Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Spirituality and Religion

Religion is not just spirituality.  These days, it is customary to contrast spirituality with religion.  Spirituality is personal -- the soul's relations.  Religion is communal.  We call it "organized religion" (even UU's) and most people think "organized religion" is icky.  It's institutions.  It's traditions.  It's a particular point of view passed down from generation to generation, from teacher to learner, from parents to children.  It's teachings.

So when people are saying that they are spiritual but not religious, they are saying that they do not connect what they feel and think about their soul's relations from the point of view of institutions and history.  And most people who take this approach do so because they are unaware of organized religious institutions that they can agree with or trust.

But while so many have disconnected spirituality from history and institutions, the society as a whole has taken to mass incarceration, war, torture, the grinding of the poor under the heels of the wealthy, usurious debt and atavistic patriarchy.  People calling themselves Christians have followed wealth and power, while those calling themselves "spiritual but not religious" have followed their bliss.

I am a religious liberal -- I am part of an organized religion -- a religious tradition whose teachings are all about freedom and liberty and the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.  It's a religion that believes that freedom and liberty and justice are historical factors.  Human history is a two-way street and one way leads to human solidarity and justice the other away.  Our religion makes us disciples of human freedom.

Liberal religion is our religion -- it teaches and learns;  it is institutional.

But there is no difference in content between our religion and our spirituality.  Our understanding of the human soul, and it's relations with the cosmos, with God, with other creatures and other people is the basis of the social, political and historical roles that we intend to enact and embody.

As we pray, we believe.  As we believe, we act.  It is one package.  It is a way of living.  It can be apprehended intuitively -- who has not grasped the oneness and benevolence of the Great All In All, and known that to bring that knowledge within oneself would change one's life forever?  But it is also taught and shared and celebrated in worship in community.  It has a history that can be learned and thought to be analyze, and experience to learn from.  It is organized and a part of history.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Beyond Congregations

As far as I can tell, and I am not as close to it as others, the "Beyond Congregations" conversation is a mess.

Like many of our conversations are messes.

A brainstorming free association session is not a conversation.

If everyone enters into the conversational space to grind their own traditional axes, then a messy conversation will result.

If I understand it correctly, the subject of the beyond congregation conversation was whether there were other forms of organization that would allow us to meaningfully engage people who, for one reason or another, would not be likely to join one of our existing congregations, nor would they be interested in starting a new one.

Somehow this got crossed with the observation that there were many people who identified as UU's, but don't belong to congregations.  Which, in my book, is fine and is not a problem.  They are, for the most part, happy with their present relationship to UUism.

Some of them do reveal the kinds of people and the kinds of life situations where our congregational structures don't reach, which is useful.  The lack of a way for college students to have a spiritual home in UUism is a problem already well known.  The same with non-college and post-college young adults.  There is a problem there and people are working on trying to sort it out.

But the number of people who like to go to UU summer camps and conferences but not attend a UU congregation?  That's not a problem.  That's like saying that people who come to Christmas Eve services and not to anything else represent a problem.  That's just where they are at. Let it go.

But now the conversation seems to have taken the turn that since we are talking about "beyond" congregations -- then every grievance against congregations is on the table.  Some are not friendly.  Some are very insular and don't seem to care about the great UUA and its many programs and services and the APF.  Some are weird.

And every congregation includes certain kinds of people and repels other kinds.  Which is why we are having this conversation, which is a mess right now.

To me, the key questions are these:

1.  What are the forms of UU ministry that could reach people who are not likely to join our congregations?  Just some examples:  campus ministries, study groups, SSL groups, UU Occupy groups, social justice action groups, support groups for people in particular life circumstances, missions in particular locales. theologically underserved religious liberals.

2.  How do we deploy ministers and lay people to form ministries in those situations?  Do our present congregations deploy them?  If our present congregations were interested in and capable of such missional work, we wouldn't be having this conversation.  If not the congregations, then who?  District Staff?  the UUA itself?  Groupings of ministers and/or congregations?  Or do we just create a climate that encourages anyone, let a hundred flowers bloom and sort them out later?

