Reflections from the President of the UUA

March/April 1999
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An American professor once went to study with a Zen master in Japan. At their first meeting, the Zen master received the American with a silent bow and prepared the tea ceremony according to custom. At the appropriate moment, he poured tea into the cup set before the guest. He poured, and then poured some more, until the professor became alarmed: “Stop!” he hollered, breaking the silence. “It’s too full. Full to overflowing!” 

The Zen master looked at his visitor. “So too is your mind. Full of ideas, opinions, prejudices, theories. You must first empty yourself. Only then will you be receptive to what is true and real.” 

Sociologist Peter Berger, a famous student and teacher of what is true and real about American religious institutions, recently noted that while many of North America’s more liberal and moderate religious denominations have been losing members, morale, and moral influence, the cry that “the liberal church is dead” may be premature or even wrongheaded. 

“Religious institutions built on modern skepticisms will be fragile,” he writes, “but they can show remarkable vitality.” 

Fragile we are. Like the delicate, tiny porcelain cups used in the tea ceremony, our mostly small congregations try to contain all our many strong ideas, opinions, prejudices, and theories. Yet we do show amazing spiritual vitality. 

Witness the fact that in the last decade, while much larger denominations have been declining, Unitarian Universalist ranks have increased by some 50,000 adult members and youth--roughly a 30% growth.  I have visited over 550 of our 1,030 congregations. On over 100 of the visits, I’ve been there to help congregations dedicate new or expanded facilities. Often more people have been at worship services than the whole reported membership of the church. 

Our commitment seems to have increased as well. Even when adjusted for inflation, contributions to local congregations have nearly doubled. Per capita giving to the UUA and districts, and to other agencies of shared mission, has nearly doubled, too. 

Why has all this taken place? Not because we claim to have all the answers. No--perhaps precisely because we don’t make that claim. 

Berger points out that the Protestant foundations of liberal religion both lead us to value the individual person and to celebrate an authentic inner faith that is more powerful than the triumphalism of seemingly stronger, more dogmatic institutions.  He goes on to explain that institutionally weaker denominations may in fact offer “a truer witness to the self-emptying of God.” 

There he’s alluding to a very ancient, sound theological tradition. It says that even God decided to practice “self-emptying”--in order to make room for Creation, for us, for partners in the ongoing creative process. In Judaism, it’s used to explain the presence of the Shekinah, the divine glory, in all that exists around us. The Jewish tradition even speaks of each soul as one of the scattered sparks of the divine. The work of redemption, then, is to reunite them. 

In Christianity, the self-emptying is called kenosis and also accounts for how the Divine, the Good, can be crucified--and emptied of meaning--if we try (as so often we do) to nail down the Holy with dogmatic prescriptions. 

The late James Luther Adams, UU social ethicist and theologian, compared the liberal church in its seeming weakness to the biblical David, who went out to face the giant Goliath without the armor and weapons that were offered him. No shield, no sword, no helmet, no spear. Similarly, we liberal religionists forego any summa theologica, historic creed, metaphysical teaching, or other prescriptive formulations. 

Just as David took with him only five smooth, well-worn stones from the brook Kedron, so we take with us only some very simple principles that we hold in common, grounded in universal experience: 

That revelation is not sealed. As the hymn goes on to say, “answering now to our endeavor / truth and right are still revealed.” 

That authentic religious living is voluntarily chosen and shaped through persuasion, not coercion. 

That we nevertheless have an obligation, on the basis of all we have been given in life, to form more authentic community with and for others. 

That we must not rely upon the immaculate conception of virtue but rather practice the social incarnation of the good we seek. 

That we must think critically but hope always--remembering that none of us knows enough to be justified in an ultimate despair. 

What is real and true about human living is always grounded in paradox. True strength is grounded in vulnerability. We need self-discipline to live in freedom. We must empty ourselves in order to be filled. We must feed others in order that we may be nourished. We must doubt in order to grow in faith. And we must have faith to draw nearer to the real and true. 

Next time you worship, or sit in prayer or meditation, or talk to others about religious living, try to bear this in mind. Our opinions can get in the way. Emptying ourselves of ego is the precondition to enlarging the soul. 

Yours faithfully, 
John Buehrens
President, Unitarian Universalist Association

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