Presented on February 21, 2016
Since everyone, no matter what his/her beliefs, is welcome into UU fellowship, we UUs are tolerant of all beliefs - right? Are we really? Several years ago I was asked at my UU fellowship in Texas to do a sermon about the tolerance of Unitarian Universalism. After doing research and remembering experiences and conversations I had witnessed first hand, my title should have been changed from “Tolerance of Unitarian Universalism” to “Unitarian Universalists’ Intolerance of Fundamental Christianity.” That is really the topic I am presenting. So my title in the order of service is misleading.
I found practically no UU intolerance toward other major religions, but quite a bit toward Christianity. Of course, it should not be that generalized, but it seems very common to hear UUs showing intolerance toward Fundamentalist Christianity. And there is ample reason for it.
Of course, UUs do not accept religious beliefs that cause harm to others. Those resultant actions would be unacceptable. That is an acceptable intolerance. But, looking at all other beliefs we find troublesome, although not harmful to others, haven’t all of us actually criticized some of the beliefs of others? But, isn’t it almost without exception, criticism of Fundamentalist Christianity?
I found that this subject is often used as sermon topics by UU ministers, and I have used material from several of these ministers.
Doing the 3rdth revision of this sermon, I tried to come up with an answer to my own question of what my goal here is. I am certainly not going to try to convince you that we don’t often have difficulty employing our full tolerance with some Fundamentalist Christians. Maybe a better understanding of their beliefs will help us to have more compassion, which can help lead to more tolerance.
First there needs to be an explanation of Christian Fundamentalism, although those of us who were Christians are well aware of the five cardinal beliefs, which are: that the Bible is God’s inspired word and the final authority, the miraculous conception and virgin birth of Jesus, that Jesus died for our sins, that Jesus was resurrected and is in heaven, and that Jesus will return to establish the kingdom of God on earth. According to the strictest Christian beliefs, you must accept Jesus as your savior in order to have your soul go to heaven upon death.
I would now like to share with you a small excerpt of a sermon given by Rev Dr. Tony Larsen, minister of Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church at Racine, Wisconsin. The title of his sermon is “Why You Should Not be a Unitarian Universalist”. You may wonder what that topic has to do with the UU tendency to be intolerant of Christianity, but I think he will help us understand how we can understand and more easily accept beliefs of others, especially Fundamental Christians, and better understand ourselves as imperfect, yet tolerant UUs.
So, here are some words from Rev Dr. Tony Larsen’s sermon:
“Somebody I met recently described the Unitarian Universalist Church as a place that welcomes Christians, Jews, Agnostics, and even a German Shepherd or two. He was trying to be funny, and I laughed. But behind his remarks was an unwarranted assumption - that anybody can get in here. And behind that myth is another one: that we don't stand for anything.
My friends, not everyone can be a Unitarian Universalist. Not every-one should be a Unitarian Universalist. Because the first criterion for getting into this church is: you've got to know how to sin.
That's very important to us; and not everyone knows how to do it. We don't want people here who never do wicked things. We don't want people here who are holier than thee or thou. We don't want people who have made it in the salvation department and are just waiting around to get picked up. Because people with too much heaven in them are hell to live with.
Now don't get me wrong. If there were any perfect human beings around, we might let them in. But since there aren't any, anyone who claims he/she doesn't do wicked things is either trying to fool others, or trying to fool themselves. It is the nature of the human to be evil as well as good. And you should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you're not willing to admit that about yourself. As a matter of fact, recognition of your evil has great power for mobilizing compassion. I say that from my experience in counseling. Some of the best therapists are the ones who know how to sin a little - maybe a lot. They're more tolerant of the human condition. They react with compassion rather than self righteousness, with understanding instead of judgment.
Now, if you think you're too good - you won't like it here. But with a little bit of hypocrisy and selfishness and deceit, you'll do fine. We're not asking you to try to develop those qualities, because you don't need to. Each and everyone of you already has them. We're just asking you to recognize them in yourself. It'll do wonders for your tolerance of others' foibles.
The second criterion of reason for not being a Unitarian Universalist has to do with our intolerance of intolerance. You should not be a Unitarian Universalist if you support the Nazis or the KKK or any other group that believes in oppressing people. We may be open in this church - but we're not that open. We are closed to things like closure. That is, we are closed to movements or groups that close people off. And when we say our church has freedom of belief, we mean that in a limited way. You are free to believe whatever you want here - but only as long as it helps you live a caring and humane life - or at least doesn't prevent you from living a caring life. That's a very real limitation on freedom of belief.
