Probably the most famous text from the book of Amos in the Bible is, “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” It is one of a list of rhetorical questions, questions to which no answer is expected, since they are entirely obvious, questions whose function is merely to make a point. The others in the list are such things as, “Will a lion roar in the forest, when he hath no prey? will a young lion cry out of his den, if he have taken nothing? Can a bird fall in a snare upon the earth, where no bait is for him? shall one take up a snare from the earth, and have taken nothing at all?” In the mid-nineties the New American Standard Bible offered a new translation, “Can two walk together unless by appointment.” At a cluster meeting one of my colleagues gleefully told me about this new translation which was supposed to reflect the original Hebrew more accurately. He thought that that chimed in much more easily with our commitment to diversity of thought and opinion. To talk of agreement, he felt, was to desert our freedom of thought, our faith of doubt.
Well I don’t like it at all, and I don’t even believe that that is what Amos meant. After all, though the answer is obvious, it takes away any meaning to the passage. Of course people can walk together without an appointment. It happens to me all the time. Someone I know is walking in the same direction that I am; we recognize one another and agree (oops, there’s that word again) either tacitly or overtly to continue together until one reaches his or her destination. In fact, if we don’t, it calls for a polite apology, “I’m sorry, I’m late for an appointment,” as you rush away.
No, “Can two walk together except that they be agreed,” has to be the correct translation, unless Amos had a lapse of logic, which is, of course, entirely possible. At any rate, I’m sticking with that one. They don’t have to agree on much. As long as they are at one on pace and direction, they can spend the rest of their time arguing with one another about any and everything. If they don’t, however, agree on those two things, it is impossible to remain together.
We talk a lot about covenant. We often trivialize it into a code of behavior or even a contract. It is not really about how we act, but how we agree to be together in the light of our shared values. We are not the only religion to use the word. Judaism traces its origins to the covenant between God and Abraham. Christian churches, too, talk of covenant. We, however, need it as they do not. In a free faith, belief does not keep us together. All we have to form our community is covenant, and all of them, even the behavioral codes, look back to the basic one to which the question in Amos points us. We agree to walk together. It is more than that, though. It is a solemn promise rather than a lighthearted acceptance of the pleasure of one another’s company. After all, it may not always be pleasant. It is like that of the Mayflower Compact. We agree to walk together in the ways of what we deem highest as we presently understand them or as we may understand them in the future.
It’s not as easy as that, of course. Just as in a physical walk in which you have to agree to more than just that you will walk together, in this metaphorical walk, we, too, have to figure out our pace and direction. I don’t know how we’re going to do that since we don’t even seem to have a consensus on the reason for our existence. It seems to me that the only reason for our existence as a religion is if we have a unique gift to offer to the community in which we exist as a congregation and to the world in which our association of congregations exists.
We try. We keep making lists of things commonly agreed among us. Some are even very beautiful. There’s the one by Theodore Parker: “Be ours a religion that like sunshine goes everywhere; its temple all space, its creed all truth, its shrine the good heart, its ritual works of love, its profession of faith divine living.” Or the one by L. Griswold Williams: “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine — thus do we covenant with each other….” There are the more mundane ones such as the ones by David Rankin on the little card some of you keep in your wallet, the list of principles in the Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws, and the latest ones by David Bumbaugh, a professor at Meadville/Lombard, one of our theological schools, that was just published, but it seems to me that none of them quite point to the issue. The only thing truly unique about them, all of them, is that you don’t have to necessarily agree with them to be a participant in our covenant. That may at least begin to point us toward articulating our specific gift that I believe makes us the religion of the future if we can learn to identify it and articulate it.
