Sound Bite of Theology
“You’re a Uni….what??? I’ve never heard of that.”
“So, do you believe in God?”
“I heard UU’s can believe anything they want.”
“That’s a cult you belong to. I’m praying for you, because you’re going to hell!”
Does any of that sound familiar? Most of us, at one time or another, have faced questions about our faith from family, friends, and neighbors. And we have to find the appropriate way to respond. We have to be able to articulate our beliefs.
In addition, if you’ve been to General Assembly, or the District Assembly, if you’ve read the UUWorld or just about anything else coming out of the UUA, if you’ve heard some of our speakers in this pulpit, in fact, unless you’ve been living in a cave as a hermit the past few years, you’ve heard how UU’s need to be more outspoken about who we are and what we believe. We can’t be so quiet any more about our beliefs and our movement. There are at least a couple of reasons for this. One is that there are undoubtedly many people who share our values and vision for the world who do not know of our existence. Those are the folks, who like many of us, would say, “Gee, I’ve
been a UU all my life. I just didn’t know it.” Just as we have found a spiritual community here, there are many others who would find comfort by joining us. Another reason to be more outspoken is the need to bear witness that there are alternatives to the increasingly fundamentalist view of the world. We truly do need to be a beacon of liberal religious thought in the Northwoods.
But speaking out is often not easy for us. Many of us have an issue with anything we perceive as proselytizing. We’ve had enough bad experiences with that kind of thing that we want no part of it. There was briefly a minister at the UU church we attended in Illinois who wanted to set up a phone bank for members to cold call people from the telephone book. We were to ask if they were members of a church. If the answer was no, we were to talk to them about why they should attend ours. I was the chair of the committee who would have been responsible for this and I flat refused to have any part of it. Now, that was a pretty heavy-handed approach, but there has to be an acceptable alternative to silence.
Another concern that many of us have is that we’ve become so sensitive to honoring others’ beliefs; we find it tough to speak up with another, possibly opposing or difficult, point of view. So, too often, we are silent or fumble for the right words. We have to find a way to be assertive, but not aggressive, in bearing witness to our values.
So, how do we begin to speak up? Well, every one of us in this room has or will have to answer questions by those around us about what Unitarian Universalism is and what we believe. What we all need is what the Rev. Bill Sinkford, [past] President of the UUA, calls an “elevator speech”. He says, “I always encourage people to work on their elevator speech, what you’d say
when you’re going from the sixth floor to the lobby and somebody asks you, ‘What is Unitarian Universalism?’” So, today, we’re going to listen to a number of elevator speeches, talk about what would make a good one, and then when we get to the talkback part of the service, I invite some of you share your version of an elevator speech.
Just to get us thinking about this, here’s Bill Sinkford’s: “The Unitarian side of our family tree tells us that there is only one God, one Spirit of Life, one Power of Love. The Universalist side tells us that God is a loving God, condemning none of us, and valuing the spark of divinity that is in every human being. So Unitarian Universalism stands for one God, no one left behind.”
Let’s talk first about what would make a good elevator speech. I think there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, it needs to be short. It doesn’t take long to get from the 6th to the 1st floor on an elevator, not that we’d know about that up here. Seriously, this needs to be something you can practice and easily remember on the spur of the moment. I think 2 or 3 sentences is the right length. It’ll be too hard to remember anything much longer.
Besides, you don’t want to see the eyes of the person you’re talking to start to glaze over. As an aside, a UU friend of ours says that when he’s asked about what Unitarian Universalism is, he replies, “Do you really want to know?” He says that about half the time the answer is, “Well, no, not really.” Now, I don’t get that. I figure that if they ask, they’re good for at least 30 seconds of theology. I can only wonder if the tone of his voice scares them off.
Now, one UU commented “the problem with the elevator speech is that as you shorten it down to a reasonable length, it doesn’t mean anything. You have to define every word in order to make sense of it.” Puleeze, this is not seminary. I think you can capture a nugget of what makes us UU’s in a couple of sentences. The idea is not to present all of UU theology, but to start a dialog. Actually, I like to think of an elevator speech as a Sound Bite of Theology, something memorable and understandable, something to make folks want to know more. If you have the right elevator speech, you’ll generate questions and discussion, not turn anybody off. Here’s a sample of what I mean: “Most religions work to get people into heaven. Unitarian Universalists work to get heaven into people.” Witty, not bad. Easy to remember. But I’m not sure what it really says. I think the response might well be, “But what does that mean?” Well, OK, so it does start a dialog. But here’s another one with more potential: “Unitarian Universalists search for the universal, person by person, path by path.” I like it. Maybe we can do better, though.
