The heart of our faith

Family on mountain.

Gratitude should be the center of Unitarian Universalist theology.

Image: © Thinkstock/Corbis

© Thinkstock/Corbis


‘My twelve-year-old was on the playground recently with her Jewish and Catholic friends. The topic of religion came up, and they asked her what Unitarians believe. She found it hard to respond. Is there a playground-ready answer to this question?”

This is a very difficult question, and it was recently my assignment to answer it. At the start of the church year, I was asked to contribute to a new publication being produced by the Parents’ Association of the religious education program at the church I serve in New York City.

Unitarian Universalism often plays better to a graduate-school crowd than a middle-school crowd. Part of the reason for the enigmatic nature of our theology is that we haven’t worked hard enough to make it clear and simple. I am reminded of a minister who, when asked why he preached a 45-minute sermon, replied, “Because I didn’t have enough time to write a 20-minute sermon.” But there is another reason why this question is difficult. If your child’s friends (and their Muslim playmate) answered the same question about their own faiths, they would probably talk about a God who is revealed through a written scripture (the Torah, the New Testament, the Qur’an) and represented on earth by a prophet or messiah figure (Moses, Jesus, Mohammed).

Unitarian Universalism has none of these concrete and uniquely defining elements. Instead, our prevailing—dare I say orthodox—view insists on our freedom to believe whatever we want. Indeed, I asked my very own daughter what Unitarians believe, and her answer was orthodox to a fault. Zoë replied, “We believe whatever we want to believe.” This answer is not good enough, and it certainly doesn’t work on the playground. It’s as if your daughter’s friend asked, “Where do you live?” and she responded, “I’m free to live wherever I want.”

Although Unitarian Universalists today cut a wide swath theologically, my own tendency when describing our faith is to stay close to our theological roots. Here’s the adult version of my answer to the question of what we believe: “As Unitarians, we believe all names for God point toward the same mystery. As Universalists, we believe all creation shares the same destiny.” One divine spirit within and around us, and one destiny before us.

My answer runs against the view that everyone is entitled to his or her own set of beliefs. I commit this heresy because I have two problems with our current approach. One is practical: It doesn’t work. Our numbers as a movement may not be plummeting, but a growth rate of 1 percent a year means that we are slowly dwindling as a percentage of the faster-growing larger population. If we have any sense of mission, we need to be able to say what we believe in language that is positive, relevant, and even playground-friendly.

By positive, I mean that we must talk about something other than freedom, which is the absence of something such as coercion. People may be attracted to Unitarian Universalism because we don’t believe in a doctrine they find abhorrent. But they won’t stay because of what’s missing. (People don’t go to Carnegie Hall because of what they won’t hear.) By relevant, I mean that our message must speak to a nation where, whether we like it or not, more than 90 percent of people asked say they believe in God. And by playground-friendly, I mean precisely that. Karl Barth, perhaps the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, was once asked if he could sum up all Christian doctrine in a single sentence. He thought for a moment, then said, “Yes, and the sentence is this: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” He wouldn’t have written his fourteen-volume Dogmatics if he thought the playground answer was adequate for adults, too, but he knew children (and most adults) don’t read theology even though they need one.

In the same way that Judaism is defined by obedience, Christianity by love, and Islam by submission, I believe that Unitarian Universalism should be defined by gratitude.

In addition to my practical problem with orthodox Unitarian Universalism, I also have a theological problem. Our usual way of describing ourselves doesn’t even begin to suggest that we are a religion. In my view, religion is constituted by two distinct but related impulses: a sense of awe and a sense of obligation. The feeling of awe emerges from our experience of the grandeur of life and the mystery of the divine. This feeling becomes religious when a sense of obligation lays claim to us, and we feel a duty to the larger life that we share. In theological terms, religion begins as transcendence, which is the part about God, and then leads to discipleship, which is the part about the discipline of faith.

