Children of the Same God
From the Book of Genesis:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
And so ends the foundational reading of four major world religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Bahai, and also several smaller faith traditions, Samaritanism, the Druze, and Rastafarianism.
We don’t often hear these words spoken from a Unitarian Universalist pulpit, even though in this season of the High Holy Days, several Unitarian Universalist communities are pausing and joining with their Jewish siblings in celebrating their new year and the season of forgiveness.
We draw from the well of the High Holy Days quite often. And so, too, when Ramadan rolls around year after year, there is often a mention. We lift up the devotion and sacrifice of Islam. We like to look at Islam and say of ourselves, submit, but don’t lose yourself.
And Christianity goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Christmas and Easter roll around year after year and we toil with the theme of hope: hope in darkness, hope in death. Throw in our Protestant heritage for good measure – our undeniable connection with American Puritanism, and you start to understand why some folks argue that we are post-Christian, Christian-lite, not Christian, and all of the above.
We pause to learn about the Bahai every now and then, and I’m certain the Druze, Samaritans, and Rastafari make occasional appearances from our pulpits. But the story of Abraham and the promise of his God to Abraham’s people is a story that we do not make occasion for. Some of this is due to our perpetual Protestantism –
I like to joke that we are the Protestants that forgot to stop protesting until all we had left were pews in buildings but we had forgotten what they were called. The other part of this is due to a cultural allergy or the real healing we have yet to do concerning the Abrahamic faith traditions.
To that last point, I have terrible news. If we are the super hippy liberal grandchildren of the Puritans, our foundational story was once the one we just heard – that of God promising Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. I don’t think Yahweh had Unitarian Universalists in mind.
I often mention our history and our lineage as Unitarian Universalists in painstaking detail for a very good reason. We are still a relatively new religion emerging out of Protestant Christianity.
And while it is good and right that we have separated from that lineage – we’ve created another branch in the family tree of world religions – we need to remember where we come from and why. I feel it is one of our great tasks, among many, as Unitarian Universalists celebrating only 56 years as a new religion.
I have relatives more seasoned and storied than Unitarian Universalism. As are many of you. But 56 years, especially on the cusp of the freelove rebelliousness of the 60s and 70s that Unitarian Universalism was swept up in — we run the risk of forgetting who we are. Why we are. What we are.
We share, at least on paper, a lineage with the other major and not-so-major Abrahamic traditions. And along with that lineage, we share a history, as Unitarians, of cooperation, interfaith dialogue, and a deep shared theological understanding – that of being vocally monotheistic along with Jews and Muslims.
This connection, for classical Unitarians, goes back to the beginning. Not an Adam and Eve beginning, but a Jesus of Nazareth beginning. Upon the death of Jesus and the beginning of the various Jesus movements in the ancient western world, there was a great diversity of belief and practice.
This diversity continued until the 4th century when in the year 325, the Emperor Constantine summoned the First Council of Nicaea to settled the debate about the nature of Jesus – was he god? Or was he just a prophet? Those were two of the major beliefs concerning Jesus at the time but I should note, they were amongst several other beliefs.
The council, of course, decided that Jesus was divine – though it should be noted that several bishops left unsatisfied with the result. Some left wondering why on earth they were debating this in the first place, but, they would later remark, they thoroughly enjoyed luxuriating at Constantine’s palace in Nicaea.
Modern liberal historians will note that, outside of the Roman churches, there wasn’t much concern about the true nature of Jesus. But what emerged from this council, for our purposes as Unitarian Universalists, was – first, the declaration that our historical understanding of Jesus as a great prophet, no more divine than any of us – or equally divine, depending on who you ask, was deemed heresy.
And second, these heretical Christians that dared to say Jesus was a prophet were lumped into the same category as Jews and treated as one common enemy by the church. Unitarian Christians and Jews found themselves in a relationship built upon common oppression and survivalism. The relationship has been, more or less, strong ever since.
And to our Islamic siblings and their relationship with Unitarianism, that story comes much later, in the 16th century, when King John Sigismund, the only Unitarian king of record, issued the Edict of Toleration – an edict that said that in his kingdom, which is now the modern day Transylvania region of Hungary and Romania – in his kingdom you could practice whatever religion you sought fit to do.
It was a radical notion for the 16th century, unheard of, and heretical in its own right. And it was the product of Islamic-Unitarian mingling and cooperation in that region. What we often leave out of the story is that Transylvania was bordering the Ottoman empire when the decree was passed – and the Ottomans had a vested interest in ensuring the major monotheisms of their empire coexisted and they so desperately wanted to sow that cooperation in a very divisive and anti-Islamic Hapsburg kingdom in Hungary.
From these tidbits of history, one might walk away and go, well, look at that, good for us, we are amazing. Unitarians have always coexisted with Jews and Muslims. But it is not so for American Unitarians. Since our branch of Unitarianism came directly, not from the council of Nicaea or Transylvania or even the British Unitarians, but the American Puritans – we have had an entirely different relationship with Islam and Judaism.
