Sunday, June 30, 2013

Area UU Minister Has What the Nones are Looking For

Rev. Joseph Abner, down at the area UU church, announced yesterday that he had discovered what the "nones" are looking for.  The "Nones" are the name religious leaders have given the almost one third of Americans who say that they have no religious affiliation.  Religious professionals have been engaged in intense and sometimes acrimonious discussions about what will attract these folks away from the lives back into the church.

Rev. Abner says that what "the Nones" are looking for is "Naturalistic and Paradoxical Spirituality".
"After years of coffee hour discussions, I have found that "Naturalistic and Paradoxical Spirituality" seems to be how most people in this congregation would like to refer to "the great and eternal mysteries of life, death, and the meaning beyond meaninglessness."   At least, it is a way of thinking that makes the fewest of them feel that they will "be losing their church".  "It's very much like Zen", says Rev. Abner.  "What works here should work everywhere." 

"Naturalistic and Paradoxical Spirituality" is the key.  That, plus banjos.

Estate Planning for Dying Churches

Is your congregation currently successful at attracting new members who are between 20 and 40?

Not just recognizing the need to, or thinking about a strategy to, or hoping to... but actually successful at attracting new members who are younger than 40.

If not, your congregation needs to start thinking about estate planning in case your congregation dies in the next 25 years.  Because it is entirely possible.

Your congregation is aging.  It's going to be harder to recruit younger members next year, and the year after that, and so on.  Every year the gap between your leaders and the people you need to recruit is going to be wider.

I read somewhere that the average lifespan of a mainline church congregation is 70-some years.  From founding to foundering in 70-some years.  The pace of cultural change is too rapid for institutional continuity.  After a certain number of years, the leaders of the congregation are no longer able to change the institution to accomodate the newer and younger members.  So, a slow spiral as the church congregation ages out is almost inevitable.

Money is an excellent preservative, and so a well-endowed institution can go through some long periods of small membership and then recover, but most congregations can't keep going.

So, if it is possible that your church is going to die in the next 25 years, doesn't it make sense to plan for that eventuality?

What is going to happen to your building?  Will it be sold?  When?  After it has decayed and lost most of its value?  Where does the money go? Who is going to get "the franchise" -- who will represent Unitarian Universalism in your community when your church no longer does?  What comes next?  What about the other assets -- the objects of beauty that graced your sanctuary?  The hymnals?  The library of religious education materials?

There may not be somebody who comes to mind to be your church's heirs.

So the question might be: how does this congregation lay the groundwork for another UU congregation to start in this community?  How can it use its assets to get another UU congregation going?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Parable of Pandora

My good friend, Rev. Jennie Barrington, tells a story about Pandora, the internet radio service.  I will let her tell it.

I love Pandora! I began with a Colin Hay station. His song that just stopped me in my tracks is called, "Waiting for My Real Life to Begin." It's very prayerful. I mixed in a lot of Eddie Vedder. The song of his I love is called "Rise," also very prayerful. But over time I hit "like" for so many different songs, and added in so many different artists, that I never got to hear Colin Hay nor Eddie Vedder anymore, unless I listened to that station for several hours. So then I created a new station from scratch.

Things Churches Could do Without

What if a church eliminated all of its centralized communication functions, beyond its webpage? No newsletters, paper or electronic, no advertisements.

The congregation relied entirely on members' social media and live word of mouth to spread the word about activities, events and ideas.  They would need a webpage to refer people to, but the responsibility for the presence of the church in the community would lie with the congregation.  Internal communication integrated with external communication.  Every person "U-vangelizing" in their personal network.

Our Dream in Reality

Every UU church or congregation shall possess an attractive building which is completely accessible, well-maintained and well-cleaned and on the cutting edge of environmental sustainability.

Every UU church or congregation shall have at least two, maybe three, full-time religious professionals -- a minister, a lifespan faith formation director, and a music director -- each of whom is well-paid at a middle class level in the community they serve.

Every UU church or congregation shall have additional members of the staff, each of whom is equally well-paid; it is a matter of justice.

Every UU church or congregation shall go above and beyond the law in providing benefits to all employees, particularly health insurance and retirement benefits.

Every UU church and congregation should give about 4% of its total budget to the UUA, and additional funds to the District and/or Region.

Every UU church or congregation will also make additional contributions to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

Every UU Church or congregation will provide funding for its full delegation to the annual General Assembly, plus additional scholarships for youth and young adults to attend.

Every UU Church or Congregation will give away half of its weekly collection to local charities.

Our dream is that every church and congregation will be a well-established, mainline denominational church, circa 1954, except more equitable, more just and more socially conscious.

Is this possible?  I would guess that there are maybe a 100 or 200 of our congregations who get close to  this level of institutional solidity.  Many of them have endowments, accumulated capital to help them.  Most of our churches and congregations fall short.

Many of our churches are relatively young as institutions, less than 50 years old.  If you are a young church, it will take years and years of growth to check off every item on the institutional dream list.  You will need many years of significant increases in pledges, all of which will go into the building, into staff salaries and benefits, into external contributions, before you have generated the surplus income to pay for meaningful external communication, or outreach, the creation of new ministries, or spin-off church planting.   Stretch budgets every year, which mostly fund the institution, the building and the staff.  Stretch budgets for invisible results.

I can't see how a church or congregation could do this, unless it is located in an area which has rapid growth of well-paid, upper-middle class professionals.  And then, the congregation is mostly cannibalizing other UU congregations in areas that are declining.  (New England UUism is declining while UUism in the South is growing.  No kidding! There are also a lot of Red Sox hats showing up at Atlanta Braves games.)

