Monday, March 8, 2010

Around the World Religions

UCH and the World Religions

This historic congregation, soon to be 124 years old, has long had a keen interest in World Religions. This interest relates generally to the vision of the Unity Men who seeded this congregation, first called the Unity Church of Hinsdale.

The Unity Men were an informal group of radical Unitarians of the West—so-called because the Unitarian congregations of the nineteenth century outside of New England were part of the Western Unitarian Conference. The Unity Men rallied around the patriarch of a Welsh Unitarian clan living in South-central Wisconsin near Spring Green, the lion-like Jenkin Lloyd Jones. (Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom Unity became a lifelong motto, grew up in this liberal religious orbit, called the Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, his mother's brother, Uncle Jenks.) Jones and his cohorts, including the first minister of this congregation, William Channing Gannett, had as a motto “The Unity of All Things.” Their vision was expansive, including the then culturally heretical notion that spiritual truths could be found beyond the Jewish-Christian traditional realm that defined American culture throughout the nineteenth century.

Even by the last decade of the 1800s Americans had scant knowledge of “other” religions. A few Unitarians were the exception, because a little Hinduism had seeped into and even influenced the famous Transcendentalists such as Emerson, Melville, and Thoreau. For example, Emerson’s notion of the Oversoul found resonance in the Hindu notion of the god Brahma. In 1856 he wrote a short poem, now famous, titled “Brahma.”

Jenkin Lloyd Jones, with the motto of the “Unity of All Things,” lobbied successfully to bring one of the great culture transforming events to the Columbian Exposition, the 1892-93 Chicago World’s Fair: The World Parliament of Religions. At the Parliament representatives of a variety of Eastern religions spoke, most notably Swami Vivekananda. Vivekananda began a revival of Hinduism in India and introduced Vedanta to the West through the Ramakrishna Mission. He received a two minute standing ovation from 7000 attendees when in his brief introductory remarks before the Parliament he began with the salutation "Sisters and brothers of America."

This greatest figure of the World Parliament of Religions and the first of the modern international spiritual leaders, Vivekananda came to this Sanctuary during September, 1893 to speak to this congregation.

The high tide of interest in world religions at UCH occurred in the 1950s and 1960s when Sunder Joshi served as minister. Sunder, an Indian of the bramhin class had a Harvard background in comparative religions. He came to Hinsdale in the early 1950s to supply preach during one of the congregation’s downturns. He was invited to return. The congregation soon called him as minister and ordained him. His frequent sermons on world religions led to the commissioning of six paintings of great world religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, that for many years decorated the length of the wall behind the pulpit. (They now reside in the chapel next door.)

The post World War II era within our liberal religious traditions had a particular interest in World Religions, if only as an aspect of the creation of the United Nations. There was also an impulse within Universalism, called the New Universalism, that moved away from Universal Salvation into Universal Religion.

A great experiment took place in the late 1940s and into the 1950s to reestablish a Universalist presence in Boston, drawing upon a Religion for One World approach of an innovative, enthusiastic young minister, Kenneth Patton. Patton drew on science (the great images of the Charles Street Meeting Houser were of the Andromeda Galaxy painted as a mural and a stylized atom to represent the macro and the micro the Universe), on the arts, and on the teaching of world religions.

While Patton’s Religion for One World, and expression of the New Universalism, never attracted a large Boston congregation (and he moved on), it nevertheless had influence across the Universalist and Unitarian domains. Many of the resources Patton created, and he was prodigious, turned up in the first hymnal of the new Unitarian Universalist Association founded in 1961.

This Hinsdale congregation, thanks to Sunder Joshi’s influence was very much in step with a post-war global religious vision.

Several years ago at the beginning of the new millennium, I did a once a month, yearlong sermon series on the essential truths of the several major world religions. I maintained, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism each had a centering truth that we might incorporate for reasons of wholeness into our individual religious orientations.

And in the past couple of years I’ve been speaking, now and again, to a contemporary vision that is often summarized as the Golden Rule, the do unto others as you would have done to you, expressed through the ages in a variety of religions and philosophies. It is a global ethic President Obama returns to in his speeches. It is a global ethic that the Charter for Compassion aims toward. (You may remember the video of a Karen Armstrong speech regarding the Charter for Compassion I showed earlier in the church year.) In my opinion the search for a global ethic is an attempt for religions to positively respond to a post 9/11 world situation when the Abrahamic religions have become once again dangerously contentious.

And you will find it interesting that a former intern minister, now the Rev. Myriam Renaud, who just passed her Ph. D. comprehensive exams at the University Of Chicago Divinity School, is about to begin her doctoral dissertation focused on the global ethic of the recent (1993) World Parliament of Religions. We, you and I, considerably shaped Myriam’s interests and outlooks. She will, I anticipate, make a significant contribution to the emerging concept of a global ethic.

Taking all of this under consideration, here at UCH world religions are more than curiosities or exotica. We’re not so much religious tourists as we’re religious pilgrims. The world religions offer significant insights and transformative truths and they ought to approached, at the very least, respectfully. Respect, indeed, is a high principle we hold together—expanding Unitarianism’s historic attitude of broad and generous tolerance into a new era. Respect and diversity go hand in hand. The world is a much more interesting place than it would be otherwise thanks to the reality of religious diversity.

