Dear Dr. Osterman

  (subject:  Unitarian Universalist identity)                                                  Main Line Unitarian Church
Devon, Pennsylvania
27 March 2011

Reading:   Things Commonly Believed Among Us, William Channing Gannett

Gannett proposed this statement of believe in 1887 as a compromise between two groups of Unitarian ministers in the Midwest. One group wished to hold on to liberal Christianity as the basis of Unitarianism, while the other proposed a more expansive religious base for the movement and opposed any doctrinal statement that limited freedom of belief.  Gannett’s comprise was adopted 59 to 13 (82%).

We believe that to love the Good and to live the Good is the supreme thing in religion;

We hold reason and conscience to be final authorities in matters of religious belief;

We honor the Bible and all inspiring scripture, old and new;

We revere Jesus, and all holy souls that have taught [people] truth and righteousness and love, as prophets of religion.

We believe in the growing nobility of [humanity];

We trust the unfolding Universe as beautiful, beneficent, unchanging Order; to know this order is truth; to obey it is right and liberty and stronger life;

We believe that good and evil invariably carry their own recompense, no good thing being failure and no evil thing success; that heaven and hell are states of being; that no evil can befall the good [person] in either life or death; that all things work together for the victory of Good.

We believe that we ought to join hands and work to make the good things better and the worst good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all;

We believe that this self-forgetting, loyal life awakes in [people] the sense of union here and now with things eternal – the sense of deathlessness; and this sense is to us an earnest of the life to come.

We worship One-in-All – that life whence suns and stars derive their orbits and the soul of [human beings] its Ought, – that Light which [illuminates] every [person] that [comes] into the world, giving us power to become sons [and daughters] of God, – that Love with which our souls commune.


Reading: The Cathedral of the World, Forrest Church

Imagine awaking one morning from a deep and dreamless sleep to find yourself in the nave of a vast cathedral. Like a child newborn . . . you open your eyes upon a world unseen, indeed unimaginable, before. It is a world of light and dancing shadow, stone and glass, life and death.

. . . look about you; contemplate the mystery and contemplate with awe. This cathedral is as ancient as humankind, its cornerstone the first altar, marked with the tincture of blood and stained with tears. Search for a lifetime, which is all you are surely given, and you shall never know its limits, visit all its apses, worship at its myriad shrines, nor span its celestial ceiling with your gaze. The builders have worked from time immemorial . . . not a moment passes without work being begun that shall not be finished in the lifetimes of the architects, the patrons, the builders, or the expectant worshippers.

Welcome to the cathedral of the world.

Above all, contemplate the windows. In the cathedral of the world there are windows without number . . . each in its own way is beautiful. Each tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines in.

As with all extended metaphors, this one is imperfect. The Light of God (“God” is not God’s name, but our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each) not only shines down upon us, but also out from within us. Together with the windows, the darkness and the light, we are part of the cathedral, not apart from it.

This is Universalism.

Fundamentalists of the right and left claim that the light shines through their window only. Skeptics make a similar mistakes, only to draw the opposite conclusion. Seeing the bewildering variety of windows and observing the folly of the worshipers, they conclude that there is no light. But the windows are not the light. The whole light – God, Truth, call it what you will – is beyond our perceiving.


Sermon:   Dear Dr. Osterman

A couple of months ago, I received an email from a young woman asking me to explain Unitarian Universalism to her. I get such messages from time to time and I actually enjoy the opportunity to talk about our faith with those who are unfamiliar with it. Out of respect for her privacy, I’m going to call this person “Grace.” She wrote the following:

Dear Dr. Osterman,

My name is Grace and I am a student at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA. I’ve been a Christian for most of life, growing up in a Christian home and having a Godly influence on me since I was born. I am conducting a bit of research for my own knowledge on the different denominations of Christianity. I have put together a list of five questions of what I consider some of the key aspects of Christianity. I would truly appreciate it if you, as the head pastor, would be willing to give me your answers to these questions. The questions are as follows:

1.     How do I get to heaven?

2.     How does the practice of baptism work in your denomination: Who can administer it, as well as who is able to participate in it and when?