My colleague, the Rev. Dr. Susie Ritchie, in her book, “Children of the Same God” painstakingly details the history of Unitarianism with Judaism and Islam, but also makes some eye-opening declarations about the American branch of Unitarianism in relationship with our siblings of other faiths. She quotes the historian Perry Miller and his assessment of Unitarianism when he said,
Unitarianism was an entirely different wine from any that had ever been pressed from the grapes of Calvinism, and in entirely new bottles, which the merchants of Boston found much to their liking. It was a pure, white dry claret that went well with dinners served by the Harvard Corporation, but it was mild and guaranteed not to send them home reeling and staggering.
Reeling and staggering, something polite American Unitarians did not want to be seen doing. But also a commentary on how our tradition is so closely intertwined with ideas of social location and class. American Unitarians did not want to stagger like the Quakers and Shakers in their ecstatic dances.
They did not want to be seen as the hoopin’ and hollerin’ revivalists of the enlightenment. Instead, they held on to their vintage as learned people not prone to emotional outbursts. What this meant for American Unitarians and their interfaith engagement is that it was, mostly, with books – not people.
Throw in the increasing whiteness of class in 19th century America, and you see a racializing of Islam and Judaism emerging that further separated the privileged Unitarians from any sort of true interfaith engagement. I’ll be the first to admit our history is complex and not as rosy as we sometimes think it is – this is one example. 19th century Unitarians fetishized ideas and were not too interested in living, breathing humans.
But so what? Why mention all of this history? And don’t worry, there is no test on this. But why bother offering glimpses of the story of Abraham, the Council of Nicaea, the complex relationship between Transylvania and the Ottomon Empire, and the stuffy 19th century Unitarians?
What does that mean for Unitarian Universalists in the here and now? It’s quite simple. This is part of our story. It matters. But also, we are in the midst of living the newest chapter of that story – a 56 year old religious tradition with a 2000 year old vintage, and an appreciation for interfaith dialogue. But one can appreciate something and not necessarily partake or practice it.
When the American Unitarian Association and Universalist Churches of America consolidated in 1961 to form Unitarian Universalism, what emerged still held on to a lot of the sins of our fathers and mothers. We were still a predominantly privileged, white, and heady group of churchgoers. Fast forward to today and…well. I can’t really say anything different, but I can add some footnotes that are meaningful and important to our continued history.
Today, we don’t just read about Jews and Muslims, we have an increasing number of people that are coming to our religious tradition that claim Jewishness and Muslimness along with their commitment to Unitarian Universalism. In this congregation alone, when you were in search for your new minister over two years ago now, 7 percent of you claimed a Jewish or Muslim identity.
That number is surely different now, but a couple decades ago that number would likely be zero – unless we lived in a community with a high percentage of Jews and Muslims. What this means, for us, as Unitarian Universalists, is that we are engaging people in ways our forebears did not.
There is something about our communities where Jewishness and Muslimness is now welcome. But ultimately it does not matter if people of Jewish or Muslim upbringing become members of our communities – but what does matter is that we are forging relationships with mosques, even with very clear differences around social policy, and our relationships with synagogues continues to be strong.
But we cannot pat ourselves on our back. We aren’t done yet with living into the dream that is Unitarian Universalism and finding out who we are and who we want to be as neighbors, churchgoers, and decent human beings. Through this increased opening up of ourselves and this living into our sources – which many call a new Universalism – the return of the heart in the oft heady Unitarian Universalism — but through this, we are maturing as a tradition.
Yes, our history matters because it tells us what communities adjacent to ours have experienced, witnessed, and failed miserably at. And yes, we are a maturing religious tradition. Susan Ritchie adds a glimmer of hope in this, she writes:
…Unitarian Universalism has experienced extraordinary anxiety in relationship to its self-identity. It seems apparent to me that our failures in self-understanding point to a contradiction between our ideals, and the various and real constraints that have forced us to live outside those ideals. I believe that the increasing presence of Jews and Muslims in our congregations, as well as the anti-racist work that we have done and of which we have so much left to do, is both the result and the cause of hopeful fractures in our not so very helpful allegiance to a long moribund social location.
…It is my hope that it might now be possible to claim the multi-religious aspect of our ideals more fully. Not because the conversion of Jews and Muslims shows us a triumph, not even because doing so might allow us to escape our neurosis in relationship to our identity, but because we will finally have realized that it is impossible to serve justice, not to mention the God shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, without some staggering and reeling.
Through our continued development as a religious tradition, and our historic relationship with the world’s religions – and our own place in their history as well, what is emerging is something that is vitally important to the future of this peculiar faith tradition that we call home.
We are learning, every single day, sometimes painfully, sometimes suddenly, sometimes with great joy or weeping and gnashing of teeth – we are learning what our contribution to the religious landscape truly is. And the headlines are in – our contribution is not to be an anti-God, anti-emotion, and anti-substance religious experiment.
But instead, a community affirming of multifaith and faith-free paths to truth, while being justice-seeking, life-giving, and historic. That last piece is important. Historic. And I am grateful for the relationships between the religious traditions of our ancestors and the communities they partnered with.
Because truthfully, without Mohammed, I could not be a good Unitarian Universalist. Without Abraham, I could not be a good Unitarian Universalist. Without Jesus, I could not be a good Unitarian Universalist. We are all children of the same history.
And so I urge you to claim our history – and we’ll be doing a lot of that this month. As difficult as it can sometimes be. Claim it and stagger with it. Dance, toil, fight, and make peace with it. The vintage is strong.