In Praise of Diversity

Kevin M. Carson
A Sermon Given at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, April 23, 2017

Our Unitarian Universalist faith is a celebration of diverse beliefs, and this is one of our great strengths in an increasingly diverse world. 

If you log into Facebook, or open your email, or even turn on the television these days, it is clear that America is a land divided.  And though the focus has been on politics in the last few months, it is not just a matter of Democrats versus Republicans, or whether we are “pro-Trump” or “anti-Trump.”  We are divided by opinions on race and gender equality, and whether or not our religion really does require us to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger.  We are divided by an economic system that has created huge inequality between the “haves” and the “have nots,” and we disagree on who or what is to blame, and what we should do to fix this problem – even if it needs fixing at all.  We look around and try to discern who is friend and who is foe.  We align ourselves with camps of like-minded folks on issues like immigration and climate change, and too often we are unwilling to even listen to differing points of view.  For some people, even objective facts seem to be open to dispute these days, if the so-called “facts” disagree with their preconceptions about the way things “really are.”  There are many boxes into which each of us can be neatly categorized and sorted, and we can choose to live isolated lives among our own kind, all the while suspicious of “the other” who is not like us.  Our national motto, E Pluribus, Unum, “out of many, one,” seems impossibly naïve, a relic from a more optimistic time.  Indeed, we are plagued with divisiveness, perhaps the most we have seen in our country since the Civil War.  

There is a difference between divisiveness and diversity, but far too often, because of our distrust of “the other” in whatever form he or she may take, we allow our differences to create barriers where none should exist.  In our worst moments, our biases can erupt in open hostility and even violence.  This is very troubling, because it is a simple fact that America is becoming an increasingly diverse country in many ways.  The percentage of our population who are non-white continues to increase every year, across almost every ethnic minority, and sometime within the next few decades, America will soon become a minority-majority nation.  According to the most recent census statistics, 50.2 percent of children under the age of 5 are now minorities.  As this new generation ages, it is inevitable that the shift to a minority-majority nation will become the new normal.  This ethnic diversification will bring with it new challenges for communities that experience different cultures and languages, in many cases, for the first time.  

Religious affiliation is also shifting, with the fastest growing identity group being the so-called “nones” – that is, those who are either not religious at all, or those who say they are “spiritual but not religious.”  While America is still predominantly Protestant, there are sharp declines in membership in almost every Protestant denomination, and even small denominations like ours are either in decline, or see little or no growth, despite a growing overall population.  As Robert P. Jones says in his book, The End of White Christian America, “for most of the twentieth century, in White Christian America the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘Protestant’ were virtually synonymous.”  This is no longer the case.  Roman Catholics are experiencing shrinking numbers as well, and it is evidenced by the frequent local news reports of parish closings in mostly Catholic communities across New England.  Meanwhile, the number of people who belong to minority religious groups continues to increase with the increase in our diverse population. Religion in America today is not what it used to be fifty years ago, and the march toward a more secular and religiously pluralistic society is likely to continue for many years to come. There will always be those of us drawn to traditional religions and spiritual searching, but we are entering unexplored territory in the American religious landscape.  

We Unitarian Universalists embraced religious pluralism a long time ago, so if we play our cards right, I suggest we could experience a remarkable period of growth in the next few decades.  Many of the issues that mainstream Christian denominations are struggling with today are issues our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors debated and settled over a century ago.  In the early 1800s, ministers and other educated people began to learn about Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other world religions and many of them appreciated the diverse wisdom these spiritual traditions expressed.  New England Transcendentalists were drawn to Eastern philosophy that emphasized the unity of all things.  Around the same time, advances in science, and especially Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, bolstered a nascent Humanism that has become the dominant theological identity in our movement.  By the late 1800s, we were already having debates about whether Unitarianism or Universalism was still a “Christian” faith.  And although the Universalists tended to see themselves more Christian perhaps, the very theological foundation of the faith left the path to religious pluralism wide open.  Universalism was founded on the idea of universal salvation, that all souls – even all of Creation – would be “saved” or reconciled with God in the end. There was no eternal hellfire that awaited even the most despicable among us.  Jesus was still considered the agent of salvation by most Universalists, but, unlike most of their Christian neighbors, Universalists did not require that one “believed” in Jesus Christ as the Savior in order to be saved.  When you take such an inclusive position about salvation, what does this mean for those with very different religious beliefs and practices?  The tent of our faith suddenly became much larger.  We would need a few more seats at the welcome table. 