3.     When/how does communion occur in your denomination, and who can partake in it?

4.     Are all sins equal and are there any unforgiveable sins?

5.     What makes one a Christian?

Please be specific with your answers and answer as accurately to your denomination as possible. For example, regardless of what traditions your individual church may have concerning communion, please let me know what your denomination as a whole believes.

If you are at all uncomfortable with this, please simply let me know and I will email another pastor of the same denomination.

Thank you and God bless

Now, I hear some of you chuckling, perhaps because the questions seem better suited for the pastor of some other church. But I think it’s important to take people seriously, to take people’s religious questions seriously, and meet people where they are.

The first thing that I had to do was understand where Grace was coming from, literally and figuratively. Some of you are familiar with Eastern University, but I was not. I had to research it a bit and learned that it had been founded as a Baptist seminary in 1925. Today it is a 4,000 student institution with an interdenominational student body and it is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA.

Now, some of you hear “Baptist” and think “fundamentalist,” but you are mistaken. The American Baptists are some of the most liberal and progressive Christians in this country, particularly around social issues, and I have always enjoyed close and warm relations with my American Baptist colleagues over the years. In fact, Andover Newton Theological School, which trains an increasing number of Unitarian Universalist ministers, is jointly affiliated with the American Baptists and the United Church of Christ.

The most difficult aspect of Grace’s question was the following: “Please be specific with your answers and answer as accurately to your denomination as possible. For example, regardless of what traditions your individual church may have concerning communion, please let me know what your denomination as a whole believes.”

Unitarian Universalism is a creedless faith, by which I mean that no one has to embrace a particular faith statement to belong to our congregation. There is no theological litmus test for membership in this church and there is a wide range of belief among our membership. I’ll tell you what I believe, theologically, but you are not required to agree with me to be a member of this church.

This allows our members maximum latitude to arrive at a faith which is personally meaningful for them. Because, ultimately, we only truly believe that of which we are convicted in our own hearts. No one can tell us what to believe and make us believe it. So, at the very core of our faith is the understanding that we arrive at our own beliefs individually within the context of a supportive community that gives us information, provides spiritual formation, and helps us arrive at and articulate our faith. This is a very good thing, but it also poses a problem for our movement. Since there is no unifying creed within Unitarian Universalism, congregations vary in culture and sometimes theology.

For example, you might visit the Unitarian Church in Walnut Creek, CA after seeking a spiritual home for years and think, “O my God, this is great! This is just what I have been looking for in a church all my life.” You become very active in the church and just love it. Then, one day, you move to Quincy, MA where you walk into the local Unitarian church and feel like you’ve entered some foreign place, because the congregational culture may be very different.

The lack of a unifying creed or even congregational culture can be a liberating thing at times and a real hindrance at others.

Over a period of four months last year, I was part of a local UU ministers group that wrestled with how best to articulate the core of our faith. We are all deeply committed to seeing our faith grow, because we believe that our is the faith of the 21st century that can nourish the spirit, engage the mind, and activate the heart to make the world a better place. We agreed that we needed to arrive at some broadly shared understanding of the content of our faith so that when we were speaking public about Unitarian Universalism, whether to news outlets or in other forums, we were saying substantially the same thing. My colleagues and I engaged in this process with people like Grace in mind.

The ministers in the group ranged from one colleague who was raised in the decidedly humanist tradition in Unitarian Universalism and another who identifies as a liberal Christian. The rest of us fell somewhere between those two views, with one colleague whose beliefs are heavily informed by Buddhism. After months of conversation, this is the statement that we agreed upon:

“We base our faith primarily on experience. As humans, we suffer and are often broken, but our faith teaches that we can all find wholeness. We experience God as a spirit that binds together all of existence and animates all of life, rather than a being that controls existence.  This spirit of life is a mysterious force of love and grace, found in nature, community and within ourselves. We are all a part of it, and all exist within an interdependent web of life.  We are limited beings, but we are responsible for one another, and we help create the future.  When we practice our faith – through generosity, gratitude, humility and compassion – we help to make God manifest. We do this not just for ourselves, but to serve others, promote justice and transform a hurting world.”

