Universalist Influences

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 18 October 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)


(A general note on the sermons I post: While I do lightly edit them and add links and footnotes, they are still basically texts that I wrote with the intention of speaking. Therefore I sometimes use punctuation that is more appropriate for spoken language than for written language. Grammar, too, is different in practice for spoken language than for written language, so if something looks funny to you when you see it written here, try reading it out loud.)


As you may know, at Throop Church we have monthly worship themes. Sometimes these themes are overridden by the requirements of particular services — like the Blessing of the Animals service last week — but in general, there is supposed to be a common theme among the services each month. For the month of October, the theme is “Letting Go.” Now, the title of my sermon today is “Universalist Influences,” and you may well wonder what that will have to do with “Letting Go.” But really, this sermon will be about evolution. Not the evolution of species, but the evolution of ideas, the evolution of theologies — and this evolution involves a continual process of letting go of some old beliefs, and embracing some new ones.

What happens to our history when we let go of old ideas? What do we think of our forebears, when we have moved on from some of their ideas? I’ve spoken several times now from this pulpit, and each time I have brought my perspective as a humanist. As I have said, I am an atheist — by which I mean that I do not believe in anything that I would call “God.” And yet I specifically chose the first hymn we sang this morning — the hymn that begins “Unto thy temple, Lord, we come with thankful hearts to worship thee.”

What kind of evolution can happen that would lead an atheist to ask you to sing those words?


Universalism, of course, is part of the very foundation of our congregation in Pasadena. In 1885, the Universalist minister Caroline Soule held services in Pasadena. In the following year, the Universalist minister Florence Kollock, who was vacationing in California, also preached in Pasadena. Under the guidance of Kollock and our namesake Amos G. Throop, this church was founded as the First Universalist Parish of Pasadena. As far as the State of California is concerned, that is still our name — the First Universalist Parish of Pasadena — although we are “doing business as” Throop Memorial Church and Throop Unitarian Universalist Church.

So what does “Universalist” mean? Those of you who already know this, forgive me — but let me review some history and theology.

When America was founded, the religious elite were mostly Calvinists. One of the basic ideas of Calvinism is that there are two types of people; the “elect,” who will go to heaven, and everyone else, who will not. But the interesting thing is that the determination of whether or not you are one of the elect? Calvinists believed that that decision was made at the beginning of time; it has nothing at all to do with how you behave here on Earth.

For many people nowadays, this theology is surprising. Whether or not you go to Heaven has nothing at all to do with how you behave on Earth? What would motivate a Calvinist to behave well?

Of course, one response — which, as a humanist, I prefer — is that people’s morals are not determined by what they hope or fear for their afterlife. But there’s a psychological motivation that came into play as well. If you were a Calvinist, you really, really hoped that you were one of the elect, one of the people who will go to heaven. You would be looking for signs that somehow indicated this. You might think: How would one of the elect behave? You might think: If I were one of the elect, I would probably behave well; I would probably tithe to my church, and help the poor, and contribute to my community, and do well by my family. And since you really, really hoped you were one of the elect, you would do the things that you thought would confirm this hypothesis.

Now, who were the Universalists? One strand of Universalism was grounded in Calvinism. These Universalists also believed in the idea of the “elect” — they also believed that there are two types of people, those who would go to Heaven, and those who would not — except that they believed that everyone was in the first group. These Universalists could not believe that a loving God would make some of His children suffer for all eternity in Hell.

The name “Universalist” comes from this belief: the belief in universal salvation — the belief that everyone will go to Heaven.

Everyone will go to Heaven… eventually. Universalists in the 18th and 19th centuries had various beliefs about purgatory. Some believed that people would have to suffer some amount of time to “pay for” their sins on Earth before they would be allowed into Heaven. Some Universalists — called “Restorationists” — believed that people would continue to suffer until they were reconciled with God, but that as soon as they were reconciled, they would go to Heaven. And some Universalists, sometimes called the “ultra”-Universalists, denied the whole idea of “paying for one’s sins” in the afterlife; they denied some of the basic tenets of Calvinism.

Oh, by the way: All of this was viewed as heresy by the mainstream churches in America. Even many Unitarians, who felt some sympathy for the Universalists, wanted to keep their distance, for fear of giving their theological adversaries yet another heresy to accuse them of.

