Look Outward Angels!

I asked 'why did the UUA not issue a national call to Ferguson with the same reach and urgency that it did for the Moral Movement March in North Carolina, or the People's Climate March?'.

It was a wrong question, one of the many wrong questions we ask ourselves.

 Because my question and the questions it generated have all been so internally focused. Questions like: How much time do we need for such a call to work? Who makes the call? Even the higher level answers proposed have been internally focused, reminding us again of our historic vacillation on the struggles of people of color.

Why are we so self-focused? 

Unitarian Universalism is an anxious religious movement, and so, it focuses on what it must do to get itself right. How it should organize itself. How it should fund itself. How it should replenish its ranks of ministers. How it should brand itself.

All of that is important, and I mean no disrespect to the people who work on those issues everyday, but we will not fulfill Unitarian Universalism by perfecting how Unitarian Universalist institutions work. It doesn't matter whether you are talking about the local church, the "beyond congregation", the new region or the UUA board and staff; the fate of liberal religion is not going to be determined by how well we do our jobs, as we presently define them.

We must wean ourselves from our excessively inward focus.

Look outward, angels.

A broad, multi-racial, culturally progressive, democratic movement may emerge in the next few years in this country. The signs of it are all around us. We see it  in movements and resistances and changed attitudes, everything from the struggle for marriage equality, the militant resistance to fossil fuels, the people's climate march, the Ferguson movement, the immigration fasts, the fast food strikes, and on and on. Moments are becoming movements. If all of this flourishes, Unitarian Universalism could flourish as well, but only if we are vitally connected to it.

And we should be involved, of course. Our seven principles, which can be, and have been, derided as something a local Rotary club could affirm, are being actively fought over in the streets right now.

Most people do not have a way to bring their whole selves to historic moment in which we live. Many people have very few opportunities to find themselves in history, not unless they travel in particular circles, or live in some rare places.

It should be our mission to be a point of connection between persons in their wholeness and what is emerging. We should be the go-to source for a way to participate in shaping the future of our world.  And we should be that, in addition to all that we do now.

Some hear this proposal and say that it would make us like Move-On, or even the Democratic Party. Nonsense. 

No one from Move-On will ever come and sit with you the day your mother passes.

The Democratic Party does not offer a weekly service where the life you live is viewed from its largest perspective, a service that juggles love and death and purpose.

The enfeebled progressive organizations do not sing together. Their leaders will never know a child's name. They are not made to nurture whole persons, or to create community.

Those are the works of religious community. Unfortunately, most religious communities, including many UU congregations, are so inwardly focused that they are more likely to encapsulate their members, enclosing them.

Look Outward, Angels. 


  1. I know that I'm taking your point and going in a bit of different direction, but I think that looking outward requires a lot less of what one your Facebook commenters called "navel gazing" in our churches. It seems to me that we spend a great deal of time defining ourselves as something unique in the religious world -- we're constantly saying that we're not traditionally religious but we're also not just a public policy discussion group that meets on Sunday, we don't call ourselves a church though sometimes we do etc. I could be wrong but I suspect that less and less people (including those in the pews) care about our carefully crafted self-definitions and where we fit on the theological spectrum.

    To me we need to accept that we are a liberal church, and that many other liberal religions are not UU but share many our beliefs. Our most logical allies in any effort to reach out would be other liberal religious institutions -- African-American churches, liberal mainline Protestants, reform Judaism, the Catholic left, etc. We won't find common ground on all issues at all times with these faith organizations, but I suspect we'll find it more often than we expect. As small as we are there is a danger that we'll get swallowed in any broad, liberal religious coalition but I think that the greater danger is that find ourselves increasingly irrelevant if we stay inward looking.

  2. I'm not sure why Pete M. thinks there isn't plenty of enthusiastic interfaith work going on both at the UUA level (surely Pete has heard of Standing On The Side of Love?) and in many, many UU congregations (certainly including the one of which I am a member, as well as others in my part of the world).

  3. Steve, I don’t doubt that some of what I am recommending goes on at the UUA and within individual UU congregations, and am glad it does. That said, I think that in a world where information comes at us from various directions and no one’s attention is undivided that if something isn’t repeated (and repeated and repeated) it doesn’t exist.

    While coalitions may exist, I think that our efforts to distinguish ourselves from other liberal faiths can work in opposition to that concept. I’ve heard us talk much more about our lack of dogma and embrace of reason – so much so that these concepts have come to seem like a form of dogma to me -- than about working with other faiths on common social justice goals. From direct experience I can tell you that some visitors and guests hear in those statements an implicit assumption that their churches (or temples) are dogmatic and lack reason.

    Ultimately, I think tht my basic point is that we need to accept that all of liberal religion itself is perhaps just barely big enough to have an impact on the world. We are part of liberal religion, but I’m concerned that rather than emphasizing our positive beliefs we spend too much of our time warding off any perceived similarity to the house of worship down the street. I think this limits our ability to reach to folks who don’t share our theology, but do share many of our values.

  4. Where do you see these "efforts to distinguish ourselves" from, say, the UCC? What I saw a few weeks ago for example, with my own eyes at my own church, was Peter Morales and Geoffrey Black jointly addressing a conference on the immigration crisis. As another example, were you aware that our excellent OWL human sexuality curriculum was the result of a UU - UCC collaboration? I just see very little evidence of this supposed distancing from other liberal religious traditions. No, we are not, or rather the majority of us are not, liberal Christians ourselves. But it's simply a fact that this is in no way impedes close and amicable UU cooperation with liberal Christian churches, which is happening all over the country in a wide variety of initiatives.

  5. Steve, it sounds like we’re beating a dead horse all the way to the glue factory, but I kind of enjoy that so here I go. We each have our examples, and I suppose that neither of us can be sure that our examples are representative.

    That said, I don't think I'm alone in thinking that we have problems acknowledging that we are a religion and using language that emphasizes our ties to our liberal religious history. When William Sinkford became UUA president he said:

    "We have in our Principles an affirmation of our faith which uses not one single piece of religious language. Not one. Not even one word that would be considered traditionally religious. And that is a wonderment to me; I wonder whether this kind of language can adequately capture who we are and what we're about."

    Yes, William Sinkford became UUA president and my sense is that Morales shares many of his views. That said, I've also personally experienced situations where hostility among members of my congregation to anything resembling traditional religion (even in its most liberal form) has inhibited cooperation with other faiths. My reading and conversations with other UUs suggests to me that I'm not the only one who feels this way, but as I said I'd agree that individual observations aren't the most scientific way to analyze any large organization.

  6. I know there are congregations that have that issue, but there are also many- probably the healthier one- that don't. I just think it's more productive to focus on things that are going well and trying to replicate them.


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