Our spiritual ancestors were quick to recognize what Thomas Berry described as the “futility of exclusivism” among religious traditions.  We have continued to expand our inclusive faith, and we have opened our doors and hearts to anyone who wants to join us on the journey, as long as they are willing to abide by our values and principles.  These days, many Unitarian Universalists identify as Buddhist or Pagan, in addition the Christians, Jews, and Humanists we have long included in our ranks.  We are devout believers in God, and we are also atheists and agnostics, and everywhere in between.  We are mystics and Religious Naturalists, and we seekers who have trouble even articulating what we believe.  Sometimes you hear someone say, “You can believe anything you want and be a UU,” but that is only partially true.  You can believe almost anything you want as long as it does not demean or diminish the dignity and rights of others.  It would be hard to be a bigot or a fundamentalist of any faith and feel welcome in one of our congregations for very long.  We celebrate diversity in mutuality.  Our faith communities are joined in a covenantal relationship of love and respect.

After traveling around America in the 1830’s, the French diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville famously described America as a “Great Experiment.”  Our young republic was something new in the global politics of the day, a nation where the government represented the consent and will of the people.  It was a democracy where, ideally at least, diverse voices and beliefs could be heard and debated to find common ground, and to promote the common good.  We were not perfect of course, and de Tocqueville rightly criticized the practice of slavery in America as contrary to our professed love of liberty and equality, and then as now, it was largely white male voices that enjoyed a privileged position in the political dialogue. But despite our imperfections, it was a glorious, if messy, experiment based on the idea that a diverse people could create a better world in voluntary community.

I believe our Unitarian Universalist faith is a similar “Great Experiment” in religious diversity.  In the decades since the 1961 merger of our parent denominations into the Unitarian Universalist Association, we have established a framework of Seven Principles, through a grassroots democratic process, to guide our diverse spiritual journey.  Our Principles are not dogma or doctrine like you see in most religious traditions; rather, they are a statement of shared values for how we join together in worship, and in the exploration of the sacred and the meaning of life. Personally, I would like to see the language of our Principles changed to reflect a more spiritual tone, but they are reasonably good as they are.  If you have ever experienced the process of wordsmithing a document by committee, you can appreciate the fact that we ever agreed on the language at all!  

Some of you may not know the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism by heart, or it may have been a while, so let me read them to you.

We affirm and promote:

  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;
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

It is true that we sometimes fail to live up to the principles we claim to embrace, but we try very hard.  Though I have mixed feelings about the recent controversy about white privilege in our denomination, and the resulting resignations of several denominational leaders, I think it reflects how seriously we take our Principles.  Sometimes, I fear we can be too critical of ourselves as a faith.  If anyone would like to talk more about what has transpired in the last few weeks, please feel free to talk to me about it after our worship service during the coffee hour.

I only wish more Americans would find their way to one of our congregations.  There are so many people who are hurting in the world and thirst for the kind of open and inclusive spirituality that we offer.  Our religious diversity is inherently welcoming.  Because we have embraced a universal understanding of the human story, we have often found ourselves in the vanguard of social justice movements from abolition, to women’s suffrage, to marriage equality.  Both the Unitarians and the Universalists were among the first denominations to ordain female clergy, and we are leading the way by far on the ordination of LGBT clergy today.  We have added many diverse voices to our faith story.  As any ecologist will tell you about ecosystems, there is strength and richness in diversity that is greater than the sum of its parts, and I think the same is true of religious movements.  We are simply better together when we share our unique insights and perspectives.  

