A sermon by

Rev. Dr. Robert Lee Zoerheide

Circa 1956


Delivered at the Installation of

Nathaniel Page Lauriat at Lancaster, PA;

Also delivered at Utica, NY and at

May Memorial Unitarian Society

Syracuse, New York


People are always asking us: "What is a Unitarian?" and very often those who ask are Unitarians who ought to know, or are new friends who are about to become members of our church. They do not want to be told that a Unitarian is one who no longer can accept the traditional teachings of Judaism or of the various Christian churches, though this is true. Nor do they want to hear a long list of doctrines, creeds and dogmas which have been rejected by a newly liberated mind. They want to know what a Unitarian believes in the many important areas of religious life.


In the first place, as one of our published statements by A. Powell Davies points out, "A Unitarian is a person who believes that in religion, as in everything else, each one of us should be free to seek the truth without being hampered by official requirements and traditional restrictions." But this freedom should be regarded as a responsibility as well as a release, so that it will issue into a lifetime search for new evidences and assurances of faith.


Unitarians have a deep trust in goodness. We have been termed optimists because of our confidence in human nature, its goodness rather than sinfulness, and because of our hope for the future. I suppose we are optimists. There could be worse labels -- there have been, too. But no one has called us "pessimists;" we worry too much for that. Who ever saw a pessimist worrying about tomorrow? He knows everything will turn out wrong!


A Unitarian believes that confidence in the innate goodness of human nature will prove to be the best instrument for the establishment of that goodness, and that realistic but unequivocal trust in the character building gift of human nature can be an island of order and dependability in the disturbing and disordered chaos of daily experience.


Our trust in the effective goodness of human nature is well expressed by the president of our Unitarian, Association, Frederick May Eliot:


"Unitarians believe that character is the final test of any man's religion, the most important fruit of religious experience and practice, the goal of all religious education. Unless religion develops character in men and women it seems to us to be something less than religion; and no matter what the other products and by-products of religion may be, without character its primary purpose has been defeated and its chief value lost. Character is the foundation-stone of all lasting human welfare."


There is also a deep trust among us in oncoming virtue; Unitarianism is an assurance that in our religion revelation is not sealed. The generous way our membership serves the community and the nation illustrates a new and revealing dimension of our faith: It overflows. The overflowing comes because of sureness about the vast potential of each person.


The Revised Standard Version of the Bible has changed the familiar line: "My cup runneth over" (King James version) to "My cup overflows.


The confidence we have in the abundance of resources for faith may need the emphasis of such a refinement. The cup does not run over because its capacity is small, it over-flows because its supply is superabundant. Unlike an ordinary vessel, the vessel of liberal faith, the vessel of human nature, and the form of nature increases supply by being used. "Overflow" expresses the welling-up of faith which comes from religious kinship with all of life, with all religions, from new truth ever found by science, and from the lives of generations of good people. How can we catch a glimpse of the vast potential within us and around us?


An English scientist tells a story about the untold number of molecules there are in ordinary things: "Fill a cup with water," he says. "Suppose you had some way of marking each water molecule so you could recognize it if you saw it again. Now pour the water down the drain. Wait a long, long time until this water has had a chance to mix with all the oceans of the earth. Then go down to the seashore anywhere in the world and scoop up a cup full of water. Do you suppose there is a chance that any of the original marked molecules will be in it? The answer is that the cup will contain over a thousand of them."


Sir James Jeans seems to have made the transition of thought which follows such an illustration when he said: "Man no longer sees nature as something distinct from himself." The cup of life in each one of us has a potential more wondrous by far than a few ounces of water. Think of how it could overflow!


Jesus told parables to make the point. There was a time when scholars called such parables as the one of leaven in the loaf and the mustard seed "Parables of growth," and marveled at the process suggested. But they have no season in common, and you do not have to be a farmer to know that. The yeast and the seed are not comparable in terms of growth; mustard seed and yeast are alike in their seeming insignificance. Though tiny, their potential is tremendous. One of the smallest of seeds contains the end possibility of a tree great enough for birds to roost in. How much smaller, though more sensational in possibilities is the beginning of man from invisible traits and fertility.


A native of India told about the unshakeable trust his people have in any man who demonstrates his humanity by a supreme personal sacrifice for the larger good, men like their beloved Gandhi and Nehru. In a moment of memorable insight he said, "In India we all know what Gandhi did. That little man about as brown as I am, slightly taller, who could hold his earthly possessions in his two hands, weighed only 92 pounds, and yet every corner of our world has felt something of his quiet strength." Human nature has no boundaries!