If believing in God helps you be a better person - or at least doesn't make you a worse person - then fine, believe in it. We encourage your belief. If being an atheist helps you take more responsibility for creating a better world - or at least doesn't prevent you - then fine, don't believe in God. We encourage your atheism.
The only beliefs we don't want you to have in this church are the ones that lead you to hurt people. And, other than the obvious ones I already mentioned, I can't tell you what the bad beliefs are, because sometimes the same beliefs do different things for different people.
Yeah, they do. For example, a lot of folks believe that there's a heaven and a hell after you die. For some people, that is positive, because they wouldn't be good otherwise. I would rather have you trying to be good because you realize that's a better way to live - rather than because you're afraid of punishment or hoping for reward. But if you're not going to be good without believing in heaven or hell, then it's a positive belief in your case.
But for some people, believing in heaven and hell is negative because then they start deciding who's going to heaven and who's going to hell - always under God's guidance, of course! And they end up condemning people and passing discriminatory laws against people in general and making the world a less tolerant place.”
In this part of Dr. Larsen’s sermon that I just read he gives ample reason to be critical of some Christians. You may think we didn’t need any more, but he also may have helped us understand reasons for their beliefs, thus causing us to be more tolerant.
Now I will share with you something written by another UU minister, Rev. Richard Trudeau, Minister of the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Weymouth, Mass.
“Let me (Richard Trudeau) tell my own story. I was raised in a mainstream Christian denomination in which--I say in retrospect--I was religiously violated. When I discovered UUism it was with a tremendous sense of relief and homecoming. Over the better part of a decade I fashioned a new UU faith for myself out of bits and pieces drawn from many sources, including humanism, Judaism, Taoism, Buddhism, and the study of nature.
But one day I started asking myself, "Richard, if your new faith is so inclusive, why does it include nothing of Christianity? Richard, if you’re so tolerant, why are you so intolerant of Christianity? Richard, why are you so angry?" Logic told me that Christianity couldn’t be all bad. And so I embarked on the delicate and exasperating process of taking my childhood religion apart--of separating all the toxic things from the few things that still felt good, of separating all the things I thought were silly from the few that still made good theological sense.
The midwife of this process was Universalism. Its use of Biblical language and traditional symbolism challenged me to make new distinctions-- between the religious right’s understanding of the Bible as a single book expressing a single point of view, and modern scholarship’s understanding of the Bible as a library of many books expressing different points of view; between the Christ of mainstream Christianity and the Jesus of history; and between the cross as a symbol of a myth about a god dying for our sins, and the cross as a warning that defending the oppressed is risky business.
The process of taking my childhood religion apart was hard work, and took a long time. But when it was complete and my childhood religion lay before me disassembled, I noticed that it had lost the power to hurt me. I felt healed. And I was free for the first time to incorporate elements of my childhood religion into my new adult faith-- elements that I treasure because they come from so far back in my personal past. Universalism led me to see my UU church not as a "decontamination chamber" where I should try to forget my former religion, but as a workshop where I could confront it.
Many members of UU congregations are intolerant of Christianity. Some of these people are Jews. Most of them are traumatized former Christians. What they have in common is that they are angry at Christianity, and they are angry at Christianity because they have been hurt by it. This widespread intolerance makes our movement look silly.
We loudly preach tolerance, while regularly appearing to be intolerant of North America’s principal religion.
We brag about our religions, but often give the impression that we don’t recognize Christianity as a world religion. Widespread UU intolerance of Christianity is a wound at the heart of our movement. We are failing to live up to our own principles. Universalism challenges this intolerance. Just as we pick and choose from other religions, we can pick and choose from Christianity.
Universalism helps angry former Christians to take their childhood religion apart so that it will lose its power to hurt them, enabling them to incorporate elements of Christianity that they still value into their adult faith. The result for both groups is greater spiritual depth, and healing for the UU movement as a whole.”
That is Rev. Trudeau’s opinion about the need for tolerance toward Christianity.