For example, in his autobiography, 1 Adin Ballou, a Restorationist (and a younger cousin of the ultra-Universalist Hosea Ballou), wrote about his own installation in 1832 as minister of First Church and Congregation in Mendon, Massachusetts, about 30 miles outside Boston. Among the ministers participating in Ballou’s installation were four Restorationists and four Unitarians. Ballou wrote:

In those days it required no little moral courage for Rev. Mr. Whitman and his Unitarian brethren to unite with the Restorationists in a public religious service like that of my installation.

Writing nearly sixty years after the event, Ballou recognized the courage shown by the Unitarian ministers who attended, but also mocked the prejudices of some of their brethren. Speaking of Unitarians in general, he wrote:

The Unitarians were largely a well educated class of people, and nursed the pride of having a highly educated ministry. But the Restorationists, tried by their standard, were “unlearned and ignorant” — only a trifle better schooled, perhaps, than the humble Nazarene himself and his original twelve apostles, without a [Doctor of Divinity degree] among them, and little better than barbarians when compared with the graduates of Harvard College, and other polished literati. This was quite as objectionable to many of the “grave and reverend seigniors” of the denomination as our peculiar theology.

Some of these stereotypes about Unitarians and Universalists are still with us today!

In the early 20th century, the meaning of Universalism widened — for some, it referred to the idea that there is some kind of universal religion; that religions that are different in their particulars are somehow trying to explain or understand or live with the same ultimate truth — the idea that we would now express with the image of different people feeling the elephant in the dark room, or with the expression “one light, many windows.” This widened view of Universalism is why, for example, Swami Vivekananda — a Hindu religious leader who had been a sensation at the World Parliament of Religion in 1893 — was welcomed in 1900 as a speaker at both Throop Church 2 and at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. 3


But how is all of this theology relevant to us today? What are some of its influences?

Let me quote Benjamin Rush, one of the founders of the United States — a member of the Continental Congress, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and a Universalist. He wrote: 4

A belief in God’s universal love to all his creatures, and that he will finally restore all those of them that are miserable to happiness, is a polar truth. It leads to truths upon all subjects, more especially upon the subject of government. It establishes the equality of mankind — it abolishes the punishment of death for any crime — and converts jails into houses of repentance and reformation.

Rush’s writing 200 years ago sounds a lot like what Marilynne Robinson said just last month, in the quote I gave as today’s reading: 5

I believe that people are images of God. There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. […] It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level.

The Unitarian Universalist blogger Doug Muder, in a sermon on “Universalism, Politics, and Evil” delivered earlier this year at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois, expands on this idea:

The political upshot of Universalism — which continues in Unitarian Universalism today, even among those of us who don’t believe in God or the afterlife any more — is that since God isn’t writing anybody off, we don’t get to either. We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone, to picture them not as damned or evil or inconsequential, but as people deserving of the same kind of consideration we would like to claim for ourselves.

We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone.” This is not an easy thing to do, but I think it is an important thing to try, even though we are bound to fail. It calls us to remember that even people who we dislike, people who do things that are undeniably evil, are human. It doesn’t mean that we should excuse people for misdeeds — people should be held responsible for their actions — but we need a vision of humanity that includes our failings, and that recognizes that these failings occur in every one of us, to some extent.

We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone.” We are tempted so often to not do this; we are tempted by all of the discourse around us to view so many people as less than human. People who are not like us; people who speak a different language; people whose culture is not our own; people in other political parties; people who disagree with us on moral issues.

We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone.” For me, there is a certain political figure who stands out as a particular challenge here. Someone who I think has done great harm, who has damaged institutions I hold dear, who has helped make incredibly bad decisions. [I won’t say who this is, because it doesn’t matter — I’m sure we all have someone we can think of who plays this role for us.] I try to imagine the full humanity of this person, and frankly it is difficult. But I need to keep this in mind, even as I work against policies that this person and others have put in place.


Here is a question: Do Unitarian Universalists believe in equality? You can conduct an experiment during coffee hour, and ask this of the friend sitting next to you. I have not done the experiment myself yet, but here’s a prediction. If you ask a Unitarian Universalist whether they believe in equality, there’s a 95 percent chance that one of two things will happen: Either they will say “yes,” or you will find yourself in a 20-minute discussion of “what does equality mean, anyway?”… and then they will say “yes.”

If we believe in equality, where can we find it in the list of seven UU principles?

