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Revelation Is Not Sealed

Posted in Editorials on April 16th, 2012

Note: An expanded version of this post is available here.

As the years go by and my identity as a Unitarian Universalist solidifies, I feel my appreciation of my new tradition deepening all the time. At first I was drawn to a place where I could be spiritual with others who accepted me. My congregation is a community where I can share common values but also where disagreements do not mean fear of expulsion.

But something I have been thinking about recently is the UU doctrine that “Revelation is not sealed.” What this means is that while there might be some good lessons in the holy books of other religions, people can still learn truths about morality, human nature and the world in a multitude of ways. We must “be open to new and higher truths.

What this also means is that Unitarian Universalist Ministers are not limited to a single volume, written in the past during a different time and place to find the words to inspire and guide their congregations.

I think of that scene in Walk The Line where Jack says

Look, J.R., if I’m going to be a preacher one day, I gotta know the bible front to back. I mean, you can’t help nobody if you can’t tell them the right story.

To a young boy of strong Christian faith, this makes perfect sense. But in my mind, his earnestness is immediately contrasted with Julia Sweeney’s remarks in Letting Go of God about the priests who have to live this reality of trying to tell people who need their help the right story,

[L]ike a big ocean wave, the force of all that I hated about this Church welled up in me; all the pompus, numbing masses, the unabated monotony of the rituals, all the desperate priests trying to tease out something meaningful from a very flawed ancient text.

I first articulated this problem myself in thinking about a recent Sunday service at my UU congregation about Leymah Gbowee, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her activism in stopping the Second Liberian Civil War. On the drive home after service, Adam and I, and anyone else in the car usually continue the discussion. I wondered how a Catholic priest could talk about Leymah Gbowee if he wanted to. There was a priest in the parish my family belonged to when I was in high school who loved to talk about “the power of prayer.” Sometimes he quoted guests on Larry King Live or something he read in Reader’s Digest to make his point. But, as a Catholic priest, he was limited in when and how he could broach the subject – or any subject. The Catholic Church has selected Bible readings for every Sunday of the year – these are the same all over the world – on a three year cycle. So any given priest only really needs 156 homilies for his entire life. If he wants to write more than that he can – but the readings never change. Unlike Jack, who was a protestant, Catholic priests do not even have the entire Bible at their disposal.

Current events did come up during homilies on occasion. The Catholic chaplain on my university campus often spent Sundays relating that week’s gospel to the unjustness of the Iraq War. And I will always remember the Christmas Eve Mass I attended in 2001, where the priest spoke of the Olympic Torch in Rockefeller Center, on its way to Salt Lake City, as a light of hope – we should see it as symbolic of the light of Christ – and a symbol that we would heal from the horrors of September 11. Several members of our community had been killed in the attack.

But these homilies were not the norm. Most of the ones I have heard were much more generic. I understand perfectly what Sweeney is talking about when she refers to the “desperate priests trying to tease out something meaningful from a very flawed ancient text.”

When a priest wants to speak about an issue facing his community he faces two hurdles. First, how to relate that issue to the week’s Bible passages prescribed by the Vatican. Second, the possibility that the topic he wants to express is not relatable to any of that years readings or the entire three year cycle of readings at all. Aside from the Christmas Eve Mass of 2001, and every Ash Wednesday in college I cannot remember which Gospel readings went with any of the homilies that have stayed with me through the years whether they be the best and most uplifting, or the frustratingly close-minded or silly. The purpose of the homily is for the priest to relate the message of that week’s Bible passages to the community. But the two types of homilies I remember hearing most often were either interpretations which amount to vague platitudes about being a good and forgiving person, or insightful discussions which only tangentially relate to the Bible. It was very rare that a homily was both inspiring and clearly related to the text.

Unitarian Universalist ministers do not have this problem. I have heard UU ministers read from the Bible, or from another holy book. But more often than not they read a passage of poetry, prose, philosophy, or history that speaks to them. Sometimes these readings are written by other UU’s – and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes a reading not a piece of text, but a piece of music or a work of art. In this way, a congregation can address its needs and is not frozen in time. When we believe that revelation is not sealed, we are open to learning about the world and about ourselves from every source around us. In not limiting ourselves, we can continue to grow unrestrained.

Just as limits on the creation of “graven images” slowed the development of artistic techniques, and prohibitions of dissection impeded the progress of biology, when we limit ourselves to only the Bible, we stunt our spiritual growth.

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