I think it is pretty well accepted that the main reason many UUs are intolerant of Fundamentalism is the one given by Rev. Treadeau. At least that is probably the cause for most criticism. We tend to ridicule the dogma and doctrines that we were subjected to and hurt by. But there are other reasons we are wary. I found that at least one well known Unitarian minister had not only real intolerance for fundamentalist Christianity, but felt threatened by it. In our file in the Texas fellowship of sermons by Unitarian Universalists I came upon a sermon by Rev. John H. Dietrich titled “Who Are These Fundamentalists?” It was given by him at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis on October 24, 1926. Rev. Dietrich was well known as a leading Unitarian minister. He was among the first Unitarian ministers to boldly preach that humanist thinking was the true foundation of religious liberalism. His addresses, which were heard and read by thousands, so popularized religious humanism that it has now become a significant element in Unitarian Universalism.
This sermon by Rev. Dietrich is not on the subject of tolerance at all. It is really a sermon which explains his opinion and obvious fear of Fundamentalist Christianity. He felt that it was dangerous as far as government was concerned. He also decried the Fundamentalists’ efforts to dictate what our children will be taught. Interesting that the sermon was written 90 years ago, and I think both are concerns today. There could be another full sermon on the effects of far right religious attitudes on politics, especially in the current presidential campaigning. I do not volunteer for that one.
So, there are actions by Fundamentalists that some of us feel are harmful. There certainly needs to be an awareness, but I think the thing that most of us resent on a personal level is the effort to convert and by so doing save everyone. There are some Fundamentalists who do this to an irritating level.
Some of us have been confronted by persons who are rude in their efforts to enlighten us. Yes, there are some Christians who are rude, just as there are UUs who tend to be rude. (But, of course, not many). But let’s not generalize that all Fundamentalists are rude. Many of us have relatives and close friends who are devout Christians and may often try to convert us. I have found that most are sincere in their beliefs. My daughter and her retired Baptist minister husband are in that category. She once questioned me to try to be sure I am not doomed to hell. She loves me, and of course, doesn’t want me ending up there. I refrained from telling her exactly what my beliefs are. More importantly, I did not tell her what I don’t believe. I do not believe it would be beneficial to have such a discussion. I did assure her that understand her feelings and that I feel secure in my beliefs.
Neither she nor her husband ever have questioned me since. When I visit and he preaches for an absent minister, I go to the service with them and use my filtering system to try to receive something of worth. I usually feel that I do. I certainly enjoy singing the old hymns I grew up with.
So, maybe your relative or friend doesn’t give up that easily. Can you accept the importance it is to this person and try to come up with some common ground? It may take a great deal of compassion in order to do this.
In review I think it is indisputable that the religion UUs typically are less tolerant of than any other is Christianity, especially Fundamentalist Christianity. The main obvious reason is that many UUs grew up with the Christian religion and became disenchanted with its dogma and doctrines that forced certain beliefs.But does Christianity not have any redeeming qualities? If we can accept certain parts of other religions, can we not do the same with Christianity, and ignore parts we can not condone instead of ridiculing those who do believe it all? I think most of us would have no trouble following the teachings of Jesus. Even if we don’t want to do Rev. Trudeau’s search in order to make Christianity hurt us less, can we at least come to a better understanding of the true believers, thus allowing us to be more tolerant?
None of our seven principles uses the word “tolerance”, but the first principle, That we affirm and promote “The inherent worth and dignity of every person” would certainly indicate tolerance. The second, “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;” somewhat touches on tolerance also. The “compassion in human relations” could certainly pertain to our relationships with Christians.
I would like to include some thoughts from Rev. Pat Guthmann Haresh, minister of Unitarian Universalist Community of the Outer Bank, located at Kitty Hawk, NC . She reported to her congregation the results of a survey that showed that members of the small group identified themselves as ethical religionists, humanists, ethical Christians, agnostics, mystics, and Pagans.
I’m sure the same would be true of our fellowship. She asked that members remember the UU values of respect, equity, compassion, and acceptance, so that their community could be a place where all are both respected and affirmed, and in her own words: “whether we are theists, agnostics, atheists, Humanists, Pagans, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, other, prefer no label, or undecided.”
Rev Haresh closed with a benediction by Arthur Foote II , and I will also:
May peace dwell in our hearts
And understanding in our minds
May courage steel our wills
And love forever guide us.