The second principle speaks of equity, but equity and equality are not the same thing.

It is my belief that equality appears in the first principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Where did the first principle come from? The Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961 with the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Originally, the UUA had a list of six principles. One of them begins:

The members of the UUA unite to affirm, defend, and promote the supreme worth of every human personality.

Here’s one thing among many to notice: The word supreme. I haven’t yet read the records of the time that explain how this principle evolved into what is now our first principle, but I can imagine many reasons for wanting to remove the word “supreme;” for example, it represents a very human-centered view of the universe.

But I think there was an unintended consequence of removing the word “supreme”. The idea is that if I have supreme worth, and you have supreme worth, then we both have equal worth. This is the equality that Benjamin Rush speaks of as a consequence of Universalism; this is the equality that Thomas Jefferson expresses, imperfectly, as “all men are created equal”; this is the equality that I struggle with when I think of certain people; this is the equality that I must struggle with, the equality that is at the foundation of my religious belief.

Removing the word “supreme” has made this concept of equality much less explicit, but I think that it is still there in our first principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It’s not that we all have worth and dignity but some of us get more of it than others; it’s that, as the Universalists would have it, we are all equal in the eyes of God.


Why did this service start with hymn #35? Not because of the first verse; but because of the second:

The common home of rich and poor,
Of bond and free, and great and small;
Large as thy love forevermore,
And warm and bright and good to all.

All humans are created equal.

May we have a Unitarian Universalism that is large enough to recognize and celebrate what we have in common with the Unitarian author 6 of that hymn; a Unitarian Universalism that allows us to open our service singing of a God that some of us have let go of, and close it in celebration of the Universalist love that still influences us.

Please rise, as you are willing and able, as we sing our closing hymn, “Standing on the Side of Love.”


  1. Completed by his son, based on notes he left at his death in 1890. 
  2. On the evening of January 28, speaking on “The Way to the Realization of a Universal Religion.” 
  3. He spoke seven times at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, in February, March, and April. 
  4. Quoted in David Robinson’s book The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985). 
  5. Which is from a fascinating conversation held between Robinson and President Barack Obama in Des Moines, Iowa, on 14 September 2015. For the reading, I gave a slightly longer excerpt. 
  6. The hymn “Unto Thy Temple, Lord, We Come” was written by Robert Collyer, who was a Unitarian, not a Universalist. He was known as “the Blacksmith Preacher” because earlier in his life he had been a blacksmith in England. He put an anvil in a place of honor in Unity Unitarian Church in Chicago (which he founded) because, it is said, he wanted to hammer out the truth as he had once hammered out horse shoes. He wrote “Unto Thy Temple” for the dedication of the building that housed Unity Church after the original church was destroyed by the great Chicago fire. Note that Unity Unitarian Church is now Second Unitarian Church of Chicago; the similarly-named Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Oak Park comes from the Universalist tradition. 

Shifting Gears

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 27 September 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)


(A general note on the sermons I post: I wrote them with the intention of speaking them, and therefore the punctuation is more appropriate for spoken language than written language. Grammar, too, is different in practice for spoken language than for written language. If something looks funny to you when you see it written here, try reading it out loud.)


Five years ago I was president of the Board of Trustees of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego; I had already served a year as vice-president, and the following year I would be past-president. I was happy with my family life and with my job doing mathematical research; and I was discovering that I was better at lay leadership than I had expected to be. And yet something was off; I was not feeling satisfied. I wanted to be able to contribute more to the life of the church — serving on the board did not seem like enough — and in any case eternal committee membership did not seem like it would be personally satisfying. I struggled with this feeling of dissatisfaction for some time, but it continued to grow, and it became more and more upsetting to me. Finally, I asked for a meeting with our associate minister, the Reverend Kathleen Owens, and with our intern minister, Sue Magidson. I made the appoinment with Sue as well as Kathleen because I knew her and trusted her, and because she had a Ph.D. in math education; I thought she would understand where I was coming from.

Kathleen and Sue listened to me for some time, as I explained as best I could my unfocussed dissatisfaction, and my desire to do something more for the church.  After I had gone on for some time, Reverend Kathleen stopped me, and asked:

“Everett, are you saying that you have a call to ministry?”


Last month when I led worship here at Throop, I mentioned that an intern minister’s first sermon at their teaching congregation is usually a personal introduction of some kind, telling the congregation something about who the intern is — their history, their path to ministry, their theology…

Last month I was not quite yet your intern minister, but this month I am your intern minister — and I will be for two years, until the end of May 2017 — learning from Reverend Tera, learning from all the staff members, and most importantly, learning from you, the members and friends of Throop. We will have many chances to get to know one another, but to give you a head start, today I will tell something about how I got to be here.  And any story of how I got to be here has to pass through Reverend Kathleen’s office five years ago, with me sitting there, and Kathleen asking whether I was saying that I had a call to ministry.

Ministry?  Let me tell you how far-fetched that sounded in the larger context of my life.

I grew up in Sacramento, the youngest of seven children.  My father worked for the State Department of Education; my mother was a homemaker, and later a writer of young-adult fiction.  My siblings and I were raised completely unchurched; the only times I can remember even being inside a church when I was growing up was for piano recitals.  My family did celebrate Christmas and Easter, but in a very secular way — kind of the same way that we celebrated New Years and Halloween — as holidays where there are certain traditional things you do. For us, at Christmas and Easter those traditional things involved Christmas trees, presents, stockings filled with chocolate and an orange, Easter baskets — also full of chocolate — and big family get-togethers with grandparents and aunts and uncles.  Religion was really not a part of it.

Growing up, I knew that some of my friends went to church or to synagogue; my best friend in high school was Catholic, and our next door neighbors — a state senator and his family, who, coincidentally, represented a district in West LA not that far from here  — were Jewish. But because we never went to church, a lot of what I absorbed about religion while I was growing up came from… televangelists: Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart… We would see them while flipping channels and sometimes watch a little; my mother was particularly fascinated by them, and in her first book she included a scene of a tent-show revivalist raising false hope for the seriously ill while raising cash for himself.

My parents were humanists, though they did not start using that word until perhaps the time I was in high school.  As a child and youth I was interested in science and math; and from reading and thinking about things, by the time I was in high school I knew that I was an atheist, and philosophically skeptical.

Perhaps I should have tried to find a humanist group to meet with in person, but that thought did not occur to me, and I’m not even sure that there were many such groups around.  Instead, I read some humanist magazines: My parents subscribed to Free Inquiry, published by the Council for Secular Humanism, and I personally subscribed to the Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine I had read about in one of Martin Gardner’s columns in Scientific American, which was dedicated to scientifically investigating claims of the paranormal. But after a while I began to be disturbed by the tone of some of the articles in these magazines. In some articles there was — well, for lack of a better word, an “arrogant dismissal” of the religious. Not “I disagree with you about this, and here’s why I think I am right”, but rather “I disagree with you about this, and — how could you be so stupid?”

It was my first experience of finding myself agreeing with someone on some intellectual point, but not wanting to be associated with them. (I did not stop to think that there could be theists who felt the same way about Pat Robertson.)

So for many years I felt that I would have to live philosophically on my own. I tried to be kind, and to do good, and if anyone asked, I would tell them that I was an atheist — and I would secretly hope that they would be surprised. “You’re an atheist? But you’re so considerate!”

Fast forward: through college, graduate school, a job teaching at the University of Michigan, getting married to Bella (who you will get a chance to meet today), moving to San Diego, having kids… Fast forward to 2005. Around this time, Bella began to be interested in finding a church community, somewhere where we could go to meet other people; to talk about important aspects of life; to have a supportive community.  I didn’t think there could be a church that I could participate in as a humanist.  So Bella visited a few congregations without me — liberal Episcopalian, United Church of Christ — but then one evening we remembered those rumors we had heard about the Unitarian Universalists. We looked online and we found the seven principles that you can find near the front of the hardcover hymnal…  Let me remind you:

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Bella and I read these… and looked at one another… and asked, “What’s the catch?”  We… we agreed with these principles! And, looking further, we saw that humanism and science are mentioned among the sources of Unitarian Universalism! So that is how we wound up, the following Sunday, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego; and that’s how, five years later, I found myself sitting in Reverend Kathleen’s office.


“Everett,” she asked, “are you saying that you have a call to ministry?”

A call.  What is a call?

For Christians, a call means a call from God.  God lets you know somehow that you are meant to do something in the grand scheme of things.

What does the idea of a “call” even mean to a humanist?

The Quaker author Parker Palmer writes about calling in a humanist-friendly way in his book Let Your Life Speak. He writes about finding those things that are compelling to the deepest part of you, your soul, if you’re willing to use that language… and he writes about the difficulty of hearing what that deepest part of you has to say.  He illustrates this with a nice image:

The soul [he writes] is like a wild animal — tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy.  If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out.  But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek. (pp. 7–8)

By quiet, open, honest reflection, says Palmer, we can sometimes access the deeper truths about ourselves.  And, he says, being ourselves is the point.   He relates a Hasidic tale about this idea:

Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” (p. 11)

As Palmer expresses it, you are fulfilling a call if you are doing something that expresses who you really are.

As it happens, I knew what it meant to have a calling, because I already had one: a calling to do mathematics. I know that that sounds strange to many people; it’s kind of like someone saying that they have a calling to undergo oral surgery. But it’s true.  When I was eight years old, I wanted to be a mathematician. Which is a little odd, because I had no idea at that age what a mathematician really does. You see, the arithmetic you do in elementary school is analogous to learning how to spell; the math you do in high school is kind of like learning grammar.  Most people stop there and never even get to the mathematical equivalent of reading a story.  But I found as I got older that my talent for the spelling and grammar of mathematics came along with a talent for reading and writing mathematics.  I could read the wonderful, eternally true stories of math — and I could write my own; it’s a way of touching the infinite.

This calling took me to Caltech, where I got my bachelor’s degree in math; to Berkeley, where I got a Ph.D.; to the University of Michigan, where I taught for three years; and to my current job at a think tank in San Diego.  I was set; I had a calling; I had a job doing what I was called to do.

And yet there I was in Reverend Kathleen’s office.


“Everett,” she asked, “are you saying that you have a call to ministry?”

I have to warn you about one of the dangers of speaking with your minister.  When they ask you a question?  You might feel a responsibility to answer honestly.

It had never occurred to me to think of what I had been feeling as a call. But I recognized immediately that that would explain a lot. And I knew what the only honest answer was.

I said “yes” — even though I didn’t quite know what that meant.


I should make it clear that I did not then drop everything, quit my job, and enroll full-time in seminary. As I said, I am very skeptical, even of my own gut feelings. It took three years of discussions with Bella, of self-reflection; three years of deeper involvement in lay ministry at my home congregation, and test runs taking one class at each of the two UU seminaries — it took a very long time before I decided, with Bella’s support, to enroll in seminary… and then it was as a part-time distance-learning student. Even with this internship at Throop, I am still working 60% time at my math job.

What will the end of all this be?  Parish ministry?  Chaplaincy? Part-time? Full-time? How will ministry fit in with mathematics?  I don’t know yet. Those are some of the things that I will be working out, here, with you.

Thank you for letting me be part of your religious life.

Blessed be.  Amen.

Belated Introduction

Hello, and welcome to The Humanist Seminarian blog.  My name is Everett Howe, and as I am writing this I am just starting my second year as a part-time low-residency student at Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley.  I am also just starting a two-year part-time ministerial internship at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California, under the supervision of Rev. Tera Little.

All this is in addition to my role as a husband and a father of two children, one just starting college and one a junior in high school.  And in addition to my career as a research mathematician.

A research mathematician?

Yes. I’m still trying to work out what a calling to ministry might mean to me — but I know for sure what a calling to mathematics means.  I’ve known since I was about 8 that I wanted to do math, and I’ve devoted a lot of energy and the majority of my life to answering that call. I’ve taught at universities, I’ve worked at a think tank for 20 years, and I’ve published a few dozen research articles in math journals.

So what’s all this about ministry?  Well, I guess if you stick around here, you’ll find out… as will I.

I should mention that there is already a well-known Unitarian Universalist blogger with a Ph.D. in math — his is in algebraic geometry, mine in arithmetic geometry.  So I have a lot to live up to.

Why Are We Here?

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 23 August 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)


Last spring, when Rev. Tera invited me to come preach at Throop some Sunday in August, neither she nor I had any inkling that I would wind up being your new intern minister, starting in September. I am really very happy to start this relationship with all of you here at Throop.

Traditionally, an intern minister’s first sermon at their teaching congregation is a personal introduction of sorts, telling the congregation something about who the intern is — their history, their path to ministry, their theology… but technically, my first sermon as your intern will be next month, so today I will not tell you too much about my own background. But I will tell you a little bit; I will start with a little bit about my beliefs, and a story.

