Though I would never have admitted it at the time, when I was growing up I found myself jealous of my Christian friends. Peeking in from the perspective of an outsider, I saw that they had their mythical creation stories with Adam and Eve, their prophets such as Abraham and Moses, and their historical ancestors of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Mother Teresa. Like their Jewish ancestors, Christians use their rich history to build up their understanding of who they are today. In the case of the Catholic church, they trace their priestly lines all the way back to the original apostles, which is known as the “apostolic tradition.” But even in Protestant denominations, they share the stories of their scriptures and their history, forming a common heritage that connects them in unseen ways.
Raised in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I was taught to appreciate the questions, to cherish my doubt. I was encouraged to use reason to reach my own personal answers, relying on scientific fact, logic, and the proof of experience. I had the Seven Principles to guide me, a youth group that danced the Time Warp at midnight, and the freedom to explore any world religion or existential idea that I wanted to. Because of this background, I became a lifelong seeker, growing into my understanding that even to question, truly, is an answer. I learned to find comfort in the exploration, knowing that some mysteries would always remain inexplicable and unresolvable—mysteries like “what is it that makes us self-aware?” and “what happens when we die?” We have theories, opinions, and guesses, many of which are beautiful. But we offer no definitive answers to those big life questions.
Yet my Christian friends were given a heritage rich with answers and explanations. Even as I boasted of my own freedom from creed and dogma, there was a part of me that wished for the ancestral stories, the common knowledge, the inheritance of understanding where my Unitarian Universalist heritage had come from.
Living in the questions has its own comfort, especially for those among us who have experienced the discomfort of being told to accept something that in our heart of hearts we cannot believe. But without grounding ourselves in the roots of our heritage, how can we help but feel adrift?
There is an epithet that is bounced around about our denomination, both by members and non-members. When word gets out, it is often said that we are the church where you can believe whatever you want.
As a child, I took pride in that idea. To my young ears, it spoke of freedom, distinguishing me from those “others” who were told what they had to believe in order to belong. This idea of “being allowed to believe whatever I wanted” gave me something to cling to, and I held it up as a shield to protect me from the spiritual violence directed at me by well-intentioned Christians who wanted me to know I was going to hell.
“The church where you can believe whatever you want.”
Eventually, that phrase began to bother me. Because if you can believe whatever you want, then in essence, you don’t have to believe anything. If anything goes, then there is nothing that defines you. If you have nothing that ties you together, then how can you know that you belong?
When people describe Unitarian Universalism as “the church where you can believe whatever you want,” now I hear “The church of whatever.”
What do you believe? Whatever.
Where do you come from? Wherever.
Who are your ancestors? Whomever.
I hope that makes you as uncomfortable as it makes me.
Because I am proud of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. I am proud of our call to “give life the shape of justice.” I am proud of our community of inclusivity, where we do our best welcome to whomever comes through our doors. I am proud of this congregation’s spiritual practice of generosity, supporting local causes and denominational efforts by giving away the entire offering every week. I am proud to claim the title of “Unitarian Universalist,” and I hope that you are, too.
We are not “the church where you can believe whatever you want.”
But if that’s not who we are…then who are we? Where are our roots?
Perhaps you’ve been anticipating the irony of the answer. Our deepest roots are the same as those of our Christian friends. And our Christian friends share common roots with our Jewish friends.
Those stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Moses, and then Jesus, Augustine, Martin Luther—traced back far enough, those stories are the roots of our shared Judeo-Christian heritage.
As we follow the growth of that family tree, our paths diverge. It started when the Jewish branch went one way, and the “followers of the Way” (now known as Christians) went the other. Following the Christian branch, groups of doctrinal dissenters cropped up along the way and were declared heretics. The Greeks stopped showing up to the big church council meetings a little over a thousand years ago, and so the Greek Orthodox church today is largely unchanged from that time.
Eventually Martin Luther came along and nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany about 500 years ago, protesting certain questionable church practices. For the first time in Christian history, there was an actual intentional rift, a revolution, where both sides survived and continued and flourished. This became known as the Protestant Reformation.
Somewhere in there, King Henry the Eighth of England got cranky that the Catholic Church wouldn’t let him get divorced, and so he declared himself the highest religious authority for his people, and the Church of England was born. It became a curious mix of Catholicism and Protestantism.
From that point forward, there were two main methods of being Christian—the Catholic way and the Protestant way. At first the Protestants were all Lutherans, but pretty soon people had the choice of following Calvin, or Zwingli, or Wesley. There was the choice of being an Anabaptist, or a Spiritualist, or a Socinian. Socinians, at the time, were also known as “antitrinitarians,” a term which was later shortened to “unitarians.”
In the midst of all this change, the seeds of Unitarianism and Universalism took root and began to grow.
That’s another topic for another time. But without the Jews and Jesus and the Catholics and Martin Luther and John Calvin, Unitarian Universalism as we understand it today wouldn’t exist.
Our own theological history is a reflection of and a reaction to the spread of Christian denominationalism. We can’t truly appreciate our identity today if we ignore the history that shaped us.
The Christian scriptures were the scriptures of our own theological ancestors. They do not have to hold the same authority in Unitarian Universalism today, though for some of us, they do. But for us to have a true sense and understanding of our roots, we do need to accept that part of our theological and denominational identity arose out of the historical debates surrounding the particulars of biblical interpretation.
I was born a third generation Unitarian Universalist and raised in a humanist Midwestern congregation. I have never considered myself a Christian.
But in spite of growing up in this faith tradition, I never really understood the significance of our place in the world until I began studying Christian historical theology and learning about the roots of our denomination. It is only when we understand our roots that we can comprehend our heritage, our birthright, and our identity.
Where we come from determines where we are now. And where we are now determines where we can go.
In our reading this morning, Unitarian Universalist minister James Luther Adams wrote:
We are all entirely familiar with the New Testament axiom, ‘By their fruits shall you know them,’ but since fruits cannot appear without roots, are we not entitled to say also, ‘By their roots shall you know them?’ In exploring our roots as liberals we may be able to achieve our sense of identity, thus answering in part the question, Who are we?
Fruits cannot appear without roots. How obvious, and how easy to forget! Today, Unitarian Universalists enjoy many fruits that had to come from somewhere.
We enjoy the separation of church and state, living in a country where our constitution protects our right to worship as we choose. We can trace that idea back to the very first edict of religious freedom, known as the Edict of Torda, issued by King John Sigismund of Transylvania in 1568. The translation reads, in part:
His Majesty, our Lord, …reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve….
Such a proclamation that included multiple religions was unprecedented in the universality of its language. And it came about partially because of King Sigismund’s open-mindedness, and partially because of the influence of Francis David, the Unitarian court minister. The edict applied to Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Unitarians.
That is one root which bore fruit.
If we fast-forward about 150 years, we land in New England, just before the American Revolution, and we learn of Rev. John Murray, formerly a “fire and brimstone” type of Calvanist preacher from England who had been excommunicated because of his rejection of the belief in hell. He became a pioneer minister who preached “not hell, but hope” all up and down the east coast, before he finally settled in Boston and became the minister of the Universalist society there. Today, Boston is where the Unitarian Universalist Association has its headquarters.
Go forward another 100 years, and we find the Transcendentalist movement, which believed in the inherent goodness of both humankind and nature, claiming that we are at our best when we are self-reliant and independent. These ideas were recorded extensively in essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, and Margaret Fuller, just to name a few famous Unitarian writers. Their ideas trickled through the roots of history and had a direct influence on the proponents of humanism in the Unitarian tradition.
John Dietrich was among the first Unitarian ministers to boldly preach that humanist thinking was the true foundation of religious liberalism. His sermons and addresses became so widely read that the ideas of religious humanism became popularized and are now a significant element in Unitarian Universalism today. Dietrich served as the minister of the First Unitarian Society here in Minneapolis for nearly a quarter of a century. As a result, the Twin Cities are sometimes touted as the birthplace of religious humanism in America.
But Dietrich isn’t the only influential Unitarian minister who has ties to the Twin Cities. We have more roots here than you might know.
Adams, like many Unitarian Universalists today, grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household. When he left his home state of Washington to attend college at the University of Minnesota, he was, in his own words, “on the rebound from fundamentalism.” Having spent his early years proselytizing about the Day of Judgement, he spent his college years railing against organized religion and embracing an atheistic form of humanism.
And then he found his way to the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, where he heard Dietrich preaching. It was the first exposure Adams had to a form of humanism that was at once both scientific and religious. Because of this influence, when Adams graduated from the university here, he went to Harvard Divinity School and began studying to become a Unitarian minister. Though his evolution of course did not take place overnight, Adams eventually earned a reputation as a nationally distinguished, spirited Christian humanist, known for his intellect, humor, and insight.
An excerpt from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s website gives us an idea of Adam’s character:
In Germany during 1935-36, Adams watched as the Nazi government of Adolph Hitler ruthlessly crushed any and all dissent as it marshaled forces for its coming march across the continent. Interrogated by the Gestapo, he narrowly avoided imprisonment as a result of his engagement with the Underground Church movement. Using a home movie camera, he filmed Karl Barth, Albert Schweitzer and others, including those who were involved in clandestine, church-related resistance groups, as well as pro-Nazi leaders of the so-called German Christian Church. Adams returned to the United States more convinced than ever that the tendency of religious liberals to be theologically content with vague slogans and platitudes about open-mindedness could only render liberal churches irrelevant and impotent in face of the world’s evils, and he stated his convictions loudly and frequently.
Adams served as a minister out on the east coast, and later as a professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School, the University of Chicago, Harvard Divinity School, and Andover Newton Theological Seminary. In the academic world, Adams is credited with translating the works of liberal German theologians and making their works available to the English-speaking world.
It is difficult to adequately explain within the brief confines of a sermon how influential James Luther Adams was. One of his students, George Beech, writes:
Confronting the organizational and intellectual lethargy into which Unitarianism had drifted during the 1930s, Adams became a leader in the movement to revitalize the American Unitarian Association through a powerful Commission of Appraisal. With renewed growth and bold new programs for religious education, publications, church extension, international service, and youth work, this effort bore fruit in the 1940s and 1950s, ultimately leading to the creation of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961.
Beech continued, in another book:
A significant instance of Adams’s church involvement is his proposal, late in his career, of revised language for the Principles and Purposes statement of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Among several “sources of the living tradition we share,” the statement, adopted in 1985, names the following: “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” The words are redolent with Biblical language and Adams’s own prophetic theology.
James Luther Adams is one of those rare Unitarian Universalist theologians who is known, quoted, and respected outside of our denomination. He is remembered by his students with genuine love and affection, having welcomed them into his heart and into his home, creating a family of friends and colleagues. One of those students is Wilson Yates, a former president of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and now professor emeritus. When I had the chance to speak with Professor Yates last semester, he mentioned that he was one of the last people to visit James Luther Adams before he died in 1994.
As Unitarian Universalists, we have roots we can be proud of. But they don’t do us much good until we internalize them, learn from them, and draw upon them as a source of strength, vitality, and inspiration as we move forward into the reality of our own making. We look back upon our rich and varied history, and by recalling our predecessors we learn who we are.
We are the culmination of their life’s work. They are the roots of our heritage, and today we enjoy the fruits of their labor. But as we cast our visions of the future and start to make plans, we must remember that we have our own spiritual descendants. Today we are participating in the creation of the roots that will nourish the future generations of Unitarian Universalists, as they continue on the path of our liberal faith tradition.
What sort of fruit do we want to bring into being? What will be the legacy that they will inherit? We are the creators of the future of our faith. May we prove worthy of the heritage entrusted to us.
So may it be, and amen.
This sermon was presented on January 22, 2012 to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka in Wayzata, MN, where I am currently serving a part-time ministerial internship. Readings included Responsive Reading #591 (I Call That Church Free) and an excerpt from James Luther Adams’s essay “By Their Roots Shall You Know Them.” Hymns included #123 (Spirit of Life) and #354 (We Laugh, We Cry, verses 1 & 4) from the UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition. For a story for all ages, we read “The Tomato Plant” from Rabbi Marc Gellman’s book Does God Have a Big Toe? Stories About Stories in the Bible.
I was invited to preach this sermon as a guest speaker at Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Sunday, February 5, 2012. We used similar readings and music to those listed above.