An ever progressing globalism, the world becoming smaller and smaller because of transportation and communication, presses the importance of world religions upon us, so much more urgently than when Swami Vivekananda spoke from this pulpit in 1893.

Spiritual Essences of Seven World Religions

I've long been fond of a quotation from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: "I make my soul from all the elements of the earth." This has inspired me to maintain that nothing that is human is alien to me, especially when it comes to religion, because I know that religion is not a matter of revelation from above or outside the human experience, rather the religious impulse relates to the human condition—common to all exclusive to none. The world religions are the result of that common condition—multitudinous religious experience annealed and systematized through various cultures.

I recommend that you explore a variety of world religions. Each religion, in my estimation, has a distinct note. When we take what we perceive to be the essence of various world religions, we are drinking a distilled liquor, like grapes to wine to brandy. And when we lift our cup and drink, we drink of and to the ages and yeasty processes of the human condition, as well as toasting the living traditions that hundreds of millions of human beings observe.

Let's lift the cup together and sip the essence of seven major religions.

Judaism gives us Justice as a basis for living together in society. Jewish Justice is grounded not in power or privilege, rather it is centered in the transcendent notion that we are in relationship with one another through our fundamental relationship with God, or in a more secular understanding, through transcendental ideals such as our American ideals of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

Christianity gives us Love. It tells us that we are Ultimately loved by God, who is the convergence and paragon of Love. We love one another because we can—we are made in God or Love's image. We love one another because we see the Divine Image in the other person, as well as in our own self. We are loved. And we love.

Islam gives us Surrender (Yielding) as a personal pathway to peace. Islam calls for our surrender to the will and way of Allah as the means for solving the existential conflicts of the human condition. We can use the spiritual notion of Surrender to counter the perverse tendencies to hold back our goodness, including our compassion and love, from one another.

Hinduism gives us Acceptance of the variety of human personalities and predilections throughout the stages of life, as well as of the diversity of human expressions. Hinduism maintains that there is not one path to the Ultimate but there are many paths. Follow, even revere, your path; but also let others follow their path, and perhaps you can revere those paths, too.

Buddhism gives us Compassion in recognition of the suffering and loss that hedge the human condition. This most psychological of the world religions engenders incredible empathy. Though we may not have love for another person, we can yet meet them with compassion. Buddhism enjoins us to work to reduce suffering in our world.

Confucianism gives us Right Relationships—the orderliness of Nature and Society through the teaching of character, the "second nature" of habit, we develop Right Relationships that create a harmonious society and developed a rich culture where humanity has its most congenial environment.

Taoism gives us the Way, acknowledging that in the world of cause and effect, actions matter and there is an overarching Way that leads to a state of freedom from fear and to a certain contentedness. The Way of Nature, including human nature, can be our way, too. If we follow the Tao (or Way) we repose in a quiet beauty—not bliss, but a sense that we are of and in the world as we should be.

In the Eclecticism I recommend there is a dynamic synergy among the essential truths of the various world religions. Their sum is exponentially greater than the arithmetic parts. These essential spiritual truths blend together harmoniously. However, they also enhance one another and even offer an implicit challenge back and forth, thereby teasing out deeper understandings and meanings through the ever present possibility of dialogue.

Justice is enhanced by Compassion and Love. Compassion and Love are in dialogue: though they're related, they're not the same. Right Relationships have resonance with the Way, yet the Way is much more intuitive and spontaneous (first nature), while Right Relationships are much learned and traditional (second nature). Surrender always reminds me of the Way—a yielding to the natural order, where peace and happiness await.

In closing, there’s a well known teaching story from Jewish Tradition: "When God created Adam from clay, God gathered that clay from every part of the world and of every color of earth to signify the oneness of humanity."

Building on this teaching story I offer a teaching story from our own Unitarian Universalist Eclectic tradition. (It's not so ancient, since I made it up recently.

When Nature’s God, using the slow but sure means of evolution, shaped and then sent our ancestors across the face of the earth to inhabit it, she did so with great expectations:

First, that through the millennia women and men would have many and diverse experiences, thereby teasing out and embodying the vast possibilities of the human condition in varying climates and cultures.

And second, that someday, when the world would seem to grow much smaller, as it has in our times, we might gather together the many people of the earth along with the deposit of their respective culture. Then, now, we might learn of multudinous experiences and discover how the various cultures not only evolved but also found and lived the meaning of their lives.

Why did she do so? She did so because she is a bountiful and generous God. She made the human condition virtually boundless that we might discover the many meanings that may be lived and discovered, not just in our own life but through many, many lives.

No one life, no one culture is large enough to encompass the human condition. For she is a wise and Loving God, who delights and unconditionally loves all her progeny in all its diversity.


  1. Click on the video at the following link and watch Mohommad’s followers of “peaceful” islam carrying out his instructions.

  2. Thesauros: I know the bloody/oppressive history of many world religions, Islam not excluded. Any religion that makes an absolute claim is prone to, at the very least, ironic behavior. In the third millennium of the Common Era we are called to greater understandings.