For my beliefs, the short version is this: I am a humanist; I do not feel that there is any innate meaning to the universe, but I do believe that people can give life meaning. Also, I am an atheist; by which I mean that I do not believe in anything that I would call “God.” If you keep all of this in mind, the story I will tell you becomes more interesting.

For three years, starting in 2012, I was a volunteer on the “lay ministry” team at my home congregation in San Diego. One duty of the lay ministers is to be available after each service to listen to people; if someone has a joy or a concern that they would like to share with someone, they look for the lay minister on duty at the back of the sanctuary, and go over to talk for a while. Sometimes people are excited and want to share good news; sometimes people are going through a tough time, and they need to tell someone about it, to get some emotional support and to know that they are not alone; sometimes people just want a hug.

The first time I was going to be on duty as a lay minister I was nervous. I was prepared — the lay ministry team is trained by our ministers in techniques of pastoral care — but training is different from real life. What would it be like if someone with a serious problem came to me for sympathy and help? Would I be able to be present with them, and to listen? Would I be able to avoid the temptation to try to fix things? — because some things can’t be fixed, and often what people need is not advice, but rather someone to be with them on the journey.

That first morning, as I was walking the few blocks from my parked car to the church, I was nervous about these questions. I centered myself by thinking about another aspect of lay ministry: part of the job is to be a living manifestation of the concern the whole church community has for the welfare of its members. The lay minister is not just one concerned person; they represent something larger: the spirit of love of our community. “May this spirit of love work through me,” I thought to myself, “and be visible to those who come for help.”

“May this spirit of love work through me, and be visible to those who come for help.”

“Huh,” I thought, as I walked into the sanctuary. “I think that was a prayer. Funny thing for an atheist to be doing.”


The title of this sermon is “Why are we here,” and maybe it’s not so clear what that story has to do with this question. But I have to admit that the title may be a little deceptive. I did not mean “why are we here?” in the grand philosophical sense; if you came here hoping that I will reveal the secret of life and of our role in the universe, I won’t be doing that… today. What I meant by that title is: Why are we — you and me, the people in this room — here — here together this Sunday morning? Why are we at church today?

Of course, we each have our own answers to this question; we each probably have several answers. And personally, I’ve come up with a number of different answers for myself over the years. What prompted me to talk about this today, though, were some ideas that were coming up for me this past semester in seminary while studying Unitarian and Universalist history. I’d like to talk about an argument for why we might not want to be here, an argument with deep roots in our Unitarian history.

[Right about now Rev. Tera may be feeling a little nervous… “Is the intern really going to be telling people why they shouldn’t be at church? Is it too late to reconsider this whole internship plan?”]

At the beginning of the 19th century, William Ellery Channing was one of America’s most prominent liberal theologians. For 39 years he was the minister at what is now called the Arlington Street Church in Boston, and in 1825 he helped found the American Unitarian Association. One of the things that made a theologian “liberal” at that time was the belief that the Bible should be viewed as a book written in language suitable for a particular time and for particular people, and that any truths it contains are subject to interpretation. The liberal theologians thought that God communicates to people not just through the word of the Bible, but in other ways as well; for instance, through the workings of the natural world, through the details of creation. But in 1828, in a sermon he gave at an ordination, Channing spoke of yet another way we can learn more about the Divine. He said,

That man has a kindred nature with God, and may bear most important and ennobling relations to him, seems to me to be established by a striking proof. This proof you will understand, by considering, for a moment, how we obtain our ideas of God. Whence come the conceptions which we include under that august name? Whence do we derive our knowledge of the attributes and perfections which constitute the Supreme Being? I answer, we derive them from our own souls. The divine attributes are first developed in ourselves, and thence transferred to our Creator. The idea of God, sublime and awful as it is, is the idea of our own spiritual nature, purified and enlarged to infinity. In ourselves are the elements of the Divinity. God, then, does not sustain a figurative resemblance to man. It is the resemblance of a parent to a child, the likeness of a kindred nature.

To modern ears, it almost sounds like Channing is saying that people created God, not the other way around. Channing wasn’t saying that, because for him God was a given. But he was saying that God is like us — or, at least, like the best parts of us — and that we can learn about divinity by studying our own natures. Pretty wild stuff for the time, especially if you were a Calvinist.

