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Sermon: SPIRITUAL UNIVERSALISM November 7, 1999, Rev. Dr. John L. Young

Do you remember the ancient Hindu story of the blind men with the elephant? One man felt the elephant's tail and said, "this is a rope." Another felt his head and said, "this is a battering ram." Another felt his ear and said, "this is a large fan." Another man felt one of the elephant's tusks and said, "this a beautiful marble arm-rest." Another felt one of the legs and said, "this is a tree trunk." Each man had a genuine encounter with a large reality, but the limitations of their experiences, both because of their blindness and because of the limits of what each touched, left them confused about what the reality was as a whole.

The realities of the spirit leave humanity, generally, in a similar quandary to that of the blind Hindus with the elephant. Each of us have some experiences that seem important, even central to our lives. These experiences give most of us the sense of a large, awesome, and complex reality. However, we are limited by what we can and cannot see and by what we can and cannot understand. Most of us are, or have been, thoroughly caught in a cultural niche, a niche which has taught us to look at everything in certain ways. Therefore, we are blind to other possibilities, or we find it very difficult to make any sense of the other possibilities we see. Like the blind men with the elephant, we are limited both by who we are, and what we can sense and can understand, by where we are standing, and by what our perspectives are and can be.

This is true to such an extreme degree that most people can identify only a few of the many manifestations of the spirit as spiritual and can only recognize and accept a small percentage of all human religious behaviors and actions as truly religious. Most people say, "This and this only is God or the holy or the ultimately real," Most people say, "my faith alone is true religion or genuine humaneness, all else is diabolical or meaningless." This is true whether these people are primitives or modern orthodox religionists, communists, or atheists. All of them have felt a part of the great reality. Like the blind man who felt the elephant's side or the elephant's ear, they have an often vivid impression from their experiences. For instance, the devout Christian's sense that God is the transforming light of Jesus' love, or the Marxist radical's sense that reality is the inevitable conflict of the oppressed masses with the established elites. If they are fanatic, they refuse to hear what the other blind men are saying about their experiences. If they are dogmatic, whether out of ignorance or out of strident belief in their own faith or ideology, they refuse to give any credence to what they hear from others, to consider it worthy of their attention or understanding, and consider it irrelevant for their own lives or practices, If they are modern and world1y but still true believers, they seek out elements in the wide world that reflect and reinforce their true beliefs, and they only tolerate those visions and programs of others. However, they still believe that they are right and the rest of the world is, ultimately, wrong, misled. and destined for disappointment, failure and/or perdition.

There is a growing minority of human beings, however, who are neither fanatics, dogmatists, nor even tolerant pietists. These people are spiritual universalists, and most of us are among them, Like other human beings, spiritual universalists have limits to their vision, We, too, touch only a part of the reality at a tine, and we, too, have our own cultural ignorances and blind spots. However, we think that we more completely come to understand the whole by listening to what other human beings have to share with us. Diligently, we try to understand their experiences and visions. We carefully and experimentally practice the elements of their experiences and visions which we can relate to and appreciate. We recognize that one perspective seldom can give us a very helpful picture of the whole. We reject the fanatic's sense that contact with others' perspectives will make us impure. We reject the dogmatist's sense that paying attention to other's stories and experiments will waste our time. We reject the modern pietist's sense that differences are simply to be tolerated and made use of to buttress our own original beliefs. Spiritual universalists, then, recognize that they are only in touch with part of reality and know that their culture's perspective is reflecting only part of the truth. We consider truth, goodness, and beauty multi-faced. We want to be open to the truths in every culture and history of the world. We wish to learn from other peoples' different perspectives even to understand how to build upon and to grow from view-points that seem, initially, alien. We seek foreign contacts. We cherish fresh perspectives and new celebrations. We do not try to shake down human differences into a familiar common denominator, but rather to build a world-faith foundation for our individual quests.

What spiritual universalists do with their special way of seeing varies. I want to make a case for practicing a particular kind of spiritual universalism which I feel fulfills the tenets of this progressive faith most fully. I believe it helps human beings to move beyond their blindnesses and to work at transcending the inevitable limitations of their individual perspectives.