We have set up expectations for ourselves that are out of date and impossible.  That a small number of our churches can meet them (often with the help of inherited wealth) obscures the unreality of our expectations.  And then we blame ourselves for our falling short.

I am all for casting a self-critical eye at ourselves and trying to develop our virtues, like generosity. But a little realism is in order as well.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Why are We Broke?

UU's are broke, institutionally.  Not really broke, but Downton Abbey broke.  There's an endowment, and some nice real estate, but not much cash on hand at any one time.  Not enough for innovation, or new church plants, or funding new ministries.

The situation is often noted.  The problem is posed and the solution seems, always, to be so obvious.  We should all be more generous.

We are good Calvinists in all things.  Why are there difficulties in the world?  Because we are not as good as we should be !!

The flip side of generosity is sustainability.  If we cannot match our ability to raise money with our expenses, we are always going to feel too broke for any new expenditure.

Maybe we are over invested in our buildings?    Maybe our staffs are too big, in the local congregation?  Maybe we duplicate staff across individual churches? Maybe our budgeting and fundraising is out of whack, so that increased giving goes to expenses invisible to the donors.  For example, the church that calls for a radical increase in pledging, at the same time that they are fattening the building maintenance reserve fund.

It's our Calvinism, and self-doubt, that just makes us look at our financial problems as being a lack of generosity.  Maybe we should be looking at our whole financial structure, what we spend, and where, and how we ask, and reform what we are doing.  I am convinced that we can unleash incredible generosity if we can show giving creates results -- exciting ministries, successful programs, real changes in our communities and in the lives of the people we work with.

Crowdfunding for Innovation

Peter Bowdon and others have started a fund in honor of Gini Courter "to power new creative and innovative ministries that are just too small or weird or risky or whatever usually leads these important experiments NOT to be funded."

You can donate here:

Closely associated is the creation of crowdfunding platform, like Kickstarter, where people can browse, learn about and donate to a wide variety of potential UU ministries.

This could be a very important structural innovation in the Unitarian Universalist environment. For all of our money; it always feels like we are broke. We have an endowment, and we are the recipients of enormous generosity of various funds fed by the Veatch investments, and yet we are unable to get money into the hands of entrepreneurial ministers and projects.

Crowdfunding can be a way to break through some of the administrative barriers and let people fund promising projects all over.  No telling what might happen.  I know that people around the country have been helping the important mission work in Turley, Oklahoma.  

I would urge people to donate to this fund and then support the crowdfunding platform, by which I mean donating to causes and projects on that fund that seem to be especially worthy.  Maybe we can all learn the skills of asking and giving there. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Thinking about Worship

I have been rolling with the UU's for the last 24 years (my life has been 20 years in as a child and youth, 20 years out as a young adult and 24 years back in as a adult).  I have seen the way we think about worship go through several stages.

When I came back in 1989, it seemed that the battle over gender-specific language was coming to an end.  You could still smell the smoke; but very few shots were being fired.

The next area of concern was "Quality of Worship."  Poorly conceived, poorly executed and very secular lay-led services were not serving the faith well.  Endless, TMI-stuffed Joys and Concerns were off-putting to visitors and outsiders.  The ministers worked for more leadership over the worship service, including the services that they were not leading, with the aim of a high quality worship service every week the doors were open. J's and C's were limited to smaller churches, or converted to candle rituals.

When the anti-racism multiculturalism movement arose within UUism, it changed the thinking on worship.  Were our worship services too Protestant, too New England, too white?  In fact, was our concern for a narrow definition of "quality" actually making us more culturally isolated.  The solution was to expand our sources of readings, our kinds of stories, our music: to try to be more multi-cultural in the conduct of worship.

Multiculturalism led to a new stage of conversation about worship.  We entered in a discussion that was our own version of the traditional vs. contemporary worship polarity that had engulfed almost all of Protestantism.  We moved to a looser structure, fewer elements in the order of service, more singable music, non-classical musical sources, less traditional elements like "doxologies" and "introits".   Some called the music "happy-clappy" or "campsongs".  A younger generation of parents wanted their children to stay in worship with them, and so worship became more lively and participatory and multi-generational.

We have definitely moved toward a more contemporary style of liberal worship as time has gone by.  But, there are always new concerns.

Now, the polarity between "missional" and "attractional" understandings of worship are beginning to shape our worship thinking.  It questions the whole premise of our worship thinking for this entire period: worship services have as their purpose attracting people to join the church community.  Stated crudely, Sunday morning is a show that we put on to entice people to join the church, help us balance our budget and volunteer to be on a committee.

Really, from the concern over quality to the present moment, we have been assuming we can judge the worth of our worship by counting butts in seats.

Suppose that is not the best measure?  Have we been unthinkingly copying our rivals and models: the evangelical mega-churches who seem to be able to build whole auditoriums and fill the seats every Sunday?  We sure don't want to be like them, except that we do, but we don't, but maybe we do, loop forever.

Is there some other purpose for worship?  Some other relationship between the worshipping community, the church and the larger community?  How does worship serve a mission, especially if that mission is motivating the church as a people to leave the building and enter into more service in the community?  And for UUism, which has so many resources dedicated to Sunday morning worship, how do we leverage those resources for still developing mission?

You can see that this is going to be a rich period of conversation, study and innovation.

How do we work this one out?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In the Midst of It

Yesterday, the Supreme Court crippled the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Last night, the Texas State Senate adopted a draconian anti-choice bill over a valiant and heroic effort of one Senator, Wendy Davis, to filibuster the bill, a filibuster which culminated in an extraordinary People's Filibuster as thousands of citizens tried to stop their legislature from doing such harm.

