Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism: Where I started

You should read the last couple posts on this blog.....

Like everybody of my era, I started thinking about Unitarian Universalism by thinking about the problem of how to define what we believe.  The basic problem of UU identity.  And like most of my generation, I adopted "the covenant, not creed" answer to that problem.  That quote by John Wolf - "I am not sure that I believe in God, but I sure believe in the church" was important to me.

That led to the belief that the congregation was the place of definition of Unitarian Universalism.  With that, congregational polity became the "thread that you follow", to use William Stafford's metaphor, through the history.

But not only congregational polity as a principle, but religious community as what we offered to people.  Become a Unitarian Universalist and let your life be transformed by belonging to a religious community, a group of people who gathered together to celebrate their relationships and to practice mutual care and support.

That is a powerful message, and attractive to people who hunger for community, which turns out to be a smaller group than we thought.

My dissatisfactions rose with that understanding of Unitarian Universalism, which I think is still the common denominator way we think of ourselves.

A community is less than humanity, so it is partial.  Building a religion based on making comfortable and supporting communities leads to consumerism.  It does not challenge people.  It makes all ministry pastoral at heart.It's prophetic witness becomes us vs them.  It either reinforces an unspoken set of assumptions as normative within the congregation, or it becomes a masochistic testing ground of how much disruptive difference the community can endure.

Most of the critiques of contemporary Unitarian Universalism from younger ministers and laypeople echo these concerns.  They say that Unitarian Universalism is self-satisfied.  My hypothesis is that the "religious community" as defining UU function is the problem.  It is an answer to a real problem, but not a good answer.

So, how to re-imagine UUism?

I needed a starting question.....

I started on this path at a Large Church Conference that was held in Boston.  I don't think that I really qualified to be there, but I remember asking Stefan Johanson if he could explain what transformation people should expect if they joined a UU congregation.  How does becoming a UU change a person?  Not, what benefits does a person get from being a UU?  I had heard that discussion lots of time, but "how will this change me?"

I had come to the conclusion that if we did not know the answer to that question, that our efforts to grow were going to fail.  Not only were our efforts to grow going to fail, but that we were failing in some fundamental way because we didn't know what we were doing, or even trying to do.

If we did not know the answer to the question "how does UUism change people?", then we had become a religion about itself.


  1. In thinking about the question ""How does UUism change people?" I find myself in an awkward position. I am in the minority of UUs raised in the faith. Hence, I have to wonder if there isn't an implicit assumption about the nature of UUism, that UUism is something that people from outside come to in order to be changed, that its responsibility is to appeal to the newcomers and converts that make up most of our membership. I would be fine with this if I thought that what appeals to the new UU is also what serves them. I think our church's obligation is to be of service to its congregants. Is it doing this job?

    Well, lets see. In my experience, what newcomers bring to UUism is rather curious. When most people move, they take toss what they don't want in the dumpster and take what they value to their new homes. When people move to UUism from another denomination, they typically do the opposite. They forget entirely what they valued in their former religion and bring garbage bags of filled with what drove them out of their old churches. And Sunday after Sunday, sermon after sermon, they trot out the contents of these bags and hold them up for scorn. Those of us in the church, all to often, nod our heads and say, "Well, if that's what you're for, OK. You can never let your guard down against the doctrine of biblical inerrancy (or whatever)." The result is the very insularity that you warn against.

    So, if I had to answer the question ""How does UUism change people?" in a way that avoids insularity, I would answer, "Change back. Leave your garbage in the dump. Go back to your old churches and bring us whatever you find there of value."

    It is the destiny of this church, with its multiplicity of beliefs and values, to forge bridges between religious traditions and institutions. We can only do that if we actively develop a sincere and deep appreciation for all the world's faiths. How should UUism change you? It should, at the least, enable you to worship in any place, with any congregation.

  2. Something I think you are both touching on -- Especially Henry -- may have to do with re-imagining secular liberalism into something that is more liberal, more humanistic, and more spiritual in that it doesn't see the other as opposite or enemy or without value(s). I find real religious liberals hold liberal values more strongly than most UU's but also hold certain "conservative" values more strongly. They have encounters with those who are other not to change but to be changed.

  3. Amen on the practice. I would have liked UUism to change me. I did come from another religious background, but one that I wasn't in rebellion against, or damaged by; it just wasn't big enough. My UU congregations didn't change me, or help me change. Reading UU theology, which didn't come up in services or adult RE, did. Listserv discussions with other UUs did. Reading other sources, especially Buddhist ones, did. Reading Jewish household books, with their emphasis on embodying reminders of principle and spirituality in daily life, changed me. Learning Metta meditation helped me change. The only specific UU activity that I think changed me, or helped me to change, was taking and then teaching "Building your Own Theology" which at least let me clarify where I was.

    I think the last quote I made in my running comments below is the key "A recent New Yorker article by a pianist quoted one of his college teachers “ don't teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice – the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens.” And that is how UU congregations should change us - by teaching us what and how to change ourselves.

    What we need to be doing is teaching people how to practice.

  4. =====
    Some comments I made on the Faith of the Free FB page, where your last few posts have been reposted, for what they're worth:
    " So our moral reasoning becomes a project of finding potentially redeeming qualities in the most reprehensible persons.

