Death by a Thousand Cuts

by Floyd Vernon Chandler

Lingchi was an ancient Chinese method of capital punishment noted for the prolonged suffering it inflicted upon the condemned. It was often referred to as “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” The executioner was skilled in cutting flesh and limbs in a manner that caused much pain but delayed death. Sometimes I wonder if Unitarian Universalist theism met the grim reaper from the mortal wounds of a more modern and sanitized version of Lingchi.

This reflection will be a collection of stories. The first story begins in 2002. The location was Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo. I was on an eleven-month tour of duty as the senior U.S. Army Chaplain for the Kosovo Force (KFOR), a NATO peacekeeping operation with international troops stationed primarily in the countries of Kosovo and Macedonia. The key mission of our Area Support Group chaplain’s office was to provide logistical support, training, and worship aids for the U.S. Army chaplains and chapels scattered throughout the “footprint”. Most Sunday mornings were spent visiting various worship services among the six Army chapels located in Kosovo and Macedonia. Sometimes I was asked to deliver a guest sermon during the visit. Usually, my chaplain assistant and I sat in one of the chapel pews and participated as members of the congregation. Before or after the scheduled service, we might meet with assigned chaplains and chaplain assistants to ascertain any needs or problems that might require our assistance. If the worship service concluded around lunchtime, we often joined the chapel staff for lunch in their respective dining facilities. Most Sunday afternoons, we were back in our offices located in the South Chapel at Camp Bondsteel.

A couple of months following my arrival in Kosovo, I initiated Unitarian Universalist worship services late every Sunday afternoon in the South Chapel. It was announced by sign on the chapel door and it was noted in the “Worship Opportunities” flyer that was passed out to new soldiers arriving in Kosovo. We rarely had more than four or five in attendance. The service was more akin to an adult religious education class. I might provide a religious reading, and the gathered soldiers discussed the material while sharing with one another aspects of their faith journeys. Some attendees were members of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the USA, but many soldiers visited the service out of curiosity.

One fellow officer, a young Army Major I will call “Chuck,” checked out one of the Unitarian Universalist services after a conversation he and I had had the previous week. Chuck had been raised in a more conservative Christian tradition, and Chuck was genuinely interested in trying to find a spiritual community that was more open to his questions and doubts. Chuck seemed genuinely interested when I shared with him aspects of the Transcendentalist movement within Unitarianism and Universalism. Both the Universalist concept of Universal salvation and the Unitarian concept of the oneness of God appealed to Chuck. Chuck became a regular attendee at the Sunday afternoon Unitarian Universalist services/discussion group.

You say “Hello” to new comrades in the Army, and you later say your “Good-byes” to the very same comrades who have become dear friends. Soldiers are coming and going in most military units. However, it is uncanny how old Army buddies often resurface at later assignments, and the friendships can be re-established just as the friendships had been before. So it was with Chuck and me. A year later when I was assigned to Heidelberg, Germany, Chuck appeared in a hallway down from the V Corps chaplain office. Chuck had been reassigned to V Corps in Heidelberg. We went to lunch at the nearby military dining facility and caught up on one another’s life. Chuck asked me if there were any Unitarian Universalist services in the Heidelberg area. I told him of a group that met twice monthly at a nearby Army chapel. There was no Heidelberg service slated for the following Sunday, but it just happened that I had plans, the very next Sunday, to attend the only other English language Unitarian Universalist congregation in Germany. The service was scheduled to be conducted at a U.S. Air Force chapel located about an hour drive from Heidelberg. I invited Chuck to ride along with me. Chuck accepted the offer.

Now, Chuck clearly identified with theistic theology. The term “God” was a bit of a mystery for Chuck (as it is for most everyone), but Chuck believed in a spiritual presence or higher power. Chuck believed in the soul, and he embraced some notion of immortality. Chuck held much respect for the teachings of Jesus, but he doubted that Jesus was actually God. Chuck could not understand the church of his childhood where eternal hell had been preached. The concept of Universal salvation appealed to Chuck. Prayer was a mystery to Chuck, but Chuck believed that prayer could impact both the person praying and the one for whom prayers are made. Chuck considered himself an “open-minded Christian.”

When we arrived at the Air Force chapel, Chuck and I took a seat on a pew toward the front of the chapel. There were about 35 individuals in attendance that Sunday afternoon. It was a lay led service and the gentleman leading the service began the service by welcoming the guests in attendance. After the welcome, the lay leader added the strange comment, “I guess you visitors had to come out and see what this bunch of atheists were all about!”

There were a few chuckles among the congregation. There was no laughter from Chuck or me.

I was startled by the words in the welcoming comment, but I felt more concern for my friend Chuck. Other than the small and informal services in Kosovo, this was the first time for Chuck to experience a real Unitarian Universalist worship service. I looked over to Chuck and could sense his discomfort. Visiting with a bunch of atheists was not why Chuck accepted my invitation to attend the Unitarian Universalist service. We stayed through the service. I can no longer recall the topic of the program, but I will never forget the welcoming comment. On the drive back to Heidelberg, I tried to assure Chuck that not all Unitarian Universalists are atheists but that Unitarian Universalists welcome people from all theological perspectives including atheists. Chuck was polite in his comments during the drive back to Heidelberg, but Chuck never again inquired about attending any future Unitarian Universalist gatherings. When I later invited Chuck to Unitarian Universalist services at the nearby Heidelberg Army chapel, Chuck politely declined.

The founders and early leaders of both Unitarianism and Universalism were both theists and self-identified Christians. John Murray, Elhanan Winchester, George de Benneville, Hosea Ballou, Thomas Starr King and many, many others considered themselves Christian Universalists. William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Parker considered themselves Unitarian Christians. They were all theists in their religious theologies. The term “Unitarian” was used to refer to the oneness of God. The term “Universalist” was used to refer to universal salvation and the destiny of the human soul following the death of the human body. Both Unitarians and Universalists believed in prayer and held high regard for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. In the early 1800s, worshipers in Unitarian and Universalist churches did not think of themselves as Sunday morning atheists. Both Unitarians and Universalists considered themselves liberal Christians. In the late 1800s, the Universalist Church of America was the 6th largest denomination in the United States. How we have changed!

A rather progressive United Methodist minister (and a classmate from my student days at Candler School of Theology) recently shared the following story with me. I will call him, “Luke.” Luke had served United Methodist parishes for several years before accepting a church related teaching position that allowed him free Sundays. Luke used his free Sundays to visit various churches near his new home. He told me of his visit to the local Unitarian Universalist congregation. Upon his first Sunday visit, he was impressed by the signs and notices in the vestibule. He read of Buddhist meditation classes; a Pro-choice abortion rally; and an upcoming Wiccan Beltane service. He casually noticed something draped off on the side of the vestibule. He attended two Sunday worship services at this local Unitarian Universalist congregation. The church was without a minister for one reason or another, and both services were lay-led. He said neither Sunday felt like a worship service. There were no references to the Bible or God. There was no prayer. Luke recounted that the two programs seemed more like civic club meetings. But Luke said the members were welcoming and friendly.

Following the second Sunday service, Luke engaged a member of the congregation in the vestibule, and he inquired as to what was behind the draped area. The member walked over to the drapes and untied the knots holding the curtain in place. Hidden behind the cloth covering was a beautiful and intricate wooden carving of the Last Supper. The carving had been made into the actual wooden wall of the vestibule.

Luke exclaimed, “That is so beautiful!”

As Luke examined the carving in more detail, he asked, “Why do you keep this stunning artwork hidden behind the cloth drapes?”

The layperson responded, “Well, a member of the church made the carving over 75 years ago. It is beautiful, but some members thought it was too Christian and that the carving might offend some potential members if it was left undraped. The church members voted to keep it covered to avoid offending anyone.”

Luke quickly glanced again around the vestibule. The Buddhist meditation notice remained on the bulletin board along with the Pro-choice abortion rally information. The invitation to the Wiccan Beltane service was taped to the wall near the drapes covering the Last Supper carving. Luke thanked the member for showing him the draped carving, but Luke never returned for another service at that Unitarian Universalist congregation. When Luke told me the story, he laughed. He had found much humor in the vestibule experience.

For three years, I was employed as a Department of Veterans Affairs hospice chaplain. Hospice chaplaincy has to be one of the most rewarding and meaningful of any of my ministry experiences. When a veteran died in our hospice unit, we often conducted a short memorial service at bedside, or in the small hospice chapel, prior to the body being transported to the medical center morgue.

One hospice memorial service is etched in my memory. A member of the family had asked me to read the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. Knowing that the prayer was in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, I walked to the nearby chaplain office and retrieved my copy. As I walked back to the hospice unit, I thumbed through the pages and found the reading. I bookmarked the page and joined family members and various hospice staff. At the appropriate time I read from the hymnal what I thought was the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. After the brief service, one of the Catholic nurses approached me and asked, “Why did you omit the final sentence in the St. Francis prayer?”

I opened the hymnal to my bookmark and checked to see how I might have missed reading the last sentence. With the nurse standing by me, I pointed to the passage and read the last sentence aloud to her, “For it is in giving that we receive, and in pardoning that we are pardoned.”

But she proclaimed, “Yes, that is what you read but that is not the last sentence of the prayer!”

She took the hymnal from my hands and studied the words. She looked surprised. She said, “The last sentence is missing in this book. The final verse is, ‘it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.’”

I went back to my office and checked other sources. Sure enough, the editors of the Unitarian Universalist hymnal had deleted the most theologically theistic verse in the entire prayer. The words of St. Francis referring to the soul and immortality had been edited out of the prayer. It was that day that I decided I’d never again trust the accuracy of any reading found in a Unitarian Universalist hymnal!

How did Unitarian and Universalist congregations move from Christian theism to predominately anti-Christian atheism? I suspect the progression, or regression, has been death by a thousand cuts. One significant laceration was the signing of the Humanist Manifesto in 1933. Of the 34 signers, about half were prominent Unitarian and Universalist ministers.

Article One of the Manifesto rejects any creation motif or creative intelligence for the origin of the universe. Article Three rejects philosophical or theological dualism (body and mind/spirit). Article Six affirms that the time has passed for theism and deism.

The signers of the Humanist Manifesto stated that their goal was to create a new “Religious Humanism.” However, the Unitarian and Universalist signers remained active in their respective Unitarian and Universalist parishes and ministerial associations. Did the emergence of the Humanist Manifesto signal the beginning of the revising of Unitarian and Universalist hymns and responsive readings? Was the Manifesto behind the Unitarian and Universalist efforts to delete words/phrases that supported dualism and theism? The impact of the Humanist Manifesto, and the movement of Unitarians and Universalists away from theism, might be worthy of additional research.

My intention is not to paint humanism as evil. Most people of faith embrace the humanist ethic that humankind shares a responsibility for the care of the planet and the human condition. Even among fundamentalist Christians, there are many who interpret the Genesis creation stories as sacred paradigms supporting this humanist ethic. According to Old Testament scripture, the God of Adam and Eve entrusted humanity with responsibility for the planet and all living things.

Not all atheists embrace the humanist philosophy. But per the Humanist Manifesto, all humanists profess atheism. Humanism/atheism is a legitimate philosophical position. Heck, it takes much more belief, or unbelief, to uphold humanism/atheism than does the rather muddled conviction of agnosticism! But humanism/atheism and theism make for some rather strange bed partners within a religious faith. Here are two diametrically opposed world views seeking a common spiritual language.

When I was ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister, at a very young twenty-three years of age, I claimed humanist as my religious orientation. (In truth, I was more of an agnostic with some humanistic leanings.) It was after the age of 30, seven years after embarking upon the UU ministry, that I came to embrace a more natural theism or panentheism. My evolving theology drew me to the mystical and theistic aspects of the early Universalist faith. This was when I initially became aware that theism was no longer nurtured within Unitarian Universalism. Unitarian and Universalist theism was dying.

I doubt that the Humanist Manifesto, or any other one-time event, was the fatal stab against Unitarian and Universalist theism. The death of liberal religious theism was by a thousand cuts.

But now I wonder. Can a theist find a home in contemporary Unitarian Universalism? Can a liberal Christian feel welcome in modern Unitarian Universalism? Might a 2021 version of Ralph Waldo Emerson or William Ellery Channing or Theodore Parker experience any connection with present-day Unitarian Universalism?

I wonder.

Vernon Chandler has provided ministry as a parish minister, Army chaplain, hospital chaplain, prison chaplain, and community minister. He was ordained to the Unitarian Universalist ministry in 1976 and retired in 2020. He now prefers to be identified as a “Universalist theist” and not a “UU.” Vernon and his family reside in Ansbach, Germany.