I believe, passionately, in each of us as spiritual being. I recognize the spiritual importance of each person, the potential religious vitality of every individual. I think that the universal and the eternal, the creative and magnificent, the good, the true, and the beautiful reside in each of us. I further believe that portions of this spirit are unique, special and irreplaceable within each of us and in all human beings. If each of us does not express and live by it, it is lost, at least temporarily and in part. This loss is, for me, not simply a loss of human potential or cultural progress; it is, in part at least, a loss of ultimate value, a death of part of God or of genuine creativity. This faith of mine is a universal spiritual individualism. I see each person as a child of God. However, I do not think we are each the same child nor reflect the same elements of the infinite or the ultimately creative. I think we each add our unique elements to the eternal flame. Whatever God is, it is less if we do not express and use the best potentials and insights in ourselves. Something is lost and not just to us and our friends, but to the world, perhaps even to the infinite. Therefore, helping individuals to discover what they really believe, who they really are, and what is of ultimate importance to them is a central part of my religious quest. I think that it should be so for you, too, as a spiritual universalist. I think we are embarked on a cooperative enterprise to help individuals have their own original religious experiences, to discover, fathom, learn how to express, share and use their personal religious visions, their unique spiritual insights.

I also believe we are not simply born with this spirit. Elements of the spirit may be present from birth, but much of an individual's spirit must be created by growth and learning, by our thoughts and by our actions. Elements of our spiritual nature are probably there like seeds, even in the infant, waiting to be unlocked and nurtured into a lovely garden. Other elements of the spirit seem to be created. They are drawn into us from the outside, built out of our struggles, triumphs and failures, turned from childish dreams into mature realities through persistent individual efforts, discipline, and courage. Our spiritual natures are created, almost always, with a great deal of help from many other people and most often from vital and supportive communities. I see no way of finally separating what arises internally as something, to be simply discovered and nurtured, and what arises by creative efforts of ourselves and our intimates and communities. I see no reason to try to makes these divisions. For, the means to help both elements of the spirit are the same.

I agree with the Hindu Nobel Prize winning novelist, Rabindranath Tagore's brand of transcendentalism, and I think most of us, as spiritual universalists, share his vision. His is a transcendentalism that does not hold religion to be ultimate but rather to be a means to a further end. This end consists in the perfect liberation of the individual in the universal spirit across the furthest limits of humanity itself [Rabindranath Tagore, The Religion of Man]. As Tagore suggested, this liberation is very far from a mere isolation of self and far from a concentration upon possessions, whether of wealth, academic degrees, or activities. It is, rather, a liberation based on a universal understanding, a comprehending of the individual within all people and of the universal person within each of us. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it Unitarian transcendentalism, and Rabindranath Tagore identified it as Hindu transcendentalism, and both of them argued their position by quoting from the scriptures of the other's ancestral faith. We, too, begin by groping in the dark, but we come to see a wider light, and then we no longer need to cling to our cultural limitations. We can celebrate ourselves as members of a universal being and search its depths without fear of drowning or fear of flying.

So, one element of my spiritual universalism is my faith that each of us contains and creates elements of the universal light, elements which, to be real, need to be shared and used. These elements deserve to be discovered and articulated, both by us as individuals and by us as people who need to be fulfilled and uplifted by each other.

The other element of my spiritual universalism is my belief that each religion has some truth but that no religion has all the truth. This implies that we must learn from each other if we are going to be fulfilled. This means that we must look at other religions besides our own, if we are going to understand the real truths and limitations of our ancestral traditions, our personal visions, our own experiences and experiments. I believe this because it has been my experience. I also see this perspective getting effective results in the people I know around me. The powers of human self-satisfaction, mental laziness, and spiritual inertia are so strong that I think people need the shock of the new and strange in order to break through toward the truth, to see themselves realistically.

Most of us Unitarian Universalists, are aware of some of the myopias of the Christians or the Jews, of the fundamentalists or the primitives. But, too often we pietistically accept the myopias of many scientists, radicals, and cynical skeptics, who are ready to eliminate traditional religion. Yes, there is much untruth in traditional religion; genuine horrors have been perpetrated by centuries of religious domination. But why are we afraid to admit that in traditional religion there is also truth, value and beauty, as well as worthy symbols and enduring rituals. Some of our central values may be at the heart of ageless faiths, ancient scriptures, and oft-repeated rites.

I would like you to approach all religion critically but not cynically, thoughtfully, but not so sceptically. I would like you to go back and see what you can re-appropriate from your own ancestral religious roots. Look also at the other great religious traditions of the world and see what you can gain from them. Examine how you can grow in dialogue with them.

Hinduism is a very individualistic religion. It has vast and ageless paths of silence, personal discipline, and meditation. However, each Hindu temple has at least one bell that everyone in the temple may ring. Hindus do not find this individual exuberance intrusive on the thoughtful silence of the others there. They may, indeed, see that ringing as a crucial reminder that our individual, often solitary, and even lonely religious journeys must connect with other people, other traditions, other spirits, if we are to find wholeness and fulfillment.