How foolish it would be to feel that the story of religion had been written in one book and sealed by one age, or that once and for all in one person the entire potential and range of human nature has been revealed. The unfolding drama of new truth, rising above the old, gives to our time a celestial dimension for every moment and every person.


Unitarianism will go beyond its own boundaries to be realized! A vision of boundless human nature flowing into all meaning and into all parts of the world will demand of us a new kind of church. Can we provide it? To meet the needs of the people who are seeking to remove the barriers which ancient ways have placed in our world, for those who wish to universalize the sources of inspiration, of cooperation, and of human service, it will be necessary to part company with the hallowed notion of a church being religious on the condition that its religiousness can come from but one person, one tradition, one scripture, or one locality.


Samuel Coleridge had a glimpse of the new dimensions for a church when he said: "He, who begins by loving Christianity better than truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all."


There is some evidence of each of these stages in present day Unitarianism. But the church of tomorrow, arising among us, has passed beyond these limitations: all of them. It has passed beyond the limitations of traditional Unitarianism into the vast future of a new Unitarian Church. The world is moving with it. There is around us a widespread search for commonality.


The fear of world war helped to make the U.N.O. a reality for the nations. What force will bring the religions of the world together? Not fear! Perhaps example! Some group must help to show the fiercely divided religious world its common ground of faith. No one will be successful who tries it simply as the intellectual exercise of searching world scriptures, though this must be done. It will come as an act of faith, an embracing of people, as a way of life. The members of this church of wider nourishment will help to work out their own beliefs, too. Their church represents the supreme form of generosity, the generosity of openness. Such a church will be a cup of strength overflowing into life; because, in its presence and by its inspiration, each member will find it easiest to make full use of the past, his best self, and of the group. What better function could a church have?


New ways toward justice and equality, as well as new forms of the arts and of music, will be overflowing in a church which is a receptacle of all people and of all traditions, of spontaneity of group interaction, and of free expression in freshly created forms. Its finest evidence will be that learning in religion and contributing to religion has continued. Its people, program, music, and worship will be trained in the high skills of discovery. They will know where to find, and how to make, elements of faith. The wonder of life, the unlimited potential of man, the miracle of the universe and the divinity of all things will not be far from them, day to day.


The Harvard Report on Education describes the mark of a good education as the ability to choose and to use great sources. We gladly accept this as a quality of liberal faith, if it can mean looking toward the experiences of today as well as those of yesterday. Faith, like education, should be helped rather than hurt, by the new dimensions of experience.


Who is in the field today, adding the religious insights from science, psychology, sociology, and education -- from social change, from arts and crafts and music, and from creative expressions of free faith? Who is catching-up and using the revelations not sealed in the past or confined to sacred and closed books?


The trouble with the religious world is that the superstitious and the ignorant are cocksure, and the intelligent and the free are full of doubt.


The religion of new dimensions, like the art, music, education, and social change of new dimensions, requires people who are not afraid of the past, are not afraid of the present, and care not a whit to have their tenets of belief popular enough to appear along with Faith Healing in the Sunday supplement. Let the peddlers of religious tranquilizers fill the tabloid space. The only cheaper faith is "The Lord's Prayer" printed on a coin, and it is yours in an automatic dispensing machine for eleven cents.


America is missing its greatest opportunity! The beauty of today, the boundlessness of human nature, the commonalities of universal religion, and the mysterious sweep of the universe cry out to Americans, but they will not venture out beyond the narrow security of orthodox faith. The brave new world is dismayingly timid in religion; it clings uneasily to the past.


Dylan Thomas captured the feeling of our attitude toward religion in America when he described his "little aunts sitting on the edge of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers." Here and there appear a few like the little boys he describes as "out in the night with a world large and dark, looking as if it contained ghosts, and all of them too brave to say a word... in the close and holy darkness."


This age has a special need for us and for the church open to the sunlight of its own day. We will welcome the displaced religious persons of our time: the refugees from mixed marriages, the unwanted free-thinkers from orthodoxies, the harried ones who insist against dogma that they must work out their own beliefs, just as the minority of time honored religious leaders have always been privileged to do when founding a new faith.


Again and again we will say with Longfellow: "Light of ages and of Nations, Every race and every time has received thine inspirations, glimpses of thy truth sublime... Revelation is not sealed. Truth and right are still revealed.


We will have a faith forever shared and forever our own.



Prepared for web page display on April 1, 2006