Today, we are hours away from more Supreme Court decisions which will either affirm marriage equality for all, or place it further away.

The Voting Rights Act was the legal response to the Selma campaign of 1965.  It carries the sweat and blood of Unitarian Universalists; the hundreds of UU ministers who went to Selma, the Detroit laywoman Viola Luizzo  and the Rev. James Reeb who were each killed in that struggle.

A group of Texas Unitarian women attorneys played a leading role in the Roe v. Wade case, which made abortion legal.

And Unitarian Universalists raised the rainbow flag over that iconic American space, the New England Town Green, for years, and defiantly conducted ceremonies of union for same-sex couples before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled for marriage equality in a case brought by a UU couple.

Our legacy is on the line.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Does Louder and Prouder Work Any Better?

Lillian Daniel
Author of "When Spiritual but not Religious is not Enough"
UUMA Theme Speaker 2013

Rev. Lillian Daniel was the theme speaker for the UUMA Ministry Days.  She's a UCC minister, an author and a great presenter.  She had a lot of fun with us, the UU ministers, teasing us about our unhealthy anxiety about John Calvin and how he ruined everyone's life.  She was clever, bright, charming and very funny.  She deftly lampooned the shallow, self-centered "spirituality" that we hear these days, about walking in the woods, seeing God in the sunset, yadda, yadda, faces of children and so forth.  Religion, she said, was what was needed - religious community through which difficult wisdom passed, wisdom that might be hard to hear.  When Spiritual But Not Religious is not enough, then Religion itself was needed.  So how do we as religious leaders convince people of that.

I think the key line she said was to the effect that she wasn't going to apologize for a church she didn't belong to.  In other words, there is a branch of Christianity that is politically reactionary, anti-gay, that sold its soul for political influence, but she was not a member of that Church.  She was a progressive Christian and she would be more brave about proclaiming what her church believed.

When she used the word "apologize", she meant it, I believe, in the theological sense.  Christian apologetics is the work of justifying the Christian belief system to other belief systems.  A Christian might say to a UU, "What we call 'God', you call the 'Spirit of Life'.  That's Christian apologetics -- explaining Christianity in terms that another belief system will find comprehensible."

When James Luther Adams explains God as "that creating, sustaining and transforming power not made by human hands" -- he is engaging in Christian apologetics -- making Christian doctrine explainable to a humanist world.

There have been three intellectual responses to Modernism in Christianity.  One was Humanism, which was to leave. A lot of contemporary UUism is the creation of Humanists who saw themselves as leaving Christianity behind.  Now, their descendants see themselves as never having been religious at all.

Another response, you could say, was represented by Paul Tillich (who inspired James Luther Adams, who is the inspiration of contemporary UU theists and Christians) and the third, was Karl Barth, who is the intellectual inspiration of the contemporary fundamentalists.

Tillich and Adams engage in apologetics, which has been a long standing tendency in the Unitarian and Universalist theologies.  To wit, "love is the doctrine of this church".  In other words, everything that is important about Christian thought is permanent; the words of the doctrine are transient.  They engage in a creative reinterpretation of Christian doctrine.

Barth said, instead, that the Christian thought world was its own world.  It did not need to be -- (indeed, it could not be) adequately explained to people outside of it.  You don't convert people by explaining it to people outside of it; you convert them by inviting them into it, and once in it, they will make sense of it. (Barth was essentially post-modern -- multiple thought worlds co-exist in the world, and they all seem "true" to the people inside of them -- no one single narrative will ever emerge as the one true reality.)

Lillian Daniel's message seemed to be that progressive Christianity, such as the UCC, should understand itself as its own thought-world, and just invite people into it.  It should quit engaging in a competition with rightwing Christianity over who was the real Christianity.

She is saying this in an environment where many of the "nones" or "spiritual but not religious" identify "religion" with conservative Christianity.  So her answer to the drastic decline of the UCC, is that they should be louder and prouder about proclaiming who they are, which is progressive Calvinism.  I don't know anything about the internal theological debate within the UCC, but I imagine that she has a fairly conservative position in that context.

We UU's hear her quite differently.

A number of people inferred from her talk that we should be louder and prouder about as its own religious thought-world: this space we have at the crossroads of humanism and Christianity, creatively-reinterpreted.   Others seemed to hear her saying that we should be more assertive about our religious-ness, our connection to the Christian traditions with which we are linked.

I would never write a book with the title "When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough."  I don't accept the premise of the title.  When shallow spirituality is not enough, deeper spirituality is what is needed.  I don't think that is a more confident assertion of the religious thought-world of progressive Christianity is the answer.  I think that a more confident assertion of the virtues of liberality and the development of the habits of the heart that go with them is what is needed.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Tripling Twitter presence in 60 days.

I have been watching my partner, Sue, develop her Twitter presence and I think that her experience would be useful for UU ministers, and others, who want to have a Twitter presence but don't know how to go about it.  

Her situation:  She is the CIO of a large Academic Medical Center.  She has several hundred people in her organization.  She also has a national presence among other people who do her kind of work.  In that way, she is like many ministers who have local congregants and colleagues across the country. 

She went from 150 Twitter presence to having 450 followers in about 60 days.  Here's how:

1.  She defined her Twitter presence in her profile; her profile lists her position AND her passion.  For her, her passion is connecting to young people entering her profession and starting their careers. Twitter is an excellent way to make contact with that group of people.