Each one of us in that group would articulate the core of UUism slightly differently. Some of us would emphasize the use of reason in religion, some would articulate this without invoking God, and while others would make their own modifications. This is not meant as a creed to which we all subscribe, but it is very much in the spirit of William Channing Gannett’s compromise statement of 1887, Things Commonly Believed Among Us, that I read to you earlier.

I think that it’s important that we be able to articulate our faith in a clear and compelling way that invites people into conversation with us. People like Grace. If Unitarian Universalism is going to grow as a religious movement in America and the world, then each one of us needs to be equipped to share the essence of our faith – in our own words and in positive terms – with people who may be curious about it. People are curious and seeking religious alternatives.

Perhaps you read Alfred Lubrano’s editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer in which he wrestles with the question of whether he, as an agnostic former Catholic, should raise his child in a religious community. Should he give his daughter a religious education or remain silent on the issue and allow his daughter to explore religion on her own when she is ready? This is a question with which I know many of you right here today have wrestled.

My colleague at the Media Unitarian Universalist congregation, Peter Friedrichs – one of the other eight ministers who helped shape the statement I just read to you – offered a superb reply, which read, in part: “When I walked into a Unitarian Universalist church nearly 25 years ago, I discovered that religion need not be dogmatic, that there are many paths to faith, and I could have a relationship with Jesus without being asked to believe in miracles. This faith traces its roots back 500 years, offers children and adults alike the chance to seek and find religious truths within a radically inclusive community committed to creating a just society.” And then he wrote the most important line: “I invite Lubrano and his daughter to attend the church in Media where I am now the pastor, or any other of the many Unitarian Universalist churches in the Philadelphia area.”

“I invite you.” There is nothing as powerful as a personal invitation to encourage a person to visit a religious community for the first time. It takes a lot of courage to visit an unfamiliar church.

People are looking for alternatives to the hide-bound, dogmatic religions of the past. In the 21st century, increasing numbers of Americans are seeking the very thing that our faith has been offering for centuries.

Those of you who follow the discussions about religion in popular culture may be familiar with the controversy that is swirling within evangelical Christian churches around a soon-to-to-be-released book by Rob Bell. Bell is the pastor of the 10,000 member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The promotional video for his book has ignited a firestorm of controversy within evangelical Christian churches, because Bell has arrived at Christian Universalist view that challenges the idea that a loving God would damn people to eternal hell.

Of course, this is precisely the Universalist message that our religious forebears introduced to America. When John Murray landed in New Jersey in 1770, this was the very religious message that he delivered to all who would listen. So I say to Rob Bell, “Welcome home, brother. We’ve been waiting for you for nearly 250 years.”

I encourage you to watch Bell’s promotional video. Enter “Rob-Bell-Love-Wins” into your web browser. It’s remarkable.

Bell describes going to a Christian art show where one of the pieces featured a quote by Mohandas Gandhi. Someone attached a note saying: “Reality check: He’s in hell.”

Rob Bell said, “Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?”

So Rob Bell looked at his scripture, used his reason, and came to the conclusion that the Universalism that was preached in this country over 200 years ago was correct. And he had to arrive at that conclusion without the least bit of assistance from us. What a shame. One of our 20th century Universalist forebears said, “We Universalists are sitting on the biggest word in the English language; we need to improve the property or get off the premises.”

My late colleague Forrest Church articulated the new Universalism, the improved property, the vision of religion and religious pluralism that really does represent the way forward in the 21st century. Not a narrow universalist view predicated upon Jesus saving us, but rather a universalism that understands that the different faiths of the world are just different ways of seeing, experiencing, and understanding the Holy, whatever that is, whatever that means to you. The Light is shining through the windows of the Cathedral of the World, and the windows are wondrous, varied, and valuable. Who are we to say which is right and which is wrong? The windows are not the light; they are just where the light shines through and into our lives. That’s the new Universalism.

We have, and have always had, a broad, inclusive religious message that invites people to experience and entirely different way of being religious. The Unitarian minister who married my parents – Herbert Hitchen – used to say, “Unitarian Universalism is an alternative religion, not an alternative to religion.”

