A common misconception about the Unitarian side of our Unitarian Universalist history is that the Unitarians left the Congregationalist tradition of which they were a part because they rejected the doctrine of the Trinity – the notion that they were Unitarian as over and against Trinitarian. It’s certainly true that most Unitarian Christians, then and today, emphasize Jesus’ humanity rather than the more orthodox emphasis on his divinity. However, the biggest bone of contention that the early Unitarians had with the Calvinist Congregationalist establishment of which they were a part was not about whether or not Jesus was divine, but rather was related to the value of human beings. A core Calvinist tenet was “the utter depravity of humanity.” The idea that humans are worthless – nothing without the redeeming grace of God to clean us up and make us whole. Unitarians rejected this notion so vehemently that they ultimately were transformed themselves from being the liberal branch of the Congregational tradition into a separate denomination altogether, the Unitarians.
The practical results of this shift in theology were both wide and deep. There was explicit and widespread appreciation for human endeavors – art and especially science. In fact, Unitarians placed such a high value on humanity’s ability to uncover “truth” through intellectual rationality and the scientific method that, over time, many Unitarians began to reject their Christian heritage altogether in favor of a more secular, humanistic vision of the world. In the early part of the twentieth century, when the formal Humanist movement was in its heyday, the Unitarians, and to a lesser extent, the Universalists, played major roles in the creation of the Humanist Manifesto and other hallmarks of the movement.
The Unitarians of history and the Unitarian Universalists of today take human beings very seriously. One of the clearest and most talked about manifestations of our belief in the basic goodness of humanity is our seven Unitarian Universalist principles, especially the first one that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And I thank God that we do dare to affirm every person. Far too much of the time in our world, whole categories of people are demonized and written off as unimportant, immoral, or even evil. There are so many forces in society that rob us of our self-esteem, that I believe the strong humanist strain in Unitarian Universalism is one of our greatest strengths as a movement.
But there is another spiritual quality that serves as the yin to the yang of humanism’s confidence. I am referring of course, to the trait of humility. By humility I mean the attitude to be willing to be critical of oneself and open to the Spirit’s guidance even when it differs from our own preconceived concepts. Humility goes hand in hand with traits such as meekness and modesty. It requires sincerity, honesty, and introspection. Perhaps most important of all, humility asks us to listen to one another and to the universe. To believe that we have a great deal to learn and that we will never know everything. Humility.
Many of you know that in addition to being a candidate for Unitarian Universalist ministry, I am also an attorney and mediator. I love my mediation work because it allows me to pull together my skills as an attorney and as a minister to help individuals and groups who are in conflict to work together toward a fair resolution to whatever dispute they are experiencing. I have spent much of this summer attending training seminars around the country and doing other work related to my mediation practice. All of these hours of meetings and seminars have reminded me that a core presupposition of mediation is the idea that true conflict transformation and even interpersonal healing can come only when we are willing to listen to one another – especially those with whom we disagree. Different from the litigation system, the parties in mediation do not rely on a judge to make their decisions for them, but rather the mediator facilitates discussion in such a way that the parties are empowered to make their own decisions.
I have seen in my practice over and over how crucial the act of listening is to conflict resolution. When we are in the thick of an interpersonal or other type of dispute, we feel a strong need to be heard. We want to make our point. We want the other person to know how much they have hurt us, to know that they are missing the point, misunderstanding our position, maybe even being downright mean. But I am coming to learn in my own life, both in my personal life as well as through my work as a mediator, that we will only bridge the gap between ourselves and those with whom we disagree when we step back, calm down, and listen. When we are humble enough to know that what we have to say and what we think is only one piece of a larger puzzle.
A couple of years ago, my partner Brad and I attended a weekend couple’s enrichment workshop in Houston, Texas. We, along with about six other couples participated in a program that followed the Imago model of human interactions, which is based on the work of Harville Hendrix in his wonderful book,Getting the Love You Want. I highly recommend that book and any of Hendrix’s books for a model of how to think about and participate in relationships. One of the core exercises that all of us at the workshop in Texas engaged in over the weekend is called the Couple’s Dialogue. The central feature of the Couple’s Dialogue is, even in the midst of an emotional disagreement, to learn not only to listen to your partner, but to reflect back verbally to him or her exactly what he or she is saying.
Now I don’t mind telling you that I was skeptical. I am not a particularly touchy-feely person and I was less than thrilled by the prospect of spending three days repeating back to Brad how he was feeling about one thing or another, especially the ways in which he was frustrated with me. But I also have to say that participating in the workshop made a believer out of me. You see, Brad and I are very much alike. When we disagree about something, our modus operandi is to try and convince the other one of the validity of our particular position. We are both very good at crafting logical arguments and turning phrases just so in order to try to get each other to see the error of his ways. Over the years we have spent hours making our case to one another in ways that would make my high school debate coach cry tears of joy. But too often the true underlying conflict was never resolved because at the end of the day, we had never truly listened to one another.
The beauty of the Couple’s Dialogue model of communication is that it made us, when we were in the listening role, to put all of responses – the “yeah, but”; and the “that’s not what I meant” – on the shelf. Our sole responsibility was to listen. To understand what the other person was feeling. To humble ourselves enough to know that all of our well thought out responses and logical counterarguments are not what is called for. What is called for is humility. Listening. Openness.
Like many of you, I have been disheartened on an almost daily basis by the vitriolic, patronizing, and short-sighted rhetoric that seems to flow endlessly from officials of the United States government these days. Something is deeply wrong with how our society conceives of itself when our President and Secretary of State insist publicly that, no matter the level of tension, we refuse even to speak to countries with whom we disagree, such as Iran or North Korea. Not even to speak? Why in the world not? How can we ever expect to resolve our differences if we are not even willing to have a conversation? What do we think we have to lose by talking with one another and learning more about each other’s perceptions and ideas? We might find that we are all reasonable human beings who love our families and countries. Why do we seem to be so intent on waiting until we can justify a bombing raid in the name of the seemingly endless “war on terror”? I pray for the day when interpersonal conflict doesn’t automatically mean we sue each other and conflict between countries doesn’t necessarily mean we kill one another.
The world’s religions, both major and minor, have a great deal to say about humility. A traditional African proverb states that “It is humility that exalts one and favors him against his friends.” Jesus taught in Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The Koran, the holiest book of Islam, tells us “Successful indeed are the believers who are humble in their prayers…” Hinduism’s Bhagavad-Gita tells us to “Be humble, be harmless, have no pretension…” And I could go on and on. As a religious person, I have to take seriously the fact that so many wise people over so many millennia, across so many continents taught such a similar lesson. There is value in humility. In knowing what we don’t know. In listening.
Some of us sitting in this room today believe in God or some other form of a higher power. Others do not. Some believe in life after death. Others do not. The fact of the matter is that none of us in this room can say for sure that what we believe about these questions and others like them is objectively true with a capital “T.” We simply do not know. The good news is that we can act from a place that realizes that we don’t have all of the answers to all of the questions. Instead, the whole world, and Unitarian Universalists in particular, make up a vast matrix of ideas and beliefs – a beautiful patchwork quilt of many colors and patterns. And we can listen to one another. If our inclination is always to be led by our heads, maybe we can try to develop our intuition and also try to follow our hearts more of the time. If we are more often led by our emotions and instincts, we can grow by learning to take seriously scientific research and academic learning. But more than anything, I hope all of us can balance our affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person against the fact that no one person or group of people has cornered the market on truth. May all of us know what we don’t know, open our hearts and minds, and learn the art of humility. Amen.