mcnattA Date with History

The Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt
Fourth Universalist Society of New York

Arthur M. Judy Lecture
Prairie Star District Annual Conference
Saturday, April 9, 2005
St. Paul, Minnesota

Even this early in the morning, it is an honor to be here, and I want to thank all of you here in Prairie Star, first for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to see old friends, including Rob and Janne Eller-Isaacs, and to make new friends. I want to thank you for the gracious hospitality you’ve shown a weary traveler, especially Catie Olson, one of your district’s fabulous future ministers. Catie is a seminarian at UTS and I had the pleasure of meeting with Catie as well as several of her seminarian colleagues yesterday. Our movement is blessed to have them as participants in the future of our religious movement.


There’s an old story, told across many cultures, of a couple who had been greatly blessed with the birth of their first son. When they sat down to decide on the child’s name, they could not agree on the name, and in fact were so angry with one another that they sought out the help of their spiritual leader. Together with the child, they stood before this holy woman and asked for help.

“What do you want to name this child,” the holy woman asked the father. “I want to name him Kaliba,” the father replied. “And what do you want to name him,” she asked the mother. “I want to name him Kaliba,” the mother replied.

The holy woman was baffled. “If you both want to name him Kaliba, what is the problem?” she asked. “That’s what I want to know,” the father replied. “Kaliba is the name of my wife’s uncle, a wise and learned man. It would bring honor upon our son to give him this name.”

But the mother protested. “I wouldn’t mind that. But your uncle’s name is also Kaliba, and he’s a horse thief and a scoundrel. What mother would want such a name for her son?”

The holy woman looked at them both for a minute, and at their young son, and then she smiled. “Name your child Kaliba,' she told them. ”When he is an adult, you’ll have a chance to see what he becomes. Then you’ll know which one of you was right."

Which is right?

In some ways, our liberal faith is like that child. At our best, Unitarian Universalism has been a beacon of freedom, justice and wholeness; at our best, we create religious communities of memory, resistance and hope that make a crucial difference in the lives of many people. At our worst, Unitarian Universalism has been a way station for the disenchanted, the disruptive and the dyspeptic; at our worst, we create social clubs of the self-congratulatory and the self-involved that give liberal religion a bad name. Because we are a faith that in some ways is always becoming, it is still too early to tell what kind of religious movement we will ultimately be.

It might interest you to know that for hundreds of years, we’ve been having the exact same conversation about our future. For hundreds of years we have been heralded as being on the brink of a great renewal of our powers; for hundreds of years we’ve been warned of our ultimate demise in the face of various pressures and our collective inability to withstand them. For hundreds of years we’ve diagnosed ourselves as either striding forward or fading away. How could this be? Quite easily, in fact, because for hundreds of years we have lived with the tensions inherent in our free faith, tensions that we ought to be used to by now but aren’t, tensions that threaten to kill us if we don’t accept the ways in which they make us stronger. We are always struggling with the same set of questions in every generation. What do we owe the past? Where is our promised land?

Consider these words, written nearly 170 years ago, as the original proposal for the Constitution of the American Unitarian Association. The Rev. Henry Ware, Jr., presented a proposal to the assembled clergy that sought to create, as he put it, “a new organization ... the chief and ultimate object of which will be the promotion of pure and undefiled religion by disseminating the knowledge of it where adequate means of religious instruction are not now enjoyed. Its operations will extend themselves throughout the whole country and will chiefly consist of the publication and distribution of tracts and the support of missionaries.” [Lyttle, p. 20]

The final draft of that constitution eliminated the notion of tracts and the support of missionaries, but the impulse that inspired the proposal, coming from younger ministers within the movement, continued to agitate within Unitarianism, in spite of reluctance and disdain for missionary zeal.

Consider as well these words written more than one hundred years ago, by C. Ellwood Nash of Brooklyn, NY, in an 1894 essay entitled “The Possibilities of Mission Work in the Universalist Church”:

Our business is with both high and low. A primary test of our disposition and capacity to apply the gospel to “all sorts and conditions of men” will be found in the measure and results of our efforts to multiply centers of influence, to build for our faith a pulpit, and establish a fomentation of ideas in every city, town and hamlet of the land. ... Such mission work the Universalist Church must do or perish. A temporary stay of judgment, a pittance of toleration while its structures disintegrate, is the utmost fate will grant to a “has-been” church. A church no longer growing is already moribund. It may command a certain tenderness for the sake of what it was or tried to be; but its room is needed for active enterprises and it will “have to go.” [Rugg, p. 20]Dismissing faith

For Unitarian Universalists, the past is prologue. We do ourselves a terrible injustice if we misunderstand our origins; our roots are in the dissenting tradition of Christianity. We forget where we come from as a religious tradition at our peril. But we as Unitarian Universalists have for more than seventy years removed ourselves from the pressing religious and moral debates of our times, considering them passé or irrelevant. Until recently, we had declared the notion of divinity obsolete--in spite of the fact that there have always been liberal religious people for whom God was real--and we had announced that conversations about the nature of that divinity are trivial and unimportant. In so doing, we did come perilously close to making liberal religion irrelevant as well. Our decades-long abdication of our historic dissenting role in Christian thought has created a vacuum, filled by deeply conservative religious people who have hijacked the language of faith to which we have always been heirs.