When I got Grace’s letter, I took it very seriously. I took her seriously. That’s the respectful thing to do. This is my reply to her email:

Dear Grace,

Thank you for your questions about religion in general and Unitarian Universalism in particular. First, let me tell you that the overwhelming majority of Unitarian Universalists would not consider themselves Christians, and those that do practice the religion “of Jesus” (the teachings of the man), not the religious “about Jesus” (messiah and son of God.) I am not a Christian, but am happy to offer some short answers to your questions.

1. How do I get to heaven?

Heaven is not a place or destination in the afterlife, but rather a state of being/mind in this life. People can be in heaven or hell when they are alive, depending upon their beliefs, actions, and state of mind. Ultimately, as theological Universalists, we believe that all people – regardless of their faith or lack thereof, or actions – share a common spiritual destiny after death and that is reunion with the Eternal Spirit of God. Where is heaven?  As the Gospel of Luke observes:  “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Lk. 17:21)

2. How does the practice of baptism work in your denomination: Who can administer it, as well as who is able to participate in it and when?

We do not practice baptism, because we do not believe that human beings are inherently sinful; therefore, baptism is not required. We have ceremonies of Blessing and Dedication for children, typically when they are born, but sometimes when they join the church at a later age. Ministers perform the ceremony, in which we confer the blessings of the community and invoke the blessings of God on the child, and we then dedicate ourselves – family and community – to the upbringing, care, and education of the child. Adults who join the church have no such ritual.

Children are born pure as the driven snow. Later in life, we begin to make choices and some of those actions might constitute “sins”.

3. When/how does communion occur in your denomination, and who can partake in it?

The overwhelming majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations do not take/serve communion.  In those that do, all are welcome to participate. The Unitarian Universalist communion celebrates the lives of all women and men who have suffered and died for their faith, not just Jesus. The point of the communion ritual is to focus participants on the God within each of us waiting to emerge through our actions in our lives.

4. Are all sins equal and are there any unforgiveable sins?

There are different magnitudes of sins. Since we do not believe in hell, as a post-death punishment, our conception of God is as the spirit through which all is forgiven and in which all is reconciled. Forgiveness is really a human undertaking. Anything is forgivable, if the person who committed the offense confesses, repents, and atones for their actions. For more on my views about “sin,” you can visit our church website and listen to my sermon (February 1, 2009) Part 1: A True Aim.

5. What makes one a Christian?

Since I am not, nor have I ever been, a Christian, I cannot really answer this question. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in “deeds not creeds,” so professions of faith mean little, but action demonstrates an individual’s deepest convictions.  To quote Christian scripture, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:18)

Thank you for this opportunity to tell you about Unitarian Universalism. It would be great to have you visit our church some Sunday for a service. We worship together every Sunday at 9:00am and 11:00am. I’ll hope to meet you in person. God bless you and best wishes for a successful semester.

Yours in faith,
Rev. Dr. Justin S. Osterman
Senior Minister
Main Line Unitarian Church

Friends, more so now than ever the world needs our answers because people are seeking, questioning, and trying to find a way through difficult lives in a difficult age in our world. They are looking for an inviting faith that allows them to bring all of who they are into their community and ours is that inviting faith.

Throughout our history, we have invited people to wrestle faithfully with their doubts and their beliefs, arriving at the truth as they understand it. We do that by creating an inviting a community. We do that by offering – each of us – the invitation of our message, or our faith. In the words of the great Transylvania Unitarian minister Francis David, “We need not think alike to love alike.”

While I might disagree with him about some aspects of his theology, I do agree with Rob Bell about this, “Love wins.” The love that wins is the Light shining through the varied windows of the Cathedral of the World. It is the Light that shines upon us; the Light that shines among us; the Light that can shine forth from us when we can understand ourselves as the embodiment of love and emissaries of love into the world. We are called into community, as individuals, to share the Light with all whom we encounter and in so doing share our faith with those who may be seeking precisely what we have found here. I commission you to go forth and share your light and love with the world.

So may it ever be.