A few weeks ago I was speaking to a group of Presbyterian students at the University of Tennessee about Unitarian Universalism. During the question and answer session someone asked me, “How much education does it take to become a Unitarian Universalist minister?” My answer was, “Too much.”
In order to prepare for the ministry I went to theology school where I learned about process theology, empirical theology, biblical theology, postmodern theology, orthodox theology, neo-orthodox theology, liberal theology, feminist theology, womanist theology, metaphorical theology, non-theistic theology, humanistic theology, scientific theology, liberation theology, qweer theology, ecotheology, ecumenical theology, interfaith theology, public theology and more. In many ways I am a better person for it.
And yet all too often the emphasis in theology schools of every faith tradition is placed on what the Hindus call jnana yoga. The emphasis is on holding the right beliefs, correct doctrine, attaining true knowledge, through the study of scriptures, commentaries and traditions.
However, there is another school of thought that suggests that action speaks louder than words. This is what the Hindus call karma yoga. Here the emphasis is on right action, acts of compassion, kindness, mercy, forgiveness. The goal is to lead a life of goodwill and sacrificial service. In jnana yoga, right belief leads to right action. In karma yoga right action leads to right belief.
I think every religion, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism has something like this tension between jnana yoga and karma yoga, a tension between the focus on knowledge and action. There is some merit to both paths and indeed there is value in finding balance between the two options. I once heard someone say, “The problem with our world is that those who act don’t think and those who think don’t act.” And so an important part of spiritual living is aligning thought with action and action with thought.
The apostle Paul argued in favor of right beliefs. He declared that we are saved by faith alone, however, he was met with opposition by the apostle James who focused on right action. James proclaimed that “faith without works is dead.”
This past Monday night our church turned out big time for the rally organized by Justice Knox. Some of us came in person and some of us participated online. This is an interfaith effort of congregations working together to revitalize grassroots democracy in our city (and in the age of political insurrection, voter disenfranchisement and pandemic disinformation we need to revitalize democracy.) Democracy is only a promise, until we make it real. It is through our participation that we make democracy a reality. Justice Knox is working on creating affordable housing, and accessible mental health care including getting the nonviolent mentally ill out of our prisons and into our health care system. Through household meetings and a vote on Monday night we voted on a new priority addressing the problem of violence in our community. In that room on Monday there were Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, AME Zion, Baptist, Muslims and Jews, an interfaith gathering dedicated to combining faith with works, thought with action.
One of my favorite heroines who did so much to revitalize American democracy is Lucretia Mott. She was a 19th century radical Quaker who often preached from Unitarian pulpits and campaigned for women’s rights including the right to vote. I consider her an honorary Quaker Unitarian. In her efforts to do the right thing she often encountered opposition from theologians and she was not afraid to challenge them in return. She told her audiences,
“Appeals have been made to the Scriptures placing them as authority for the wrong. Let us never be afraid to take hold of the right, however error and wrong may be sanctioned…by some quotations from scriptures.Women in particular have pinned their faith to ministers’ sleeves. They dare not rely on their own God given powers of discernment. We do err…when we resort to the Bible to find authority for anything that is wrong. We have a divine teaching to which we should adhere. The great principles of justice, love, and truth are divinely implanted in our hearts. If we pay proper heed unto these, we shall have no occasion to go to the ancient practices to find authority for our actions.”
In other words, Lucretia Mott is saying, “Do the right thing and the theologians will catch up.” Do the right thing and the church, the synagogue, the mosque and the temple will catch up. There is an ancient saying, “Do justice though the heavens fall.” Do justice regardless of opposition. And one of the reasons we may have this expression is because all too often theologians paint a picture of God that is so aligned with the status quo that when justice is done it feels like the heavens fall.
