Ethical and Spiritual – The Third Source

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, December 9, 2018



When I first became a Unitarian Universalist and learned about the sources of our living tradition that are named in the bylaws of our association of congregations, not surprisingly I abbreviated them as a list of six nouns. The third of these I abbreviated as “World Religions.” Its full and accurate wording in its bylaws language reads: “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.”


On our association’s website, there is a curated collection of readings, prayers, rituals, and even sermons that are searchable using several categories. What service element are you looking for? What theme? What holiday or event? Who wrote it? Which of our Unitarian Universalist principles does it relate to? And which source of our living tradition does it spring from or connect to? This WorshipWeb, as it is called, is an amazing resource for ministers and worship arts teams and, indeed, anyone planning a service and not anxious to reinvent the wheel.


It is really an admirable collection – especially to have been started so recently in a tradition where the idea of collecting prayers and readings in a prayerbook for common worship has long languished – with the notable exception of King’s Chapel in Boston, which still uses a version of the Book of Common Prayer, inherited from that congregation’s pre-revolutionary Anglican history, and first edited in the early years of this American republic to be theologically unitarian rather than trinitarian.


But if you look through look through the list of our sources on the WorshipWeb, you find a list of twenty-one nouns, and the nouns in that list that relate to this third source of our tradition are the names of religious traditions of the world: Buddhism, Hinduism, Indigenous American, Islam, Taoism, as well as the religions that are already explicitly named in our statement of sources.


What does it mean to say, as this list does, that Hinduism is one of our sources? Obviously it does not mean that we have genetic, linear descent from Hinduism. That simply is not true. Our denomination lineage is Christian, if non-orthodox. If you go back to the formation of our two parent denominations in the early nineteenth century, both the Unitarians and the Universalists were clear that theirs was a Christian tradition, even though different from the dominant traditional Christianity around them. Yet if you look in the readings in the back of our hymnal, you will find multiple readings by Rabindranath Tagore, the modernizing, Bengali, Brahmin Hindu poet, novelist, story and song writer who, in 1913, was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature. So there was a sense in which he belonged to the whole world, not just to the Indian Subcontinent. It was easy for sophisticates in our tradition to pick from his work things that gave voice, or appeared to give voice, to our own ideas. We also have in the hymnal a reading by Kālidāsa, a classical Sanskrit writer of the fourth and fifth century. But, as a religion, Unitarian Universalism does not immerse itself in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Mahabarata, does not pray to the gods who are the emanations of the Hindu pantheon, and even though a lot of Unitarian Universalists practice some form of yoga and gain great physical, mental and spiritual benefit from it, it is often distanced from its Hindu origins while also never being something seen as integral to Unitarian Universalism, as such. So maybe we see Hinduism and the other religions of the world not as source but as a resource to mine.


In my home congregation, when I led the committee that organized our services, I sometimes invited clergy and leaders from other traditions for special events. Often, I had to explain to them what Unitarian Universalism was because they hadn’t heard of our small movement. And sometimes as part of the explanation, I said something like, we value wisdom, no matter where it comes from. Because we do not believe we are the sole holders of truth. Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, Muslim, and Jewish leaders were often willing to accept this explanation of not limiting access to the world’s sources of wisdom. And, indeed, it is wisdom itself, not the World Religions or their teachings or stories per se that are named in our third source: “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.”


That wisdom is not named as multiple but in the singular. In World Religions parlance, this is often put in the form of a simple metaphor. One Mountain, Many Paths. All Rivers Flow to the Sea. In simplist form, these metaphors tell us that the religious experience, the human experience, and what it would teach us is essentially the same for everyone, despite the cultural differences that change the shape of ritual or story. In the back of our hymnal there is a responsive reading by Barbara J. Pescan, which uses the religious words from many traditions to suggest a commonality in the difference, a unity in the specificity, that all values and experiences are human:


Gloria – The tenacity of earth and its creatures.
Kyrie eleison – These children who will go on to save what we cannot.
Baruch ata Adonai – The ordinary tenacity of plants and of people.
Om – The center of the universe which is everywhere, not the least place in the human heart.
Alleluia – Love that survives anger, and winter, and despair, and sorrow, and even death.
Shalom – Love that persists.
Nam myo-ho renge kyo – Calm that is the seed in the dark.
Amen – For endings that are beginnings, for beginnings that are endings.
Alleluia – For the circle, the spiral, the web, the egg, the orbit, the center, the seed, the flower, the fruit, the opening, the death, the release, the seed.
Amen – We are going on.
Amen – It is going on.
Amen – Blessed be.