Just because Christianity as it is currently expressed in the United States is more often a source of shame or embarrassment than inspiration and support is no reason for us to turn away from it, but turn away from it we have, until quite recently. There are excellent reasons for some of the distance we have placed between ourselves and the traditional Christian narrative. That narrative has been used to belittle and oppress some members of the human family, and that is decidedly not our way. What is more, as free thinking people, we have needed the room to maneuver, to experience for ourselves the insights of science, the mysteries of other faith traditions, the freedom of unbelief. It is, and it has always been, our unique call and our great strength, to test the boundaries of faith, to abide with uncertainty, to look ahead to the next revelation.

But that is far different from the dismissive attitude that too many of us have adopted toward the faith most foundational to our own heritage. Our fear of the Christian story has made us unreliable partners in the public religious dialogue. Our carelessness, even contempt, for the symbols of Christian faith, has made some of us as much an enemy of religious freedom as the fundamentalist Christians that inspire our disdain. Consider if you will the Darwin fish, the symbol of skeptics that can be found on the backs of cars all over the country. Not every Unitarian Universalist owns such a symbol, but some of us do, and as a religious community, shouldn’t we wonder about that? At what point in our history did it become part of our religious practice to mock the religious practices of others? For that is what we do when we display that particular symbol. The fish is an ancient symbol of the early Christian church, as meaningful to many in the Christian community as the spiral is to earth-centered religious practice. Curiously enough, the fish is also a pre-Christian symbol of The Great Mother, and the feminine life force; thus those who use the Darwin fish to thumb their noses at those who differ in their beliefs have managed to mock two ancient faith traditions at once.

I use this example not to induce guilt, but to provoke thought, thought about our responsibilities as liberal people of faith, at a time when liberal religious voices are at once in short supply and desperately needed. How prepared are we, in these days of hostility to all things liberal, to witness to the liberal spirit in religion? How are we prepared to give voice to the gracious and generous message of hope and courage that is ours to transmit? I submit we cannot do it through scorn and ridicule. It will take something more difficult, perhaps more painful for us than we are prepared to acknowledge. It will take radical consistent engagement by Unitarian Universalists, not only radical engagement in conversation, which we are fairly good at, but radical reformation of our own religious lives together. It is not going to be enough to have conversations about the language of reverence, crucial though that is. We are being called to engage in practices of reverence, practices that will build and strengthen our communities and our spirits for the massive work of freedom that lies before us.


I am thinking of an example from my own congregation, just last Sunday afternoon. Services were ended, and we were waiting for the canvass luncheon to begin. In the lull that accompanied our coffee hour, a member of my congregation came over to speak to me. I’ll call him Ted. In the four years I have been the spiritual leader of our society, I knew this man first and foremost as an uncompromising social activist, someone who often solicited my help and support on projects that consumed much of his time. I had previously attempted on several occasions to talk with Ted, not about the work of justice that preoccupied him, but about his own life. Every attempt I’d ever made was met with polite but firm dismissal. And because you can only minister to those who will allow you to minister to them, I had made some peace with the notion that he had gotten all he wanted from me.

Yet on this Sunday after church, Ted made it a point to find me at a moment when I was alone. He sat down across from me, and his typical businesslike demeanor was different, more tentative on this afternoon. I could tell he wanted to ask me something, so I tried, in a simple way, to lay the groundwork for the question on his heart.

“How are you doing, Ted?”

“I’m doing all right,” he answered, “but I have something I want to talk with you about, and I don’t quite know how to explain it.”

“Just jump right in,” I said to him. “I’m glad you found me over here by myself,” I replied.

“Well, I don’t know if you know it or not, but I’m kind of an agnostic,” Ted began to explain." I nodded, hoping to encourage him.

“Well, in the last few months, I’ve been experiencing this overwhelming desire to pray, and I don’t know what to do, so I thought I’d ask you about it,” he said to me.

Who are we, and where are we as a religious movement, when members have to wonder what it means when they might like to pray, I asked myself. But that is not what I said to Ted. What I said to him was this:

“I have an opinion about what this means, Ted, and I’m glad to tell you what I think if you want to know.” When he said he did, I continued: “I believe with all my heart that there is something beyond us, something that we call God because frankly, we don’t yet have a better name for it. I think we’re always being called by that presence, invited actually, to be in conversation and community. And some of us hear and answer that invitation, and our lives are different because of it. I think you’re hearing that invitation more and more strongly, and I think it’s wonderful, and I think you should go ahead and answer.”

“But what do I say?” Ted asked me.

“I’d just talk, just like you’re talking to me. That’s how I pray. My experience of God is not some guy sitting around waiting for you to trip up, or say the wrong thing. I think God will be delighted that you want to have a conversation. If it helps you to know this, let me tell you that you’re not the only person in this congregation who is having this experience. Several other people have said something similar to me. I’m planning to get us all in a room together to talk about what it is that’s happening to us. I think it would be cool if all of us could talk about prayer, and experience prayer, together. At the very least, we would know it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Forgetting our role

The relief on Ted’s face was amazing to behold. And again I wondered. Who are we, and who have we become, that a member of our congregations would worry that his desire to pray would be a liability and not a blessing? I believe it is the unintended consequence of our deeply important and deeply valued skepticism. Our willingness to question anything and everything about faith is precious to me; it was that openness that first attracted me to Unitarian Universalism twenty years ago. It was that openness, that freedom, that led me from the agnostic posture I’d held to the theist posture I hold now. We affirm all the time the congregational commitment to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. But do we know, truly know, that it really works? And do we know that it leads to answers that we do not always expect? I think that some of us used to know this, but I believe that somehow, we have forgotten it.

We forgot, somehow, that we were meant all along to participate in the great conversations on intimacy and ultimacy, but from the basis of what James Luther Adams called our communally experienced and historically rooted faith. We forgot that we were meant to unite ultimate religious meaning and deeply personal experience. And we forgot that we were meant to do these things, not in an insular way, a way that allows all of us to feel good about being Unitarian Universalists, but in a way that engages those who think we’re crazy, or doomed to hellfire, or just pitiful. Because we have forgotten to fulfill our historic role, the religious world has become a much less kind and gentle place, and in fact is a place far more dangerous than our forefathers and foremothers imagined it would be. The very notion of neighbor, as defined in Christian and Jewish scripture, is under siege. It falls to us, as members of a free religious community, to remind others, as well as ourselves, how broadly defined our neighborhood really is.

Radical engagement

I believe that we Unitarian Universalists have a date with history, and that we are running late. I believe that we are uniquely positioned to ask, to answer, and to act upon the question that Jesus answered so brilliantly in what must be the best-known of all the gospel parables: The story of the Good Samaritan. It is an interpreter of the law who asks Jesus what he must do to be saved. Jesus coaxes him to recall what the law requires: that he love God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, and that he love his neighbor as himself. Do this, Jesus tells him, and you will live. But who is my neighbor, the man asks, and this time the question is not a challenge, but the query of a searching heart. And in telling the story of the scorned, untouchable Samaritan who nonetheless cares for a wounded and broken man, Jesus is speaking to me and to you, and the message is clear, and it is difficult, and it is our sacred mission as liberal religious people, if we will but accept it.

Who is our neighbor? The brother--like my own brother--who is a born-again Christian; the mother--like my own mother--who is a member of an evangelical church. Who is our neighbor? The co-worker who leaves tracts on your desk; the family who won’t let your children play with their children because they are not saved. Who is our neighbor? The protestor who claims that God hates faggots; the evangelist who declares women should be silent in the churches; the neighbor who invites you to prayer meeting and encourages you to leave that place you say is a church but she knows is really a cult.

Those people are our neighbors too, not just the ones we like, or feel good about talking to, or have hopes will one day see the light of liberal faith. We cannot create the radical change in the world that liberal religion is meant to create if we are only hanging out with one another; we cannot offer a healing alternative to the religiously injured, lying half dead on the road of life, by keeping our faith a private pleasure. We can create radical change only with radical engagement, only with the radical faith modeled in the ministries of so many faithful prophets and sages and wise people. Jesus is one, but there are so many others. All of them are ours to claim and to embrace.

The faith we embrace as our own has never been more important than it is right now, because it has never been more at risk than it is right now. Not only our faith, but our freedom is in danger in these days, and our only consolation may be found in the fact that this is not the first time. This is not the first time that our nation has been gripped with a religious fervor that served to terrify our citizens and vilify those who believe differently. We owe it to all those we meet to speak, to act, to live, as vigorous, articulate, compelling examples of a faith that can cast out fear. Again, I quote from our forefather C. Ellwood Nash, who though speaking for the Universalist branch of our faith, might very well be speaking of our congregations in the present day about the gifts we offer to a world battered by narrow and restrictive faith:

“We stand ready ... to give comfort, cheer, guidance to all. Our faith is revelational; it is rational; it is inspirational; it is sunny, though serious; it harmonizes the providences of God and the faculties of [humanity]; it is democratic; it anticipates and allows for progress; it embodies the genius of this best age the world has had; it welcomes science, evolution, even revolution in its place, while religiously holding fast to the heritage of past uplifts--in a word, it ”meets the needs of [humanity] both for time and for eternity.“ Could any service be greater than to equip the world with such a faith?” [p. 22-23]

Perhaps we cannot equip the entire world with this faith we know and cherish. But there are worse ways to spend our lives than in spreading the good news of liberal religion. At the very least, our work together can hasten the arrival of what I have always imagined as the promised land: that gift of free religious community, that vision of an earth made fair, with all her people one.

Thank you.

(Copyright © 2005 Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt)