THE CHALLENGE FOR MODERN-DAY UNITARIANS AND UNIVERSALISTS: RECLAIMING THE SACRED AND THE HOLY

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An Address Delivered on 4 October 2009 at the Biennial Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Unitarian Universalist Association (ANZUUA) held at The Centre, Randwick, New South Wales - Copyright Ian Ellis-Jones 2009 - All Rights Reserved.

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  • 1. THE CHALLENGE FOR MODERN-DAY UNITARIANS AND UNIVERSALISTS RECLAIMING THE SACRED AND THE HOLY The Rev. Dr Ian Ellis-Jones BA, LLB (Syd), LLM, PhD (UTS), Dip Relig Stud (LCIS) Senior Minister, Sydney Unitarian Church An Address Delivered on 4 October 2009 at the Biennial Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Unitarian Universalist Association (ANZUUA) held at The Centre, Randwick, New South WalesGreetings, one and all.At the outset, I should make it clear - and I make no apology for this - that I will,throughout this address, be using the God word a far bit. Of course, the wordGod, if one uses it at all, means different things to different people. For some,there is no objective referent at all to the word God, and I respect that positionas well. As Krishnamurti used to say, The word is not the thing. Its the realitybehind the word that matters.For me, the word God refers to the Spirit of Life - the very livingness of all life,the essential oneness of all life, and the self-givingness of life to itself so as toperpetuate itself. I also use the word God to refer to our innate potentialperfectibility, as well as to what I regard as being the sacred, the holy. As regardsthe latter, I find that sense of the sacred or holy essentially in the enchantment ofeveryday life ... in the ordinary as opposed to the extraordinary, and in the naturalworld as opposed to some supposed supernatural world.Sir Julian Huxley, in an essay entitled The New Divinity in his compilation bookEssays of a Humanist, had this to say about the word divine, after firstreminding his readers that the term divine did not originally imply the existenceof gods: on the contrary, gods were constructed to interpret [our] experiences ofthis quality:
  • 2. 2 For want of a better, I use the term divine, though this quality of divinity is not truly supernatural is not truly supernatural but transnatural -- it grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it. The divine is what man finds worthy of adoration, that which compels his worship: and during history it evolves like everything else.Being what is referred to as a panentheist (God is the ground of all being, God isin all things, and all things are in God; but all things are not God), I reject alltraditional notions of theism as well as the notion that there is a supernaturalorder, level or dimension to life. I find the sacred or the holy in, as alreadymentioned, the enchantment of everyday life, as well as in all of life, andespecially in those more enlightened souls who have blessed us with theirpresence, teachings and example.Now, even though I believe that there is only one order or level of reality, I trulybelieve and submit that real religious or spiritual experience involves what RudolfOtto referred to as the numinous. In The Idea of the Holy Otto expressed hisopinion that, at the heart of religious or spiritual experience, there was this senseof the numinous or the holy. The numinous experience was, according to Otto,inexpressible, ineffable". Otto saw the numinous or holy as a mysterium tremenset fascinans, that is, a tremendous (read, awe- and fear-inspiring) and fascinatingmystery. The experience of the numinous or holy is, in the words of Otto, a unique experience of confrontation with a power Wholly Other, outside of normal experience and indescribable in its terms; terrifying, ranging from sheer demonic dread through awe to sublime majesty; and fascinating, with irresistible attraction, demanding unconditional allegiance.Further, the experience, writes Otto, grips or stirs the human mind. The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its "profane," non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strongest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering.
  • 3. 3Otto then offers this definition of religion: It is the positive response to this experience in thought (myth and theology) and action (cult and worship) that constitutes religion.In other words, it is not so much the experience of the numinous or holy thatconstitutes religion but rather our response to the experience. Regrettably, mostof those associated with liberal religion have lost this sense of the holy, this realmof the sacred, or the divine. Unless we regain it, we have no future at all. Lateron, I will suggest how we can move forward and meet the challenge.Before so doing, I should also mention that there is another type of religious orspiritual experience that is equally real, and it lies almost entirely in the moralrealm. The ethicist Felix Adler, in his little book Life and Destiny (1913), writes: The experience to which I refer is essentially moral experience. It may be described as a sense of subjection to imperious impulses which urge our finite nature toward infinite issues; a sense of propulsions which we can resist, but not disown; a sense of a power greater than ourselves, with which, nevertheless, in essence we are one; a sense, in times of moral stress, of channels opened by persistent effort, which let in a flood of rejuvenating energy and puts us in command of unsuspected moral resources; a sense, finally, of the complicity of our life with the life of others, of living in them in no merely metaphorical signification of the word; of unity with all spiritual being whatsoever.Professor W. P. Montague, of Columbia University, refers in his book BeliefUnbound (1930) to religion as being the acceptance neither of a primitive absurdity, nor of a sophisticated truism, but of a momentous possibility the possibility, namely, that what is highest in spirit is also deepest in nature; that the ideal and the real are at least to some extent identified, not merely evanescently in our own lives, but enduringly in the universe itselfand also as the faith that there is in nature an urge or power other than man himself that makes for the kind of thing that man regards as good.Now, most of those here today who are members or regular, or even irregular,attendees of a Unitarian or Universalist church, fellowship or society would
  • 4. 4identify as Unitarians or Universalists. In some places, words Unitarian andUniversalist are conjoined, hence the expression Unitarian Universalist.Some may not be sure what they are. All of you are welcome here today, forUnitarianism, and Universalism are for all sincere and honest seekers afterspiritual truth who have love in their hearts and goodwill towards others.I like both words - Unitarian and Universalist - because they both point to andaffirm a wholeness which is all-inclusive and all-embracing.With its historical roots in early Judaism and Christianity, the religious philosophyand movement known as Unitarianism came out of the Protestant Reformationwhen many people began to claim the right to read and interpret the Bible forthemselves and the right to set their own conscience as a test of the teachings ofreligion. The theological roots of Unitarianism may be found in 16th centuryEurope, in particular, Hungary, Poland (where it flourished in that century) andRomania, when some biblical scholars rejected the idea of the trinitarianChristian God (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), claiming that a single God wasmore consistent with the Bible. (Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord.Dt 6:4.) Hence, the name Unitarian.It was not so much the actual Doctrine of the Trinity that those who came to belabeled Unitarians so much objected, but the Doctrine of the Deity (as opposed tothe essential Divinity) of Jesus Christ. Be that as it may, the word Unitarianoriginally drew attention to an emphasis on the essential unity of God, rather thanGods trinity or triplicity.The Universalist denomination in the United States originated with John Murray(1741-1815), a convert to Universalism as taught by the Methodist ministerJames Relly (c.1722-1778) in England and who had been also greatly influencedby the preaching of the Anglican minister George Whitefield (1714-1770) inEngland. John Murray arrived in New Jersey in 1770. After preaching there andin New York and New England, he settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts where in
  • 5. 51779 he became pastor of the first Universalist church in the United States. Themovement spread from there, with other ministers, including the Baptist ministerElhanan Winchester (1751-1797) and Hosea Ballou (1771-1852), the latter anitinerant New England preacher who directed Universalism toward his ownUnitarian theology, playing a very important role in the early history of AmericaUniversalism. Susan Jacoby, in her book Freethinkers: A History of AmericanSecularism, writes: The ministers who led this transformation were American originals, men of great passion and moderation, combining a philosophical commitment to natural rights with a pragmatic reliance on empirical knowledge.In 1961 the American Unitarian Association and The Universalist Church ofAmerica merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (known as theUUA), which comprises over 1,000 congregations across the USA. The UUAworks closely with other similar organizations in many other areas of the worldmany of which belong to the umbrella organization known as the InternationalCouncil of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) which, as most of you would beaware, is a world council bringing together Unitarians, Universalists and UnitarianUniversalists.As regards Australia, and my own Church in particular, the Sydney congregationwas formed in 1850, two years before what is now known as the MelbourneUnitarian Peace Memorial Church was established, and four years before ameeting of the Unitarian Christians of South Australia was held in Adelaide. TheRev. George H. Stanley was appointed the first minister of the Sydneycongregation in 1853. The first church was in Macquarie Street, Sydney. In the1870s the congregation moved to a new church in Liverpool Street, but thatchurch was destroyed by fire in 1936. Another church was built in Francis Street,which was opened in 1940. In 1970 that church was demolished and, on thesame site, a new multi-storey building was later erected (and since extensivelyrenovated and modernized), which is the Sydney churchs present location. If Ihad more time, I would refer to the early history of Unitarianism in the otherStates of Australia, so please forgive me for that.
  • 6. 6There has never been any Universalist Church, in the strict North Americansense and tradition, in Australia. However, over the years, a few churches,congregations and fellowships have from time to time, and right up to thepresent, called themselves Universalist as opposed to Unitarian. Nothingmuch turns on it.Today, the word Unitarian in most places now points to our emphasis on theessential unity of all life, and all persons, irrespective of whether or not we evenaffirm any belief in a God in any traditional sense of the meaning of the word orotherwise. As Unitarians, along with other religious liberals, we affirm that theuniverse and all that exists within it are one interrelated and interdependentwhole, such that everything and everyone are rooted in the same universal, life-creating ultimate reality.The word Universalist originally affirmed the belief, held by most earlyChristians, by the way - right up to the 6th century CE - that no soul is forever lostfrom the all-conquering love of God. No soul - whether male or female, Buddhistor Baptist, Mormon or Muslim, Jew, atheist, gay or straight. Thus, belief in anyspecific Christian doctrine or dogma was not required.Unitarianism and Universalism were very similar in theology except that mostUniversalists, at least initially, still accepted the divinity of Jesus, a doctrineordinarily rejected by most Unitarians. Said Thomas Starr King (1824-1864),who at various times was both a Universalist and a Unitarian minister: The Universalists think God is too good to damn them forever; the Unitarians think they are too good to be damned forever.What L. B. Fisher, a Universalist pastor who for many years was also the editorof the Universalists denominational newsletter The Leader, once said about theUniversalists is equally applicable to the stance of most religious liberals: Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this is that we do not stand at all, we move We do not stand still, nor do we defend any immovable positions, theologically
  • 7. 7 speaking, and we are therefore harder to count or to form into imposing bodies. We grow and we march, as all living things forever must do. The main questions with Universalists are not where we stand but which way are we moving. Our main interest is to perceive what is true progress and to keep our movement in line with that.Today, the word Universalist affirms that the most powerful force in the word indeed, in the whole universe is love, strange as it may seem. That love, whichis the fundamental underlying universal principle of all religion, is infinite,adorable, unchangeable, but entirely incomprehensible. Universalism also affirmsthat not only is there a universality of spiritual principles and spiritual experienceunderlying most, if not all, religions (sensibly interpreted, of course, and strippedof outmoded accretions and superstitions) which cannot be claimed as theexclusive possession of any one religion, but, more importantly, there is auniversality in values that are quite independent of any or all religion. They arethe universal values of honesty, integrity, justice, grace, forgiveness andcompassion also, that truth, properly understood, transcends national, cultural,racial, even faith boundaries.Both Unitarianism and Universalism affirm that th...

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