Let’s take a look at what the Sound Bites of Theology of the western world’s 3 major religions might look like. Considering how Christianity dominates our culture, I frankly doubt that many Christians get asked what they believe. I think if you did, they’d fumble around, not unlike some of us, and you might well end up hearing something that sounds a lot like the Apostle’s Creed.
Now, earlier this year, Terry recited the Apostle’ Creed and commented that he thought this was the 1st time in 18 years it had been heard from our pulpit. Well, guess what, now we’re going to hear it twice in 6 months. Just to refresh your memory, here’s a modern version:
I believe in God the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord:
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence (I love that word!) he shall come to judge the quick and
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Well, this doesn’t fit my criteria of an elevator speech very well. It reminds me of that old joke about the definition of a camel. You know, a camel is a horse designed by a committee. It’s way too long and I don’t think it captures the essence of what make Christianity unique. What makes Christianity different is the belief in the Resurrection. That’s the key belief, as I
understand it. So, just to commit a little more heresy this morning, here’s my version of a possible Christian sound bite: “We believe that Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth as a man with a message of love, died for our sins and rose from the dead. Because we believe in the Resurrection, we will spend eternity with God”. What do you think? Would that work? Well, probably not…
Now, from Judaism comes the Shmah: "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God! The LORD is One!" Simple. Elegant. What else do you really need to know?
Similarly, here’s one of the teaching from the Koran, called the Shahada: I love this one. “There is but one God, Allah, and Mohammed is His Prophet.” It’s so poetic. Notice how this takes its basis from Judaism, but then makes it uniquely Muslim. Again, I’m not sure what else you’d need to add for an elevator speech. These are a pair of memorable Sound Bites!
So, what would go well in a UU elevator speech? Now, put your hymnals away for the moment. I don’t want to see any of them open. One suggestion is that we use our 7 principles as the basis for it. Now, without peeking, (this is a pop quiz) let’s see if we can come up with them:
the inherent worth and dignity of every person
justice, equity and compassion in human relations
acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth in our
free and responsible search for truth and meaning
right of conscience and the use of the democratic process
goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all
respect for the interdependent web of which we are a part.
See, that wasn’t so easy. Now, try coming up with them on the spur of the moment while you’re talking to your fundamentalist cousin, Phyllis, at the family barbeque next summer. Maybe a better plan is to try to incorporate the
principles into a coherent narrative.
Here’s another example that weaves the principles together. “We hold conscious life precious, and we cherish the inherent worth and dignity of every member of our human family. Our beliefs are driven by a free and responsible search for truth, through careful observation and analyses, which constantly increases our understanding of ourselves and the rest of nature, of which we are an integral part. Because the universe is hostile to life, and earth is a tiny oasis supporting life, we struggle to preserve our fragile environment here. And so that every member of our human family may achieve the greatest possible fulfillment, we strive to create for all humanity the conditions of joyful life, beauty, love, health, education, justice, freedom
and peace.” Whoa! That’s a mouthful! As a friend of mine used to say, “TMI, TMI”—too much information. Can you tell that was composed by a minister? Can you imagine coming up with that spontaneously? Can you see cousin Phyllis’ eyes starting to glaze over? Well, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. OK, but maybe we could reduce that whole paragraph to a sound bite, something like “We hold all creation sacred and strive to act upon that belief.” And that becomes the starting point of the discussion. Or you could add another sentence to it, if you wanted to.
Here’s another one that’s just too long. “Humanism is my religion. It is a faith focused on hope, love and charity.” Now, that might work, if it stopped there, but it continues: “directed at humanity, realizing that ultimately it is human beings who can and do make a difference, giving respect, dignity, justice, peace and good will to the human community.” And it’s still not
done. It goes on for at least another paragraph. And yes, this was also written by a minister. Actually, that’s the problem with these last 2 elevator speeches. They’re written. Elevator speeches are meant to be spoken. I think that’s an
important criterion that is easily forgotten.
Another possibility for using the 7 principles would be to say, “We have 7 religious principles. The one that means the most to me is (fill in the blank), because (fill in the blank).” So it might sound something like, “We have 7 religious principles. The one that means the most to me is our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person because, if all people all truly
believed that then there would be no war, no hunger, no prejudice. Most of our seemingly intractable societal ills would not exist.” Now, if the reaction to that is “tell me more”, well, fine. But if the reaction is, “So, what are the other principles?” OOOPS, we could be back to fumbling for words again.
