“Original Blessing”

Rev. Julie Kain

We sometimes hear Unitarian Universalism referred to as “our chosen faith” because so many of us have found ourselves here after having been in other traditions that didn’t entirely suit us. Many of us have been drawn to Unitarian Universalism because it affirms our right of conscience. We are encouraged to pursue a path in the discernment of truth that relies heavily on the faculties of our own minds and hearts. Our own direct experience in this world is actually considered to be one of the sources from which our Living tradition of Unitarian Universalism draws. In our stated Principles and Purposes, it is articulated this way: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life”. I think that is really beautifully said.

One of the things I’m looking forward to most in my being a part of this community at UUCP is the opportunity that we have to share with each other our own faith journeys through life, our own stories.

I have been asked several times to talk about my own theological orientation, to define it, so to speak. But really we are all operating out of our own theological orientations, whether we are aware of it or not, and each of our theological experiences have been formed throughout the course of our own unique lives.

Unfortunately, many people come to Unitarian Universalism after having very difficult experiences in other traditions. As a minister, I can’t tell you how painful it has been to hear some of the stories that are shared. Stories of harsh judgment, stories of denied viewpoints, stories of abandonment and rejection.

Unitarian Universalist communities are not perfect, by any means. Whenever we are wounded within the trusted boundaries of our faith community, we are vulnerable to a deep inner pain.

Things happen that are hard to get past, and yet a part of us continues to try, in search of healing, in search of some peace.

I consider myself fortunate to have had a very positive experience in my previous faith tradition, actively participating in a Presbyterian church during my youth. The departure I made was an intellectual and spiritual one, not an emotionally difficult one, as many of our fellow UU’s have endured. I do also believe that I had the advantage of growing up in an era where my secular education allowed me the privilege of critical and independent thought, so that the natural questioning I did as a youth was not discouraged, not in my school or my church or my home.

I like to tell the story of how I became a Unitarian Universalist at the age of eleven in my Presbyterian confirmation class. It was there that I questioned that Jesus was the only way to salvation for all people and it was there that I discovered on the library shelves the book The Religions of Man by Huston Smith. A doorway to the other religious traditions of the world was opened for me.

Once I had read The Religions of Man, which is now called The World’s Religions, I went on to read one of the sacred texts recommended in the chapter on Hinduism, considered the world’s oldest religion. I read the Upanishads, which are a compilation of texts written from 800 to 400 BCE to the fifteenth century. They are older than the Bhagavad Gita but not quite as old as the Vedas.

The Upanishads are distinct in that their composers who were thinkers and poets were reacting against the external religion founded in the Vedas. They articulate a broad philosophy that underlies the cultural expressions of Hinduism, much as Taoism is a broad philosophy that underlies the cultural expressions of Buddhism.

The philosophy of the Upanishads, known as Vedanta, was brought eventually to the West and had a place at the first Parliament of World Religions held in Chicago in 1893. It met with a warm reception by Unitarians, even Ralph Waldo Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists were influenced by these Eastern works and their embedded- ness in the natural world and our direct experience of it.

I want to share with you one of the passages that I feel introduced me to Unitarian Universalism.“There is a spirit that is mind and life, light and truth and vast spaces. It contains all works and desires and all perfumes and tastes. It enfolds the whole universe, and in silence is loving to all.”

When I actually found Unitarian Universalism in 1991 at the age of 29, I knew I had found a people who believed that Jesus was not the only way. I was impressed by its openness to other religious traditions and by both its spiritual and intellectual depth.

But one thing about Unitarian Universalism that took longer for me to appreciate, perhaps because of its subtler implications, is the absence of Original Sin at the core of its philosophy. Actually is wasn’t until I had a number of people come up to me after the child dedications and memorial services I have led, to tell me just how refreshing it is to simply celebrate the dignity and integrity of a person’s life, whether young or old, without imposing a lot of guilt and need for salvation upon these particular people.

Some of you here today may recognize the title Original Blessing as a book written by Matthew Fox. For those of you who are not familiar with him, Matthew Fox falls, no pun intended, into a category that he shares with John Shelby Spong. Both men come from years of affiliation with their “traditional” traditions and both have been criticized and rejected due to their supposedly radical interpretations of the Bible.

