Speaking with many voices

Speaking with many voices

Looking for commonalities is relatively easy; true multiculturalism means being humble and brave enough to explore differences.
Kathleen Rolenz


One of the great strengths of Uni­tarian Universalism, embodied in our six Sources, is our belief that spiritual wisdom speaks with many voices. This understanding is the key to welcoming all souls into our faith communities as blessings. Every new person we encounter has something to teach us. Values such as love, peace, compassion, and justice are expressed in every culture and tradition all over the world, in beautifully and powerfully different ways. Taken together, these expressions illuminate the various facets of these ideas, giving them nuance and depth.

Looking for commonalities is the relatively easy part of forming a multicultural community. True multiculturalism, however, means being humble and brave enough to explore our different perspectives, experiences, traditions, and values while staying in relationship. It means bringing our whole selves to the table and inviting others to do the same, not just the parts that “fit in.” It means being willing to be changed.

None of us feels welcomed as a blessing if we are asked to leave parts of ourselves behind, if we are constantly asked to translate our beliefs, perspectives, and spiritual questions into the language and frame of reference of the majority. We do not feel that we are recognized for the gifts we have to offer if our interactions and relationships leave no room for mutual transformation.

Learning from and about each other helps us practice true hospitality. When we share our cultural traditions with one another in worship, we can offer this welcoming message: “We value your rich tradition and worldview so much that we are committed to learning about it.”

Often readings carry cultural resonances and meanings that extend beyond the words alone. Once you learn more about a reading from a cultural tradition different from your own, you may become aware of its deeper meaning within its own context.

For example, consider Mohandas K. Gandhi’s statement that “even a little of true nonviolence acts in a silent, subtle, unseen way and leavens the whole society.” Most people know the rough outline of Gandhi’s story and that he is associated with the ethic of nonviolence. But how many of us who are not Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain fully understand the implications of ahimsa, the sacred vow that was the foundation of Gandhi’s activism?

The depth and nuance of ahimsa cannot be conveyed by the English word “nonviolence.” With a brief Internet search, you can learn about Gandhi’s understanding of ahimsa; congruencies and differences between ahimsa and Unitarian Universalist affirmations of the worth and dignity of every person and the interdependent web; Gandhi’s legacy for activists Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King Jr.; and explanations of ahimsa as the philosophical basis for Hindu practices like yoga and vegetarianism that have become popular in the West.

Unitarian Universalists are a people engaged in the perpetual search for truth and meaning. What any one of us knows and has experienced is only one piece of the truth. Let us open ourselves to what we can learn from each other, as well as from those we have yet to meet.

This article appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of UU World (page 24). This essay is adapted from the introduction to Sources of Our Faith: Inspirational Readings (Skinner House Books 2012).

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