UNITARIANISM: An Opportunity


A sermon by

Rev. Dr. Robert Lee Zoerheide

Circa 1959


May Memorial Unitarian Society

Syracuse, New York


The week after registration was completed on the Hill, I went to the University Chapel to pick up the Religious affiliation cards of Unitarian students.


The young man who waited and me took me into the room where the cards lay sorted into piles upon a table -- Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Jewish, Presbyterian, etc. He hunted and hunted far the Unitarian cards. In the middle of his search, he threw me a quizzical smile and pointed to the largest grouping on the table.


"How would you like that pile?" he said.


"Are they Methodist?” I asked.


"Take a look," he invited, going on with his search.


Not Interested


I started leafing through the huge pile. “Religious Affiliation…………..,” I read. On card after card the space was blank. On others, in scripts which varied from a careless scribble to the firm and vigorous, the question was answered with a single word -- "None." On and on through hundreds of cards -- the same answers, with only occasional variations.


One student had written "Lloydianism" in this Space. I racked my memory of little known sects, without success, until my eye fell on the surname at the top of the card – “Lloyd.” And after "Home Clergyman" on this card, appeared the name of a radio comedian. How I should like to meet that young man! Another student, obviously American-born, had indicated “Zoroastrianism," apparent1y in similar spirit.


Here and there, other information on the cards; offered some clue to the students thinking.


Potential Unitarians


Here was a no-mans-land, indeed! With growing interest I turned back to the young man.


"May I spend some time with these cards?” I asked. "I’m sure some of these students are Unitarians."


I was welcome to the cards, he assured me. “But," he asked with evident interest, "why do you say some are Unitarians? I knew they didn’t say so on these cards.”


Perhaps I should have said "potential Unitarians," I amended. Why? Well, why were so many students so indifferent that they left the space blank? Surely, not all because they had had no affiliation. Some, at least, because they had come to feel that religion was not confined to churches, that the way you lived might be more significant than the sect to which you belonged. "And that’s how some Unitarians look at it."


But even more interesting to think about -- what experiences were covered by that word, “none?" What did it spell of doubt, of questioning, of past distress and dissatisfaction? Among these would be students who had rejected religious groups because they had had an unfortunate experience with some zealous sect -- students who felt strongly enough about religious values to rebel against all forms which appeared false to them. "And that’s another sign of a Unitarian."


After further study, I selected 60 of the cards for follow-up. And our missing Unitarians? They turned up in the hands of our energetic student chairman, who had carried them off earlier in the day.


In Rebellion


The more I thought about this incident, the more deeply I was stirred. Do you realize that 50% of all Americans have no church life today? Some of these people -- but, of course, not all - are in rebellion, open rebellion, against "hocus-pocus," pomp and circumstance in religion.


"I want none of lip-service, in lieu of deeds," they say.


"I want none of out-worn ceremony, in lieu of honest reverence,


"I want none of theological complexities and creeds,


"I want, rather, the truth of science; the beauty and grandeur of the universe; the mystery of life; the warmth, the solace, and the inspiration of companionship shared in a fellowship open to all."


The Displaced Persons of Religion


These whole-hearted ones are among the displaced persons of our American culture. They are people of integrity, conviction, and purpose. Yet their religious affiliation is a blank, because they have given up hope of finding a "religious" faith that makes sense in a culture which recognizes reason, science, and the democratic method as its best tools.


To such people as these, Unitarianism should offer a fresh, and an honest, approach to religious living.


HOW shall we show those who want none of religion that Unitarianism is an opportunity for them? How shall we show them that their devotion to truth, their faith in the experimental method, and their confidence in humanity can here be turned to account to enable them, and all of us, to cope more effectively with our problems?


Man a "Prime Coper"


"Man has not only had troubles but has coped with them, and the same mortal sensitivity that has made him a prime victim has made him a prime coper," says Bonaro Overstreet in a recent article in the national Parent-Teachers magazine.


Did you know that you were a "prime coper? These are unpoetic but discerning words, and the very best time to remember them is when you begin to feel that you are a prime victim.)


rs. Overstreet’s article is one of a series in which she deals with the "Creative Sequence" in mental health. This is outlined as consisting of Curative, Preventive, and Promotive stages -- or steps in coping. It interested me to see how this same sequence might be applied to religious well-being, whether of the individual or of the group.




Suppose we consider the three stages of this "Creative Sequence" as areas of opportunity in religion. What do we find?


The CURATIVE opportunity, or healing process, is of the greatest importance when you have all but given up, when it is the only way left for you to "cope."