So, if we Unitarian-Universalists are to be genuine spiritual universalists, we must both nurture and draw out the special individual religious spirits of each person who comes to us. We must also seek together the eternal truths in each of the world's religious traditions. We should ring our world religions bell to remind us both of the unique spiritual potential within us and of the worthy elements in the religious traditions around us--even those presently foreign to us. Consider several of the world's great religions.

Islam's uncompromising monotheism, that is its strictly unitarian sense of God, connects with our tradition. Islam's clear, simple practices of its faith provide a model from which each of us can learn. I saw once, years ago, in the London airport, two Islamic believers from different countries meet for the first time. They recognized together that it was time for one of the daily prayers, found a modest space in a corner in which to put down their tiny rectangles of prayer carpet and took a few moments, together, to pray. They prayed as individuals, and, yet, also as a community of two, reflecting a worldwide tradition. What are our daily rituals, our acts of celebration, meditation, and concern? Are our rituals worthy of our ideals?

Many of us, or our parents, grew up as Christians. Many of us may be more sure about what we do not believe about Christianity than about what elements of Christianity are still important and vital for our lives. Evil and bad things have happened under the sign of the cross, Jesus' crucifixion being one of the tragedies. The cross is a powerful symbol. Life is potent with crossroads, and crosses to bear, decision-making and conflicts, love and sacrifice. Many Unitarian Universalists feel that they are trying to be true inheritors of the liberated religious life and demanding ethical and moral life that Jesus symbolizes for them.

Buddhism demands clear understanding and patient compassion. Its emphasis on saving oneself through personal experience and discipline is quite similar to our own views about salvation. Its recognition of human suffering and the part peoples' own exaggerations play in the suffering can teach us much. Buddhism's denial of outworn dogmatism and magic theologies resonate with our thinking and practice.

Most of us are nature mystics like the Taoists. We recognize, with them, the enigmas of both human life and of nature, with their seeming opposites, yins and yangs, which must be blended together in each of us. Applying this nature mysticism in human life is both a fond memory and still an embryonic practice among us.

Some of us grew up as Jews. We all identify with the courageous quest of Judaism through the ages to cooperate with God in history, to dialogue with the Infinite in our religious practice, and to put eternal justice to work in our social and political lives.

Hinduism has much to teach us, from its mystic sounds to its sophisticated philosophical doctrines, from its yogic disciples to its recognition that each life has different, equally respectable stages. These are representative of lessons our culture needs to learn.

Symbols from the world's religions can remind us that we are spiritual universalists. We are drawing from these and other great world faiths. We are reaching back to the very beginnings of world history and applying the wisdoms we find, whatever their source, to our lives in this day and tomorrow.

Today, spiritual universalism is both possible and necessary. Almost everyone has heard that we really are one planet, a single species, and, increasingly, an interdependent and interrelated world culture. Isn't it amazing how so many people, from preachers to presidential candidates, can keep on acting like it just isn't true? It almost appears that fanaticism, dogmatism, and modern pietism are increasing in popularity, as some sort of understandable, but suicidal rear-guard actions in the face of modern realities. Yet, humane common sense, curiosity, and ingenuity will probably overcome these traditional armors and inhibitions on the human spirit and on the organized religious impulse. As individuals and members of a religious movement, with a grand heritage of dedication to spiritual universalism, we can continue to play an important role in humanity's liberation from an outworn religious past. We can do our parts in over-coming fanaticism, dogmatism, and modern pietism and help to create a more hopeful and progressive religious future.

As we do so, I hope you will consider my specific suggestions for putting spiritual universalism into practice. Recognize yourself and every other person as a true child of the spiritual; in fact, as containing unique and irreplaceable intuitions and actions which you must learn to share and to live if they are going to come into being and to survive as portions of the light and goodness and beauty of the world. I have suggested that the organized religions of the world hold keys to your satisfactorily fulfilling your individual religious mission. In these rich traditions, along with ignorance, evil and nonsense, there exists much of wisdom and of value. Seek those glimpses of the eternal lights and the infinite wisdoms. Wrestle with their questions, experiment with their disciplines and doctrines, look at their symbols, meditate on the ho1y sounds and final words. Do not be satisfied with your ancestral traditions alone. We need the lure and the shock of the new and the different. Each religion has some truth; no religion has all the truth. We must solve the confusion of our own minds so that we see the whole universe.

The Zen Master said that it was like stilling our boat on the lake of our lives so that we could, then, see the whole moon in the lake, or even in a dewdrop or a tear. (Hashida in Mircea Eliade's From Primitives to Zen, N.Y: Harper and Row, 1967.) As spiritual universalists, we can go beyond our individual blind-spots and come to understand the whole elephant, to participate with the infinite in creating the future.

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