2.  She defined what she would be tweeting about: (1) What she is doing (2) what she is thinking/reading about and (3) What she thinks.  So she reports on meetings that she is having -- and why they are important. Example:  Met with local CIO's from all industries on recruiting young people to our area to start their career.  She retweets other people's observations and especially articles or resources that she finds interesting.  Example:  Here is a great article on social media use in health systems.   She occasionally tweets on her passion - general statements or specifics.  Example: Look to a new person to grow instead of always seeking experienced job applicant.  She also sends some more personal tweets, but this is not where she maintains her contacts with family and friends.

3.  She follows people who are interesting to her and she follows back almost everyone who follows her.  She uses the Discover option on Twitter to find new people to follow.  She changed her settings so that she did not have to approve a new follower.

4.  She tries to send three tweets a day (including retweets) and spend about 30 minutes per day reading tweets.  That has grown because she now spends less time reading her industry publications and more reading articles and resources recommended by others through Twitter.

To Sum Up: you can build a twitter presence:

1. Define "Who You Are" on Twitter  -- not just position, but passion.
2. Define "What you say" on Twitter -- what you do, what you read and what you think.
3. Look for people to follow, follow them and follow back followers.
4. Set a goal -- numbers of tweets and amount of time per day. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ministry Days 2013

Leaving today for Louisville for 2013 UUMA Ministry Days.  Our theme speaker this year is Lillian Daniels, the author of "When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough".  

If you have been following this blog, you would know that I am not sure I agree with the premise of her book.  Maybe "being spiritual" is enough for a person, while "being religious" is really good for religious institutions.

I will report back on what I think.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

One Word for Today

It's the end of the church year in UULand.  Don't ask why our year ends in June, but it does. Something to do with the academic year, I am told.  That may have been the original reason, but I also think it is the stale hot and humid air that gathers in old New England churches during the summer.

The ministers are tired.  The religious professionals formerly known as RE Directors are very, very tired.  The musicians are tired.  Congregational leaders are tired.

The hardy go to GA for one last UUpalooza for the year, and then it's blessed withdrawal.  Reading, rest and relaxation.

Everybody thinks it's terrible, unwelcoming, unfriendly and unserious.

Yet, it persists.

The word of the day is "sustainability".

Is the way that we do Unitarian Universalism sustainable?  I don't just mean "sustainable" in the environmental sense, although that is part of it, but "sustainable" in terms of money, time and people power. I don't mean just for the religious professionals, but also for the volunteer lay folk.

I suspect the reason that we "end the year" in June, is that the way we do church is unsustainable.
 We couldn't keep up that pace 12 months a year.

My VUU buddy, Joanna Fontaine Crawford, asked "at the end of the year, have our congregants gotten anything out of it except being poorer and more tired?"

How can we simplify?  How can we focus on what is really important?  How can we match our ambitions to our the reach of our grasp?  How can we cut down on the administrative work?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Intention and Perception

A while back, I proposed that congregations consider adopting the sentiment above to name for themselves their intention toward a generational transfer of leadership.

I meant it then, and I still believe it is crucial.

There is a lot of talk, though, about generations in church: the Boomers, GenX and the Millennials.

What is becoming clear to me, though, is that Generational analysis can turn into Generational Labeling.  It becomes part of the great identifying machine of culture: this all pervasive borg that decides that what is important about you is X (gender, race, age, body shape, sexual attractions and practices, looks, whatever) and that therefore, you are X.  

And like every form of socially determined identity, it has usually has a payoff of some type, along with a lot of dues to pay.

Baby Boomers were the second generation to be so labelled.  (The "teenagers" of the 50's were the first, but they were a smaller group and it was a negative label.)  But Baby Boomers were named and celebrated, because we were huge in number and had become a clearly identified market segment.  Boomers got social power by being "Boomers".  Generational Labeling is our thing, because it worked so well for us.

This has become clear to me from talking to both GenX and Millennial generations.  Some really hate the assumptions being made about them.

We do need to move the leadership of our churches to the next generations, because they are next, and because they are, ummm, younger. They live in the world that is coming.  (If the boomer generation stays active in leadership for as long as they are healthy, everything will start to look like the US Senate.)  But not because the next generations are any particular way: more spiritual, more activist, more this or that.

We need to check our thinking on this.  If we want to empower the next generation because they are "more spiritual" than we ought to just say that we should empower more spiritually oriented leaders.

A Closer Reading of "I Call that Mind Free"


William Ellery Channing's sermonic prose poem defining, and honoring, the free mind is a prophetic call to all people to reach for freedom.  Possess yourself as the first step toward living a life of virtue, compassion and spiritual growth.

It is an overlooked classic, its wisdom hidden behind 19th century prose.  Yet, in its way, it speaks to all the internal and external forces that bend us toward passive acceptance of the status quo.

It was first in a sermon.  I have included the sermon text in italics.  The red letters are the portions that have been edited into a Responsive Reading in Singing the Living Tradition.  My commentary is indented.

William Ellery Channing, from “Spiritual Freedom” (1830)

It has pleased the All-wise Disposer to encompass us from our birth by difficulty and allurement, to place us in a world where wrong-doing is often gainful, and duty rough and perilous, where many vices oppose the dictates of the inward monitor, where the body presses as a weight upon the mind, and matter, by its perpetual agency on the senses, becomes a barrier between us and the spiritual world. We are in the midst of influences, which menace the intellect and heart; and to be free, is to withstand and conquer these.
Channing starts from a dualist and idealist framework, opposing the life of the spirit to the life of the body.  We now no longer make that opposition explicit.  But Channing was typical of the times; his Transcendentalist colleagues were there too. 
Remember that Channing wrote long before Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.  Those later 19th century authors revealed that what we think is not the result of our conscious thinking processes.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

Just in Case....

there is anyone among my scores of readers who are not among the thousands of hers, this should go in your special scrapbook of good stuff...