Let’s try another one that I think works better: “Unitarian Universalists believe that all life is sacred; all existence is interconnected and that justice and compassion must be the foundation of our thoughts and deeds.” Wow, let me repeat that: “Unitarian Universalists believe that all life is sacred, all existence is interconnected and that justice and compassion must be the foundation of our thoughts and deeds.” See, this is something that any of us can formulate for ourselves and have ready to share. In fact, if I got around to memorizing it, I might use it myself. We can’t go fumbling around with our words. We need to sound like we know what we believe. What kind of a religion is it you can’t even describe it?
At this point, some or maybe most of you are probably thinking to yourselves, “OK, lady, let’s hear yours!” Well, I did share mine with you last summer, but here’s the current version. Actually, I now have 2 of them. So you’ll hear one now and the other at the end. “Unitarian Universalists believe that we are all on a spiritual journey throughout our lives. Our task is to support one another as we search for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.” I have practiced this and can, in fact, as you heard, say it from memory. What I have chosen to do is focus on just one part of being a UU—the spiritual part. I do this for 2 reasons. First, our proactive social justice and ecological work does not make us unique. We have many allies among the religious liberals. And second, whether we feel that way or not, most of the rest of the world views religion as primarily a spiritual issue. I think if I talked about justice, equity and compassion in human relations, the response would be something like, “Well, that’s how you act upon your beliefs, but what are your beliefs?” Now, the response I get to my sound bite of theology is almost always a long pause. I don’t know what people are expecting, but it’s not this. The next question is invariably, “So, are you a Christian?” Now, I choose to answer this as you referring to the denomination, not just to me personally. My response is, “Some UU’s consider themselves Christian; many do not. And I do not” And then the discussion goes from there.
Actually, I do have another line I’ve been using lately about what UU believe: “Whatever gets you through the night, through the deepest hour of your despair, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.” The reaction to that has generally been, “Hmmm, yeah.” But I must admit that my born-again brother-in-law was not impressed.
Here’s another example of a sound bite that I like: “As Unitarians, we believe all names for God point toward the same mystery. As Universalists, we believe all creation shares the same destiny.” Now, this one is a good one because it incorporates the two strands of our history, both the Unitarian and the Universalist heritage. I don’t tolerate “God” language very well, but this one certainly has potential. Let me repeat it: “As Unitarians, we believe all names for God point toward the same mystery. As Universalists, we believe all creation shares the same destiny.”
And another example that I really like is: “It’s a blessing each of us was born. It matters what we do with our lives. What each of us knows about God is a piece of the truth. We don’t have to do it alone.” This one contains what, for me, is a key sentence about our faith. “What each of us knows about God is a piece of the truth.” Even if what we know is that there is no
God, it’s still a piece of the truth. This comes the closest for me of anything I’ve heard to summing up our beliefs in one sentence. I’ve been working on learning it. So, let me repeat it for you: “It’s a blessing each of us was born. It matters what we do with our lives. What each of us knows about God is a piece of the truth. We don’t have to do it alone.”
Finally, earlier this year, the Rev. Glenda Walker spoke to us of her trinity. It wasn’t her intent, but she agrees with me that it makes a great sound bite of theology, and is, in fact, my new elevator speech. Here it is, slightly modified. “We believe in the trinity: the sacredness of nature, the power of the beloved community and the spirit of individual.”
Our sound bites of theology can and should be as varied as we are, reflecting the richness of our experiences, values and beliefs. It’s both our strength and our challenge that we offer no answers, no creeds, no pre-approved elevator speeches. But we wouldn’t have it any other way. I close with another quote from Bill Sinkford: “Your elevator speeches may be very different from mine. Hone them. Put a name to what calls you, and to what you find yourself called to do in response. Practice telling it to others. This is an exercise that can only help deepen our faith; and with a firmer grounding in those depths, I believe we will be better able to reach out to others. We have Good News for a world that badly needs it.” So be it.
And, now, I invite some of you to share your sound bites of theology with us. Incidentally, I have a hand out with some of the better elevator speeches, if anyone is interested.
Sample Elevator Speeches:
“Unitarian Universalists search for the universal, person by person, path by path.”
“Unitarian Universalists believe that all life is sacred; all existence is interconnected and that justice and compassion must be the foundation of our thoughts and deeds.”
“As Unitarians, we believe all names for God point toward the same mystery. As Universalists, we believe all creation shares the same destiny.”
“It’s a blessing each of us was born. It matters what we do with our lives. What each of us knows about God is a piece of the truth. We don’t have to do it alone.”
“We believe in the trinity: the sacredness of nature, the power of the beloved community and the spirit of individual.