Revising the UU principles and purposes

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

First reading

The first reading is the Principles from the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

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 all existence of which we are a part.

Second reading

The second reading is the draft version of the revised Principles, Article II Study Commission:

Values and Covenant.

Love is the enduring force that holds us together. As Unitarian Universalists in religious community, we covenant, congregation-to-congregation and through our association, to support and assist each other in engaging our ministries. We draw from our heritages of freedom and reason, hope and courage, building on the foundation of love. Love inspires and powers the passion with which we embody our values. Inseparable from one another, these shared values are:

Justice. We work to be diverse multicultural Beloved Communities where all people thrive. We covenant to dismantle racism and all forms of oppression within individuals and our institutions. We are accountable to each other for this work.

Generosity. We cultivate a spirit of gratitude and hope. We covenant to freely share our faith, presence, and resources. Compassionate generosity connects us one to another in relationships of mutuality.

Evolution. We adapt to the changing world. We covenant to collectively transform and grow spiritually and ethically. Evolution is fundamental to life and to our Unitarian Universalist heritages, never complete and never perfect.

Pluralism. We celebrate that we are all sacred beings diverse in culture, theology, and experience. We covenant to learn from one another and openly explore the depth and breadth of our many wisdoms. We embrace our differences and commonalities with love, curiosity, and respect.

Equity. We declare that every person has the right to flourish with dignity and worthiness. We covenant to use our time, wisdom, attention, and money to build and sustain a fully inclusive and accessible community of communities.

Interdependence. We honor the sacred interdependent web of all existence. With humility we understand our place in the web. We covenant to care for and respect the earth and all beings by fostering relationships of mutuality. We work to repair the bonds we have broken.

[The full text of the draft revision of Article II, including the “liberty clause” and other material, may be found here.]

Sermon: “Revising the UU principles and purposes”

This morning I’m going to talk with you about the organizational bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the association of congregations of which we are a part. Now talking about bylaws is not everyone’s idea of an interesting sermon topic. But before you check out mentally, or decide to take a nap, I’m going to try to convince you that these bylaws can have a direct effect on your personal spiritual life.

Article II of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association outline the principles and purposes of the Association. Since our congregation is a part of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that means that our congregation affirms those principles and purposes. And since each one of us is an individual member of this congregation, there’s a sense in which each of us affirms these principles and purposes.

And I hear people in this congregation frequently referring to one one section of Article II of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association. That’s the section known as the “Seven Principles.” For many people, the “Seven Principles” help give shape to their ethical commitments in the world. For example, I have heard people in this congregation talking about the inherent worth and dignity of all people — a phrase that comes from the Seven Principles — and using that phrase to justify an ethical decision that they’re making. Since Unitarian Universalism is a practical religion, our ethics tend to be at the center of our spirituality, so this is an excellent example of how the Seven Principles might have a direct effect on your individual spiritual life.

For another example, my own spiritual life has as one of its centers “the Web of Life,” which the Unitarian Universalist theologian Bernard Loomer defined as follow: “the web is the world conceived of as an indefinitely extended complex of interrelated, inter-dependent events or units of reality.” The Seven Principles neatly summarize Loomer’s philosophical jargon in a more memorable phrase: “respect for the interdependent web of life.” So for my own individual spirituality, that memorable phrase helps me with my relationships with other people, and with my environmental commitments.

So it is that these Seven Principles, this section of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, actually have real-world effects. These Seven Principles actually help us with our spiritual lives, they help us shape our ethical commitments.

These Seven Principles have served as touchstones for many Unitarian Universalists since 1987. The current wording of Article II was approved by a unanimous vote at General Assembly, the annual business meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Article II was then revised slightly in 1987. Those votes in 1985 and 1987 were the culmination of a years-long process to revise the original wording of Article which had been voted in place way back in 1961. That old version of Article II contained six principles, and they had to be revised for a number of reasons. Those old Six Principles used gender-specific language, such as using the word “man” to refer to all human beings of whatever gender. Those old Six Principles also referred to the (and I quote) “Judeo-Christian heritage,” a phrase that annoys Jews because Judaism is not some modifier of Christianity, it is a separate religious tradition on its own. (1) By the 1980s, it was clear to everyone that we needed to get rid of the sexist language, and we needed to be more respectful of other cultures and religions which were our close neighbors. (2)

It took about fifteen years for the weaknesses of the original Six Principles to become obvious. If we consider one generation to be about twenty years, that’s a little less than one generation. And there is a provision in the Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws that says that we shall review Article II, review our principles and purposes, at least every fifteen years — that is, we need to review our principles and purposes more frequently than once a generation. (This, by the way, is good advice for all of us; we should all review our individual principles and purposes on a regular basis.)

The last time we revised the Principles and Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association was in 1987. That was 35 years ago. There have been quite a few changes in the world since 1987. While the Seven Principles have held up remarkably well, it does seem like it is time to review them carefully, to see if we can still fully affirm them.

Personally, I think it is past time to revise the Seven Principles. I feel the Seven Principles had problems from the very beginning. Back in 1995, I was teaching a Sunday school class of fourth and fifth graders, and we spent one class looking at the Seven Principles. As we went over each principle, talking about what it meant and what it implied, the children began to notice that there were some seeming contradictions between several of the principles. I remember a child named Will — who was, to be honest, a bit of a troublemaker, because he was very bright and a good thinker and willing to say what he thought — Will pointed to the first principle, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and the fourth principle, “the use of democratic process in our congregations,” and said these two principles could get in the way of each other. If there’s a close majority vote on an important issue, are we sure we’re respecting the inherent worth and dignity of those on the losing side? Will’s comment got at two important points: What do we mean by “democratic process”? and How do we reconcile the inherent worth and dignity of all individuals when one person’s needs or desires might directly conflict with another person’s needs?

I remembered Will’s questions many years later when a level three sex offender, someone considered to be at high risk of re-offending, wanted to join the Unitarian Universalist congregation I was then serving. We made a rapid decision that we were not going to accept him in our congregation, because all the parents of children in the congregation said if he came, they would leave. The Seven Principles did not give us much guidance in this difficult situation.

More recently, I’ve been thinking about unspoken assumptions that underlie parts of the Seven Principles. Take, for example, the principle that says we affirm “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Of course we all support that general notion. But in recent years I’ve become increasingly aware of how this kind of principle can be perverted by ideologues. An ideologue can say that they’re simply engaging in a free and responsible search for truth, that they’ve found the truth, and that they refuse to work with anyone who believes differently than they do. That is what has been happening in the House of Representatives this past week, where a small group of ideologues, certain that they have found the truth, stalled the vote for a new Speaker of the House. So we might want to revise the notion of a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” to make it less individualistic, to make it more relational. You really have to be a good listener, you have to engage with other people, before you engage in a personal search for truth and meaning. I’ll go further and say that your search should be for truth and meaning and goodness. Any search for truth and meaning should include ethical commitment, it should take into consideration all of humankind. If it’s just a personal, private search for truth, we are now seeing how that can create ideologues.

In recent years, I’ve also become aware that the Seven Principles don’t really take into account the multicultural reality of the United States in the present day. This is perhaps best exemplified by the fifth principle, which affirms (in part) “the use of the democratic process … in society at large.” There is no question in my mind but that I support democratic process. But which kind of democracy? The largest democracy in the world is India, and India has a significantly different form of democracy than we do here in the United States. This becomes an important question because the sixth principle says that we affirm “the goal of world community.” Personally, I would assume that our goal of world community does not mean that we’re going to try to impose American-style democracy on India — but the Seven Principles don’t say one way or the other.

That’s an example of an unexamined assumption in the Seven Principles. I’ve come to feel that there are many such unexamined assumptions in the Seven Principles. It is time we examined them.

I trust you can see how all this has an impact on our personal spiritual lives. For starters, I certainly don’t want my personal search for truth and meaning to make me look like an ideologue — which makes me wonder whether my search for truth and meaning supports the greater good, or whether it can be divisive.

So now you know why I, and quite a few other people, feel that we need to think about revising the Seven Principles. And that brings us to the Article II Study Commission, and their rough draft of a new set of Unitarian Universalist principles.