3.  Is this a strategy to grow UUism or is it a strategy to grow grassroots liberal religious ministry?  Is "beyond congregations" leading us to a place of "beyond denominationalism"?

I myself would like to see all of our ministers and laypeople be turned loose to create "no-logo liberal religious ministries"  wherever they can.  Let our congregations keep doing what they are trying to do.    Out of all that ferment, something new will emerge.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Out of the Wilderness

I believe that 1968-2008 was a 40 year wilderness period for Unitarian Universalism, a long period in which cultural, religious and political conservatism were aggressive and dominant.

What happened in UUism in the wilderness?

The sense that we were outposts of an embattled cultural liberalism took over our thinking.  We were enclaves, protected territory where "like-minded' people could gather safely.  We were accused of not being a real religion, having no dogmatic beliefs, nor a defined path to salvation.  Liberal politics and culture were described as excessively permissive, self-indulgent, faddish and repressive ("politically correct").  Whether we called ourselves Christian no longer mattered; "Real" Christians were insistent that we were definitely not.  Our children told us that they felt unsafe and insecure on the playgrounds.  Conservatives were building megachurches which seemed to exercise political power, while our congregations struggled to survive.  A very small minority of very conservative UU's (often Libertarian or Objectivists) in congregations insisted on a very bright line between politics and religion, insisting that liberal religion had no necessary political implications.

Unitarian Universalism shaped itself in response.  The political activists among us doubled down on their politics, becoming more radical.  Political movements in retreat face the temptation to become more pure in their political expressions.  But the vast majority of UU's are not political activists, and certainly not the majority of parish ministers.  The overall result was a political paralysis in general, with  pockets of extreme frustation.

Unitarian Universalism became very sectarian in the wilderness.  While in the wilderness, the chalice became our universal symbol.  Growing a UU identity became a goal of faith development.  The seven principles became creedal and scriptural.  Unitarian Universalism began to understand itself as a new world religion, a theme that had been first suggested pre-merger, but became dominant in the wilderness.  All of this in a collection of congregations and individuals who thought themselves extremely diverse in theology.

"Religious community" or "the congregation" became the highest value in the wilderness period.  The most important thing about us is that we are committed to each other. Joys and Concerns, understood as a liturgical expression of our concern for each other, was included in most congregations Sunday morning service.  Against the criticism from outside that we had no real doctrine, we put forward our covenants.  We had no creeds; we had covenants.

But congregations, especially congregations that can support full time ministry, are very difficult institutions to sustain, and almost impossible to start.  They are the large mammals of the religious ecology. We never found a viable and sustainable growth strategy during the wilderness period.

So during the wilderness period, Unitarian Universalism became inwardly-focused, very anxious, politically isolated and neutralized and very sectarian. Our good news to the world was that we existed, and if people could find their way to us and learn our ways, they could be a part of our religious community, which would change their lives forever.

We survived the wilderness.  We didn't tank like much of the mainline Protestants.  Our forthright stand on LGBTQ concerns (which was facilitated by our inward-focused-self-perfectionism) brought a huge amount of new energy and talent into Unitarian Universalism, manna from heaven.

Now, we stand on the banks of the River Jordan.

I say the country entered into a new period in 2008.  And I think that the Obama campaign embodies the change.  Yes, he was seen as a more explicit form of political liberalism than previous Democrats, but the difference was the tremendous numbers of volunteers and donors that Obama 2008 mobilized. There is now a sense that the country as a whole is moving in our direction.  We see hope in the younger generations (71% of college freshmen favor gay marriage) and in the changing demographics of the nation.  While we live in a period of intense political struggle, with a back and forth movement of energy and initiative (Tea Party in 2009-2010, Wisconsin and Occupy in 2011), the ground is shifting.

And Unitarian Universalists are getting energized and in motion.  People are going to Arizona; we are thinking about those beyond our congregations; missional communities are forming.  This could be an exciting time for us.