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Less than a week ago the Huffington Post published an article called “Spiritual Classics: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read.” The article was basically an excerpt from 25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics, from Renovare, “a nonprofit organization that models,Christianity , 25 Books Every Christian Should Read , 25 Christian Spiritual Classics , 25 Spiritual Classics , Books , Books-We-Love , Christian Classics , Christian Mystics , Christian Spiritual Classics , Mysticism , Spiritual Classics resources, and advocates intentional living through Christian spiritual formation and discipleship.” The subject matter caught my attention because this was exactly the kind of book I would have loved once upon a time, when I identified as a Christian. In fact, looking over the list I found that I had read a good number of these books already:
Augustine’s Confessions, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, The Cloud of Unknowing, Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, The Way of a Pilgrim (and The Pilgrim Continues His Way), the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (now known simply as Discipleship, I hear), The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I was a fairly serious student of Christian spirituality in those days, and I have to confess that I miss being so intentionally engaged with a faith tradition.

So that got me wondering. What would a similar list of Unitarian Univeralist spiritual classics look like? I figure there are a couple of ways to approach this. One would be to look for books that were written by Unitarians and Universalists. That would immediately narrow things down since certain writers would pretty much be automatically put on the list: Emerson, Thoreau, Channing, Parker, Fuller, etc. A list like that could certainly keep someone busy for quite awhile. But the more I thought about it, for such a list to truly represent the breadth and depth of the spirituality that has influenced Unitarian and Universalist thought, it might be helpful to include works that weren’t necessarily written by Unitarians, Universalists, or Unitarian Universalists.

I’m thinking that a well-rounded list of Spiritual Classics: 25 Books Every Unitarian Universalist Should Read would need to be based on the Six Sources of our faith. This would serve two purposes: one, the sources make excellent categories into which one can begin sorting books; and two, it would keep the list from favoring one flavor of Unitarian Universalism over another. Finally, in addition to those Six Sources, I would add one more category. Basically, I’d leave a little room for the first option: books by Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists. Of course there’d be some overlap. Walden, for example, would qualify as both a Six Source book and as a book by a Unitarian. You get the picture.

Here, then, is the first book I’d like to nominate for a spiritual classic every Unitarian Universalist should read: American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr., from the Library of America. Why? Well, for starters it contains William Ellery Channing’s sermon “Likeness to God,” which may be the one sermon of Channing’s that every Unitarian Universalist should read, even more than “Unitarian Christianity.” (And thanks to the Rev. Kate Rhode for suggesting this to me). In addition to the Channing sermon, there are sermons by early America liberal Christians, like Charles Chauncy, sermons by other Unitarians like Emerson, Parker, and Octavius Brooks Frothingham, fellow travelers, like Quaker Lucretia Mott, and some 20th century sermons by theologians like Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King Jr.

American religious speeches, American homily, Jonathan Edwards, Billy Sunday, Increase Mather, Joseph Smith, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King Jr.

I’ve already ordered the book and am really looking forward to reading all of the sermons (including those early 20th century Fundamentalists…I’m talking about at you, Aimee Semple McPherson). In the meantime, I’d welcome suggestions about some other books that should go on the list. So take another look at our Six Sources and think about which books might nurture the spirits of every Unitarian Univeralists. And let me know in the comments section what you’ve come up with.


The interweb is abuzz today with Unitarian Universalists writing about a subject they should know well: Universalism. UUA President Peter Morales has written about it at Huffington Post; the Twitterverse is full of tweets hashtagged #universalism; and individual bloggers (UU and otherwise) are blogging the bejasus out of the subject here, here, and here. Why the sudden interest? The imminent release of bestselling author and megachurch pastor Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Here’s what Bell’s publisher has to say about the book:

Rob Bell reveals a secret deep in the heart of millions of Christians–they don’t believe what they have been taught are the essential truths of their faith. Out of respect for their tradition, they keep quiet, confiding to a few close friends their doubts and questions about salvation, Jesus, and, of course, God.

Bell brings out to the open and faces squarely the questions on everyone’s mind: Does it really make sense that God is a loving, kind, compassionate God who wants to know people in a personal way, but if they reject this relationship with Jesus, they will be sent to hell where God will eternally punish them forever?

In Love Wins, Bell goes to the heart of these issues and argues that the church’s traditional understanding of heaven and hell is actually not taught by the Bible. Bell is emphatically not offering a new view of heaven and hell; instead, he closely examines every verse in the Bible on heaven and hell and shows what they really teach. And he discovers that Jesus’s most fundamental teaching about heaven and hell is, “Love wins.”