The Article II Study Commission was established by the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association back in 2017. The bylaws require the Board to do this. Section C-15.1.c.6 of the bylaws states, “If no study process of Article II has occurred for a period of fifteen years, the Board of Trustees shall appoint a commission to study Article II for not more than two years and to recommend appropriate revisions, if any, thereto to the Board of Trustees for inclusion on the agenda of the next regular General Assembly.” (3)

Back in 2017, the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Association did what the bylaws required them to do, and appointed a study commission to examine Article II. As a part of their charge to the Article II Study Commission, the Board asked for a specific focus. I quote: “We [the Board] therefore charge this commission to root its work in Love [that’s with a capital “L”] as a principal guide in its work; attending particularly to the ways that we (and our root traditions) have understood and articulated Love, and how we have acted out of Love.” We heard the new proposed draft of Article II as our second reading this morning, and clearly the Commissioners listened when the Board said to make Love-with-a-capital-“L” the focus of the draft revision.

Now at this point I suppose I could offer some my personal opinions about the draft revision of Article II. But I don’t think I should do that. I’m going to follow the lead of one of my predecessors in this respect. Back in 1959, Roscoe Trueblood, then minister of this congregation, gave a sermon on the proposed merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists, which were separate denominations in those days. Roscoe Trueblood was very careful not to express his opinion on that subject, saying that he thought it best to present the issue and let the congregation decide for itself how to vote. So instead of offering my personal opinion, I’ll summarize arguments for and against adopting the draft revision.

The reasons why we should revise Article II are fairly straightforward, and I outlined some of those reasons earlier. The current Seven Principles haven’t been revised since 1987, and they have begun to sound a bit dated. Most importantly, the Seven Principles do not take into account the new multicultural realities of the United States.

The reasons why we should not undertake a major revision of Article II are also fairly straightforward. The Seven Principles have served us well for 35 years, and they continue to serve us well. Rather than the major revision proposed by the Article II Study Commission, incremental revision, or even no revision, makes the most sense.

There are also reasons why some of us may not worry too much about this one way or the other. If you have been a Unitarian Universalist since before 1985, you may remember the old Six Principles, and you may remember that even though not everyone completely agreed with the new principles, the transition went pretty smoothly overall. If you’ve been a Unitarian or a Universalist for a really long time — longer than I have — you might even remember the old five points of Unitarianism, or the old Winchester Profession of Universalism, or one of the other affirmations of faith we used to have. Over the centuries, we have changed our statements of our religious principles a number of times. And each time, we seem to have survived pretty well.

This brings me to my second-to-last point. None of our historic statements of religious principles has been perfect. Each of them has had some flaw, or several flaws. We should expect that of anything developed by human beings. We humans are limited, fallible beings; we can never make anything that’s perfect or permanent. Rather than expecting perfection, the best we can ever hope for is to make something that’s good enough.

Since that is the case, whatever revisions we make of the principles of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association only need to be good enough. Or we may look at proposed revisions and decide that the old Seven Principles are good enough. I hope this makes the revision of Article II seem more manageable.

The next steps are up to the members of this congregation. You may decide that some or all of the members of this congregation should learn more about the proposed revisions to Article II. Perhaps you’ll decide the members should vote on the issue at our congregation’s annual meeting. On the other hand, you may decide that the members of this congregation do not have a strong opinion about revising the Principles and Purposes of the denomination’s bylaws. If that’s the case, then you really don’t have to do anything — although remember that taking no action is a kind of decision.

Now let me come to my final point. I would like to suggest to you that democracy and the democratic process are actually central to the spiritual lives of all Unitarian Universalists. We are committed to democratic principles precisely because we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each and every individual; or, to use the terms of the draft revision, precisely because of how we understand love, because of how we act out of love.

Democracy is central to our spiritual lives because the ideals of democracy show us how we might live in a more perfect world. Yet like most everything that has to do with our spiritual lives, democracy is not easy. It is not easy to act like everyone matters. Democracy is not neat and tidy. It is not neat and tidy to work with other human beings to try to live up to our ideals. Democracy is really all about learning how to be together with other human beings, how to work together even with the people we don’t like all that much, to live up to our shared ideals.

Democracy can be one of the most difficult of all spiritual tasks, and also one of the most rewarding — because if we get it right, if we really are able to work together and co-exist together, we can actually create a better world. That’s sort of the ultimate goal in any spiritual practice, isn’t it? — not just to make our selves better, but to make the whole world better.

Tons more information from the Article II Study Commission can be found here.

Notes

(1) For reference, I’m including the six principles from the 1961 UUA bylaws as an end note (outdated language is unchanged):

“In accordance with these corporate purposes, the members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, dedicated to the principles of a free faith, unite in seeking:
1. To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship;
2. To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man;
3. To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships;
4. To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice, and peace;
5. To serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships, and to extend and strengthen liberal religion;
6. To encourage cooperation with men of good will in every land.”

(2) The Article II Study Commission offers their summary of Article II history here.

(3) The full text of the UUA bylaws are online here.

Christmas Eve homily

Homily copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

Thinking back to when my sisters and I were Unitarian Universalist children, I don’t remember my parents or my church ever telling us much about the beliefs associated with Christmas. I don’t remember spending any time on the virgin birth, redemption from sin, all that traditional theology — theology which, I have to admit, I still don’t fully understand today.

The story we learned as Unitarian Universalist children was fairly simple and straightforward: We were taught that we celebrated the birth of Jesus because he grew up to be an amazing human being whose teachings transformed the world. And tonight I’d like to speak briefly with you about how his teachings could transform the world today.

When I was a Unitarian Universalist child, I didn’t hear much about traditional theology, but I do remember hearing the story of the Good Samaritan. This was a story that Jesus told after he had grown up, and it gets at his most important teaching.

If you recall, the story goes something like this: A man was traveling down the winding, steep, dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell in among thieves, who took everything he had, and left him, injured and dazed, on the side of the road. Along came a priest of the great temple of Jerusalem — a very holy person — looked at the man lying by the side of the road, turned his head away, and rode on by. Along came a Levite, another very holy person, looked at the man lying by the side of the road, turned his head away, and rode on by. Then along came a Samaritan. The Samaritans were a despised race; today we would call them a marginalized group. Along came this Samaritan. He got down off his mule, he bandaged up the man lying by the side of the road, he took him to an inn and paid for him to be cared for until he recovered from his injuries.

Part of the point of this story is that the priest and the Levite were very good at theology, and they could explain all sorts of religious doctrines to you. However, as the story makes clear, they were not so good at practical religion. By contrast, whatever his beliefs may have been, this Samaritan was very good at practical religion; he was good at things like having courage, helping the suffering, and loving his neighbors.

This was a point that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made when he talked about the Good Samaritan in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon. He said: “The first question that the priest [and] the Levite asked, was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ Then the good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question. ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” This was how Dr. King explained the difference between theoretical theology and practical religion. (1)

Anyway, this was the kind of thing my sisters and I were learned growing up as Unitarian Universalists: perhaps we didn’t get much instruction in theoretical theology, but we were taught practical religion. So we heard the Christmas story pretty much as you are hearing it tonight, but the emphasis was always on what the Christmas story called us to do, not what we were supposed to believe. That is still true of us Unitarian Universalists: we don’t worry much about what to believe, but we are concerned with what the Christmas story calls on us to do.

Of course it’s not just Unitarian Universalists who focus on the ethics of Christmas. Rev. Howard Thurman, a Baptist minister, wrote a poem that sums up Christmas for those of us who prefer practical religion. His poem is titled “The Work of Christmas,” and it goes like this:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart. (2)

I would only add that Howard Thurman’s poetic description of Christmas can be boiled down to that most profound teaching of Jesus: love your neighbor as you love yourself.

This, to me, is the central teaching of Christmas. Perhaps you are an atheist who doesn’t believe in God at all. Or perhaps you believe that Jesus was the son of God. Or perhaps while you believe in God, you believe Jesus was a son of God only in the sense that any one of us is a child of God. Or perhaps you believe in something entirely different. Yet what we happen to believe matters less than what it is we do with our lives.

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, a person who became a great teacher, a person who explained in simple terms the great truth that we are here on earth to help one another. Jesus taught us that we should try to be more like the Good Samaritan. Jesus taught us: We don’t need to be priests or Levites, we don’t need to be really smart people who knew a lot about theological theory. Instead, Jesus taught us that we are here to heal the broken, to strengthen the fainthearted, to feed the hungry, to have courage, to rebuild the nations, to return to no one evil for evil — to make music in the heart.

This is the real message of Christmas. This is the real miracle of Christmas.

Notes:

(1) Transcribed from an audio recording of the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, April 3, 1968.

(2) Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas” in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985).