Post-Humanist Religion

Andrew Sullivan, reporting on a 2007 interview with Barack Obama:

He was brought up in a nonreligious home and converted to Christianity as an adult. But—critically—he is not born-again. His faith—at once real and measured, hot and cool—lives at the center of the American religious experience. It is a modern, intellectual Christianity. “I didn’t have an epiphany,” he explained to me. “What I really did was to take a set of values and ideals that were first instilled in me from my mother, who was, as I have called her in my book, the last of the secular humanists—you know, belief in kindness and empathy and discipline, responsibility—those kinds of values. And I found in the Church a vessel or a repository for those values and a way to connect those values to a larger community and a belief in God and a belief in redemption and mercy and justice … I guess the point is, it continues to be both a spiritual, but also intellectual, journey for me, this issue of faith.”
For the post-humanist (and that includes everyone who has ever contemplated, even in passing, the fact that the Christian story cannot be factually true) "values and ideals" come first; they precede belief.

Not all "values and ideals" are the same. There are those that are liberal and liberating virtues and those that are conservative and promote submission to authority. But values and ideals come first.

And there are all through the human cultures, an endless variety stories, myths, art, music and poetry that teach and preserve the virtues of liberality.  For Barack Obama, the kind of Christianity that was proclaimed at Trinity UCC in Chicago was a vessel and a way to connect those values to a larger community.  That was particular to his time and place and mission in life.

I move to speculation now.  What I suspect that Trinity UCC appeared as the vessel for the Obama's because of the urgency and clarity with which it proclaimed the values and ideals they held.  It asked for a decision and a commitment and a change of heart.

Post-humanist religion does not turn on the story or the belief system.  It starts with values and virtues and succeeds because it clearly and urgently asks people to decide, and commit, to living them out.


Clyde says in a comment on a previous post:

What I observe in your recent ponderings on theology and in your case study of Peter's short homily is a move away from a cosmovision. I read you as saying, the Christian way of doing theology based on "idea of god" and an "idea of the human condition" resulting in an "idea of salvation" by "an idea of a witnessing church" is impossible for UUs given our lack of consensus relative to God.
Can we not make even the basic statement witnessed by Carl Scovel that "the heart of the cosmos is good intent." That the creation in which we live and move and have our being is (created) good, and we are called to live in awareness that we children of that goodness?
Clyde, I am saying that the "Christian way of doing theology" is impossible, but for a different reason.  You think I am saying it because "UU's ... lack...consensus relative to God."

It's not just UU's.  The erosion of the Christian cosmovision as truthful is about complete.  And in the West here, there are three responses:  Disbelief, or Humanism;  Creative Reinterpretation or Liberal Christianity; and, a Fundamentalist Loyalty, Denial and Will to Believe.  And in addition, there are many directions that disbelieving former Christians have gone: Western Buddhism, Neo-Paganism, Yoga, New Age etc.

What you propose, quoting Carl Scovel, is a Creative Reinterpretation.  (Really, how far from an omnipotent and omniscient God is the assertion that somewhere at the heart of a cosmos is a good intent?  "God, He means well...")

I, personally, am firmly in that Creative Reinterpretionist, Liberal Christian, camp, in the small UUCF subdivision, in the minuscule groupiscule of Girardian/Kenotic Christians.

I don't think that Unitarian Universalists will ever reach consensus on an approach to the question of God.  That is because the broader culture cannot reach a consensus relative to God, and we embody the paradox of humanism and liberal reinterpretation.  Is Carl's statement really a statement of belief or disbelief?  You could read it either way.

The UU self-description of this paradoxical situation has been to describe ourselves as "theologically diverse", as a positive value, in and of itself.  For the most part, the world has seen us as fatally confused: unsure about the very basis of religion.  And our experience is that offering theologically diverse, welcoming religious community does not set the world on fire. For the most part, in our congregations, we do not explore that theological diversity, but speak of other, less divisive, things.

In short, we offer ourselves as the solution to general theological unsettledness in the world.  And in doing so, we plant a fatal seed of self-satisfaction in our collective soul.

My argument is also that the world does not need anyone to propose a consensus on the God of the Christian tradition.  Ever since Channing's "Unitarian Christianity", we have been proposing excellent formulations of Christian theology more in tune with the times to little effect.  So have Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, Diana Butler Bass, Marilyn Sewell.  You and I have shelves-full.

My argument:  Unitarian Universalists should stop preaching about ourselves, and stop preaching about our theological diversity.  We should instead preach about the virtues that all people need to develop for the world to be saved.  Instead of talking about the religion we want to be, we should be talking about the people we should be.  (And yes, I get the irony of my position here.)

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism: Another Case Study

In response to one of my earlier post, Rev. Peter Morales, the UUA President, sent me a copy of a sermon that he gave in 2012 to the Arlington, Virginia congregation.  I suspect that he gives versions of this sermon in many of the places that he speaks.

It's called Beyond Belief.  Here is the heart of it. 