I have always loved this reading, but the more I look at it, the more I consider it, the less pluralism I see in it. It seems more a smoothing out of ideas and words from different origins, a leveling into a Unitarian Universalist commonality rather than an actual expression of what is meaningful from the traditions whose words are used.


These are the words of Kendyl Gibbons in the Sources cantata[1] on which she collaborated with Jason Shelton, some of whose music is in our teal hymnal: “Many windows, one light; many waters, one sea; all lifted hearts are free.”

Sing back to me:

Many windows, one light;
many waters, one sea;
all lifted hearts are free.


Together: “Many windows, one light; many waters, one sea; all lifted hearts are free.”


This is classic unity of human experience, Interfaith engagement through saying we are all the same. Indeed, the late Rev. Forest Church used the metaphor of the cathedral of the world, in which there are many windows. Each window is unique, its own colors, its own design, its own meaning, if you will, and yet the light that shines through all the windows is the same, even as it shifts through the day. It is a beautiful metaphor of our human oneness in difference.


In my first year of seminary, a new book hit the market that presented a major challeng to the “one mountain, many paths” liberal approach to the religions and spiritual traditions of the world. It was Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter. Its main concept was that each religion emerged in its particular time and place to answer one main question or problem that really mattered to the people then and there. So Christianity emerged to address the problem of how find go on when human experience shows the ubiquity of sin. Sin is Christianity’s great problem. Buddhism, on the other hand, took up the problem of suffering and how to escape its domination. And so on.


Nevertheless, in the Sources cantata, Kendyl Gibbons and Jason Shelton incorporated readings from the world religious texts, from scriptures, to show their essential unity of message. The bit of empathetic and compassionate wisdom known as the Golden Rule is more-or-less the same throughout the world’s traditions:


  • In the Talmud of the Jewish tradition, the sage Hillel said: What is hateful to you, do not do to others. This is the whole of the Law; all the rest is commentary.
  • In the Hindu legend of the Mahabharata, the divine Krishna declared: This is the sum of duty: Do nothing unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.
  • In the Gospel of Matthew in the Christian scriptures, the messiah Jesus says: Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
  • In the Buddhist text of the Udanavarga, the student is urged: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
  • In the Muslim Hadith of al Nawawi, the prophet Mohammed teaches: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.
  • In the T’ai Shang treatise of Taoism, the seeker is instructed: Regard your neighbor s gain as your gain, and your neighbor s loss as your own loss.
  • In the ancient wisdom of Shinto there is a saying: The heart of the person before you is a mirror. See there your own form.
  • The Oglala Lakota spiritual leader Black Elk wrote: All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves.


You’ve seen the posters. And the statement of Rabbi Hillel seems absolute: all the rest is commentary. There is only one message at the root of all religious impulse. This is certainly wisdom, shared across religious platforms. But is it the whole of “the Law” for all traditions? Are there other kinds of wisdom? Psychologist Marianna Pogosyan writes:


…there is more than one way of being wise. Winston Churchill, for instance, was known for his practical wisdom, Mother Teresa had benevolent wisdom, and Socrates was famed for being philosophically wise. …


For centuries, civilizations have passed down their ideas of wisdom through stories of a moral and virtuous life. These stories came from all over the world… According to these traditions, wisdom stands on many pillars – benevolence and listening to others; self-reflection; letting life unfold naturally; and questioning and intellectual humility.


In psychological research, wisdom is viewed as a multifaceted concept with cognitive (knowledge and experience), reflective (the ability to examine issues and oneself) and prosocial (benevolence and compassion) components.[2]


In this approach, wisdom is more than just encapsulated, universalized advice. It seems that wisdom calls on a much greater commitment and challenge and asks us to engage with the differences with as much eagerness as the similarities. In any case, we know that this source is not talking about doctrines or mythologies but wisdom that emerged with its many facets in a specific time and place, in response to core problems of the society where it emerged. The Golden Rule sounds very much the same in its many incarnations around the globe. But this Third Source of our Living Tradition says, “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” If the Golden Rule is essentially the same everywhere, what do we gain by looking for it around the world, in many traditions?


No, this source calls on us to do two things: to be intellectually humble, open to the world of difference as well as similarity, and to apply what we encounter to our spiritual life and the crafting of our personal and communal ethics. It leads us not to assume that there is a single mountain, a single goal. World religions are not our source, but intellectual and spiritual openness to difference in our approach to ethics – that is our source.


Amen and Blessed Be.





© Copyright 2018 by Rev. Paul Oakley