This is a sermon I wrote putting out a call to Unitarian Universalists specifically, but also to all those who are religiously affiliated and/or ‘spiritual but not religious’. I’ve spoken before about my belief that humanity is at an important crossroads, where it is critical that we make the choice between continuing on our current path (which isn’t really working for anybody or anything) or moving forward in a healthier, more enlightened way. I truly believe that one of the most important aspects of this a reclamation and redefining of language. There’s a lot of work being done around this, and I’ll try to post more about it soon. For now, here’s a brief history lesson + call to action.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
Where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
In the 2012 Winter edition of UU World magazine, Fredric Muir declares that Unitarian Universalism “needs a new narrative.” Regardless of how you look at the data, we, like most religious institutions over the past few decades, have remained stagnant (or even shrunk) in terms of numbers. Our demographics continue our history of being predominantly White, highly educated, and middle class, but the society in which we find ourselves is rapidly becoming more diverse. The U.S. Census Bureau projected in 2009 that members of racial and ethnic minorities will make up a majority of the country’s population by the year 2042; the socio-economic and educational divides in the U.S. are growing at an exponential pace; and perhaps most troubling is the quick rise of the “Nones” in our society – the young adults who claim no religious affiliation.
In his article, Fredric Muir says, “Fundamental to our survival is a paradigm shift that goes deep into the history, character, and epistemology of Unitarian Universalism. It goes to the essence of how we understand ourselves and relate to the world at large.”
A few years ago some scientists conducted an experiment involving a little frog. In their lab was a vat of steaming, boiling hot water. They wanted to determine how the frog would react when dropped into the vat. In their white aprons, armed with clipboards, pencils, goggles and rubber gloves, they held the squirming little frog over the vat. Focusing intently on what they were about to do, they dropped the frog….
Faster than a bolt of lightning, that little guy burst into the air, careening off the ceiling and landing safely on the floor.
“Hmmmmmmm,” the scientists murmured amongst themselves.
They did it again. Same frog, same vat of steaming water.
Again the frog blasted out of that pot.
The scientists murmured some more, recorded their notes and decided to take the experiment a step further. They took the same frog and held it over a different vat of water. This water was only lukewarm – perfect temperature for a frog. They dropped the little guy in and…..
He just laid there, floating lazily, arms and legs splayed so that he lay gently on the water’s surface. Life was good! What that poor frog didn’t know was that underneath this pot of water was a raging fire and it was slowly, but surely, heating the vat of water. The contented frog, oblivious to the slow change in temperature, boiled to death.
I know, I know – poor little frog; but that frog can teach us a valuable lesson about complacency. If we get too comfortable, we can forget that the world is changing around us all the time and after awhile, if we don’t start moving forward too, we can get completely left behind.
In 2007, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted an extensive survey on the religious landscape of the United States. Even more recently, they have updated some of their research to include the following statistics: The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14% of the U.S. public).
These numbers have caused reactions ranging from terror to glee. Religious leaders and organizations tend to see this as a reason to gather the faithful and stress the importance of doctrine and dogma, while groups like the American Atheists cheer the Pew study as evidence that the “number of godless continues to rise” and that the “stranglehold of religion is fading away.”
Regardless of your feelings about these statistics, there is no doubt that American society is changing. It may seem that we are moving further away from any place we have historically been, but the truth is, if we examine our past carefully, we will see that history does, in fact, repeat itself.
In 1859, Unitarian minister Henry Whitney Bellows spoke to the alumni of Harvard Divinity School in an address titled, “The Suspense of Faith.” And while his words, like so many others, have mostly been forgotten over the years, the sermon’s importance to Unitarian history cannot be denied. In it, Bellows fearlessly lays out a criticism of both the religious and secular society he was a part of – and vehemently calls his audience to action in not only resisting, but redirecting the tendencies that had brought them there.
1859 America was a country on the verge of war, torn apart by fundamental differences in belief and culture. It was in the middle of its first great wave of immigration, with over ten million northern and western Europeans and Chinese arriving on its shores. In 1850, only 34% of Americans belonged to a church, and for decades, individualism and self-reliance had, as Bellows says, been busy creating substitutes for religion in science, philosophy and literature. In addition, society was in a lull between the 2nd Great Awakening of the early 19th century and the 3rd Great Awakening of the Civil War and subsequent Industrial Revolution – in which Henry Bellows was a very influential figure, by the way. Dozens of new denominations and communal societies were being formed, stretching the religiously affiliated into even smaller numbers.
Compare this cultural and societal setting to our current era of war and terror, the meteoric rise of technology and globalization, the estimated increase in ethnic minorities as well as an ever growing diversity of religious and philosophical ideologies. We live in a capitalist society which places more value on individual accomplishment and ingenuity than community and cooperation, and, as previously mentioned, a generation that is increasingly disinterested in being associated with religion and religious institutions.
We are not in such different places, Henry Bellows’s Unitarians and contemporary UUs. And in an effort to learn from our past and respect our history, we – as Americans, as those of religious affiliation, as Unitarian Universalists – we must address the issues Henry Bellows puts forth in The Suspense of Faith, and heed his call for a renewal of commitment to institutionalism.
First, a look at Bellows himself. Henry Whitney Bellows was born in Boston in 1813, and after attending Harvard Divinity School, served as the minister of the Church of All Souls in Manhattan for 43 years. He was known to be an “inveterate middle-of-the-roader” and was infamous for changing his mind about theological and political issues, but one thing Bellows never wavered on was his belief in the centrality of the church to religious life, and he worked hard to preserve Unitarianism’s past while being aware of, and responding to, an ever-changing world.
While the language in his sermon The Suspense of Faith can be archaic and his ideas a little too steeped in Christianity for our contemporary UU tastes, his overall message is inspiring and motivating. In an effort to be brief, I am going to only a few of the defining ideas of his address.
Bellows inherent desire to please everyone is immediately apparent as he spends several pages laying out caveats and disclaimers before launching into his main argument and message. After preparing his audience as best he can for what he’s about to say, he launches into a three-fold explanation of the “despondency, self-questioning and anxiety” of the age.
The three areas that must be considered in order to find the reason for the suspense of faith are: the particular – Unitarianism itself; the general – the greater Protestantism that the Unitarians are a product of; and the Universal – Christendom, humanity and the world at large. He states that throughout history, Unitarianism has been the vanguard of expansive theological thought and practice; and derived much of its energy and spirit from this work. He continues to say that the rest of the Christian world, as well as secular society, have now caught up with Unitarianism, and, in fact, political and democratic life, literature and the public press can spread these thoughts much more rapidly than the church ever could, and therefore, “the original and animating spirit of the denomination is taken away, by the success of the principles for which it stood.”
Considering Protestantism in general, it is despondent because if you take it to its logical conclusion, in the end it will lead to “abandonment of the Church as an independent institution, the denial of Christianity as a supernatural revelation, and the extinction of worship as a separate interest.”
The tendencies which will lead to this, Bellows says, are found outside the Church in “the vast population, said to be much more than half, perhaps three-quarters…that goes to church nowhere. It is not only an unreligious age, but it is becoming more and more unreligious. For religious institutions and ideas in our day flourish mainly in the strength of their roots in a religious past, a strength which is constantly diminishing.”
For Bellows, it was impossible to separate truth from history, and his chief criticism of 19th century thought was “a disrespect and forgetfulness of the past, a contempt for the institutions that transmit its life, and isolation in self-complacency.” In his examination of the third reason for the suspense of faith – the Universal – he speaks of two motions of the spirit in relation to God – a motion that sends us away from God, to learn freedom and to develop our own powers and intellect, and the motion that draws us back to God, to receive the inspiration and Grace we are now strong enough to hold.
When the pendulum reaches the outside bounds of one swing, it must reverse course and swing back the other way. Bellows claimed that it was this moment of suspended animation that was causing the painful pause, the suspense of faith. He says, “For one cycle we have come, I think, nearly to the end of our self-directing…self-developing. Having enlarged our faculties, we want a use for them; having achieved our freedom, we know not what to do with hit; having cultivated our wills, consciences, and intellects to the utmost at present possible, they cry out for objects that they do not find.”
And it is here that Bellows begins his argument for a return to an era of institutions, a period when the emphasis on self-development can translate itself into more permanent terms through an investment in the church. He claims that according to history and the “great common instincts of humanity”, that a sense of yearning for rest and a longing for spiritual relief will bring about a new religious epoch; one that will be “distinguished by faith as much as the last has been by doubt.”
But these churches that Bellows is calling for, and that humanity is craving, must be more than just a place where “one portion of the human race [is] educating another portion of the human race;” where religion means more than just human development and self-perfection. Here is where the beauty of Bellow’s thoughts are truly articulated. He says that the church must not be a “mere reservoir that may be emptied, but a permanent conduit, or channel, through which flows down the eternal river of God.” He continues, “the collection or calling together of human beings in any one of their radical relationships, or about any one of their essential needs or aspirations, develops at once something which none of the individual parties could have predicted or anticipated, or in himself[/herself] possessed – a pre-ordained consequent of relationship…which is very different from any of the elements of which it is composed.”
The final pages of Bellows’s address are dedicated to the details of how he envisions the new era of institutions thriving. He calls for the church to be content with its religious function, for it to undertake less in order to do more, and that it not, in any way, disparage the activity and responsibility of humanity’s own will. He proposes a clear separation of Church and State and a language of imaginative symbols and holy festivals.
In the end, for Henry Bellows, humanity’s suspense of faith is a cry for help and he is certain that God will hear it and will answer.
Bringing us back to the present, now, we are confronted with the statistics of our religious landscape. There is a danger in looking at the numbers and falling into what Bellows called a “painful equipoise which forbids healthful motion” – depressed, defeated, indifferent and afloat.
And yet…there is hope. We can heed Bellows’s call, take a collective breath as the pendulum begins its next cycle, and pick up where Unitarianism left off in its embrace of Humanism in the early 20th century and expand our identity as a united Unitarian-Universalist denomination instead of abandoning covenant in pursuit of individualism.
The numbers of the “Nones” have been misunderstood and misrepresented by the media and those whose futures depend on them not existing. True, one-fifth of the U.S. public aren’t affiliated with any religion, but despite this rise, the survey reveals that more than two-thirds of those people believe in God. 92% of Americans believe in the existence of God or a universal Spirit – 92%! What this means is that there is a large percentage of our population who acknowledge faith and spirituality as an important factor of life, but who are unfulfilled, dissatisfied, unmoved, or disgusted by institutions that claim to represent faith – or just unaware of what’s available to them.
According to the research, many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God. More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth, while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious,” and one-in-five say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.
With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated also say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.
These are not the numbers of an irreligious age! But they are the numbers of a world in which our role is increasingly diminished; a world in which distrust of religious institutions is strong and emotional; a world in which a lot of healing is needed before growth can occur.
As we heard earlier, Fredric Muir advocates for a paradigm shift in Unitarian Universalism, and that shift is a transformation from what he calls “iChurch,” (i for individual), to Beloved Community. He says, in a voice very similar to Bellows, “individualism is not sustaining: Individualism will not serve the greater good. There is little-to-nothing about the ideology and theology of individualism that encourages people to work and live together, to create and support institutions that serve common aspirations and beloved principles.”
Muir claims there are two obstacles preventing our denomination from becoming Beloved Community: UU exceptionalism and our allergy to power and authority. Many of us within UU congregations have as strong opinions about churches, money and power as the Nones do. Most of the 20th century was spent in avoiding institutionalism and creedalism, fighting to keep control out of the hands of an over-arching authority and it is time, at the beginning of this new religious epoch, that we take a deep look at this issue within our congregations.
As for UU exceptionalism, I’ll let Muir explain that so as to avoid getting myself in hot water: “We may experience Unitarian Universalism as unique and even saving, but it is not the only way. We must stay conscious of how we explain, defend and share our perspectives lest we come across as elitist, insulting, degrading, even humiliating of others.”
It is imperative that in order to survive as a denomination, we not only focus on our historical commitment to social justice, and to reforming the world, but also on the continual development and transformation of our congregations, most especially by addressing the issues of individualism, exceptionalism and authority. If we can heal our wounds and strengthen our bonds within community, we can then extend ourselves outward into the country and world we live in as a healthy, vibrant denomination ready to embrace the diversity that exists.
But how will we do this outreach? How do we express the importance of institutional community to those who have no interest in it? What are the arguments to use in engaging the Nones – or even in convincing ourselves that stronger institutionalism is beneficial?
Rabbi David Wolpe wrote an article recently for TIME magazine in which he shares his opinions on the “limitations of being spiritual but not religious.” Here is what he says: “All of us can understand institutional disenchantment. Institutions can be slow, plodding, dictatorial; they can both enable and shield wrongdoers. They frustrate our desires by asking us to submit to the will of others. But institutions are also the only mechanism human beings know to perpetuate ideologies and actions. If books were enough, why have universities? If guns were enough, why have a military? If self-governance was enough, let’s get rid of Washington. Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world.”
He goes on to talk about morality and goodness; that history has proven human beings inconsistent in matching their internal sense of morality with their behavior. It is only through being in community with others that we discover whether or not our actions are good. Bellows, too, had something to say about morality, but that is a big topic for another day.
The title of my paper is “The Suspense of Faith: A Remembering, Renewal and Reclamation.” Today we have remembered Henry Bellows’s powerful call to action in an era so like our own – a call for the creation of an organic, dignified, focused and mystical church.
Today Fredric Muir has urged us to a renewal of our covenant: as free congregations we promise to one another our mutual trust and support. He asks us to create and sustain intentional community, not in denial of individuality but in contrast to individualism.
And finally, Rabbi Wolpe has helped us to reclaim what religion is and was meant to be – an organization that involves individuals trying together to sort out priorities, to listen and learn from one another, to make a difference and to transform ourselves through mutual spiritual experiences and growth.
Many of the critics of Bellows’s sermon merely misunderstood his use of the call for “a new catholic church”. He was using the term in the broadest sense, with no intention of meaning the Roman Catholic church, but the very term itself was so heavy with the baggage of centuries of abuse and misuse, that it stopped most people in their tracks. I have the same fear today, directly, in my use of the word “church” as opposed to community or fellowship, and for us as a denomination in the language used to describe and explain ourselves to others. In an age where a third of our society is un-religious, and so many of them have expressed distrust of churches, have been hurt, abused, ignored, condemned, humiliated by churches – is it such a stretch to assume that language could be the largest barrier in our communication with them?
And so, in addition to the urgings of Bellows, Muir and Wolpe, I add my own call to you – an opening of your hearts and minds to a reclaiming of the word “church”. Let us re-define what this means for us. Beloved Community. Interconnected Web of Life. Let us covenant to trust one another with all the hurt and anger surrounding “church” and institutionalism and religion, and, as Diana Butler Bass says, “together find a more profound sense of meaning in the world.” Let us ride this pendulum swing together into a future that is bright with hope and tight in community. The breeze has bared its secrets to you and now you know how to ask for what you want – the door is open – don’t go back to sleep!
I leave you as I began, with the words of Rumi:
You may be happy enough going along, but with others you’ll get farther, and faster.
A wall standing alone is useless, but put three or four walls together, and they’ll support a roof and keep grain dry and safe.
When ink joins with a pen, then the blank paper can say something.
Rushes and reeds must be woven to be useful as a mat. If they weren’t interlaced, the wind would blow them away.
Bellows, Henry Whitney. The Suspense of Faith. (Delivered at Harvard Divinity School. 1859).
Kosmin, Barry & Keysar, Ariela, Principle Investigators. Unitarian Universalists in the United States 1990-2008: Socio-demographic Trends and Religious Patterns, A Report Based on the American Religious Identification Surveys. (Trinity College; 2008).
Kring, Walter Donald. Henry Whitney Bellows. (Skinner House, Boston. 1979).
Muir, Fredric. To Build Beloved Community, Unitarian Universalism Needs a New Narrative. (UU World Magazine. Winter 2012).
Padgett, Tim. Empty Pews: Everyone is Misreading the New Numbers of Religiously ‘Unaffiliated’. (TIME Magazine. October 2012).
Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
– “Nones” On the Rise. Online article. October 2012.
– U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Summary of Key Findings. 2007-2010.
Robinson, David. The Unitarians and the Universalists (Greenwood Press; 1985). Chapter 8.
Ross, Warren. The Premise and the Promise: The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Association (Unitarian Universalist Assn.; May 2001).
Stonebraker, Robert J. The Joy of Economics: Making Sense out of Life (Winthrop University)
Walton, Christopher L. Words Are Not the Only Language: Henry Whitney Bellows’s View of Scripture. (Philocrites. May 1997 and May 2013).
Wolpe, Rabbi David. Viewpoint: The Limitations of Being ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’. (TIME Magazine. March 2013)