The Way of the Chalice

Pink Rhythms Chalice by Peg Green

How do you explain Unitarian Universalism when people ask you about your religion? A few years ago I was meeting with a group at my home congregation to brainstorm some ideas for how families can build UU spiritual practice into home life. A newcomer asked, “What is it that we believe, anyway? How can I find out?” I asked her, “Have you read our Principles and Sources?” She said, “Well, yes, but the principles are social, political views, not spiritual beliefs. There must be something at the center here, something like a creed, or it wouldn’t be a church.” It reminded me a little bit of what newspaper reporters say after every General Assembly. They often claim Unitarian Universalism is not a real religion. It has nothing at the center. The seven principles are political statements that have nothing to do with God. One year a reporter said, you can’t draw a circle around nothing. Another reporter said, there’s no there there.

But the thing is, we do have something at our center. What’s more, each of our principles is a statement of a theological position with thousands of years of history behind it. AND, like other liberal religions, our faith focuses on life here and now, in this world—which means that for us, the political is the spiritual, and vice versa.

So, what is this thing at our center? What makes a UU group a religious community? We don’t often mention God, we rarely hear sermons based on biblical texts, and most of our churches don’t offer a Eucharist. We certainly don’t have a creed. So how can we call ourselves a religion?

Well, the word religion comes from the Latin, re-ligare, to bind back, or to hold together, to link. It’s the same root as in the word ligament…you know, those cords that hold our skeletons together. I like that image: without religious community, we fall apart into useless pieces. With it, we can accomplish great things.

Unitarian Universalist religion comes together not around a creed, which is a profession of beliefs that all members share, but rather through a covenant. The word covenant comes from the Latin “co,” together, and venir, “to come.” A covenant is a promise about how we come together.

Creeds are actually rare in religions: only a few forms of Christianity espouse them. The idea of a creed wasn’t even developed until the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the state religion of the Empire. Before that, Christians, like their Jewish predecessors, had constantly debated with each other about the meaning of their faith’s teachings and texts. In the Jewish tradition, such argument and debate is seen as healthy; it is a way of engaging with each other that keeps people also constantly engaged with the divine. But in order for a religion to be aligned with the power of empire, there must be one correct interpretation of everything. So Constantine called a meeting, the Council of Nicaea, at which he demanded that the bishops decide, once and for all, any points of doctrinal dispute, and write them up as a unified statement of belief. This is how the Nicene Creed came to be. A prospective member of the church would have to believe and recite the creed, in every particular, in order to be accepted. Anyone who disagreed with any part of it was considered a heretic (which actually means “choice,” or “one who chooses.”) At first, heretics were only excommunicated, but later they were tortured, or burned at the stake. The creed became a matter of life or death.

By the sixteenth century, the alliance between church and state had become so cruel and oppressive that large numbers of people protested…and so was born the Protestant Reformation. According to Rebecca Parker, “Reformers …reconceptualized church. They dismantled the hierarchical power structure and said instead that church comes into being when human beings freely make a covenant with one another to walk together.” 1 What made this “walking together” a church instead of just a political community was that God was considered to be the organizing member of the covenant. So the Salem Covenant of 1629 says: “We Covenant with the Lord and with one another; and doe bynd ourselves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himself unto us in his Blessed word of truth.”2

Unitarians and Universalists both inherited the covenantal form of church from our American Puritan ancestors. Unitarian Universalism has purposely chosen to keep this form. So, in our churches, as Parker says, “every member of the church has a say in what the church’s purpose is and why we come together. This places democratic process and human promise-making at the center of church life.” 3 As James Luther Adams put it in our responsive reading, “the goal is the prophethood and the priesthood of all believers.”4

But what exactly is it that Adams’ “believers” believe? Is God in our covenants? Many UU’s believe in some form of God or divine energy, but many do not. UU churches have atheists, agnostics, religious humanists, and Buddhists among our members, along with our many varieties of theists. If we don’t all covenant with God, then with whom, or what, besides ourselves, do we covenant? Is there something larger than ourselves, some transcendent reality, with which we covenant, and to which we hold ourselves accountable?

To answer this question, let’s take a look at the actual covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It’s on the insert in your Order of Service. Let’s read the first half together, just through our seventh principle.


The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.

