What membership means
People join a Unitarian Universalist congregation looking for a church that helps them be more loving.
Innate in us is an awareness, even in the very young and all our lives, that some things we are drawn to love are worthy of a lot of our attention and striving; some are not. Conscience, or discernment of what is worthy of love, is natural, too. We all have at least moments when love is our response to realities of surpassing worth that we long, not to own or control, but to serve with devoted, faithful love and the integrity of conscience. These are authentically religious moments, as much a function of human nature as is our need to breathe and eat and drink and sleep.
William Ellery Channing spoke of this at the dedication of Harvard's Divinity Hall in 1826:
There is in human nature a want which the world cannot supply; a thirst for objects on which to pour forth more fervent admiration and love than visible things awaken. . . . Most of you who hear have probably had moments when a new light has seemed to dawn, a new life to stir within you; when you have aspired after an unknown good; when you have been touched by moral greatness and disinterested love; when you have longed to break every chain of selfishness and sensuality, and enjoy a purer being. It is on this part of our nature that religion is founded.
Channing was talking here about natural encounters with the holy. The holy is that which is worthy of fervent and loyal love and for which we want freely to spend ourselves. The holy is that in whose service human beings are made spiritually hale, or vigorously healthy. Rightly devoted living in the moral ways of holy love makes us into the kind of beings our very nature makes it possible for us to be—whole and hale and freely given over to holy striving toward fulfillment of high purposes.
Most of us have known moments of overflowing love, "when a new light has seemed to dawn, a new life to stir within" us. These are very personal, individual experiences. Yet we human beings are as much social creatures as we are individuals. There is no such thing as vigorous spiritual health, or a capacity to fulfill any great purpose, without long and serious engagement with the minds of others, past and present. We have to have the help of others in order to learn, and think through, the ways of living out love.
A free and liberal church is a loving and covenanted and thinking community because authentic religion requires that we use our intellect, our brains, more than any individual can do alone. Our emphasis on the importance of rationality is grounded in trust that there can be an accurate correspondence between human concepts and reality. Though we never get beyond susceptibility to error, this correspondence can be and is best tested within an ongoing and faithful community that is part of a loving and rational tradition.
No doubt you've heard some say we're too rational. I don't. We need to say that at our best, we are a loving people joined in a covenant to find and live out together the ways of love. But God help us if ever we suppose these ways are easy to identify, or to live out, in so complex a world as ours. God help us if we are ever embarrassed to confess that finding them and living in accordance with them requires that we think rationally about them together in our churches, hard and well.
Some say we have no test of membership. I say at our best we have a quite explicit test, one we need to proclaim clearly and spell out with courtesy and warmth. Our covenant—to find and live out together, insofar as we can, the ways of love—is open to all who will enter it with us. Many who visit our churches long to be loving people. That's why they come. They are looking for a church that might help them be more loving people, and which—straight out—asks for their help and commitment. More will join us when we make clear what covenanted membership in a liberal religious community like ours means.
Adapted from a sermon delivered before the Ballou Channing and the Mountain Desert chapters of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association and published under the title "Our Anthropology, Our Story, and New Covenants of Collaboration Among Us" in 2006 in the UUMA's Unitarian Universalism Selected Essays 2004.