I realize the idea of faith as a discipline may also sound like heresy to many Unitarian Universalists. Unless our faith is mere intellectual affectation, however, the defining element of our faith must be a daily practice of some kind. What kind of practice? For Jews, the defining discipline is obedience: To be a faithful Jew is to obey the commands of God. For Christians, the defining discipline is love: To be a faithful Christian is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. For Muslims, the defining discipline is submission: To be a faithful Muslim is to submit to the will of Allah.

And what of us? What should be our defining religious discipline? While obedience, love, and even submission each play a vital role in the life of faith, my current conviction is that our defining discipline should be gratitude. In the same way that Judaism is defined by obedience, Christianity by love, and Islam by submission, I believe that Unitarian Universalism should be defined by gratitude.

Why gratitude? Two dimensions of gratitude make it fitting as our defining religious practice. One has to do with a discipline of gratitude, and the other has to do with an ethic of gratitude. The discipline of gratitude reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and world around us for everything that matters. From this flows an ethic of gratitude that obligates us to create a future that justifies an increasing sense of gratitude from the human family as a whole. The ethic of gratitude demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return. It is our duty to foster the kind of environment that we want to take in, and therefore become.

The two forms gratitude takes in our lives (a discipline and an ethic) are natural outcomes of the two elements of religious experience (awe and obligation). The experience of awe leads to the discipline of gratitude, and the experience of obligation leads to an ethic of gratitude.

There are many potential defining virtues from which to choose. Why gratitude? It has to do with the role of religion and the nature of the universe. The role of religion, in my view, is to help us find our place as human beings within this universe we call home. You may recall that the word religion does not mean to liberate or set free, but rather to bind together. Religion unites the purpose of our lives as human beings with the purpose that animates the universe. Religion unites the meaning of our lives as human beings with the meaning that pervades the universe. Religion unites the spirit of humanity with the spirit that keeps the stars shining, the planets spinning, and the flowers blooming in springtime. I believe that gratitude is the appropriate religious response to the nature of the universe.

And what is the nature of the universe? In his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson notes that the great physicist Richard Feynman once said that if you had to reduce scientific history to one important statement it would be this: “All things are made of atoms.” Bryson explains that a billion of the atoms in your body probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from the Buddha and Joan of Arc and Genghis Khan. Nevertheless, for now, trillions of these atoms have somehow assembled themselves into you.

“Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle,” Bryson says. “Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms do not actually care about you—indeed, they do not even know that you are there. They don’t even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you you.”

What does this mean? The mound of atomic dust is not you. Rather, you are the relationships among the various protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up the dust. The renowned twentieth-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead believed this principle applied to everything in the universe. Everything is constituted by its relationships to other things.

The best way to illustrate Whitehead’s view is to continue with the example of a person. In purely physical terms, I am a living organism made up of roughly 50 trillion individual cells. These cells are differentiated into various tissues and organs, which together make up ten major systems. Overall, I am 60 percent water. But these facts, however true, do not begin to define me, any more than James Levine is defined by the fact that his hair is curly.

Rather, what defines me is the collection of relationships I represent. I was born on a dairy farm in a Mennonite community in central Delaware and studied classics at Franklin and Marshall College. My daughter Zoë’s mother and I are divorced. My niece Krista died of a brain tumor at age eleven. My wife Holly and I were married in the chancel of All Souls Church in New York, where I am a minister. These experiences, and countless others besides, make me who I am—not in the way a potter shapes a bowl, but in the way flour, butter, and sugar go together to make a cake. If you take away the ingredients that make up my life, what remains has little meaning. I am made up of, or constituted by, those relationships. As Whitehead put it, “we are dependent on the universe for every detail of our experience.”

This principle applies to everything whatsoever. Nothing—not people, not rocks, not galaxies—is what it is in isolation. The first principle of the universe is not independence, but its opposite: utter dependence. Everything that exists is made up of constituent parts that are borrowed from, shared with, and related to others outside it. As humans, we are dependent upon the parents who conceived us, the plants and animals who daily give their lives for our nourishment, the trees that reverse our cycle of taking in oxygen and giving off carbon dioxide, and the sun that warms the atmosphere and lights our path. In every respect, we are utterly dependent.