True religion is about what we love, not about what we think.
True religion is about what you and I hold sacred. The practice of true religion is faithfulness to what we love.
The key religious questions you and I must answer are these: What do we love so much that we are moved to tears? What gives us unspeakable joy? What brings us peace beyond understanding? What do we love so much that it calls us to action? What do we care about so deeply that we willingly, joyfully, devote our lives to it? 
When we focus on what we truly love, we ask life’s essential questions. We ask questions like, “How shall I live?” When we ask the question together in community, it becomes, “How shall we live together? What shall we do together?” When we focus on what we truly love, we discover something wonderful: we discover that we love the same things. 
We realize that we need one another. We want to be compassionate and gentle with one another. We want to raise children who are kind, joyful and responsible. We aspire to create a religious community where we can come to know one another more deeply. We want to create a place where we can cry together, laugh together, sing together, learn together, and act together. We want a place where we can come together to remind ourselves of what is truly worthwhile. That is what worship is—it is literally an affirmation of worth. 
And we want to make a difference in the world. We are not content to be a club. We know there are hundreds, thousands, of neighbors who love what we love. And if they love what we love, they have the same religion we do. We open our hearts and our doors to them. 
Religion beyond belief is the religion millions of people long for. It is religion that transcends culture, race and class. It is religion where we can grow spiritually, a religion where we can forge deep and lasting relationships, a religion where we can join hands to help heal a broken world.... 
The central issue before us as a religious movement is not to decide what we believe. That will just set us to arguing among ourselves until the theological cows come home. (Trust me, the theological cows have been gone for millennia and they’re not coming home in our lifetime.) 
No, the central issue before us all is whether we will accept the challenge to become a religion beyond belief.
Believing in theological diversity is another form of a belief based religion.  And that is where, theologically speaking, a lot of Unitarian Universalism is stuck.  We celebrate our own diversity of opinion and belief.  But what is there beyond belief?  What is the purpose of religion if it is not to promote beliefs in its people?

Rev. Morales sets out to answer that question.  He says that we ought to base religion, which for is Unitarian Universalism, on "what we love."

He is asking the right question, and proposing a good answer.  Liberal theology has to answer the question: what is true enough to base our theology on?  If we cannot count on our knowledge of divine revelation, what is the truth we are starting from?  And if we can no longer assume that there is a truth that can be universally comprehended by all people (objectivity), where do we start?

"What We Love" is one answer to that question.  It is open-ended in that Morales doesn't define it, except situationally and relationally.  (This by the way is similar to President Obama's speech in Newtown, in which he based the moral case for "sensible gun safety" legislation on the love we feel for our children.)

The problem is that "what we love" is vague and open-ended.  We all love our children.  Do we love other people's children?  Maybe, maybe not.  Many people feel a love of country, which can have a very different content from person to person.  Everybody, especially including "white" people who are mist unaware of it, have an affinity for people of their own race or ethnicity.

Rev. Morales is confident that we will find that "we love the same things."  I am not sure, but I do believe that most of us love some things in common.  What are they?  Love of our children?  What else?

The one "sacred" belief of contemporary Unitarian Universalism is that religion should never be prescriptive.  It is thought that Religion (especially religious leaders) shouldn't tell people what to believe, or how to act, or what to value as most important.  Far too often, UU religious leaders have accepted this restriction: that the most we can do is to suggest a question for the people to consider.  That tentativeness comes out in Rev. Morales' sermon.  He does not tell us what to love.

But, I wish Rev. Morales had told us what to love: what in human life is worthy of our highest loyalty, and makes demands on us.

As contemporary people, we all know that we don't have to agree with him, or mindlessly follow his instructions.  After all, a thousand different people, companies, and institutions pitch messages to us everyday, and we are quite skilled at evaluating them and rejecting almost all of them.

What is the final message of a sermon?  In this sermon, Rev. Morales defines the central message as whether "we will accept the challenge to become a religion beyond belief."

So like so many UU sermons do, Rev. Morales ends up talking about what kind of religion UUism ought to be.  We should be talking about what kind of people UU's and others should be.

I think that the alternative to a belief-based religion is a virtue and character-based religion.  Our message should be that our lives, and the world in general, would be better and happier if we developed our capacity to act to fulfill what we love.  And we can better love if we develop certain virtues, life habits: compassion, wonder, truthfulness, humility, graceful giving, openness and self-possession.

So, I go to a different place than Rev. Morales, even though I agree with his starting point. To me, what is "beyond  belief" is virtue and character. If we go there, I believe that we can reclaim our voice to speak directly to people about what we think liberal religion asks them to do.

I am grateful that Rev. Peter sent me his sermon, and was open to me making a public comment on it.  It showed great grace.  He has a hard job, in that there are so many who are sure that they could do his job better.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Fantasy Politics

Both the Left and the Right engage in fantasy politics of insurrection.  Someday, they imagine that they will be the vanguard of the People who have risen up against the government of the United States of America.  That the People now appear to be apathetic sheep is a problem, of course.  They appear to be not very interested in revolution, and not hungering for a vanguard to lead them in one.  But the magic mechanism that will turn today's sheeple into tomorrow's heroic freedom fighters is government repression.

So a few ideas clump together into one ideological fixation.  The actions of the government right now are laying the groundwork to repress the coming Revolution; the people must be warned; and present actions, which may be reasonable, must be opposed to preserve the future feasibility of the great revolt.

For the Right, the gun registration and background checks, no matter how reasonable they are today must be opposed because they will, on that great getting up day in the future, be used by the government to confiscate the arms of the freedom fighters.

For the Left, finding out the communication links between foreign militants and people in the United States must be opposed because that spying will be used to defeat the revolution in the future.