For example, Matthew Fox wrote this in his book titled Original Blessing, “Let us take a closer look at this pivotal doctrine of original sin. The concept is not a Jewish one. Even though the Jewish people knew Genesis for a thousand years before Christianity, they do not read original sin into it. As the twentieth century Jewish prophet Elie Wiesel points out, Fox quotes “The concept of original sin is alien to Jewish tradition. This is strong language,” he writes, “to call a doctrine ‘alien’ that Christians believe they found in Jewish scriptures.”

Fox goes on to say, “But today biblical scholars who are themselves Christian agree that original sin is not found in the Bible.”

By the way, we know there is such a thing as Jewish guilt,… but evidently it does not originate with the Bible!

But Matthew Fox was a Dominican priest for 34 years before he was forced out of his order in 1991. The institutes he establishes in Chicago and Oakland were criticized because they encouraged the full exploration of spirituality in all cultures, honoring the world’s indigenous religious traditions, right along with the traditional Christian mystics. Fox was ousted because of his rejection of the notion of original sin and his embrace of Original Blessing as its natural corollary. Despite the fact he has written 28 books and his Institute of Creation Spirituality continues to expand, now enjoying an alliance with the Buddhist Naropa Institute, Fox was rejected by his own church for being a feminist theologian.

Likewise, John Shelby Spong is criticized by his conservative peers; Spong put forth these three New Year’s resolutions for the church not long ago –

  1. The church should move away from fear of maturity and stop encouraging the childlike dependence of its worshipers
  2. The church should cease from its concentration on evil and begin to see the beauty in life. Spong asserts that a vision of Original Goodness needs to balance the church’s concentration on original sin
  3. The church should give up its idolatrous claims to be the sole possessors of God’s ultimate truth. Beyond that the church should surrender the claim that its leaders are infallible and the sacred text is literally true.

Matthew Fox in his book Original Blessing proposes that not only do blessings permeate the story of Israel; it permeates creation from the very beginning. Fox says “original blessing underlies all being, all creation, all time, all space, all unfolding and evolving of what is.” He quotes Rabbi Heschel in saying “Just to be is a blessing, just to live is holy”.

This week the Jewish High Holy days have begun with Rosh Hashanah. With the blowing of the shofar, a ram’s horn, Jewish people are called to reflect upon the blessing of all creation.

In a universe that is around 20 billion years old, at least it’s only been in the last 4 billion years that we’ve projected the possibility of human sin screwing it up for everyone and everything!

Of course, there is human frailty, limitations and, yes, even the capacity for evil behavior, but the brokenness that we know as humans will never fully contradict the many gifts we have to offer.

The fact that we are part of nature and every single thing in nature is entirely unique in both its properties and its perspectives, it is nothing short of a miracle, on a literally, universal magnitude.

This means that in the big picture of all creation, we – you and I, my friends, have our own part to play.

The dancer and choreographer Martha Graham said it this way – “There is vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”

Sometime the expression of our particular gifts and passions has to overcome a lot of internalized resistance. There are all these voices inside us that want to tell us why we can’t do what is genuinely in our heart to do. They say we are not good enough. They say we are not ready, or we’re being selfish. They say we shouldn’t draw too much attention to ourselves, or grow too big for our own shoes.

Whether it’s the cumulative impact of the notion of original sin or a whole host of other reasons, it can be hard indeed to claim our birthright of Original Blessing in this life.

When I was a little girl, I would spend hours listening and singing along with the radio, learning all the words to the songs. So when I was asked to sing in school and in church, it felt as natural as breathing to me. But some folks are not so lucky. I knew a young man who worked in the restaurant I managed. He refused to sing along when we did “Happy Birthday” for a fellow employee but when we would be cleaning up at the end of his shift and he thought everyone else was gone, he’d sing joyfully at the top of his lungs to the country music station on the radio.

We all have our songs to sing, whether or not they happen to be in any key!

I’ve learned that the troubles of this world are best met with a regular practice of pursuing our own individual passions and gifts, whatever they may be…Call it a spiritual practice, if you will. It may be digging in the garden, putting on a play with the kids, solving a mathematical problem, or taking a walk in the woods. Our gifts and passions are calling out to us all the time, if we but stop a moment to listen. And then heed their pervasive call…

As Rabbi Heschel said, “Just to be is a blessing, just too live is holy.”