Channing also championed an idea he called “self-culture” — culture as in cultivation and agriculture, as in helping one’s mind and soul to grow. His idea of self-culture included studying “nature, revelation, the human soul, and human life;” it included (as he put it) “control of the animal appetites;” it involved interacting with superior minds, for instance through reading. It involved what Ralph Waldo Emerson would later call “self-reliance” — figuring out one’s own opinions and holding true to them, even if they are unpopular. In short, self-culture involved knowing oneself better; by this, Channing believed, one could be closer to God.

Both of these ideas of Channing’s took firm root in the Transcendentalist movement, of which Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the principal members. Emerson’s essay on self-reliance celebrates independence of thought and of spirit, and is still often included in high-school and college English curricula. Henry David Thoreau, another member of the Transcendentalist movement, is perhaps most famous for his book Walden, an account of his two years of simple living at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. His cabin was in fact not very far from civilization, and only a mile and a half from Emerson’s house, but his ruminations and meditations on nature and solitude and self-reliance are quintessentially American. Walden is also often taught in high school, and it still resonates in American culture. Some of you may be familiar with Annie Dillard’s collection of essays Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or with Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild, which was made into a movie last year. I recommend both books; and they both live in the shadow of Thoreau’s Walden.

Thoreau’s writing encourages isolation and contemplation of nature; Emerson championed the strength of the individual mind andsoul. But what did the Transcendentalists have to say about church? In 1838, Emerson was invited by the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School to give a talk. He himself had already left the Unitarian ministry. In his speech to the graduates, he told an anecdote about being at church and not being inspired by a particular preacher. He said:

A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow.

When faced with a bad sermon, Emerson’s first thought is how he would rather learn from nature. To be fair, Emerson was not against sermons — he just thought they had to be good — or, as he famously put it in that same passage, they should be “life passed through the fire of thought.”

Now, the Transcendentalists were not just some eddy in the backwaters of history. Their ideas greatly influenced American culture — and Unitarianism specifically. Two of the hymns we sang this morning had words by Emerson, and I counted at least 24 hymns and readings in the grey hymnal with words from 8 different Transcendentalists.

So the Transcendentalists are important to our movement. And what do they teach us? God is reflected in our own souls; and we can learn spiritual truths through contemplation, reading, immersion in nature, and intentional solitude. Also, bad sermons aren’t worth sitting through. So again, why are we here? There’s a perfectly solid theological basis — set forth by Unitarians and Transcendentalists — for why we might just as well stay home and read a book, or go hiking up Mount Wilson to look at flowers and trees, and the wonders of creation.

Well, what are some of the problems with this argument?

One of our Unitarian Universalist principles is “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The Transcendentalists were really into the free search for truth and meaning, almost intoxicated by it. The idea that you could learn about God just by self-reflection was powerful; and, as a professional mathematician, I have to point out that they found philosophical justification for this idea by appealing to mathematics. Mathematicians come up with universal truths just by thinking, they said; why not theologians?

But they ignored one important aspect of mathematics — after you have convinced yourself of some mathematical statement, and think you have found a proof for it… you need to try to explain your reasoning to someone else, to see whether they find any mistakes. The Transcendentalists conveniently left out this part of the process.

Our UU principle is “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I think that the responsible part involves coming into community. Here, we find that the truths that seem so apparent to us may not be so clear to other people; here we find other perspectives, ones that we may not have considered; here, perhaps, we learn some humility… which, incidentally, is a characteristic that I personally do not find in Emerson’s writings.

Channing’s idea is that God is reflected in our own souls, and therefore we can find divine truth by introspection. But if God is in everyone’s souls, then we can equally well find divine truth in community with others.


Community.

There are many reasons to come to church. It can be a time apart from the rest of the week, a sabbath. Worship, with music and words and silence, can put us in touch with the things we find divine. It can be a time when we reflect on our values, and ask ourselves whether we are living them as well as we would like to.

But for me, one of the main reasons for being here is to build a beloved community. A community that supports each of us; that challenges us to be our best selves; that helps us think about the mysteries of life, and of death; that gives us companions through good times and bad. In the words of our responsive reading, “All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.” We live out this fact by being together, here.

I said at the beginning that I do not believe in anything that I would call “God.” But as I’ve started on this path towards ministry, I’ve learned from talking with many people that I do believe in some things that some other people might call “God” — for instance, that thing that we are creating, week by week, by coming here.