    It's unnecessary. It's artificial. It's extremely idealistic. It actually removes us from most moral discussions. "

    I often agree with Tom Schade, but not on this one. To me, inherent worth and dignity does not mean we have to find "redeeming qualities" in anyone. That is the whole point of "inherent" - even without any visible goodness, everyone has inherent worth. As he says, if even one person, ever, doesn't, then we are into judging, which is one of the things Jesus, among others, warned against. The Universalists, in particular, argued that the consequences of believing that everyone was originally a sinner and that only some people would be saved led to people treating others badly here on earth.

    I don't see how justice and compassion have any meaning, or how we can be led to develop them, if we believe that some people are more worthy than others. If we don't have a goal (treating everyone as if they have inherent worth), how do we know if we are being more virtuous?

  5. =====
    I think we also take the statement that we are non-creedal to mean more than it does. It does not mean that we cannot have a creed (a set of beliefs we agreed upon), but that agreement with the creed is not a test of membership - and in fact, we take it a step farther than most, and as part of our beliefs, insist that members are required to question - skepticism is part of our creed. To take a (now) non-theological example, I suspect that we all believe that the earth orbits the sun. A creed would say "You must believe (and cannot question) that the earth orbits the sun." You would be excommunicated, cast out from the group (and perhaps, depending on the authority of the church at the time, imprisoned, tortured, and possibly executed.) Galileo's crime was not his belief, but his defiance of authority.
    Thinking more on it, if we become involved in the "exercise of finding redeeming qualities" that is not the fault of the principle, but our own fault. We don't have to find redeeming qualities - "inherent worth" says that they are there, no matter how bad the person's behavior. Much of Christianity says we are all sinners - it is only a matter of degree. (And I would agree with that if it is not interpreted as "We are all inherently evil".) I think that Jesus meant inherent worth when he said all those things about loving your neighbor, loving your enemy, etc. The Metta Sutra says, in lovely detail, to wish all beings well. And there is, of course, the Golden Rule, shared in some form by every religion. None of those say "Treat others according to your judgment of their worth." It is the extreme cases like Hitler that come up in arguments, but it is the everyday that we have to live by. And every time we treat someone with contempt instead of respect, we reinforce the idea that it is ok for ourselves to be treated with contempt.
    I think Tom is exactly right in that post, except I still don't understand his point about principles. They seem to me to be as much about behavior and virtue as about belief - most of them are affirming methods rather than beliefs. To me, they don't say "We believe in inherent worth and dignity" - they say "We will behave in ways that honor and promote human worth and dignity".

    Acting as if people have inherent worth and dignity (whether we fully believe it or not) *is* a virtue. His list includes "reverence, humility, self-possession, openness, gratitude, solidarity, and honesty." Those are all good, I guess, but not very meaningful as guides for ways to behave - you can, for instance, be reverent to all kinds of things that will end in actions that are not democratic, do not honor others, do not result in justice, equity, and compassion, etc.
    "Exactly, except the virtue thing - I still think practice has to be based on principle, not virtue. I just quoted this in another document, and have been thinking about it for a while:
    A recent New Yorker article by a pianist quoted one of his college teachers “ don't teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice – the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens.”"

  6. It all leads me to thinking about comfort with numerical growth versus discomfort without numerical growth.

    I think this post highlights very well something I'm becoming more aware of.

    UU has a strong Liberal and intellectual tone. I had thought it was merely my own circle but it seems more general. It's sprinkled around like hundreds and thousands. Sprinkled like it's inherent and a baseline place to start. A Principle.

    I wonder if, in the Principles, that is what the church defines itself as. Alas the church seems to avoid the Principles on Principle from my personal experience. Go read them yourself. One knows then that doing so is not worthwhile because UU does not value them enough to talk about them, to explain them to hold them up to light and meaning. So I read anyway. And so very vague they are. For me they slip easily into the eyes and hold some nebulous meaning and pass right out again. They are nice, fuzzy and warm like an old grandmother’s smile. Few would argue against them or attack them for they are safe. One can interpret them as requiring Liberalism and Intellectual capacity or one might not. I doubt very much I could remember them for apart from the warmth and comfort they evoke little emotion.

    Then to read about changing people and in a rather enforced context here. Which is to say the external application. Is this the Principle of the church too? To try to change another is very different to helping another to change. Who decides on the applied change means everything. By this article’s mode there is the assumption the other is flawed and must be improved. What exactly do we want to force our beloved members to change into? I don't think UU could even answer that question.

    I wonder how this is supposed to be alluring rather than repulsive. Perhaps we feel self justified if we force people to change for the better. I have been a good UU, I have told them what is wrong and made them less evil.

    UU is also very US centric. More than any other large church I have come across including the Mormons. So then, just how many Liberal, Intellectual US citizens are there? Is UU really so unsuccessful? I don't think so. I think it's very successful in the niche.

    But I guess that's the thing. The niche.

    You know Conservatives and their beliefs and thoughts have inherent value too. In fact they are pretty much equal in good and ill as the Liberal side though in very different ways and strains. The Principles Have a short phrase “Acceptance of one another”. Oh really.


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