At first read, these principles might not sound particularly religious. They might not seem to say anything about God, or not-God. But as I said earlier, each principle is actually a statement of a particular theological position, with a very long history. Take just our first principle. It evolved from our religious ancestors’ belief that people were inherently good, because they were created in the image of an all-loving God—an idea from the Hebrew Bible. This directly counters the doctrine of Original Sin developed by Augustine in the late fourth century. According to Augustine, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had done such a bad thing in disobeying God that the consequences of their sin were visited on every human being from then on. Every baby was born in state of complete separation from God, and would therefore go to hell UNLESS it was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That was the only remedy. The doctrine of Original Sin is still in the Catholic catechism, and it’s still alive in many forms of Protestantism. But our ancestors in faith rejected it. And their belief in the goodness of human beings also countered the Calvinist idea that humans are utterly depraved. It gave our ancestors in faith the impetus to fight against slavery and for women’s rights. Our first principle now counters all forms of oppression. It is a brave and daring statement of our beliefs about human nature. It is also a statement of radical hospitality.

Because of our first principle, my daughter, who identifies as queer, had a safe and loving community to grow up in. She understands her sexual orientation as a lovely and essential part of herself. In stark and tragic contrast, recently a friend wrote me to say that a transgendered friend of hers had committed suicide. This friend was raised in a faith that could not accept her for who she was. Her parents had a funeral for her, but not really for her. They had the funeral for the son they wish they had had. How differently might this young person’s life have turned out, if her family’s religion had welcomed her, and loved her, just as she was? How differently would her parents’ life have turned out? Our first principle can make the difference between life and death.

Each of our principles has this much importance to the living of human life. Each has this much–or more!–history and depth.

And not only are our principles statements of theological positions, but the way they are organized speaks to our theology of interdependence, of interbeing. They begin with a statement about individuals, and then move outward in concentric spheres. Our seventh principle is about the health of the whole interdependent web of being. So our covenant expresses a vision of abundant love in which each individual flourishes because the whole community of life does, and the whole flourishes because each individual does.

What all this means is that we do covenant with a transcendent reality. We do understand there to be something larger than ourselves, into which we were born, that can help us when we are in need, and to which we can hold ourselves accountable. For some of us, this transcendent reality is the living universe that gave us birth, and gave us the capacity for love. For others, it is a personal deity they call God. For still others, it is simply the love we create when we come together in community, which holds us, and gives us power to do bigger things in the world than we could do alone. There are many ways to understand this transcendent reality, which James Luther Adams called “the ultimate source of existence.” So, our covenant has a second half, which names six sources of our living tradition.

Now, before I can talk about these, I want to give you another way of understanding the relationship between our covenant and the ultimate source of existence. This is through the symbolism of our flaming chalice.

The chalice is an open container. It provides a place to rest, a place to hold something sacred, a place to elevate something beautiful. It does not close off what is inside, but rather lifts it up, gives it space to move. The chalice is created by our uplifted hands, our covenanted community, the sacred space we create when we come together. Our community forms the chalice. At its center is an open place, and at the center of that dances a flame.

The flame is a powerful, and potentially dangerous, interaction between energy and matter. It re-creates, at a small scale, the moment of combustion that began the universe, a process of simultaneous creation and destruction. It re-creates the power that has brought all of life and death into being. It can provide light, and heat, something to see by, something to warm us; or it can burn, and consume. It is the mystery at the center of our faith community. The flame is a locus of pure possibility.

So our community forms an open container, at the center of which dwells this spark of pure possibility, energy that can both create and destroy. What each of us sees in that space of creative/destructive energy, and what meaning we make from it, might be different. UU theists might see it and name it as a personal God, with whom they can have an intimate relationship. UU religious humanists and atheists might see it as the impulses toward love and fear, good and evil, that are found in every human heart. UU pagans might see it as the Goddess in her aspects of maiden, mother, and crone. UU process theists might see it as the divine energy which manifests itself in the form of the becoming universe.
Each of us looks for, and sees, “something” that keeps us in the chalice, in the community. We generally find that this “something” changes as we grow and develop. So we covenant to use the sources of our living tradition—including our own life experiences, our mystical encounters with the divine, our powers of reasoning, and the wisdom of the many religions of the world—to expand our awareness of the possibilities.

Whatever we see at the center of the chalice, we limit what we do with it. We limit how we behave, toward each other and the wider world. Contrary to what many people think about us, UU’s are not free to believe just anything. Our chalice may be an open container but it is still a container. We live in covenantal relationship with the others in our community. And since we understand our community as an interdependent web that extends infinitely in all directions, we limit what we believe, and how we behave, to what is healthful for the whole web of life. Which means that however many ways there are for us to understand the symbol of the flame, at the center of all them is love.

