Submitted by AJ Bennett
Sermon given at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 11, 2014.
Although Unitarian Universalists use the word “pluralism,” it is not – as far as I can tell – defined by the UUA or by enough individual congregations to be noticed. The UUA bylaws do include the six sources, which are prefaced by an acknowledgement that our living tradition draws from many sources, which indicates that the subsequent list of six sources is not exhaustive or definitive. But the term pluralism itself is only mentioned in the following sentence: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.” Pluralism isn’t present anywhere else, let alone defined. The same lack of definition also applies to the section of the UUFP website on beliefs, for that matter, since that is essentially a restatement of the language of the bylaws.
Religious pluralism is clearly taken as a foundational premise by the writers of the principles and sources (who, by the way, are effectively us, because of our democratic process), except we aren’t actually told what pluralism means. I think this is a problem. Now, I think this because of how central I think pluralism really is to Unitarian Universalism as a whole. You may disagree, and that is fine… actually, it’s awesome. We should talk. But for now, I want you to hear what I am saying as a possible interpretation of Unitarian Universalism – one that has been shaped and molded by my UU upbringing in RE, youth group, and various church settings. And, no doubt, it has been informed by my study of philosophy and religion in college, which focused quite a bit on the cutting edge of religious pluralism. My point is that the Unitarian Universalism I am going to describe and argue for is partially my ideal vision for the future, and partially what UUism means to me as my religion and spirituality. Having said that; let me explain why I think having no definition of pluralism is a problem.
In short, it means we have multiple different versions of UU pluralism out there; different ways that people will talk about our pluralism. On one extreme, you have decidedly ill-informed critics claiming that UUs can just “believe whatever they want.” Insofar as we are familiar with the principles, we know that this is not true. However, this criticism is based on something that might be claimed in a positive manner about UUism. That is, one very basic and simple version of pluralism is to say that “all religions are true.” This definition is problematic, though, because it requires a relativistic approach to truth that ultimately robs the word “truth” of any significant meaning. If all religions are true, does it really matter which one follows? Also, what do we do with more recently invented religions, such as Flying Spaghetti Monsterism or the Church of Satan, that might be employed by some to ridicule or attack established religion, rather than as an authentic religious expression?Really, this pluralism changes the question from “what is true in religion?” to “what is religion?” and, unless we are willing to uncritically accept everything that is claimed to be religion as religion, then we find ourselves having to decide what is and is not religion, which is frankly not all that far off from deciding what is and is not true religion.
So, if simply affirming the truth of all religions won’t work, what’s another approach that might? Well, many will turn to the seven principles, and suggest that as long as a religious belief agrees with them (or at least does not disagree with them), it’s probably on the right track, is welcome to join us, and is something we can draw on in our collective search for truth. This falls under the category I would call “superdoctrine” pluralism, which tries to find a common core to all religions, and then state that as long as this core is present in a religion, that religion is true. A more generic form of this is to use the golden rule as the doctrine at the heart of all legitimate religions. It is true that the golden rule is found in many world traditions, in one variation or another. But what if there is a religion where it isn’t present? Is it a strong enough criterion to declare the religion false? And is a basic ethical teaching really the ultimate goal of all religions, or are they trying to say or accomplish something more? Again, we have a pluralism that tries to include certain things as true religions, but in doing so it excludes others, without any sort of reasonable justification.
A common element of these types of unsatisfactory pluralism is that they involve affirmations of truth. That is, they attempt to avoid exclusivism by trying to do its opposite. If we think of exclusivism as saying that truth is present in only one tradition, then we might say that pluralism is affirming that truth is present in multiple traditions. Seems like a logical approach, but if we affirm truth, we either have to limit what we are affirming by defining it, or we have to affirm everything and lose meaning. So my suggestion is that rather than affirming anything, we do the actual opposite of exclusivism. If we take an even more foundational premise of exclusivism, which is the idea that there even exists absolute truth about ultimate reality in the first place, and that it is mediated perfectly through at least one human language, then our opposite pluralism becomes to completely deny that any religion can possess a sole, ultimate truth. This articulation of pluralism is known as Apophatic Pluralism. That’s A-P-O-P-H-A-T-I-C Apophatic Pluralism, not apathetic pluralism. It’s Greek in origin, and translates as “speaking away from” something, so in this context it is used to refer to the fact that this form of pluralism is based on negative predication, or in simpler terms, a denial rather than an affirmation. Put as succinctly as possible, apophatic pluralism means denying that religious truths can be final or normative. In many ways this articulation of pluralism is merely an empirical observation of how religion and religious language work. First, religion is a part of culture and therefore is heavily influenced by and made up of language. As such, religions are neither monolithic nor static. They aren’t monolithic because each individual has a unique understanding of their religion, and as hard as some people try to lock their religion down to the language of a set of doctrines or of a particular scripture… that language is always subject to interpretation (even more so if it needs translating). Religions aren’t static because they are in a practically constant state of evolution, reformation, and death. I just mentioned that interpretations vary from person to person, and I can easily add that they vary over time and in different cultural contexts. This variance can be magnified even further by contact with new religious and cultural ideas, either from the meeting of cultures or from individual innovators.