One of our Unitarian ministers tells a story of a young woman in a big eastern city, who was riding a trolley headed toward the river. She had come to the end of hope. She thought she was going to commit suicide. As the streetcar passed the front of a small church, the depressed woman saw a plain-lettered sign on the lawn. Her eye caught a word or two of its message. Grasping at a straw, perhaps, she left the trolley and walked back to read the rest of it.


"Character is what you are; reputation is only what men think you are,” it said.


The young woman stood there for a long time, lost in thought. In the black tangle of her despair, she began to see one strand of hope. She did not go on to the river.


During the slow and painful process of rebuilding her life she learned that the sign on the church lawn was a Wayside Pulpit, supplied with great quotations selected by the American Unitarian Association. She probably learned, too, that the only “salvation” recognized by most Unitarians is salvation by character.


That was a streetcar named Opportunity. It took a desperate human being to a church, where "She discovered the healing power of faith that is directed toward the fundamental dignity of individual character.


The Therapy of Belonging


But, you say, what did the young woman get from the church or its minister that she could not have got from a good non-sectarian social agency? As far as the story tells, that question would be very difficult to answer -- except for the obvious fact that she had not found her way to a good social agency and that we do not yet provide enough qualified social workers or psychiatrists to cope with these problems.


But this raises the question -- what can the liberal church do for the person who is under great stress, who even questions the universe and doubts his own worth? Has it any opportunity here that cannot be met through other services in our society? I think it has.


The liberal church can not only challenge the individual to a belief in himself; it can -- or should -- support, sustain and nurture that belief through a group life whose entire atmosphere is one in which the members recognize each other’s worth as persons and look for their unique capacities. And what a difference this shared faith can make!


We know today that the love and interest of parents provides the atmosphere in which the child develops his individuality. In the same way, this kind of environment within the group can encourage a person of any age to find himself and develop his talents.


And as such a group considers mans problems and weighs the mysteries of life against the dependability of the universal order, the individual will find confidence in his relation to his community, to his fellow man and to the universe.


We’re looking ahead, you think? Well, we’re talking about opportunities.


Whom the World Called "Atheist"


How often it has been true that the value of religion has been discovered in crisis on life rafts, during long illness, at the grave of a loved one.


One of the most beautiful thoughts I have ever known is expressed in me of our Unitarian Funeral services -- Love Is Immortal. Many persons today, in and out of churches, are in doubt concerning personal immortality. Thoughts of an after-life in which they cannot believe offer no solace. But think of the restorative power of these words for he who has just lost the whole world, as seen through the one who has died:


"Immortality is a word that hope through all the ages has been whispering to love. The miracle of thought we cannot understand. The mystery of life and death we cannot comprehend. This chaos called world has never been explained. The golden bridge of life from gloom emerges and on shadow rests. Beyond this we do not know. … We love; we wait; we hope. The more we love the more we fear. Upon the tenderest heart the deepest shadow falls. … The rag of wretchedness and the purple robe of power lose all differences and distinctions in this democracy of death. Character survives; goodness lives; love is immortal."


This consciousness of enduring spirit reaches your understanding and releases your recuperative powers.


This Unitarian service not only offers healing. It is testimony to the opportunities which wait on independence of judgment. For its curative insight comes to us in the words of a man whom the world called "atheist." -- Robert Ingersoll.


So far I have spoken only of the curative process. But it is obvious, isn’t it, that in the lives of individuals such experience as I have mentioned will have a curative value for one, a preventive value for another, and may inspire a third ,to promotive, or productive, activity -- according to their particular needs. Or the same experience may serve all these purposes for the same person at different stages.


Protect “the Free Exercise Thereof"


Once we have learned how to put our personal lives in good running order, we are ready to use our freedom, to develop our individual and group capacities in the furtherance of our larger purposes.


At this point we have to realize that our freedom to think, speak, act and worship according to the dictates of our conscience didn’t just happen. It had to be fought for. It is up to us to protect and preserve it.


This brings us to the second area of opportunity in the Creative Sequence – the PREVENTIVE, or protective, function -- as it concerns the common interests of the group.


In the field of political and civil rights, Mrs. Overstreet points out, the American Revolution was a curative operation. The United States Constitution, with its balance of power, its limitation on central authority, and its Bill of Rights, was a preventive measure. The Second World War, likewise, was a curative endeavor; while the formation of the United Nations Organization was a preventive and, potentially, a promotive or productive effort.


What do we find in the field of freedom of religion? The Protestant Reformation, the emigration of the Pilgrims and the Puritans, and the theological battle led by Unitarians during the last century were curative endeavors.