Doesn’t this sound wonderful? I think so. I am passionately in love with our life-giving and life-saving religion. But I have to be honest with you. In my view, our covenant has a serious limitation. This is that we only covenant to affirm and promote our principles. We do not, as yet, covenant to live them. I think this makes our religion weaker than it could be. I think it’s one reason why many UU churches seem like social clubs for likeminded people, rather than religious communities that engage us at the very deepest levels of our being.

But imagine—just imagine—what might happen if we covenanted to LIVE our principles? If we covenanted to LIVE the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, and respect for the interdependent web of all existence? This would make our religion quite demanding, wouldn’t it? We would have to shed any possessions in excess of what we need. We would have to learn how to communicate, and behave, in nonviolent ways. We would have to act in the world, every day, as Marge Piercy says, to “bless whatever (we) can with eyes and hands and tongues, and if (we) can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.”

Can we meet those demands? Can we bless the world, or make it new? YES, WE CAN.

We can, because we walk together, in covenanted community, with none of us alone. We can, because the many sources of our faith give us sustenance for the journey. We can, because we love.

My brothers and sisters, let us deepen our covenant so that we live it in every moment. Then can this religion of love claim its true power in the world. Then can the Way of the Chalice be the way of blessing we want it to be.

May it be so. Blessed be.


1Parker, Rebecca A.  “Under Construction:  Knowing and Transforming Our Unitarian Universalist Theological House.”  Unpublished paper, presented at Collegium, October 23-26, 2003.  p. 6.

2Wright, Conrad.  “Congregational Polity and the Covenant,”  Redeeming Time:  Endowing Your Church with the Power of Covenant, Walter P. Herz, ed., Boston, Skinner House Books, 1999.  p. 39.

3Parker, ibid.

Adams, James Luther. #591 in Singing the Living Tradition.  Boston, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993.

See also Buehrens, John A. and Rebecca Parker. A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century, Boston, Beacon Press, 2011.



A homily for Membership Sunday

Did you enjoy junior high school?  Seventh and eighth grade?  Just thinking about those years makes me shudder.  One of the worst things was how mean people were to each other.  Even so-called friends constantly competed to see who could come up with the worst insults, who could win in a war of words. Looking back, I think it was the strategy of the utterly powerless, our way of trying on power, because the adults never taught us healthier ways of being together, or of using our power.  And so each day we all slunk home miserably after having all of our flaws pointed out in great detail:  the crooked teeth, the knobby knees or the dimpled ones, the acne or the dry skin, the body odor, the voice that changes pitch at the worst moment–all the agonizing bodily problems of adolescence.  Some kids got support and nurturing at home, and came back to school able to handle the taunts.  But some, like me, didn’t.  My alcoholic father didn’t speak to me except contemptuously, and during the small amount of time that my mother was home, she criticized the way I had done the laundry or the cooking.  So, what kind of self-image do you think I had, with those kind of mirrors?

Human beings are obligatory social mammals. We need to be physically cared for by others, and we also need to interact in loving ways with them. As babies, we need to be held and talked to and smiled at. Several dreadful experiments in the past few hundred years have demonstrated that if you do not do this with babies, they die. We are obligatory social mammals. We have a deep, innate need to belong, to belong to a group that cares for us.

Part of what enables us to belong, or perhaps what makes it necessary for us to belong, is our mirror neurons. These are cells in our nervous systems, spread throughout our bodies, that activate when we see another person doing something, or expressing a feeling: they activate just as if it were our own bodies doing that thing, or feeling the feeling. These mirror neurons give us our capacity for empathy, to feel what others feel. This is useful from a survival standpoint in at least two ways. One is that empathy is the basis for mutual care and concern, for love. When we know we are loved, when others reflect our own light back to us, we thrive. When we thrive we contribute to the well-being of the group, the whole, and in turn that well-being contributes to our own well-being. It’s a positive feedback cycle.

Another way empathy is useful for survival is that it enables us to make predictions about how the others in our group are going to behave toward us. If we see that someone is directing anger our way, we might change our own behavior to try to lessen the anger. We might placate the person. Or, we might show a greater display of anger than the other person, to try to make them back down.

So our mirror neurons help us survive. And they also make us vulnerable. Again, if the people in our group are positive and loving mirrors, we thrive. But if not…if the culture around us is angry and hateful and superficial, and the people in our close family group are unkind and the people we work or go to school with are uncaring or mean…well, we end up where I was in junior high. Where many people are in this world: lonely, fearful, believing we are ugly inside and out, believing we are unworthy of love and kindness.

It is no wonder that so many people are isolated and unhappy today. And that this isolation and unhappiness is causing our larger social systems to break down, which worsens the isolation…a different positive feedback cycle.