Some of you may have read the lead article in the latest UU World. It was entitled “Can We Change?” I had heard it when its author gave it at the meeting of the ministers as the Berry Street Lecture, the oldest lecture series in our movement — and this one is specifically for ministers, established by William Ellery Channing over 150 years ago. It gave us demographic statistics for the projected ethnic makeup of the
A couple of years ago, also during ministry days at General Assembly, we heard a speech by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s former minister. Much of what he said struck me, at least, as at least bordering on racism, but there was one thing that I thought was very significant, very important, and that we should listen to very carefully in the context of our own faith. He was talking about the exponential growth of his congregation, and he attributed it not to his own skills as preacher or pastor but to their deciding exactly who they were and celebrating that. They decided that they were unashamedly black and unabashedly Christian. Like most UCC churches, they were having some trouble with that before they took the plunge. UCCs usually have as much guilt and angst around ethnic and cultural diversity as we do, and I don’t think I’ve met a UCC minister yet who didn’t tell me that UCC stood for Unitarians Considering Christ. Trinity in
The most effective media campaign that the Unitarians ever launched was by the Laymen’s League in the 1950s and 60s. The Universalists weren’t into marketing. Anyway, the headline of that ad that I used to read in the Saturday Review of Literature and The New Republic asked the question, “Are you a Unitarian without knowing it?” People are still asking that question, adding Universalist to it, still preaching on it, using it in their own ads, quoting it again and again. I have spent hours trying to find the text of the rest of it without success. That question by itself would have been meaningless to me, so since it intrigued me, though admittedly didn’t actually get me into church, remaining, however, one of the later factors, the rest of it must have been highly meaningful to me as it clearly was to the others who actually were motivated by it to try us out. One of the odd things about it was that so far as we can tell it is the only ad that has ever appealed at least as strongly to men as to women. I have no memory at all of what it said, but in order to have interested me as I was in those days it must have said something about freedom of thought, belief and conscience, and it must have said something about reason and critical thinking. It wouldn’t have hurt if it had said something about the acceptance of the scientific worldview, either. That’s what I wanted in those days, it’s what I still want, and it’s what I think we mostly still are when we don’t get distracted by defining freedom as having to be so inclusive that even those who don’t practice a responsible freedom are considered fair game for us. It is not that I would ever turn anyone away unless they were dangerous to the safety of the congregation, it is only that I feel that to change our message in order to include everybody we are left with no distinct message at all — well, except that we include everybody. Mostly they don’t seem to want to be included. And why should they? There is little in that message that challenges or transforms us.
The story that we tell is still that of freedom of thought, belief and conscience. It is in no way a permissive story. It doesn’t mean that you can just pick any belief out there that feels good to you, but that you are responsible for your beliefs. You have to base them on what you learn from your own and others’ experience, which includes scientific research as well as ancient religious teachings and your own understanding of the world. It means that you have to test them, not just today but tomorrow and the next day. It means you have to think critically about them.
Somehow, it seems to me, we have become ashamed of our own process. We have turned the necessity to think about our faith into intellectual snobbery and our belief in the power of reason into a rejection of the life of the spirit. We try to deny or change the very things that give our faith the power to meet the changes of our cultural paradigm and transform ourselves into a religion that can understand the necessity for the search for truth in a universe in which absolute truth is unattainable, a world in which we must work for justice when justice is no longer clear-cut and unintended consequences deny it, an ambiguous universe in which instead of one clear consequence of each action there may be a range of consequences. There has never been a need for a free and thinking religion more than there is now. This should be, I believe, our message.
So now, I’m going to seem to contradict myself. Those speakers and writers who say that we must change to include people of different backgrounds and experiences are right. We are so bound by our cultural assumptions that we don’t even recognize we have them. One of you, and you know who you are, gave me a book, Bobos in Paradise. Bobos means bourgeois bohemians. I read only a few paragraphs before I was nodding my head, recognizing most Unitarian Universalists. Highly educated, they listen to NPR, watch educational TV, go to art and foreign films only, except for the ones that are advertised as particularly edifying. They listen to classical music, frequent art museums, drive foreign cars and drink coffee — probably exotic — at Starbucks. Our cultural boundaries are so thick you couldn’t get through them with a brace and bit. If you don’t believe me, try putting on this different lens and listen to the conversations at coffee hour. All that might be fine, except somehow we translate that to believe that only we are qualified to understand and accept free religion. We assume that everyone who comes here is just like us and I’m sorry, people, it comes across as condescending. No one will ever make me believe that there are not blue collar workers, black people, people of Spanish-speaking background, people with less than college degrees, who do not experience the same dissatisfaction most of us did with authoritarian religions, who do not insist on a free faith, who cannot think as clearly as a doctoral candidate about the path for truth. We excuse our ethnic homogeneity by saying things like, “Well, you know, they have their own churches.” They. Think about it. Besides, so did most of us, didn’t we?