May the spirit of love work through all of us, and be visible to all those in need.

Blessed be. Amen.

The Times They Are a-Changin’

(Hello world! This is the first post on this blog.)


Copyright law is complicated, and makes things complicated.

In 2012, the lead minister of my congregation (the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego) wanted to have a service that incorporated the music of Bob Dylan. The director of the JUUL Tones, the a-cappella group I sing with, wanted to perform The Times They Are a-Changin’, but could not find an SATB or SAB arrangement of it.

I composed an arrangement (and wrote it down, which may have been illegal, depending on how strictly you read copyright law), and contacted Bob Dylan’s Special Rider Music, which owns the copyright to the piece, at the phone number listed on their SESAC page. The woman who I talked with was very polite, and when I explained that I wanted to perform an arrangement of The Times They Are a-Changin’ for a church service, she said to just go ahead, with perhaps a slight tone of “why are you bothering me with this?” in her voice.

(It is legal to perform copyrighted music in church services without getting permission from the copyright holder, but I was making an arrangement and printing it out for the singers, which is why I wanted to check with Special Rider. Of course, you might ask how anyone could perform any piece without it being somehow an arrangement…)

A couple of years later, when our lead minister was going to retire, our a-cappella group wanted to sing the song again at his farewell gathering. This time we would not be covered by the religious service exemption, so I called Special Rider Music again, and then got in touch by email with Will Schwartz, one of the people there. He said that for this piece “there’s no license for performance rights. [Y]ou can go ahead and perform.” If we wanted to record a performance, we would have to pay a statutory rate of 9.1 cents per distributed copy, but he said we could make the recording and contact him afterwards. So we were clear to sing the piece at the farewell gathering.

But I was also interested in making the sheet music available to other musicians, in case anyone else would like to sing an a-cappella version of The Times…. I asked Mr. Schwartz about this, and he said to contact Kevin McGee at Music Sales Corporation.

The powers that be in the music world seem to find a request to distribute sheet music to be unusual. I submitted a permissions request, and when Music Sales Corporation finally got back to me (after 10 months and two followup emails), they sent me a proposed license to perform and record the piece, with permission to create 10 copies of the sheet music to be distributed to the members of the JUUL Tones. This was not at all what I asked for, or was hoping to get.

Fortunately, Duron Bentley, the colleague of Kevin McGee’s who I was now in touch with, kindly and patiently kept up the conversation as I tried to explain what it was I was hoping to do. Initially, he said that they would not be able to modify the license to let me print out more than 10 copies of the music, and he suggested that if another group wanted the music, they should contact him to obtain a license.

Finally, though, when I explained that no license is needed to perform works in worship services, he was willing to modify the license to let me print more copies of the music (on condition that I send Music Sales Corporation $1.50 for each copy). He did ask that each copy of the music carry the following notice (in addition to the copyright notice):

This arrangement may not be duplicated, promoted, sold or otherwise made available to any third party. This includes all recordings, social media, personal websites, YouTube and the like. Performance is permitted only during a religious service. Please contact Music Sales Corporation for permission to create an arrangement.

The restriction on performance seemed to be in conflict with what Will Schwartz had told me earlier, so I asked for some clarification. Mr. Bentley had not known that the copyright holders were not asking for performance licenses, he gave me words for a modified notice. Here is the final version:

This arrangement may not be duplicated, promoted, sold or otherwise made available to any third party without further permission from the publisher, Special Rider Music. This includes all recordings, social media, personal websites, YouTube and the like. Please contact Music Sales Corporation for permission to create an arrangement.

That seems reasonable enough. I preface the notice by saying “I have to put this notice here,” and suggest that people consult copyright attorneys to determine their rights. Also, I mention that Special Rider Music does not require further license for live performances.

So, in the end? I think I did everything in accordance with copyright law. It took a year of waiting, and some persistence, and $275 for the general license plus $1.50 for each copy I print, but… I did everything in accordance with copyright law. Perhaps this was a little silly, because there’s no indication that anyone wants this sheet music, but I thought it would be an interesting experiment to try. Besides, this way I won’t feel guilty about depriving Bob Dylan of his retirement income.

Interested in seeing the music? That would make me happy. Please get in touch with me.


(Note: Bob Dylan himself is not so careful about copyright issues…)


Photo credit: Rowland Scherman. The image is in the public domain, and is part of the U.S. National Archives. More information here.