But what if we could break the second feedback cycle and substitute the first one? What if we could form communities where people loved and accepted each other and mirrored each other’s best qualities, where they encouraged each other’s growth toward their best selves? What if we could help people raise families in which children are loved and valued from the very beginnings of their lives, by many generations in the group? What if the people in such a community experienced so much love and caring in their own group that they could not help but act together to bring more love and caring into the larger world?

I have a dear friend whose group of college housemates wanted to create just such an intentional community. They spent months formulating a vision. Finally they invited all their friends and their extended families for a huge celebratory dinner, where they unveiled their plan. They said that at first they had thought about buying an apartment building or a really big house where they would all live and raise their children together, but they had rejected this. Instead, they had decided to live scattered throughout the city, so each could be a leader in their own neighborhood, coming together for inspiration at a common house a few times a week. In this common house they would share meals. They would teach their children. They would meet to explore new ways of living, ways that were sustainable and creative and full of beauty and love. They would make music and art. They would share their deepest longings and their biggest questions, their spiritual journeys. And they would organize for the kind of social change that would make a life of abundance and beauty available to all beings, everywhere.

Well, after the young people had shared their vision, one of their grandmothers stood up to speak. She said, “What you have described here tonight is beautiful. It is just what this world most needs. And it already exists. It is called church.”1

I went to many churches as a young person, longing for this kind of deep community. But I could not and would not accept the doctrine of Original Sin, the idea that people are born inherently wicked. I did not need more reinforcement of the idea that I was worthless. So I gave up on church and found solace in nature. By losing myself in communion with the hills and woods and water each day, I survived some truly terrible things. But like all of us, I am an obligatory social mammal. In order to do more than just survive—in order to thrive, to heal and flourish and make positive change in my world—I needed a human community. I needed a group of companions who would love me just as I was and inspire me to continually grow. I needed a community who would welcome my deepest spiritual longings and questions. After trying church after church, I finally walked into a church that was Unitarian Universalist.

That church embodied our UU theology about what it means to be human. The members there reflected my own worth and dignity to me and I reflected theirs to them. They loved and accepted me not despite my flaws, but because of who I was in my wholeness: a complicated, imperfect person with both gifts and problems, doing her best to muddle through. As I began to live into my own worth and dignity, I began to heal. I began to grow and to transform into a new person. I began bringing other hurting people into the congregation. I began participating in social activism. I began to contribute my own gifts to the congregation, which itself was then transformed. Something that had been very good became even better.

Then–oh, then–came my first congregational fight. It was a biggie. People shouted at each other. They accused each other of all sorts of nefarious dealings and motives.  It was so painful.  But then the congregation called for help from the district, and the conflict became a learning opportunity. After it was all through, we realized that our relationship had deepened. We now knew much more about each other. We had more confidence in our relationships because we had been through something difficult together. We knew how committed we were to working things through. We began to truly cherish one another.

But while the conflict was going on, some people left. Some felt profoundly disillusioned. They didn’t think UU’s should fight, that we were somehow different or better than the rest of the world. Or they thought that church shouldn’t have any unpleasantness. Or, they left because the conflict reminded them of conflicts in their families, and they just couldn’t deal with the pain.

Well, I would never dismiss the pain of another person. I respected those people’s need to leave. But as far as thinking church should never have unpleasantness, or that UU’s are different from everyone else….to be disillusioned means you had illusions in the first place. Congregations are made up of people, and I have never yet met a person who is perfect. Imperfection is the very nature of human life and so it is the very nature of congregational life.

Of course when we first fall in love, with a person or a faith community, we do have illusions. We project our ideal of what we think the person or congregation should be onto what is. And so that first fight, that first disillusionment, is all the more important. It is necessary, because it allows us to get behind our dreams of perfection, to what is real. And it is only when we are real together that our shared life has any meaning. It’s only then that genuine growth and transformation can take place. It’s only then that we truly embody our theology.

And that theology, our theology, says that each of us—each of you—is worthy. Whether you are 3 or 13 or 93, and whatever your self-image, you are worthy. And so is everyone else. And we are all connected in a vast interdependent web of life, so that everything we think and say and do in this life matters. It all matters.

So this is why what we do in church is so important, and why membership is so meaningful. We are forming an intentional community that embodies the revolutionary idea that human beings can live together in love; and not only that, that we can live together with the whole community of life, in love. We might disagree sometimes, we might fight, but when we are truly committed to the health of the whole, we can work it through and be transformed by the process. We can live together in love.

May it ever be so.

Blessed be.

1Rebecca Parker in Buehrens, John and Rebecca Parker, A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the 21st Century. Boston, Beacon Press. 2011.