Common Ground of our Diverse Faith
EUT 2019 Closing Ceremony Sermon
Karsten Urban, Co-President, Unitarier – Religionsgemeinschaft freien Glaubens (URfG)
translated by Johanna Houkes
photo by Volker Bühnemann (Unitarier – RFG)
Let’s be honest, we Unitarians are pretty peculiar people. Not only is it hard for us to explain to others who we are and what our religion is all about; we are having an even harder time with words and terms that are totally normal for others:
- Are we a worldview or a religion?
- We are calling ourselves a religious community – but many outside of our community understand the word “religion” quite differently.
- Do we believe in anything?
- If so, what do we call it?
God is unacceptable for a lot of us – but what do we use instead? The divine, the all-one, the Unitas, the divine force, the Unnameable – whatever we choose to call it, hardly anyone outside our community understands it – and what about us, do we understand it?
In the Unitarier – Religionsgemeinschaft freien Glaubens, we are also convinced that every human being carries religious wisdom within them and possesses religious abilities. For this reason, we are a religious lay community by conviction. We do without any priests who have the power to interpret religion, let alone the authority to give instructions. We would never call our building a ‘church’. Using the term ‘God’ is so problematic because, in German, the word is closely related to a personal God – as in ‘God up above, we down here’ – and that is the exact opposite of our Unitarian belief.
And although we claim we are tolerant, or at least that we want to be, members may leave the room in protest if the Bible is quoted during a service.
And then we German Unitarians meet Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists from other countries. They have churches, an altar, maybe even a raised pulpit. They sing songs that may remind many of us of songs sung in church, featuring words such as “God” and “Hallelujah”. There are ministers who wear robes and stoles – for many of us the epitome of the priest who preaches from the pulpit to teach the true doctrine to the faithful.
However, many of us don’t even have a problem with Christianity or the Christian faith as such. Some call it the ‘Loving God’; others call it the ‘Universal Spirit’ that is in all of us. In Germany, however, society and politics are unfortunately extremely dominated by the two Christian churches – to the detriment of other religious communities, especially those with a free faith. Religious instruction in schools, crosses in public buildings and classrooms, church tax, are just a few examples of that influence.
Germany and especially we Unitarians are a bit strange with regard to many things. So, surely our international friends are as surprised at their encounter with our form of Unitarianism as we were or still are with theirs.
Does that mean that German Unitarians are incompatible with Unitarians from Hungary, Romania, Great Britain, Canada or the United States? Are we a spice so peculiar that mixing it with other spices makes the whole meal taste bitter? Inedible?
Is it not much more enjoyable to stay comfortably among ourselves – with what we’re used to, as it has always been – and then slowly but surely die out together?
I, too, had mixed feelings when I met Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists from other countries for the first time – it felt a bit strange; things like ‘holy’, ‘communion’, reciting texts together and many other things were and partly are just so unlike my own idea of Unitarianism.
But then, bit by bit, I discovered that behind these superficial manifestations lies the same core, the same foundation. In our Basic Ideas we describe our Unitarian faith as follows:
“We believe that everything that exists constitutes a whole. Its various manifestations are integrated in an all-embracing continuum. We regard ourselves as a part of this continuum, which sustains us and which is influenced by us.
In and around ourselves we feel the same creative energy which many think of as being divine. It is at work on a large as well as on a small scale, and it is constantly present even if we are not always aware of it.
Unitarian religion is open to new knowledge and new experiences.”
The seventh Principle of the UUA is shorter than that but expresses the same idea: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Do you see it? The content is the same, just the wording is different.
Or let’s take a look at the first Principle of the UUA: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”. In our Basic Ideas we say in the part called “About Life”: “We feel reverence for life, being well aware of its contradictions and hardships. The variety of its manifestations means great wealth to us. We oppose very firmly all efforts to reduce this variety” and a little later it says “Human life is one of the innumerable manifestations of nature, it is integrated in the evolution of life… Although all people are different individuals, they have equal rights.”
Thus: we all are valuable, special, unique – there’s a divine spark in all of us and that is why the value and dignity of each individual is inviolable.
This comparison can be taken further. Perhaps some people remember the posters on the wall, on which Dorothea Kaufmann compared the Basic Ideas and the Seven Principles at the first EUT in Ulm.
We Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists are all searching for meaning in our lives. And we do this on the same foundation of our Unitarian or Unitarian-Universalist religion, which carries us and which we can actively help shape. Whatever supports us and nurtures us is the same, those are the same ingredients, the same recipe.
This recipe asks for different spices depending on the individual, the fellowship and the community, and that is why the food prepared according to that recipe may smell or taste differently. And that is a good thing. We don’t want a boring porridge that always tastes the same. Because diversity means richness, also within our community. We need this community, our Unitarian and Unitarian-Universalist community, to support each other, especially when we need it the most. But we also don’t want a community in which someone tells us what is right and what is wrong, tells us what tastes good and what doesn’t.
We are all interconnected. In the story we heard a minute ago, we would use our own wings, and that would be our own and free decision. But we also realize that if we use our wings with each other and not against each other, we will all benefit from it.
The many different spices in our community are a great treasure without which our food would not taste good. But it is not the spices that feed us and keep us alive – it is our food in which we put these spices. Let us be more generous with the use of our spices. Let’s try them out and let’s not push away the meal just because you think you won’t like it because you don’t like the look or smell of it.
We can, of course, continue to use our spices – as long as we like them. But also try to discover the spices of others – and find out that it is the variety of our spices on the same Unitarian and Unitarian-Universalist meal that makes our community so valuable to all of us.