Three Hundred and One

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

Readings

The first reading is from the book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley, by sociologist Carolyn Chen (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022, p. 209). In this book, Chen shows how work has become religion in Silicon Valley, and she documents how destructive the worship of work can be. She then says:

“How do we break the theocracy of work? The late writer David Foster Wallace observed, ‘In the day-to-day trenches of adult life there is actually no such thing as atheism. Everybody worship. The only choice is what we get to worship.’ We can stop worshipping work, Wallace suggests, by choosing to worship something else. But we cannot do it alone, in the private sanctuary of our personal prayers and devotions. Since worshipping work is a social enterprise, choosing not to worship work must also be a collective endeavor. We can do this by intentionally building shared places of worship, fulfillment, and belonging that attract our time, energy, and devotion. These are our families, neighborhoods, clubs, and civic associations, as well as our faith communities. We need to recharge these ‘magnets’ that have grown weak. Contrary to what time management pundits tell us, we do this by letting these magnets attract more and not less of our time, energy, and passion. This is not a call to end work; it’s a call to energize non-workplaces. It’s an invitation to reflect on how we as a society expend out collective energy.”

The second reading comes from Rabbi Howard I Bogot, from his 1979 essay “Why Jewishness?” in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (vol. 56, no. 1, 1979, p. 108).

“For many years I have carried with me an Emerson-like quote which reads as follows: ‘The gods will write their names on our faces, be sure of that; and man will worship something, have no doubt of that either. He may think that his tribute is paid in secret, in the deep recesses of his heart but it will out. That which dominates his imagination and his thought will determine his life and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.’”

Sermon: “Three hundred and One”

On Tuesday, December 13, First Parish will celebrate its three hundred and first birthday. This past fall, I’ve given a few sermons looking back at the past three hundred years. So today, just before the end of our three hundredth birthday year, I thought I’d give a sermon about the future.

I am not, however, going to try to predict what the next three hundred years will hold for our congregation. I’m willing to try to look ahead for a dozen years, or at most for twenty years — in other words, look ahead for another generation. Think of the youngest child in our Sunday school, and think ahead to when that child heads off to college or to a job: what will First Parish look like then? I’m not willing to look ahead for the next three hundred years, but I’m willing to try one generation.

But even trying to look ahead one generation is difficult. We are in the midst of a major change in American religion. When I started out working in Unitarian Universalist congregations, back in 1994, we could feel pretty confident that in 2014 our congregations would look much like they did in 1994. During the teens, though, we started seeing an increasing number of people who had no religious affiliation at all. Sociologists began to call these people the “Nones,” as in when you asked them what their religion was, they’d respond, “None.”

In the past decade and a half, the number of Nones in America has just kept increasing. Many people assume this is a trend towards increasing secularization, but I don’t think that’s a good assumption. Surveys show that a large percentage of Americans continue to believe in God or in some higher power. (1) It’s not that religious belief is going away; rather, it’s a matter of people not affiliating with religious organizations.

This is partly due to another demographic trend. Since the 1960s, Americans have been disengaging with all forms of community and organizations. Political scientist Robert Putnam popularized this idea back in the year 2000 in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (2) Putnam blamed much of the disengagement on individualized entertainment that was first delivered through television, and later through the internet. Think about it this way: on Sunday morning, it’s easier to stay home and look at NetFlix or TikTok than it is to drive to Cohasset center, find parking, and walk over to this Meeting House. Maybe the quality of interaction is better here in the Meeting House than what you’ll find on TikTok, but for many people the convenience and the ability to individualize one’s interaction makes up for the lower quality of interaction.

Interestingly, right after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the authors Thomas E. Mann, Norm Ornstein and E. J. Dionne, pointed out that many people “rallied to [Donald Trump] out of a yearning for forms of community and solidarity that they sense have been lost.” (3) I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Whether you agree or disagree with Donald Trump’s politics, there is no doubt he was adept at bringing a crowd of his supporters together, making them feel a part of something larger than themselves. In fact, his rallies look to me more like religious revivals than political rallies. Nor is it only Republican candidates who create that feeling: recently, we’ve seen how Raphael Warnock uses that feeling of a religious revival to rally people to vote for him.