Essential to this is the wildest exaggeration of government capability and practice.  How often do you hear that the government is on the verge of confiscating everyone's weapons?  How often in the last few days have you heard that the government is actually listening to everyone's phone calls?  The drone killing of an American citizen who had relocated to Yemen and was actively involved in Al Qaeda there turns into a government that plans to execute citizens on US soil for political reasons, perhaps for filing an improper application for a tax-exemption.

As a result, what the government does is not measured against the concrete problems they are trying to solve.  They are measured instead against a dark future fantasy: if the government was completely totalitarian and the people were in revolt, how would these limited exercises of governmental power be possibly stretched into something fatal to a free people?  It's always 1935 in Germany.

Against that grim fantasy, nothing is reasonable, prudent, measured and effective.

So hysteria reigns, making governance impossible.

As we now see.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Tamara Payne-Alex

I am endorsing Tamara Payne Alex for UUA Moderator.

We need to pass the leadership of our Association to younger leaders.

I do not have extensive experience with either candidate for Moderator.  I served on a small task force with Jim Key, and he is a wise and gracious man.  Our group did all our work on the phone, so I have never been in his presence. I have known Tamara for a long time; she was on the MFC when I met them.

Most of us do not have a lot of experience with either candidate.

That said, I believe that it is crucial for the leadership of our Association to pass to the next generation of leaders.  I don't think that we should do this because it will look good, or make us more attractive.  I think that Baby Boomers like myself no longer bring an innovating energy to our work.  We bring a perfecting energy to what we do.  We want to make our institutions and organizations work better, be more effective, and have better governance.  Noble goals and entirely appropriate to our stage of life.  And, from afar, they are where much energy is now going at the level of the UUA board.


It is clear to me that Unitarian Universalism is entering into a period of great change and uncertainty.  Over the next decade, we will have to radically redefine our message and our ministries to meet the needs of a changing world.  We need to change.

We need leaders of a new generation, on the board, in the staff, in the ministry, and in our congregations, to help us to see with fresh eyes, rethink our options and reset our course.

In a time like this, experience, competency and skill are not the most important criteria.  In times like this, it is not the most important thing to have harmonious governance, effective alignment, and even laser like focus.  Vision, experimentation and an ability to capture the spirit of the times may be more important.

I believe that Tamara Payne-Alex is the leader who can lead us through the process of change and innovation that these next decades will demand of Unitarian Universalism.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism - Humanism, Theism and Derp

The essential thing to remember is that both Humanism and Theism were valid and authentic responses out of American Protestantism to the crisis that Modernism brought to Christian orthodoxy.  If Christian orthodoxy was not true and factual, what could one do?

The theologically realists went to Humanism.  The theologically non-realists went to theism, including creative reinterpretations of Christianity.

The fundamentalists denied modernism altogether.

The differences are less than what they seem and certainly less than what late 20th century people thought.

We are all post-modernists, in that we understand now that humans are not particular rational or consistent in their thinking.  We construct our most important thoughts, about politics, romance, religion, culture and science, out of a mish-mash of actual facts, myths, stories, experience, our personal psychology, our social location, and cultural influences.  We each have a powerful 'will to believe' our most basic beliefs.  

Most of what we say about religion is derp, if you define "derp" as communication that repeats prior assumptions without regard to any new evidence or input.  Derp is the expression of our "will to believe" or "the loyalty we feel toward our already established opinions."

When the GOP announces that what the economy needs right now is tax cuts for the wealthy.  They are speaking pure derp.  It wouldn't matter if the economy was booming, or in the ditch, it is what they would say.

It's OK that people have strongly held opinions.  And it is a godsend that we have the internet where people can derp  to their hearts' content.

Unitarian Universalism accommodates both humanism and theism.  Some of our best thinkers have spent a lot of energy trying to bridge the gap.  Theists try to present Christianity within the limits of Reason (a project going back to Locke).  Humanists try to inject as much awe, and reverence, and wonder into their descriptions of the natural world as they can.  They are usually met with torrents of derp, as people see what they are trying to do and call them out.

This is why I think for Unitarian Universalism to move forward it must set aside our treasured theological arguments and the arsenal of derp that we have at our disposal to continue them.

In a Post Modern era, theology is like art.  Is any school of art: abstract impressionism, realism, expressionism, conceptual, pop, etc.; really less art than another?  And do any deserve being taken as offensive?

The core of our message cannot be belief; it must be character and virtue.  It does not much matter if your response to modernism is theological realism or creative reinterpretation, what Unitarian Universalism asks of you is: are you reverent, kind, truthful, giving, open, humble, and bringing all of your power to bear?  Who are you?

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

What makes UU theology?

After saying that a UU reinterpretation of Christian theology is not quite a UU theology, I think I better say what I think a UU theology has to cover.

First of all, it cannot be just be a celebration of theological diversity, many-paths-one-mountain, everybody-on-their-own-journey, or a list of all the possible brands.  Sorry, that's just the way the world is, and it is good that UU's recognize that.  It's a good thing, but it is not enough.

Secondly, a UU theology has to make a thoughtful analysis of historic Unitarianism and Universalism as liberal Protestant Christian theological tendencies.  What was the essence of their divergence from the Christian mainstream, not just in terms of doctrinal content, but in terms of who they represented.  Both were born in the early, and idealistic, days of the American Republic.  How was their Christianity a Christianity of their times?  It's not enough to note our social prominence in the past, or lift up only the Boston Unitarians commitment to ministerial freedom to be doctrinally vague.  What are the reflections of the rise of democratic republicanism in what U's and U's preached and thought.