The human tendency, however, is to assume the opposite. We pride ourselves on being self-reliant and self-sufficient. This is especially true today. Our nation was founded on a deep-seated belief in the freedom of the individual. This freedom extends to every aspect of our lives, including the political realm (as democracy), the economic realm (as free-market capitalism), and the religious realm (as the motive force behind the Protestant movement). This multifaceted emphasis on the autonomy of the individual is known as liberalism, and its practice accounts for many of our greatest accomplishments: political freedom, human rights, economic opportunity, and religious liberty.

But this liberating emphasis on the individual also represents our gravest danger. The greatest temptation we face, I believe, is the temptation to disregard our utter dependence on the people and world around us. We think our purpose and destiny are independent of others. We compare our possessions and accomplishments with theirs, and we resent what they have achieved that we have not. In short, we disregard our dependence.

If the first principle of all existence is utter dependence, then the deadliest of all sins is the effort to negate or disregard that principle through the myth of self-sufficiency. In this state of sin, salvation comes through gratitude. It is the means by which we remember both our identity and our duty.

Unlike freedom, gratitude is a uniquely religious virtue. Why is this so? A sense of awe and a sense of obligation, religion’s basic impulses, are both experiences of transcendence, of being part of something much larger than ourselves.

The feeling of awe emerges from experiences of the grandeur of life and the mystery of the divine. We happen upon a sense of inexpressible exhilaration at being alive and a sense of utter dependence upon sources of being beyond ourselves. This sense of awe and dependence should engender in us a discipline of gratitude, which constantly acknowledges that our present experience depends upon the sources that make it possible. The feeling of obligation lays claim to us when we sense our duty to the larger life we share. As we glimpse our dependence upon other people and things, we also glimpse our duty to them. This sense of obligation leads to an ethic of gratitude, which takes our experience of transcendence in the present and works for a future in which all relationships—among humans, as well as between humans and the physical world—are fair, constructive, and beautiful.

Put another way, the discipline of gratitude connects the present with the past, while the ethic of gratitude connects the present with the future—just as Whitehead and his successors in the process theology movement described God both as the refuge of the past and as the hope of the future.

Disciplines teach us who we are. They remind us of commitments we have made and show us the path to walk. When Muslims pray five times each day facing Mecca, they remember who they are as people of faith. When I say “I love you” to my wife and daughter when we go our separate ways in the morning and when we retire at night, I remind myself that I am, first and foremost, a husband and father.

In fact, the word discipline comes from an ancient Latin word that means teaching or instruction, as in the discipline of mathematics or philosophy. The Latin root of the word discipline means pupil, which is also the root of the word disciple. When Jesus called the twelve who became his disciples, he said to each in turn, “Come, follow me.” As they followed Jesus, they became pupils of a new way of understanding themselves and their lives. They found a new path to walk. In a similar way, I believe we as Unitarian Universalists are called to be disciples of gratitude—to learn gratitude as a daily practice. I call this path the discipline of gratitude.

Let me suggest a couple of simple ways we can begin to walk this path. Some members of my congregation keep “gratitude journals.” You can, too. Each morning or night, make a list of things, people, and experiences for which you are grateful. Soon, you’ll find yourself paying closer attention to your life. You’ll notice the change in the air as spring arrives, the fleeting smile of a passerby, the resolute purpose of a child bound for school. Life is constituted by moments like these. The discipline of gratitude gives us a new way of looking at the world.

Here’s my other suggestion. Each evening at dinnertime, pause for a moment, clasp hands if someone is next to you, and repeat these lines from Psalm 118, which conclude the benediction we say each week at church: “This is the day we are given. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Holly, Zoë, and I have been doing this for several years now. It reminds us of how fortunate we are to have each other, and our home, and this day.

The discipline of gratitude is about knowing how much we have been given and acknowledging the scope of our dependence. It’s about saying “thank you” to the people we love, to the world we enjoy, to the universe we inhabit, and to the God who holds us all in a divine embrace.

Adapted from a sermon preached at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City on October 15, 2006.