Re-Imagining UUism -- Part 2

Part 1, in which I describe becoming disenchanted with the theory that providing "religious community" was the purpose of Unitarian Universalism.

"Religious Community" did not answer the question, "how does Unitarian Universalism change a person?".  There are those who argue that they don't want to be changed, or that asking the question implies a judgement against who they are right now.  You know, that's OK.  Each of us has those seasons in their life.  But a religion still needs a vision of the transformation it is working in adherents, because there are other seasons in life.

So, what was the alternative to the self-satisfaction of Unitarian Universalism?  For myself, I yearned for the moral grandeur of Christianity.  I did not want to emulate the real and actual Christian church, but I was deeply attracted to an idealized version of it: a living historic community of people, humble and self-aware of their sins and shortcomings, relying on God for mercy, doing God's work in the world, embodying a universal good intention and love for all.

I was raised a UU -- my father was a Unitarian minister in my early childhood -- and grew up in the faith, until I went to college. I returned to it twenty years later.  Six years later, I was in a Methodist seminary, and shortly thereafter, I was singing and testifying at the first Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship Revival in New Orleans in 1999.

The first Revival was a watershed moment in my life, and I think in some others' as well.  It made space for a kind of Christian piety, new to UUism.  The new UU Christian piety did not try to stay separate from popular Christian piety, but embraced it.  We sang "Jesus Loves Me" and had healing services.

But we also embraced our fallen-ness, and our need to be healed and transformed and changed, and our dependence on a power greater than ourselves to save us and the world.

There are three moments from that stage of my life that I remember expressing where I was at.  The first was a spontaneous testimony in New Orleans.  I reacted viscerally to what seemed like an over-politicization of Gospel. I stood before the group, and recounted my long involvement with the Left (which is another longer story) and how I had come to realize that I, and the world, could not be saved merely through our good works, but only through our faith.  It was pretty much straight up Pauline theology, with no chaser.

The second was a sermon: "Ten Things You Gotta Love About God."

And the third was a Communion Sermon in which I asked the congregation to reflect on the seven deadly sins, one at a time, and confess to themselves how their lives had been damaged by each one: lust, anger, pride, sloth, gluttony, greed and envy.

In my mind,  I saw this new UU Christian piety as the alternative and antidote to the self-satisfaction of contemporary UUism.  And even more than an alternative, it was a submerged and repressed part of us.  It's who we could have been if we had not become so humanistic in the mid-20th century.  It's the kind of church that we wished our churches were now, but too many other UU's were so allergic to Christianity and any form of "God language" to let us.  Understand me, it is not the totality of the theology that many of us yearned for, but that energy.

I hear that yearning in the voices of so many of my colleagues in UU ministry still.

But I have come to think that it is not the answer to the self-satisfaction of contemporary UUism.  It is instructive to me that I would think it was.  It is a nostalgia for what was once an alternate future, like a yearning for the golden age that would have been the Robert Kennedy presidency.

Where my interest in Christianity led me is for tomorrow.


  1. Anonymous9:56 AM

    I was there to hear that testimony in New Orleans and think of it still, as I reflect upon your journey in ministry, seen as a reasonably close colleague. (Myself, I still stand on the Gospel; I can do no other.) I want to hear, though, more from you about how the call for transformation,rather than self-satisfaction, can be proclaimed to our beloved and infuriating congregations in other, non-biblical language. I think you are the guy to do it.

  2. I look forward to where you're going with this.

    I think both this post and the comment by "Anonymous" confirm my suspicion that one of the challenges facing UUism is the gap between many of our ministers and many of our members in views of what our religion should be. As evidence, I offer the comment by "Anonymous" that our congregations are "infuriating". (I'm only slightly reassured that our congregations are also "beloved". Somehow the word "infuriating" sticks more in the mind.)

    Also witness the comment in your blog post about how some ministers had concerns about what congregations would "let us" do.

    I hope we can get beyond infuriating each other to pursue some middle path that makes sense and has heart.

  3. Tim, I think that some degree of disconnect between the "ministers" (whatever you call them) and the rank and file is inevitable. But it is especially acute among UU's these days, because of generational differences in spirituality (older humanists responding negatively to younger ministers), and because of the self-satisfied nature of Unitarian Universalism. People come saying "I want to hear what I want to hear."
    I predict that the future will be infuriating for a while.


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