Also, it is worth noting that the apophatic criticism is present in most, if not all, religious traditions. Most religions point out, at some time or another, that the truth they are seeking to express in human language, symbol, and tradition is not really capable of being expressed fully in those ways or any ways, except perhaps by ineffable direct experience. For example, many Christian theologians distinguish between the God of the Bible, or the available God, and the real God, or God in Himself. In Islamic Mysticism, there is the concept of al Haq, or “The Real” as opposed to the image of Allah in their tradition and scripture. The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching are that “the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.” Apophatic pluralism, then, is in many ways the logical end to these very pious religious concerns. I believe it is true both prescriptively and descriptively. In prescriptive terms: the whole world should not have to assent to a single religious idea, expressed in a single human language, developed by a single culture. In descriptive terms: No single religious idea is anywhere near likely find universal assent, because human language and culture themselves are always changing, and are never universal.
In addition to avoiding the flaws of lesser forms of pluralism, there are certain advantages and benefits apophatic pluralism has for UUs in particular that I’d like to point out. For one, if we were to adopt this language, it would support our general practice of drawing from multiple sources in our services and lives even more. For if we simply affirm that truth is present in multiple religious traditions… there isn’t actually much need to engage with the religious other. Even more so if we assume that they ultimately teach the same thing. Why learn about Buddhism if, in the end, the truth it teaches is not significantly different from that of Christianity? But, if we recognize that religious truths are different, sometimes wildly so, and that they are never complete or final, then studying another religious tradition in addition to our own can be very rewarding and broadening. I like to compare religions to languages (i.e. French, Spanish, etc), because religions really are different languages for understanding ultimate reality. Even just learning a foreign language, you end up learning a whole different worldview and conception of reality, as anyone who has studied one in depth can tell you, and you haven’t even necessarily learned a new religious perspective. An obvious example of this is the existence of words in one language that have no related term in another, or the fact that Eskimos have something like fifty different words for “snow.” So to make an analogy, learning another religious language is just as broadening and important as learning a foreign language. In fact, I would argue that it is even more important. The thing is, when you come across someone who only speaks Spanish while you speak only English… it tends to be obvious, and there are effective ways to translate between you and your new friend. But if we aren’t aware of different religious languages, we might think we understand someone of another religion, because we are both speaking English… but we might actually be making horribly inaccurate assumptions about what they are saying. All this to say: it is important to learn about different religions and understand their languages, at the very least to avoid miscommunication and error, but more ideally because it helps us appreciate the variety and plurality of truth, and to experience ultimate reality in more than one way. There are two steps here: the first is to practice translating the religious languages of others into your own religious vocabulary so that you can appreciate what they are saying better, and then the more advanced step is learning to express your religious beliefs in the terms of another religious language, so that others may understand you better. I personally don’t use theistic language in my own spiritual musings, or in UU contexts, but if I’m talking with a Christian I know how to use the word God to express what I do believe.
Let me bring this into an even more specifically UU context now with the words of UUA President Peter Morales. Over the past couple of years, Morales has expressed his idea of Unitarian Universalism as being, or as becoming, a religion beyond belief. He wants to get beyond belief because, as he puts it, belief is the enemy of faith. This should sound controversial, which I think is his intent. He says that an over-emphasis on belief – and in particular on having right belief – stagnates the true mission of religion and faith, which is characterized by an orientation of humility, peace, and compassion, and that only, quote: “religion without belief is true religion.” He proposes that true religion is more about what we love than what we think, and about being faithful to what we love. He is, I think, using the wrong language to make his point. I do very much agree with him about the dangers of exclusive religious thought. Any time a person decides that they have the ultimate truth and that everyone else is either deluded or malicious, problems of various gravities arise. But belief itself isn’t the problem. All religions involve beliefs, since all include worldviews and conceptions of reality. Actually, the way I see it, everyone has beliefs, religious or not. Even an atheist who denies any that there is any transcendent dimension of reality has that as their belief. Most of their worldview may be based upon empirical, scientific data and theory, but to say that all reality is understandable through scientific inquiry, and that anything not subject to science is meaningless, is to make a belief claim about the nature of ultimate reality (or, if they prefer, just ‘reality’). Considering this, I wouldn’t call the atheist perspective a religious one, but I would call it a belief, and the criticism of apophatic pluralism does in fact bear upon it: it cannot be held as a final or normative truth claim.