Thirdly, a UU theology has to offer a thoughtful analysis of how that classic Protestant Unitarian
 and Universalist broadened and broke down.  How was it challenged by the 19th Century colonialism, and global trade?  The 19th century saw the first "death of God' and the beginnings of a religious Humanist movement.  It is not enough to say that Unitarianism and Universalism "outgrew" or "rejected" or "graduated from" its Protestantism.  Just as important as the ruptures were the continuities.  My own belief is that while the Unitarians and Universalists bridged the divide between theists and humanists on an organizational level, they were unsuccessful in articulating a theology that was both theistic and humanist at the same time.  We are still in the same place in some ways.  That some of us believe in God and some don't doesn't seem to matter at all, except when we try to talk about theology.

Fourth, a UU theology has to account for the rise of secularism, and put forward a positive understanding of the role of the church and organized religion in a secularizing society.  Are we fine  woodworkers in an IKEA world? Are we social directors, creating communities where none exist? Are we the moral consciences of the society?  What are we doing, and why? And how does our present role flow out of our history and our thinking?

Fifth, a UU theology has to offer a deep analysis of our current social location and the paths out of our isolation.  What do we do and think that we also share with others who are different than us?  It is our essence, our core beliefs and practices, that might be share-able and so a UU theology has to identify those things.  If Unitarian Universalism can be practiced in a wider variety of cultural settings, what defines that Unitarian Universalism?   We are isolated because we tend to think that everybody is actually like us -- we exaggerate surface differences because we underestimate real differences.  The step forward for us is to better understand our specific ways and history, to get objective about how we are unique.

Sixth, a UU theology has to explain who are in our congregations and why they are there.  I would say that majority of people in our congregations are not there because of our theology.  They have other good reasons for being there.  They may have another theological perspective altogether which may, or may not, be consciously integrated with UU history, thinking and practice.  They may just like the music, or that they feel welcome there.  A UU theology does not have to reflect the thinking of every person who goes to a UU Church, but it should be able to explain why people of differing theologies (and different commitments to theology) worship together.

UU's need more theological discussion to move forward.  Yet, our discussions are festivals of umbrage which degenerate into phony diversity.  The speed with which we go from "You can't say that because it makes me feel excluded" to "Everybody can think whatever they like" to "Let's not talk about theology at all." is pretty remarkable.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Rev. Marilyn Sewell's Take on UU Theology

Back in 2011, Rev. Marilyn Sewell, published a post on Huff Post entitled "The Theology of Unitarian Universalists".  In summary, we Unitarian Universalists do have a theology:
  • We believe that human beings should be free to choose their beliefs according to the dictates of their own conscience.
  • We believe in original goodness, with the understanding that sin is sometimes chosen, often because of pain or ignorance.
  • We believe that God is One.
  • We believe that revelation is ever unfolding.
  • We believe that the Kingdom of God is to be created here on this earth.
  • We believe that Jesus was a prophet of God, and that other prophets from God have risen in other faith traditions.
  • We believe that love is more important than doctrine.
  • We believe that God's mercy will reconcile all unto itself in the end.

Peter Bowden recently asked for "a reality check" on this formulation over the UUGrowth Lab Group Page on Facebook, and the comments are pouring in.

My take:

First of all: her statement is not a summary of what most UU's believe, expressed in the terms with which most UU's think.

I would say it is an liberal reinterpretation of Christian doctrine through the lens of human agency and greater free will.  If one starts from a belief that human beings everywhere have the power to make effective choices which will either improve the human condition or not, and then applies that understanding to Christian doctrine -- what you get is pretty close to what Rev. Sewell proposes.

UU's do this a lot.  One of the most common covenants of our churches is a similar reinterpretation of traditional Christian theological categories. It's like an equivalency chart.

Love is the Doctrine of this Church,
the quest for truth its sacrament,
and service is its prayer, etc.

You ask about our "doctrine"; we say "love".  You ask about our "sacraments", we say "quest for truth".  How do you UU's "pray"?; we do "service".  Etc.

I think that it necessary, especially for our ministers, to be able to explain what we believe in terms that the wider Christian community can understand.  It's an absolute necessity for our seminarians if they intend to graduate from a Christian seminary. And there are lots of communities in the USA where a UU religious professional simply has to explain what we think to regular people who think in those traditional terms.

But the results are not a UU theology that sums up UU religious and spiritual thought.   Its an exercise in working backwards from current UU positions about the human condition to answer  the historic questions in Christian theology in ways that will support our conclusions.  It's like when august bodies of Church leaders think hard and come out with statements that say that hot sex is a gift from God.  It's pretty clearly stating what they already thought in the language of the Church.

We believe that people can make effective moral choices.  We really do.  So, we will have to reinterpret the doctrine of original sin into something else.  Same with the fallen nature of humanity, and the necessity of salvation from without, the existence of heaven and hell and the divinity of Jesus as being necessary for our salvation.  None of those doctrines can serve as premises for a full belief in human agency.

To be blunt, we like the Ballou's because we are already universalists.  We like Channing because we were already very doubtful about the divinity of Christ, usually because we were doubtful about the divinity of God.

Unitarian Universalists who are not interested in Christian theology will find little of value in Rev. Sewell's comments.  And they will say that UU's don't need or want a theology, if you define that word as a structured and internally consistent system of understanding of Christian thought.

Notice that Rev. Sewell's piece tries to answer the misconception "you can believe anything you want and be a Unitarian Universalist."  I think that it sometimes it would be more accurate to say "you can't believe anything and say it out loud as a Unitarian Universalist without offending some other UU, who will let you know."

It looks like Rev. Sewell just found that out.