Emergency Sermons

If you are in an "emergency" situation -- i.e., your guest speaker called and they are stuck in a snowdrift in Boise -- use one of the "emergency" sermons under this heading.  Here is one by our denominational President, Peter Morales. Check the uua.org website for others.

Religion Beyond Belief

Peter MoralesIn the congregation I served in Colorado, and as I have traveled across the country, I have heard hundreds of stories of people who came to Unitarian Universalism as adults.

We come to liberal religion by different paths, leaving behind a religion that no longer made sense to us, or seeking out a religion that would offer more depth than our consumer-oriented secular culture, or following our Unitarian Universalist upbringing into a search for greater depth.

Yet there is one basic notion that almost all of us share with the most conservative, reactionary and fundamentalist religious extremists. It is an idea that we also share, ironically enough, with hard-core atheists who are opposed to all religion. Almost all of us have accepted the notion that religion is about what we believe. The first question most people ask about a religion is, “What do they believe?” So we get questions like, “So what do you Unitarian Universalists believe, anyway? Is it true you can just believe anything you want?” When someone asks us what Unitarian Universalists believe, we tend to give answers that are long, vague, and tedious. We aren’t comfortable with the question. We squirm. We fidget. We struggle. Often we talk about what we don’t believe.

The trouble is that we treat the question “What do you believe?” as an obvious and natural question. After all, religion is about what we believe, isn’t it? No! No. Religion is not about what you or I or Baptists or Catholics or Jews or Muslims or Hindus believe. I would even go a giant step further: Belief is the enemy of religion. Let me repeat that: Belief is the enemy of religion.

Perhaps I should explain.

We are so immersed in a culture that views religion as a matter of what people believe that we think this is the way it has always been. It isn’t. All of this emphasis on what someone believes is actually very modern and very Western. No one objects to calling Buddhism a religion. Yet Buddhism has no theology at all in the way we use the word. Buddhists don’t believe anything, at least not anything that is a set of propositions. Buddhism doesn’t even have a god in the usual sense.

Jews have never had anything like a creed, a statement of belief. Ironically, Jesus, about whom there are all sorts of creeds, probably never encountered a creed in his life. The whole idea of a creed would have been foreign. Jews did have a definite sense of God, to be sure. However, the key to the God of the Jews is that he had a covenant with the people and gave the Hebrew people the law. The Hebrew scriptures never show any interest in what people believe. The scriptures show a lot of interest in what people do. They are supposed to love God and obey the commandments. The great prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, Ezekiel—were concerned with justice, compassion and being faithful to the covenant. They had no interest in doctrine.

The early Christian communities, while they did show more concern with what people believed, actually tolerated a lot of variety.

Islam, the next great religious movement, also has little theology. Its statement of faith is that there is no god but God and that Mohammed is his prophet. This is a way of insisting, as did the Jews, that there is only one God. And this is another way of saying that we all owe allegiance to a common source; we are all one people. The great emphasis in Islam is with what the faithful are supposed to do,  not what they are supposed to think.

All the emphasis on religion as belief does not come on the scene until much later. It started with the Catholic church and its creeds, but it really got intense with the Reformation. All of this emphasis on religion being about believing the right things is really a modern development. Even the whole idea of belief has gotten twisted. The word used to be used in a very different way. “Belief” once meant “what I give my heart to” or “what I commit myself to.” Belief was linked to emotion and action. Belief did not mean agreeing with a set of metaphysical or theological propositions.

Actually, even in religions that emphasize belief, beliefs change over time. It is no longer heresy to believe that the sun is the center of the solar system. Today the Catholic church accepts evolution. So one can be a faithful Catholic today by believing what a Catholic would have been excommunicated for believing a few centuries ago. Lots of American Protestant churches once taught that slavery was God’s plan. Even in the religions that care the most about what people believe, beliefs change. Yet the religion goes on. So a religion is not simply what its followers believe.

I want to make a more radical point. The point is that religious belief is actually the enemy of religion. Every major religious tradition seeks to impart a sense of wonder, mystery, awe and humility. Belief systems stop this cold. Belief systems start where our thinking stops.

Once we think we have explained it all, once we think we have all the answers, our minds close and we become arrogant, belligerent and defensive.

Just look at what happens when a belief system takes hold. What follows can be truly horrible. First, we categorize everyone who does not agree with us as either ignorant or evil. If we have the truth and are certain we have it, then our task in life becomes spreading this truth. Our task also becomes defending the truth from all of those who disagree. Believers have enemies ev- erywhere. The world becomes a battleground. This is the world of Muslim fundamentalists blowing up innocent people and of Christian fundamentalists trying to criminalize gays and lesbians. This is the world of John Calvin burning Michael Servetus alive because Servetus did not agree with the doctrine of the Trinity. This is the world of the Spanish Inquisition. Once a religion becomes an all-encompassing belief 
system, murder will surely follow.

Believers are dangerous. They always have been.

So, if religion isn’t really about what we believe, then what is it about? Can we be religious without a belief system? I am convinced that religion without belief is true religion. Religion that is focused on belief is a dangerous corruption of true religion.

Religion without belief is not phony religion. It isn’t fake religion or pretend religion or partial religion or religion lite. The problem with asking what someone believes is that it is the wrong question. True religion is about what we love, not about what we think. True religion is about what you and I hold sacred. The practice of true religion is faithfulness to what we love. The key religious questions you and I must answer are these: What do we love so much that we are moved to tears? What gives us unspeakable joy? What gives us peace beyond understanding? What do we love so much that it calls us to action? What do we care about so deeply that we willingly, enthusiastically, devote our lives to it?

When we focus on what we truly love, we ask life’s essential questions. We ask questions like, “How shall I live?” When we ask the question together in community, it becomes, “How shall we live together? What shall we do together?” When we focus on what we truly love, we discover something wonderful: we discover that we love the same things.

We realize that we need one another. We want to be compassionate and gentle with one another. We want to raise children who are kind, content and responsible. We want a place where we can come together to remind ourselves of what is truly worthwhile. That is what worship is—it is literally an affirmation of worth.

And we want to make a difference in the world. We are not content to be a club. We know there are hundreds, thousands, of neighbors who love what we love. And if they love what we love, they have the same religion we do. We open our hearts and our doors to them. Religion beyond belief is the religion millions of people long for. It is religion that transcends culture, race and class. It is religion where we can grow spiritually, a religion where we can forge deep and lasting relationships, a religion where we can join hands to help heal a broken world.

The central issue before us as a religious movement is not to decide what we believe. That will just set us to arguing among ourselves until the theological cows come home. (Trust me, the theological cows have been gone for millennia and they’re not coming home in our lifetime.) No, the central issue before us all is whether we will accept the challenge to become a religion beyond belief. We live at a time when religious tribalism kills people every day. Fundamentalists try to force their beliefs on others. Millions upon millions want no part of that kind of religion.

Yet the options offered by secular consumer culture are empty. People know that consumerism is a false god. Modern society, with its mobility, has eroded the network of relationships that gave people a deep sense of belonging and transcendence. Rigorous studies in social psychology show us that modern Americans are the most emotionally isolated people who have ever lived. People, millions of them, seek a religious community where they can nurture relationships, raise children, deepen spiritually, and serve a mission that is worthy of their highest ideals.

What these millions are seeking is a religion beyond belief. We can be that religion. We can feed the starving multitudes.

This is our challenge in each and every congregation in our Association. Just as we are relational creatures who need one another to become our true selves, so too do our congregations need one another to become a powerful force for compassion and justice. There is so much more we could be doing.

This is our spiritual and religious challenge: we must know what we love, and then we must let that love guide us. This, my friends, is true religion. It is not really religion without belief. It is religion beyond belief. It is a religion to be lived and experienced. This is the religion our world so desperately needs. This, I am convinced, is what we are called to be.