The first amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” was a preventive measure, and one of great importance to us today.


So also was the formation, in 1825, of the American Unitarian Association, to protect and promote the purposes of free religion.


For Greater Strength


The individual who has moved from rejection of religion, as irrelevant to life today, to the recognition that his own dignity of character is a foundation for personal faith, may be ready to associate himself with others of like concern in order to protect and further the values which seem important to him, through the greater strength of the group.


Such a person will require in religion as much respect for science as he finds in a laboratory; as much regard for truth as he finds in education; and at: least as much democracy as he experiences in society. Herein lies the vitality of free religion.


But if such a person cannot find a group where these values are sought, protected, and exemplified in the group life, he will continue to write "None" across his religious affiliation.


Toward the Brotherhood of Man


The cure of doubt and despair, the nurturing of healthy personality, and the Prevention of religious tyranny are not in themselves enough. We must use our freedom productively to further ends beyond ourselves.


This brings us to the PROMOTIVE, or productive, phase of the Creative Sequence, as it relates to our larger purposes. What opportunities for creative religion does this area encompass?


Here are great possibilities, and so many that I can mention only a few examples. I want to say first, however, that I am not suggesting for a moment that creativeness in religion is confined to religious liberalism, Far from it. If I take my illustrations entirely from our own field, it is because it is simpler and more to the point of this discussion to do so.


What do we find of creative productivity in the history of free religion? The religious liberals of the 16th century began to strip the Biblical record of its interpolations (the process is still going on) and its aura of sanctity, and to seek out the man, Jesus. Here was a creative re-examination of the Biblical material!


Much later, Channing, Emerson and Parker helped not only their own religious followers but all America to look beneath sectarianism to the deep and abiding truths of religion.


Out of such leadership came the creedless church we know today, guaranteeing freedom of conscience, thought, and speech to member and minister. Here was a creative revolution, both in church policy and in the concept of personal responsibility. The full flower of its productive results, we have yet to see.


Just as Christianity grew out of Judaism and in turn brought forth the creedless church; so the creedless church, founded upon love to God and love to man and recognizing all men as brothers, may become the forerunner of a more universally acceptable; form of institutional and personal religion.


The Opportunity Is Ours


What opportunities lie before us today, because we are members of this church? They are many. Let’s look at two areas.


First: It is up to us, isn’t it, to help shape the policies and determine the influence of our denomination? And this is the denomination which, beyond all others, has led the way toward true inter-denominationalism.


Does this sound strange to you? Many of us have thought of the National Council of Churches and its predecessor, the Federal Council -- itself, the great parent of interdenominationalism -- as the leader in this field. But this is a misconception.


The National Council is a federation of evangelical churches. Its membership is open only to those which subscribe to its belief When the Universalist Church of America applied for membership in the Federal council a few years ago, it was refused, with the comment that the Universalists were "too much like the Unitarians." And today, the National Council has, in effect, a creedal test for membership: It requires acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. A sectarian Christian test as a basis for interdenominational cooperation!


Isn’t Unitarian or other liberal leadership needed in this field today?


Second: It rests in our hands, doesn’t it, how good or how poor, how great or how small, shall be the influence of our church in our community today? Since Unitarianism is not a creedal religion but a way of life, its test is in our practices.


Unitarian Dorothea Dix was living her religion when she started the reform of prisons, almshouses, and hospitals.


Samuel Gridley Howe was living his religion when he became a pioneer for the care of the blind.


Dr. Henry Bellows was living his religion when he established the Sanitary Commission which developed into the American Red Cross.


Florence Nightingale, Julia Ward Howe, Susan B. Anthony, and Horace Mann -- Unitarians all -- exemplified their faith in social and political reform.


And in Syracuse -- Samuel Joseph May, Samuel R. Calthrop and others, including countless laymen, have put their religion into practice through many channels.


If we, the members, fulfill the, opportunities of our church today and tomorrow -- if we learn how to draw deep inspiration out of honest reverence and shared aspirations, and. to carry it into daily living and community action -- we shall be better people because of the experience we share here, and our community will be a better place in which to live because our church is here.


For Discussion


1. What is the fundamental difference between Unitarianism and religious orthodoxy?


2. Can anyone who wishes join a Unitarian church?


3. How does "healing power," as employed by Unitarians, differ from the older religious ideas of such power?


4. Are we creating an environment which will “encourage a person of any age to find himself and develop his talents"?


5. Is freedom of religion endangered today? If so, from what sources?


6. What do you consider the most important opportunities before Unitarianism today? The most pressing?



Prepared for web page display on April 1, 2006