When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality many people felt like the heavens fell but they did not. And when federal and state governments made partial and incomplete efforts to expand healthcare some screamed like the heavens fell but they had not. And today when working people demand a living wage many employers act like the heavens will fall but they will not. Indeed, our faith teaches the exact opposite. Do justice and heavenly light will shine. Do justice because as the prayer tells us, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Thy will be done in Kenosha Wisconsin. Thy will be done in Glynn County, Georgia. Thy will be done here and everywhere because I did not have to go to theology school to know that on earth and in heaven Black Lives Matter.
The study of theology is a valuable thing to do, however, even the most progressive theology can feel like a road map of known territory whereas spirituality takes us into unknown territory. There is an old Universalist affirmation that declares “We avow our faith in the authority of truth, known and to be known.” Theology is often and effort to think about the Infinite based on what is known, whereas spirituality is about the question, “How do we act in spite of all we do not know?”
At this moment in time half of our congregation is watching this service online while half is in the room. How are we going to build a community that includes us all in this particular time? The truth is we don’t know. We don’t know. We are in uncharted territory. Nevertheless we will act.
Buckminster Fuller, and many other mystical thinkers, have declared that “God is a verb and not a noun” God is an action word. The poet Michael Benidikt put it this way
God is the good we do
When and where we do it
God is practiced, like dance, like music
Like kindness, like love….
God is the good we do
In everything we do….
Perhaps this is why God prefers a good atheist
To a wicked believer.
If God is a verb and not a noun, if God is the good we do in everything we do then actions are more important to our theology than our words. Religion and spirituality becomes about deeds not creeds. The emphasis becomes on orthopraxy (right action) rather than orthodoxy (right belief.)
If you’ve been paying attention to the United Nations gathering of leaders in Glasgow, Scotland, attempting to address the problem of climate change then you know what I mean. These deliberations can feel as slow, plodding and intractable as a contentious synod of bishops. A picture of the paralysis of analysis.
There are many who argue that if we move away from fossil fuels the heavens will fall but they won’t. Indeed, the change is inevitable. Whoever embraces these changes will be a leader in our world. Whoever procrastinates will not.
Fortunately, there are some theologians who are ahead of the politicians. Pope Francis has issued an Encyclical Letter called Laudato Si’ On Care For Our Common Home where he argues that responsible environmental policies are not only good for us politically or materially but spiritually. He writes, “Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending.” Can anyone say Black Friday? Pope Francis continues, “The emptier a person’s heart is, the more they need things to buy, own and consume.” Pope Francis argues that good policies and good lifestyle changes would benefit not only the earth, our bodies but also our souls by helping us to focus on what’s most important in life. Sustainable living is good for our hearts.
Religion and science do not have to be adversaries but can be partners. As eco-activist Gus Speth once wrote, “I used to think the top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
What we need now is spiritual transformation, right thinking and right action working together. However, the older I get the more I think transformation begins with action.
Whenever someone comes up to me and says they want to get involved in social change but they don’t know that much about the issues and don’t know exactly what position they should take politically, I simply say, “Get involved and let your involvement be part of your education.” Go to the community meeting. Go to the rally. Go to the protest. Log onto the internet, go to People’s Hub and learn about online organizing. Get involved and eventually your mind will catch up. Feed the hungry, care for the sick, listen to the heartbroken, reach out to the lonely. Your thoughts will catch up with you. Your beliefs will catch up with you.
As the Sermon on the Mount teaches, “When you give, don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.” In other words, don’t overthink it. Don’t be overly self conscious. Forget yourself. Be spontaneous. Let go of your ego. Educate yourself but don’t educate yourself too much. Remember that theology is like outward scaffolding but what is most important is our inner life. As the poet Emily Dickinson once wrote,
The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House supports itself
And cease to recollect
The Auger and the Carpenter
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul.
Which is to say, when the props fall away heavenly light will shine within you. So get involved. Find your issue. Find your work. Get in where you fit in. Do the right thing and I promise you that eventually the theologians will catch up.
(The Reverend Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, November 21, 2021)