This should be, of course, good news for Unitarian Universalists who think of their congregations as places of refuge for those Christians who “don’t believe what they have been taught are the essential truths of their faith.” After all, that’s pretty much the reason a lot of us became Unitarian Universalists in the first place. It’s been my experience, however, that many UUs think that people should have taken care of their relationship to God, Jesus, Heaven, and Hell before they set foot in their local UU congregation because, well, that’s they way they did it. As far as they’re concerned, those questions were asked and answered a long time ago, which is why you don’t see many UU congregations spending too much time helping Christians work through their thoughts and feelings about some of the more troubling “essential truths of their faith.” And that’s shame.

You see, I really do believe that UU congregations should be the absolutely best place on Earth for Christians to explore their relationship with God and Jesus, Heaven and Hell. Why? Because our non-creedal religion offers each individual the opportunity to start from scratch when it comes to working out his or her own salvation—not with “fear and trembling,” as Saint Paul put it (Philippians 2:12-13), but with hope and support. But that’s not what goes on in most of our churches, fellowships, and societies. Instead you find people getting their knickers in a twist about words like “worship,” “sanctuary,” “spirituality,” and “faith.”

So, what’s a UU congregation to do? Well, if you’re seriously interested in helping our Christian neighbors explore their relationship to God and the religion their were raised in, take a look at this excellent article by Philip Clayton: “Theology and the Church After Google.” Pay special attention to these “recurring questions that every Christian wonders about as he or she struggles to be a Jesus disciple”:

  • Who is God?
  • What are human beings?
  • How are we separated from God, and how can that separation be overcome
  • Who is Jesus Christ?
  • What or Who is the Spirit?
  • What is the church, and what should it be doing?
  • And what is our hope for the final future of the cosmos and humanity?

Now, check your feelings and choose one: Do you find the thought of a bunch of Christians coming to your congregation searching for the answers to these questions a) attractive, or b) repulsive? You can probably guess what my answer is. Feel free to leave a comment and tell me yours.

Continuing with a recap of my post-Black Friday at Church small group session exploring the “real” Christmas story. As I noted, the Christmas narratives in Matthew and Luke try to explain when (and how) God actually entered into Jesus–at the time of his conception. Paul said it was after the resurrection. Mark said it was at Jesus’ baptism. And John said there never was a time when God was not in Jesus. By explaining when God entered into Jesus, all of these writers were trying to explain how we have met God in this life of Jesus.

Unitarians and Universalists have had slightly different approaches to Jesus. For a long time, Jesus was primarily a great moral teach for Unitarians. For Universalists, Jesus was the premier example of God’s love. In both cases, there was not a lot of emphasis of Jesus being the actually Son of God. Rather, Jesus was a model of what we all might achieve as human beings. So, the question for UUs isn’t whether or not the Christmas story (as told in Matthew and Luke) is true or not (since it really doesn’t matter for our interpretations of who Jesus was). The question is, What do we do with this myth? How does it help us come to a deeper understanding of who we believe Jesus was, and what Jesus means to us today?

It’s interesting to note that it’s not unusual for exceptional figures in history to have a mythic birth narrative. (Or, if not a mythic birth narrative, then at least some heroic stories from childhood–think George Washington and the cherry tree.) One of my favorite mythic birth narrative is about the Buddha. Here’s how it goes:

About ten months after her dream of a white elephant and the revelation that she would give birth to a great leader, Queen Maya went to the king and, according to custom, requested that she return to her father’s house for the birth. The king agreed and sent soldiers ahead to clear the road and arranged a guard for the queen as she was carried in a decorated palanquin (a covered seat carried on poles held parallel to the ground on the shoulders of two or four people). The queen set off in a long procession of soldiers and retainers, headed for the capital of her father’s kingdom.

On the way the pageant passed a garden called Lumbini Park near the kingdom of Nepal, at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains. The queen was attracted by the beauty of the park, which was adorned with sala trees and scented flowers, birds and bees. The queen ordered the bearers to stop to rest for a while. While she rested beneath a sala trees she began her labor, giving birth to a baby boy. It was a day of a full moon in 623 B.C., a day now celebrated as Vesak, the festival of the triple event of Buddha’s birth.

