Another Baby/Another Bathwater

A long time friend of a Unitarian Church, who hasn't joined in the three years, explains why over at Patheos blog. A key paragraph, which contains a quote:

What holds me back, I think, is this: I don’t believe in it.  Perhaps it is a remnant of my being raised in the Mormon church, but it does not seem like enough to want to be a part of the local religious community; I feel like I need to believe in the mission of the UU.  And I just don’t.  I can’t help but look at the UU as a failure — not my local congregation, but the UU as a whole.  It’s a great place to go on Sunday.  It’s a refuge from religious intolerance and a necessary waystation for many on their way out of their religion of origin.  It does good work in promoting social justice.  But as John Trevor wrote in 1910:
“My respect for individual Unitarians is unbounded. And yet their religious position as a denomination is one which I have always deeply regretted. For want of something, I know not what, all their freedom, all their knowledge, all their generosity, all their high personal character— everything which seems to mark them out as the one denomination to lead the van of religious and social emancipation—never comes to the point of making them a great reforming power. People, with qualities in many respects far inferior to theirs, are moving the world to-day; while they, perplexed and pained as they are, and anxious to find the road by which they may march forward, are scarcely able to maintain the status of their own churches.”
"For the want of something, I know not what" is the "great white whale" of contemporary Unitarian Universalism.

Note the contradiction that Trevor bases this on: unbounded respect for individual Unitarians vs. Unitarianism's inability to becoming a great reforming power. And Trevor's prescription somehow matches up to Halstead's dilemma: he likes his local church but doesn't 'believe' in Unitarian Univerasalism as a whole.

Halstead says that the wanted "something" is missing because Unitarian Universalism has stripped away the irrational from religion, hence his title: the baby is the bathwater. The magic, mythic elements of other religions which provide the emotional ooomph that binds the believer to the faith is not there.

One of the commentators says that the search for the great white whale takes her up to a solid brick wall.

And if we going looking for a story from anyplace other than our own history, of course, we will be thwarted. We have to understand our own story, in all its historical and personal significance, testify to that story and let go of the outcome.  We may become a great reforming power, or we may not. It might be a liberation story for the whole world; more likely, it is our testimony to what has been revealed to us by time and history and that creating, sustaining and transforming power at work in the world.

We have to re-claim the story of the Enlightenment. After all, both Unitarianism and Universalism were forms of Protestantism trying to accommodate the truths of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a great moment of human liberation. (This is where I bow to the Calvinists who will point out the many sins of the European establishment that was the site of the Enlightenment. I will also point out that causation and correlation are not the same thing, and that just because two things happened in the same time doesn't mean that one caused the other.)

But the Enlightenment and the emergence of secularity were not radical breaks from the hegemony of Christianity in Europe. Secularity is the fulfillment of radical strands of Jewish and Christian theology.

You don't believe me?  Go search the UU archives for the biblical verses that UU ministers cite. They come down a distinct body of texts that come the length of the book and have an internal theological coherence.  They go from Jacob's assertion that "surely God is in this place" when he standing by a stream in nature, to the prophets disdain for sacrifice, to Jesus' claim that the sabbath was made for us, and not us for the sabbath. Jesus says that someday we will worship "in spirit and truth".

There is a strand of the Christian tradition that says that religion is not about beliefs, temples, sacrifices, and rules. It is about building a world with a moral foundation, ethics, morals, and a sense of awe and reverence in daily life. I call it the Kenotic tradition in Christianity and we are its heirs and practitioners. Theodore Parker said it quite well:

“Be ours a religion which, like sunshine goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.”  
One of the liberating aspects of kenotic Christianity is that creates a basis for Christians to meet the non-believer in a positive relationship, and we have been trying to do that work for over a century, even to the extent of creating interfaith and non-faith worshipping communities.

And when they work, they work to nurture people in faith, hope and passion and spirit.

That is the story that we have to tell. We are asking people to understand themselves as part of a great millennium long struggle for the liberation of the human soul. We have some truths to share.

The turn that we have to make, RIGHT NOW, is to turn away from talking about the kind of religion we want to be, the kind of religion we are failing to be, what's wrong with us, and our dreams for a better future. We have to stop worrying about why people write articles about why they haven't joined a UU church. I am reminded of Emerson's comment in the Divinity School Address: "The village blasphemer sees fear in the face, form, and gait of the minister."  People everywhere perceive our desperation to please, justly, as a lack of integrity.

We have to tell people what we know; our testimony of reality: that the path to health and healing and planetary salvation is each of us living with reverence and awe, honesty, humility, gratitude and generosity, openness, solidarity and self-possession, in communities of justice and faith.

We will not convince the world until we convince ourselves.


  1. Jamie H-R4:39 PM


  2. Steve Cook4:59 PM

    Well said, Tom, and a good start.
    A theme of yours (if I understand you) has been the dynamic around shame and failure with which UU has become obsessed for, perhaps, the last century; certainly since we (along with the Protestant Mainline) participated in the decline and fall of American civic religion since 1950. I'd like us all to start putting some real content to the qualities and ideals you hold up in your concluding paragraphs.

  3. I agree. One way to start is to avoid emphasizing what we don't believe. We need to find language, examples of which I think are contained in this post, that describes our beliefs in a positive way. This is obviously a challenge in a faith without an easily defined doctrine, but I think that the time when people would be satisfied with being told that Unitarians would not require them to adopt a creed has passed.

  4. Thanks Tom. I think you captured an important aspect of who we are and how we can best go forward. I forward this post to my membership committee and board.

    Craig Roshaven

  5. Anonymous8:44 AM

    i don't recall membership drives as a major part of the Enlightenment. bstr

  6. This is a wonderful essay.

    The 7 principles are nice, but unpoetic. I found your penultimate paragraph to be a more poetic summary:

    "We have to tell people what we know, our testimony of reality: that the path to health and healing and planetary salvation is each of us living with reverence and awe, honesty, humility, gratitude and generosity, openness, solidarity and self-possession, in communities of justice and faith."

  7. Yes! I find it sad that the UU's online seem to spend more of their time arguing with each other and complaining about UUism than they do telling the story of their faith and celebrating it. We have much to celebrate, and the stories we tell about ourselves shape who we are.

  8. This is an excellent piece. I agree with Pete M's comment that we need a "belief" statement. Sometimes it seems we are so goosey about adopting a "creed" that we qualify the message into gibberish.

    My elevator speech is this: We believe every person has unique value and should be free to find their way to living in right relationships.

    The door usually opens to a discussion of what "right relationships" are. Rev. Shade does a nice job in his conclusion describing them.

  9. >"We have to tell people what we know, our testimony of reality: that the path to health and healing and planetary salvation is each of us living with reverence and awe, honesty, humility, gratitude and generosity, openness, solidarity and self-possession, in communities of justice and faith."

    Amen and Hallelujah! This is what I feel is missing: the conviction that we have a message of hope and transformation for the world and that we are not ashamed to testify. Thank you.

    Along with Tim, I wish that were at the top of the 7 Principles.


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