Everyone has beliefs. Some beliefs are vitally important and foundational to some religious people and traditions. So, I can’t really agree that belief is the enemy of faith. Now, exclusivism, or any approach to religious diversity that attempts to hold a certain truth claim as normative or final, that I can easily see as the enemy of, well, everyone who doesn’t agree. And the enemy of common sense and rationality, as well, since as I’ve explained, realizing that religious claims cannot be normative or final is essentially just an observation about the way the world works. I would also say that exclusivism is the enemy of ethical behavior as well, since exclusivism is at best arrogant and at worst cultural imperialism, and has often led to cultural or literal genocide. Even to try to distinguish true religion from false or corrupted religion, as Morales does, is a dangerous path, I think. Religion is just religion, and sometimes people involved with it do great harm to humanity, and other times they help humanity become its better self. I believe that if we don’t accept this fact, and instead try to write off the harmful actions as coming from “not real religion” we make it harder to address the harmful religious beliefs or actions on their own, and we also find ourselves imposing our definitions of what is true and legitimate on others, which is basically another form of exclusivism.
Avoiding these pitfalls is why I think it’s important that we adopt the language of apophatic pluralism, or at least to start the conversation about our pluralism. For a more positive reason, I think it could help us reach out to the ever-present “nones,” (those with no religious affiliation) as well as simply make Unitarian Universalism a little more contrasted against other liberal religions. My vision is a Unitarian Universalism that is, among other things, a home for pluralists. This is really important to me personally because, having been raised Unitarian Universalist, I have a great appreciation for the worlds various religious traditions but I don’t have a specific creed figured out because I find meaning and sustenance in virtually all religious forms and practices. I can’t help but be a UU because any other religious institution or congregation would not have the breadth of sources we have. Granted, as a denomination I think we can definitely do a lot work on engaging with a greater variety of religious practices and languages, but we definitely have the potential to so more than other religious institutions. And I think there are others out there like me, whether raised UU or not. I’m assuming of course, but it seems reasonable that at least some of the “nones” out there are “nones” not because of any particular distaste for organized religion, but because they recognize that no single religious language is final or complete, and they therefore long for a spiritual life that draws from multiple traditions. We have the capacity to be a home for those people, just as we have been a home for religious seekers for many years.
Lastly, I think adopting apophatic pluralism will help us navigate our growing religious diversity both at the denominational and congregational levels. In his recent book “Regaining Balance: The Evolution of the UUA,” past president of the American Humanist Association, Michael Werner suggests that natural language and supernatural language might be entirely incompatible. By “supernatural language” he is referring to traditionally religious, or spiritual language, and by “natural language,” he means the language of empiricism, naturalists, and humanism. While there are a number of points in his book I disagree with, this is one where I actually think he is right on the money, at least as far as premises go. It may well be that natural and supernatural languages do not mix together well, or at all, and that any UU minister attempting to use a broad yet coherent language that will appeal to everyone in a given congregation will fail. However, this does not mean that one must be superior to the other. As a pluralist, my response is “Great! These are two radically different ways of talking about ultimate reality. Let’s recognize that neither of them is absolute, and use a fair helping of both!” Instead, the minister can make use of both languages at different times in the same service. I think if we place an emphasis on the non-absoluteness, non-normativity, and non-finality of the languages of belief, then we will be in a much better position to navigate misunderstandings and disagreements between those more inclined towards the natural, humanistic language, and those more inclined towards the more supernatural, spiritual language.
Alright, so you may be thinking “this sounds pretty good, but what exactly am I supposed to do about it?” Well, I have a few recommendations and requests. Again, I’d like to make the disclaimer that this is about achieving my idealized version of Unitarian Universalism, so I am in no way saying that you have to agree with me or do any of these. But, in my humble opinion, every UU should do these things, and I think that doing so would help our religion for the reasons that I have explained in this sermon. First of all: I encourage you to personally adopt the language of apophatic pluralism, which again is to deny that any language of belief (religious or not) can ever be normative, final, or universal. The most direct reason you would do this is because you agree with me that it is simply accurate to reality, and that it is more philosophically robust and generally superior to any other articulation of pluralism. Along with that, I also encourage you to help Unitarian Univeralism adopt this language more officially. I plan to keep talking about this enough that I or someone else will eventually bring up something like it at our national denominational business meeting, General Assembly. So if that happens, I hope you will support the effort. Or, if you disagree or have a better idea, please bring that up and argue to support your position, because more than anything I just want to start this conversation. I realize that if the UUA does update their language of pluralism, it is unlikely it will remain in the form that I have articulated today. I want to add also that this doesn’t have to just be about the language that UUA uses in the principles and sources or elsewhere; you could make a statement of pluralism right here at the UUFP that would supply all your members and guests with common, robust language to express your pluralism.
I truly believe we can be the religion for our time. And I think a large part of that is a well developed articulation of religious pluralism, though obviously pluralism is not all there is to Unitarian Universalism. I’d say we have a lot of work ahead of us in terms of articulating and defining what Unitarian Universalism is and what we are trying to do, and I’m excited for us to continue those conversations and start new ones with each other. Let’s dig deep, reflect seriously, and be intentional about how we articulate our pluralism.