Indeed, both the Republican party and the Democratic party have begun to resemble religions. Each party has doctrines and dogmas that they promote; and they are eager to denigrate the doctrines and dogmas of the other religion — sorry, of the other party. Each party has a mythological dimension, myths that they tell about heroic figures. There are rituals specific to each group, including things like chanting and pilgrimages. Adherents of each party can have strong emotional experiences, akin to traditional religious experiences like praying or worshipping in a church. There’s even material culture associated with each party, objects that take on almost religious significance, like MAGA hats or Barack Obama posters. All this looks a lot like religion to me. (4)

But it’s not just political parties that have taken on religious dimensions. Other forms of social interaction are also taking the place of traditional religious congregations. Think about sports events. The World Cup, with the special fan clothing, the fans making long pilgrimages to a distant land, the chanting and sense of identity — this all looks like religion. Or, closer to home, as someone who grew up in the Boston area, I can tell you that around here, baseball often feels like a religion. I found it difficult to explain to people in California how belonging to Red Sox nation was more like a religious affiliation than simply rooting for the home team. I’m told Red Sox fans are quite similar in this regard to Green Bay Packers fans. So you can see that for the true believers, sports looks like religion to outsiders, and from the inside, to true believers, sports feels like religion. (5)

And then there’s work. Over the past few years, sociologist Carolyn Chen of the University of California at Berkeley has focused her research on Silicon Valley workers. She finds that these workers “point to their jobs and careers” when they are asked “what brings meaning to their lives.” That’s the ultimate purpose of religion, isn’t it? — to help us bring meaning into our lives. Instead of turning to sports or politics, many Silicon Valley workers are finding the ultimate meaning and purpose of their lives through their work.

I could go on, and tell you about other social and cultural phenomena look a lot like religion — celebrity worship, humanistic psychology, network Christianity, yoga, and so on. But you get the point. Religion is taking on new forms. No longer is religion confined to local churches and synagogues. Religion can no longer be neatly categorized into denominations and world religions. American religion now includes sports, and politics, and work.

So where does that leave First Parish? How can we compete with a Raphael Warnock rally, or a Donald Trump rally? How can we compete with Red Sox baseball, or with downhill skiing? How can we compete with the jobs of knowledge workers? What we can do is we can offer an alternative.

For there’s a problem with sports, politics, or work as religion. Each of these things asks our devotion, not for our own sake, but for the sake of another. Donald Trump and Raphael Warnock ask us to participate in the religious rituals of their political rallies, not to make us better people, but so that they can win an election. There’s nothing wrong with supporting a political candidate, there’s nothing wrong with helping someone get elected. But when our support of them starts looking like religion — when we start getting our personal meaning and fulfillment out of it — then someone else is using our fulfillment to meet their own ends and goals.

Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with sports. I sometimes worship at the altar of the Red Sox, and will happily tell you about the time I got seats four rows back from the visitor’s dugout when the legendary knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was pitching against the New York Yankees. But we have to remember that professional sports is a business. If when I get my personal meaning and fulfillment in life by boosting someone else’s profit, I’m no longer an end in myself; someone else is using me as a means to their own ends.

Perhaps most troubling to me is when knowledge workers find their entire life’s meaning in their jobs. When you work for a corporation, you are a means to an end. You may get something out of your job, but the ultimate end of your job is to create profits for the company. As important as your work may be, you are more than your job. To be fully human is to be an end in yourself.

In the second reading this morning, Rabbi Howard Bogot talks about a quote he carried around with him for many years, a quote from an anonymous twentieth century source. That anonymous but wise person pointed out that those things which dominate our imaginations and our thoughts have a tendency to determine the course of our lives and our characters. Therefore, concludes this wise anonymous source, “it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

This anonymous quote helps us understand the big change in American religion that’s going on right now. People are leaving the old religious organizations, the churches and the synagogues — leaving the traditional religious groups like denominations. But that doesn’t mean that religion is going away; religion is simply taking new forms.

Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with religion taking on new forms. But there is problem with some of these new forms of religion: they have the capacity to tear our society apart. When politics becomes religion, it can take the relatively benign form of political rallies. In a more extreme, more toxic form, it can turn into something like Christian militias and Christian nationalism. And Christian nationalism has gotten to the point where one proponent is calling for the United States to be governed by a Christian Taliban. (6) Thus, in an extreme form, politics as religion can wind up being dangerous to democracy.