Over the last few years, I have preached at fourteen UU congregations around New England, and I am always interested to see the art and symbolic altar objects in each congregation.  Most of our churches have very little art or religious symbols other than a familiar chalice, but some have a wonderful collection of religious symbols representing the diversity of the world’s faith traditions.  At St. Paul’s UU Church in Palmer, for example, the altar includes a cross, a menorah, a Buddha, a dancing depiction of the Hindu god Shiva, and a wild turkey feather.  I particularly like the turkey feather because it reminds me not only of our connection to the natural world, but also the spiritual wisdom of Native Americans.  The wild turkey is such a majestic bird, and it is a fitting symbol of the spirit of the American wilderness.  And especially in the last few months since the election, you often see a rainbow flag displayed prominently inside or outside of our churches. We proudly acknowledge both our religious and cultural diversity, and I think it is very important in today’s unfortunate political climate.

The message these religious symbols convey to me is that we have a deep Christian heritage, but we find inspiration from many other sources.  We value diversity in others, and take seriously the admonitions of Jesus, who said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39), and that, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2).  We recognize the holy that dwells in the hearts of the whole human family, and that no single religion has a lock on the truth.  As it says in the Qur’an, “People, We have created you all male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you would recognize each other.” (Surah al-Hujurat 49:13)

Thomas Berry said of the world’s faith traditions that, “None can be fully itself without the others.”  I think this also applies to the people who make up our diverse faith communities.  None of us is fully our self without the others who join us in the search for truth and meaning.  We complete each other.  Pluralism is not always easy, and sometimes, we may lock horns about the truth and meaning we have embraced along the way.  But as I said earlier, there is a difference between diversity and divisiveness. Let us try our best to keep that in mind.

There is a wonderful saying that is usually attributed to the famous Transylvanian Unitarian Frances David, who lived in the 16th century, but the true origins are uncertain.  It goes, “We need not all think alike to love alike.”  It is a message that encapsulates our faith like no other I know.  It is a message that America could surely use these days.  As Americans awake to the virtues and challenges that come with greater diversity, perhaps the time has come for our Unitarian Universalist faith to finally become that “city upon a hill” of which our Puritan ancestors dreamt, and show the world what beloved diverse communities look like.

Opening Words

“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

GLORY be to God for dappled things—

  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

    And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.


All things counter, original, spare, strange;

  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                  Praise him.

Reading from “The Cathedral of the World” by Forrest Church

“Welcome to the cathedral of the world.

Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the cathedral of the world there are windows without number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of dust, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational; some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. 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. Together we comprise an interdependent web of being; if the cathedral is built out of star stuff, so are we. But we are that part (that known part) that contemplates the meaning of the whole. Because the cathedral is so vast, our time so short, and our vision so dim, we are able to contemplate only a tiny part of the cathedral, explore a few apses, reflect upon the play of darkness and light through a few of its windows. Yet, since the whole—holographically or organically—is contained in each of the parts, as we ponder and act upon the insight from our ruminations, we may discover meanings that give coherence and meaning both to it and to us.

This is Universalism.”

Reading from “Religions of India” by Thomas Berry

“In every phase of life, in the intellectual, artistic, and spiritual aspects of life, the total human past is now the past of each people and each individual person. We do not live only in the West or even primarily in the West; we live in the world, the total world of humans. The achievements of India and China are now available to us and form part of our own heritage, as do the cultures of Japan and Persia and Africa. This is the period of the worldwide expansion of the mind in all areas of life. The global spiritual past is the only adequate context for present understanding of humans even though this effort at universal awareness is thwarted by exclusivist attitudes that still exist in the world. Even now, however, the futility of such exclusivism is widely recognized. All live currents of thought seek to encompass the full dimensions of humankind. 

Within this larger world of humankind, the multiple spiritual and humanist traditions implicate each other, complete each other, and evoke from each other higher developments of which each is capable. These traditions implicate each other, for each has a universal mission to humankind. Each is panhuman in its significance. None can be fully itself without the others. Each has a distinctive contribution to make to human development that can only be made by itself. Each must therefore be kept distinctive even as it reaches a universal diffusion among humans. For any tradition to withhold itself from the other societies of humankind or for any to exclude the other traditions is to vitiate and stultify its own tradition and development, to condemn itself to sterile isolation from the only forces that can give it life and creativity. All human traditions are dimensions of each other.”

Thomas Berry, Religions of India, 193–94