According to the traditions surrounding the birth, the baby boy immediately began to walk, taking seven steps. At each point where his feet touched the ground, a lotus flower appeared. Then, at the seventh step, he stopped and pronounced:
I am chief of the world,
Eldest am I in the world,
Foremost am I in the world.
This is the last birth.
There is now no more coming to be.
Queen Maha Maya immediately returned to Kapilavatthu. When the king learned of this he was overjoyed, and as the news spread, the kingdom was full of rejoicing.

So in some ways, the Christmas story accentuates that Jesus was an exceptional figure in history, something that neither the Unitarians nor Universalists would disagree with. Exceptional, but not unique. Jesus never claimed any status for himself that he didn’t offer to his followers as well. And UUs believe that all humans are born not only with inherent worth and dignity, but with infinite potential. William Ellery Channing taught that we have a seed planted in us at birth, a divine seed given by God that if we would just cultivate it, it would grow and flourish and we could accomplish and experience extraordinary things.

The Christmas story was designed to show that God was in Jesus from conception. Our tradition tells us that if that were true, then God would be in all of us at our conception. So the Christmas story is in some ways everyone’s story.

If you want to read more about the “real” story of Christmas, check out The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth, by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan.

One of the reasons last week’s Black Friday at Church event was such a powerful experience was the opportunity for individuals to gather in small groups after the worship service for discussion, information, and meditation.  The groups were led by members of Unity Church-Unitarian, including myself. The most popular was “Wealth of Things vs. Wealth of Spirit,” led by Bill Doherty and Elizabeth Shippee, a valued elder of the church. I led a group called “The ‘Real’ Christmas Story Explored.” Other groups included “A Christmas Promise,” led by Katy Taylor, where individuals were encouraged to “make a promise that will create more meaning in the Advent and Christmas season for yourself, your church, or your community.” Becca Pournoor, former DRE at Unity, led a session called “The Season in Poetry and Prose,” and a group of adults and youth helped children ages four to ten with some hands-on activities that explored the themes of Advent and Christmas. All in all, was a very multigenerational event. (You can read more about the event at my colleague Nancy Heege’s blog, Nancy’s Views of the Landscape.)

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

At any rate, I thought I’d do a little rundown of what we covered in my small group. There were about 20 people who showed up to explore the “real” Christmas story. Since the title and the description were assigned to me by the Black Friday Planning Group, I decided to keep it fairly simple by giving my perspective on what I thought the Christmas story accomplishes in the Bible. I said there were basically two things the story does. One, it does some damage control around the issue of Jesus’ paternity. If we had a copy of his birth certificate, it would probably say “father unknown.” This is a pretty incontrovertable fact, given evidence in Mark 6:3 that Jesus was considered “illegitimate” in his hometown: “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” According to Austin Cline (and many other sources) “To call Jesus the ‘son of Mary’ in this fashion is tantamount to saying ‘this guy has no real father, he’s a bastard.'” And since this appears in the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the Gospels to be composed (c. 70 CE), it represents an inconvenient truth that other Gospel writers had to address. Indeed, Luke and Matthew change the wording of this text to “son of Joseph.” And they both felt compelled to add an impressive series of “begats” to their Christmas narratives to drive the point home.

Which leads me to the second thing the Christmas story does in the Bible. According to Bishop John Shelby Spong in his book The Sins of Scripture, both Matthew and Luke use their Christmas narratives to answer the question, “How did God get into Jesus?” The original point of entry was at the resurrection as far as Paul was concerned. “God simply declared Jesus to be the Son of God at the time of the resurrection by the action of the spirit, said Paul when he wrote his epistle to the Romans [c. 60 CE].” Spong goes on to say that “Mark explains it with his baptism story.” He “tells the story of the heavens opening, the Spirit descending on Jesus, and the heavenly voice off-stage saying: ‘Thou are my beloved son!'” (And remember, Mark was written somewhere around 70 CE.)

“Matthew changed the timing,” says Spong. “The declaration that Jesus was the Son of God came from and unnamed angel in a dream to Joseph. It was still mediated by the action of the Holy Spirit, but it now took place at the moment of conception.” The Gospel of Matthew, by the way, was composed c. 80 CE. Spong continues: “Luke repeats the miraculous birth story, but he makes it more specific. The angel is Gabriel and communicates to Mary in real time. The child she will bear will be called ‘The Son of God.'” That gets written c. 85 CE. (John continues to move the event horizon back in time–all the way to the beginning: “When John wrote the Fourth Gospel [c. 100 CE], he decided that there was never a time when God was not in Christ.”)

So. What does this have to with how Unitiarian Universalists approach the Christmas story? I’ll save that for another post.

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