Old School UUism, Tradition and Authenticity

My colleague, Robin Bartlett Barraza, pointed us all to the following article, "10 reasons why our kids are leave church'   The blogpost was written by an fundamentalist (my opinion) and blames the loss of young people from conservative churches on the efforts of evangelicals to be relevant and hip, and for offering a subjective, internal, feeling understanding of salvation.  Instead, he urges Christians to return to offering something much more counter-cultural -- the timeless, external and objective truths carried by the Christian tradition.

RBB saw some parallels to us in the UU movement, particularly, (quoting her, "I think the feel good messaging not ringing true, the lack of tradition (or bowdlerizing the tradition) and substance (or lack) being found in the secular world is right on."

There is a whole branch of the UU family that is attracted to this form of argument: "Our problems arise from the failure of others to uphold our traditions.  People can see our wavering sense of self."

Sometimes I call this "neotraditionalist Unitarian Universalism" or just "Old School UUism."

Understand, this is my tribe. I was raised and trained in it.  Frank Schulman was my minister growing up.  When I came back to the church in 1989, it was to Ruppert Lovely's church in Palatine, Illinois, because it was recommended to me by Roy Phillips.  In seminary, I went to First Dallas, where Laurel Hallman led us, as a part of a tradition that included John Buehrens and Robert Raible.  My one and only ministry was at First Unitarian Worcester, with Barbara Merritt and the abiding spirit of Wallace Robbins.  I joined the UU Christian Fellowship when I was in seminary and attended all three of the Free Church Conferences.  To be any more Old School, I would have to start using my middle name, once I changed it from prosaic "Robert" to something with a whiff of old New England, something like  "Downton".  That's it: the Rev. Thomas Downton Schade, and his cat named "Abigal"

So, I am Old School UU, but I am beginning to doubt its presumptions and conclusions.  One of these days, I will put up a blog post on the history of the Old School UU movement, its origins and perspectives.  But that is for another day.

First of all, it is a counter-factual argument:  If we had not tried to be contemporary and relevant, then we would have been successful because we would have been traditionalist.  It seems to more fit the history of what actually happened to say that the reason why UU's sought to be contemporary and relevant was because being traditional wasn't working in the first place.

To put in terms of the Marc5Solas blogpost: it is undeniable that contemporary evangelicalism, with its adaption of modern culture to worship, arose because fundamentalism was not succeeding.

When pressed, traditionalists of all types (fundamentalist Christians or old School UU's) fall back on the  position that it is better to be small and true than to be large and wrong.  In which case, one could say that they are getting their wish, so why the complaining?

The basic thrust of the Old School is that there is something missing in what we are doing, something that we used to have and have no longer, something that made us authentic. And, in that respect, they are right.  Authenticity, self-possession, self-differentiation are essential.  Emerson has a line somewhere to the effect that when people try too hard to make others like them, they become unlikeable.

So we have to be authentic, which includes being visibly a continuation of our past.  But traditionalism is a poor substitute for authenticity.  It may be essential for conservative theologians, who are dealing with timeless, external and objective truths, but not for religious liberals.  What is essential about us is that we are a people who were and are authentically alive to their moment in history, always applying a deep and profound humanism (in its classic sense, not as a euphemism for atheism) to their times.

So, what I think we need now is a deeper analysis of the times and circumstances, a deeper reflection on ourselves: what we are able to do, what we feel about ourselves and others, what we value and what we love,  and a deeper compassion for others.  We must touch what is essential about how we understand the call that has been made to us.  Our authenticity lies only in part in the past, but more within and in the future.


  1. Thanks for that, Tom. I agree with you, too. I still think that pretending to be hip with Starbucks, skinny jeans, and anything deemed "cool" to attract young people is inauthentic, not "relevant". Can't we be relevant in our appealing to modern problems and yearnings by being true to who we are, both from the vantage point of our tradition AND from our authentic modern viewpoints? I'm not proposing a retreat to classical Unitarianism and Universalism, but a re-imagining. One that is substantive AND meaningful to those who might come through our doors. Feel good, religion lite doesn't cut it for anyone. I don't think that's all UUism has to offer to our youth. I actually think that number 9 is perhaps the most important of all...as John Roberto tells us, the research is in: kids who don't participate in worship with their parents don't grow up to be church-goers. My favorite point in this article is about how we don't ask our young people to sit with the full humanity of our congregation---next to a fussy baby in worship, or an elderly woman who's hearing aid is feed-backing. Some of our youth never learn that worship is not entertainment, but an opportunity to sit with the messiness of humanity with humility and reverence.

  2. Re-imagining our traditions to be authentic and relevant. Yes. What would we have to do to be "comfortable in our own skin" in such a way that people would know that we have a way of living that works well?
    I agree that not having our kids worship with us lets us off the hook as worship leaders. I know that it changes me to know that the high schoolers are going to be in church. Will they understand what I am saying? Will it matter to them? Frederick Buechner, I am told, became a great preacher by preaching at the mandatory chapel for middle school boys at a prep school. Imagine holding their interest.
    But I am also open to the idea that allowing age specific worshipping congregations may set the stage for more creative change in worship. I am afraid that with our aging congregations and our many new younger ministers that we are changing the ministers to conform to the congregations, rather than the other way around. Another subject for later.
    And finally, what is the opposite of feel-good religion?


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