of you at 6:30 this evening.  Others are still welcome to join us.  But all who come on my Sundays will at least get some of the background that will enable you to Build Your Own Theology

This curriculum is written by Richard Gilbert – and he maintains that we are all theologians.  We may not have Pope Duncan’s robe – but we can all study to understand God or whatever we view as Ultimate Reality.  Gilbert believes it’s important for us to “do theology” because “it has to do with the stuff of human experience, the meaning of being and becoming.” 

How do UUs do theology?  Gilbert suggests that we do it a little differently – not to become more divine (as someone suggested) – but to become more human.  And dang if he doesn’t also have a model to show that UU theology (if there is such a thing) can be understood at three levels.  I think he may have felt compelled to make up this model by other theologians.  I’m going to share it with you now – so that you may have an understanding of Gilbert’s perspective.

Gilbert believes the UU theology -- and I’m quoting here “can be understood at three levels:

  • The operational level, the process by which we do theology in religious community
  • The menu of the diverse theological perspectives from which we may choose
  • The specific credos that result when we build our own theology.

Let’s look at that first one for a minute. 
Are we in a RELIGIOUS Community?  Is Unitarian Universalism a religion?  Some folks prefer to think of us as a “movement” rather than a religion.  And some prefer to think of us a social society or just a justice loving community.  But I do use that term “religion” and lift it up – for more than just tax purposes. 

My colleague, the Rev. Meredith Garmon, puts it this way.  He says: 
"Religion means a sense of transcendence, of interconnection with all things, of touching the holy, either through special sacrament or the profound sense that everything is holy. Religion brings all those things together and integrates them. Sometimes, as in Christianity and Islam, it incorporates doctrine as part of the process, and other times, as in Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism, it doesn’t. Even the religions that don’t have creeds or dogma do have teachings.”

And of course our teachings are our principles!  And Richard Gilbert, the author of the Building Your Own Theology Curriculum, places these at the center of building our own theologies.  And he has a model showing these as the core for this quest.  

Now Gilbert has shortened these to fit into his model – but I’d like for us to look at what our association actually worked on and approved – and by our association – I mean us – or at least our representatives. 

We’ll come back to this model in a minute – but to reinforce this with us today, I’d like for us to read this covenant aloud.

It’s in the front of your hymnal a few pages back – but I’ve also placed the words on this PowerPoint.  Please read with me.


The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

These are our teachings – our operational values.  But they are not beliefs. While we embrace the seven Unitarian Universalist Principles consensually; their use takes us to different places on the theological spectrum.” 

 After surveying Unitarian Universalists about their beliefs in 1997, the UUA published options that seem to characterize members at that time.  And Gilbert uses these categories in his model as we move out from the core of our principles.  Let’s look back at the model and see what these are.  I’ll also include the description from the UUA publication.

1st – Religious Humanism:  In religious humanism, humanity, while not the measure of all things, is at least the measurer of all things; religion emerges from human experience.  46.1 % chose this category in the 1998 survey.

2nd – Earth / Nature Centered Spirituality:  This natural spirituality recognizes our sense of oneness with the earth and its rhythms.  19% selected this category

3rd – Theism:  This position is perhaps best exemplified in process theology and in these words by Alfred North Whitehead, “God is the binding element in the world.”  13% of the 1998 respondents considered themselves theists. 

4th – Liberal Christianity:  The UU liberal Christian takes biblical religion seriously and finds in the teachings of Jesus the decisive model for religious living.  9.5% of the 1998 respondents labeled their theological perspective as Christian.

5th – Mysticism:  The mystic is one who recognizes there is more to life than eyes can see, ears can hear, nostrils can inhale, hands can touch or words can express.  There is a sense of unity with humanity, the earth, and the cosmos.  6.7% listed this as their theological perspective. 

Now Gilbert realizes that these five categories are imperfect – but he offers them for us to at least see possibilities.  I don’t think 2014 Unitarian Universalists would be satisfied with these categories --- but I think it at least demonstrates Gilbert’s message that our theological beliefs are diverse.  Today we would combine some of these and add more – like scientific naturalism – and theologies grounded in some of the other great world religions plus others which see reality from the perspective of the oppressed or from various gendered perspectives.  And many of us may come up with ideas that don’t fit into any of these categories very well.  But the point is that we don’t leap over work exemplified by the middle circle of Gilbert’s model.    There is a need for us to do our theological homework before or at least AS we tackle the questions in the outer circle, the questions regarding human nature, the nature of ultimate reality, our role in history and evolution, our ethical behavior, and the meanings we create for our lives.  It’s at this level that we will create our own credos so that we can do the work we need to do as a religious people – or if you don’t like the term religious – choose some other term – as a loving and compassionate people. 

Gilbert warns that we fail to do out theological homework at our own peril.  He says:  “Without a deep-rooted theology, this tumultuous world in which we live will be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  If we are to harness our deepest spiritual explosions for meaningful living in this world, we need to get our theology straight.  Developing a theology is not an academic exercise; it has to do with the very stuff of our lives.” 

Now – although Gilbert may think you all need to take this Building Your Own Theology RE Class that we are offering, I don’t know that it’s necessary.  It will be interesting and it will be easier to think about these things in a group setting like that.  But Building Your Own Theology is probably something you’ve been doing all your life – whether you’ve called it that or not.  And I do think that “thinking on these things” – at least here on Sunday mornings, will have an effect on your life.  As you determine your own credo, it will help you to harness your convictions to make a difference in the world. 

As I come to the end of this sermon time, you may be feeling like the rabbit in the story for all ages today.  You’ve heard some possibilities and some ideas of mine and others, but probably don’t have any great conclusions to report.  Maybe you’ll just have to go into your rabbit hole and ponder things a bit.  And perhaps you’ll decide to venture out again and continue to explore with us. 

As Whitman says – “Will you come travel with me?” 

And as Tom Bodett says – “We’ll keep the light on for you.”

1 comment: