"What we believe matters"
Just in our lifetime, it seems so much of us is demanded. Being a Unitarian Universalist seems, for many, to smooth out the demands other religions say out be observed. Perhaps, though, we have become a mite languorous or spiritless about our beliefs and inner commitments since merger between Unitarians and Universalists more than half a century ago.
After the merger, we've too often defined ourselves by what we don't believe, or what we don't have to do to be a Unitarian Universalist -- often making fun of other religious groups in the face of our principle of tolerance and acceptance.
Religious folk, however, don't check humor at the door - especially if it is balanced by a coherent sense of being, meaningfulness and truth. Here, though, I'll write of a term called a "belief system." It's a term that has come to describe everything that the human brain and language can imagine, and, often, ends up meaning nothing. It's an umbrella term that collapses in a swift puff of wind - that wind being: "Well, then, what makes up what you call your 'belief system,' and does the center hold? Does the center hold in Unitarian Universalism? Do we have a center? If so, would we evenwant one? Others ask, "if we do have a center, what would it do for me?" (That suggests a performative or utilitarian edge to our religious-community-with-a-difference, which may be why Garrison Keillor has sometimes called us the "Unitarian Utilitarians."
I have been reflecting since the Scottish Justice Secretary decided to release the convicted bomber of the 1988 Pan American airline bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. No survivors, 270 dead. The bomber, reported as terminally ill, was released -- to the intense pain and outrage of the families and friends of those killed in mid-air. So the bomber is the recipient of the Justice's humanitarian values - which the convicted bomber did not show to those who died over Lockerbie. The outrage and jubilance are strong on both sides. It is an event worthy of our consideration.
What I want to capture here is Justice MacAskill's reasoning for the release: "It's my values. It may not be America's values, but it is my values." See what I mean? Is his belief "value-free" to the outraged? Does it even matter to the jubilant? "It's my values," he states.
I'm not a situation ethicist, nor do I speak in terms of belief systems or my own values. I would if I did not want others to know what I meant by what I said. You don't need to agree with the preacher, yet, just consider: one who has 'their own value system, just my own beliefs that work for me' has, in their claim, made that their absolute. Unless, say, someone else betrays them, accuses them of something, or steals from them. But, at that point, can you say any one belief system is better than another, on any basis more than chocolate is better than vanilla, or my significant other is beautiful?
Controlled chaos? Is that how we live today - generally safe because of rules and laws established by others, which we didn't have to decide, but can criticize at will? Maybe it's time to take a look at some 'centers' in our lives, to see if or how they might hold.
The work of liberal religion is not finished. "It is up to us to use our freedom of thought for something other than thinking about freedom of thought," said one of our ministers. Another asked the question: "Are we an alternative to religion, or an authentic religious alternative?"
These seem like good questions to begin the new program year. See you on Sundays, and think about what you believe.
Rev. Diana Heath