When work becomes religion, it can take the relatively benign form of someone absolutely loving their job, so much so that they’re willing to work more than 80 hours a week and sleep on a couch at their workplace. In an extreme form, as in Silicon Valley where workers are expected to spend most of their lives at work, sociologist Carolyn Chen has documented the the destructive side effects of excessive devotion to jobs: destruction of families, destruction of civic organizations, and disinvestment in public government. Thus, in its extreme form, work as religion can become dangerous to our society. (7)

As I gaze into my crystal ball and try to catch sight of what next ten or twenty years will look like here at First Parish, I spend a lot of time thinking about this big change in American religion. How should we here in First Parish respond to this drift away from organized religion?

First of all, our kind of religion is no longer the norm. We cannot automatically assume that when someone walks into our Meeting House, they will know what we’re doing, what’s going on here. We now have to explain what organized religion is like, what it does. We now have to explain that religious congregations like First Parish are civic organizations, places where we join together both to help ourselves and our families, and to make our communities stronger. Religious congregations like First Parish are cornerstones of democracy. Religious congregations like First Parish exist, not for the sake of the congregation, but for the sake of each person in the congregation. We come here, not to profit someone else, but to profit ourselves.

We used to spend a lot of time explaining to newcomers what we believed. We would tell people that we didn’t have a creed or a dogma, that we search together for truth and goodness. In the past, that was how we differentiated ourselves from other religious congregations. But now, I’ve been finding newcomers are more interested in learning what it is that we do. When I try to explain what it is that we do here at First Parish, a few things come immediately to mind.

First of all, each week in our worship services, we affirm our highest values. We recall ourselves to our deepest humanity. We strengthen ourselves for the week ahead.

Next, we are the leaders of our congregation. While we do have paid staff, leadership is shared among all who are part of our community. We all make the decisions together, we all staff the committees, we are the volunteers.

Next, we join together to make the world a better place. We support charitable causes, we volunteer together, we help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

Perhaps most importantly, we raise the next generation to become moral, joyful, humane people. And this is yet another way in which we help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

As you can see, what we do is quite different from what the new forms of religion do. Again, the new forms of religion — work and politics and sports and so on — are mostly done for someone else’s profit. No one is making a profit from what we do here in First Parish. What we do benefits each one of us, and all of us collectively. What we do benefits the wider community, and ultimately the whole world.

In addition to telling people what we believe and showing them what it is that we do, there’s another way we should be explaining ourselves to curious newcomers. We need to show people that we have a different way of being in the world. Our kind of being is not a selfish kind of being. Our kind of being is being-with-others. As an old prophet once put it, we strive to love our neighbors as we love our selves. (8) Sometimes I like to call this inter-being, or or sometime we might use the phrase “the interdependent web of all life.” When others sense within us this love for neighbor and love for self, they may find that they want to be a part of this community. They may want to feel part of the interdependent web of life.

When I look ahead to the next ten or twenty years at First Parish, this is what I hope we put at the center of our community: loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Or if you prefer, living as if the interdependent web of life truly mattered. These are the permanent center of our religious community. And if we can keep these at our center, if we can show in our lives and in our being that these are of greatest importance to us, we will continue to be a force for good in the next ten years, in the next twenty years, indeed for the next three hundred years of our existence.

Notes

(1) See e.g., Pew Research Center, “Nones on the Rise,” 9 October 2012, www.pewresearch.org/religion/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/ accessed 10 December 2022.
(2) Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
(3) E. J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, Thomas E. Mann, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported (St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2018).
(4) To help define define religion, I’m using Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion from his book Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998). Smart’s seven dimensions of religion are: Ritual; Narrative and Mythic; Experiential and emotional; Social and Institutional; Ethical and legal; Doctrinal and philosophical; Material (i.e., objects that symbolize the sacred). According to Smart, different religions emphasize different dimensions of the sacred.
(5) There is a great deal of scholarly writing about sport as religion. For just one example, the book From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion (Mercer University Press, 2001), ed. Joseph L. Price, contains a collection of essays on this topic, with titles like “The Final Four as Final Judgement,” “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival,” and “The Pitcher’s Mound as Cosmic Mountain.”
(6) Christian nationalist Nick Fuentes has called for this, according to “Who Is Trump’s Dinner Companion, Nick Fuentes?,” Religion News Service, 27 November 2022, religionnews.com/2022/11/27/who-is-trump-and-kanyes-dinner-companion-nick-fuentes/ accessed10 December 2022.
(7) For more about the destructive side effects of work as religion, see the final chapter of Chen’s book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022).
(8) Jesus of Nazareth, as reported in the Gospel according to Mark, 12:31.