A few weeks ago I spoke at a school board hearing in favor of a comprehensive sex education program in the public schools. I cited as a reason the success we had had offering it in our religious education programs for the last forty years or so. About ten years ago, shortly before our new human sexuality program, Our Whole Lives, was ready for publication, Bryant Gumble’s television tabloid show, Public Eye, featured a shocking exposé of the course which Unitarian Universalist churches had then been teaching for about 25 years to teenagers, and occasionally even to adults, called About Your Sexuality. I took it years ago in order to be trained in it, in
It is interesting, though, that although most of us can talk fairly openly about such matters as sexuality, what really often seems pornographic to us seems to be a discussion of money. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me that one of the reasons they became disgruntled with their previous church was that they were so materialistic and money-grubbing that that was all they talked about. I will admit that I have heard of churches where the money in the plate was counted, and if it wasn’t as much as the minister thought was correct, the plate would be passed again. Other churches may have special collections in the church service besides the regular one for paying the day-to-day expenses, so the plate goes around again. We don’t do those things. I suspect if we tried to pass the plate twice in one church service the entire congregation would rise and walk out in a body. I mean, that’s downright vulgar! Nevertheless, I always feel, when someone mentions that about their previous church, that I have to remind them that we, too, ask for money. Not only do we have our annual pledge campaign, but we have other fund-raisers throughout the year, most notably our upcoming auction. We too are always asking for money, but since we find it such a delicate subject, we do it as discreetly as possible. We may be so discreet that we don’t make the need sufficiently well understood sometimes — sort of like my mother trying to explain sex to me when I was a teenager. Our sexuality course is much more helpful. Now if we could just do the same with a course about money....
Part of the problem is that we think that the life of the body is separate from that of the spirit, and to talk about the material needs of spiritual institutions is to degrade them. I remember at the time I was graduating from divinity school, I had made friends with a conductor on the subway at
I think what we need to do is to get money out of the gutter. We need to stop separating our bodies from our souls, stop thinking of the material as somehow less worthy and recognize the integrity of the whole as connecting the material with the spiritual. Money without a spiritual dimension is just what Wordsworth said, a waste of our powers, but spirit alone is almost powerless in our material world. It is not money itself that is bad, but money which is used only for ends that leave the soul starved is wasted.
When we refuse to talk about money as openly and usefully as we talk about sex, it is not that we don’t like it, any more than those who are shocked by the mention of any honest sexuality dislike their own version of sex. We are, I think, ashamed of our liking for it, ashamed perhaps, of having more than others, ashamed to admit that, if we are perfectly honest, what we really want to spend it on is our own pleasures. Although there is some remnant of the Calvinist notion that material wealth was an indication of predestined salvation in our thinking, although it usually goes unadmitted except in occasional hints that the wealthy deserve their happiness and the poor probably wouldn’t have to be poor if they were a little more virtuous, often we feel that to be openly more comfortable than others has a little uncleanness about it. We may not admit it, but I can think of no other reason for our embarrassment about talking about money unless, of course — and let me assure you that I would impute no such motivation to any of you — the real reason we wish to hide our material comfort from others is in the fear that we might be expected to use more of that money than we presently do for the good of others.
Being comfortably off is not unclean, and using our money for our own wellbeing is not shameful or even embarrassing. However, most of us discover that it is not enough. Getting and spending lays waste our powers. If it is entirely divorced from our spiritual life it is dust and ashes. I think I have mentioned before the bumper sticker that I saw on a De Lorean that said, “The man who dies with the most toys wins.” If it weren’t on a De Lorean, it might not have struck me as so inherently sad a philosophy, but being where it was, it seemed to me that the owner might really have meant it. There is nothing in the world wrong with owning a De Lorean. I’ve sometimes thought I’d like a couple of Ferraris (one to drive and one for the shop), myself. The problem is dying in the belief that that has justified your existence. Ultimately we discover that more toys will not redeem us, and though we all at last will die, those of us who have used our money for our souls as well as our bodies have found a connection that is eternal.
One of those ways is to use it to help others — to give to those causes that matter, that have a hope, perhaps, of changing the world for the better. There are many such causes, many such calls on the purses of those who have learned that giving gains them more than getting. Oddly, I suppose, I don’t put giving to your church in that category. Giving to your church is an anomaly in that it is more like the money that we use for our own wellbeing than it is like giving to charity, and yet it, too, is money for the soul. It is like paying the rent and the utility bill, but its purpose, in reality, is feeding the spirit. It is material goods spent on material goods, and yet it feeds and comforts the soul.
It is hard sometimes to make this distinction between money spent on charity — on feeding the hungry, teaching the ignorant, healing the sick — and money spent to support a religious institution. You can even argue (somewhat convolutedly, in some cases) personal material benefit from money spent charitably. You may say that you selfishly desire to make the world a better place for you and your children to live in. However, the money given to the church really does go directly for your own good. After all, what is the church? In essence, you’re it. As you give to the church you give to yourselves. When you give to pay its mortgage or utility bill or salaries, or to support programs, it is your mortgage, your utility bill, your staff, your programs. You are not the clients of the church, being served and cared for, but the church itself, the servers and carers. In that regard the wellbeing of the church is that of your own. Yet, since the purpose of the church is the care and feeding of the spirit, the discovery and strengthening of our understanding of life’s meaning, and the practice of meaningful living, the money given to it is also money spent for the good of the soul.
It is not always easy to articulate what justifies us in asking one another for the money it takes to run a church — more than you would feel you could give to any charity, but after all, we are the only ones who are available to support it. There are no outside angels. If we want it to exist it’s up to us. However, we cannot promise that you will get anything that you can quantify, or even that the more you give the more you get. The spirituality that people are seeking is not really for sale, nor is it available just from being part of a religious institution. It is not a sense of aesthetic pleasure, nor an adrenaline high nor a set of beliefs. It is instead a deep sense that your life is more than getting and spending, that it is part of something more real even than the material world, that it can transform that world into something greater than it presently is through the transformation of our lives in trying to bring such a world closer to possibility — a world of justice and of love, of plenty and of peace.
We ask a great deal of our members, all sorts of resources of time, energy and money. It is a matter not only of the church’s survival but of its ability to fulfill its purpose. But why is that purpose so important that we can justify its demands? Why is this one worth so much commitment? After all, there are other churches around, and they, too, have ways to look at questions of meaning.
Every once in a while I ask myself that. What is it that we are that makes such struggle necessary? Why does it matter that we continue to exist? What is our unique gift to ourselves and to our community and the world that justifies these demands? If there were others who can fulfill our purpose, there would be small point in either demanding or giving what is needed for our survival and growth. But others’ ways aren’t our ways. Our gift is unique, and however similar they may be the ways of others are not quite the same as ours. What we have stood for throughout our history, the history of our religion and of our own church is integrity of the mind and spirit — the integrity that can only exist in the freedom to seek, to think, to believe as our consciences lead us. Ours is the only religion to hold that freedom at the center of its faith.