Thursday, July 02, 2015

It's Not Your Fault



Buffy Boke asked me to elaborate on why I chose to include this scene from "Good Will Hunting" in a blog post about UU history.

For those who don't know the movie, Matt Damon is the protagonist of the movie, an extremely smart kid (Will Hunting) from a Boston working class neighborhood now in college. Robin Williams is a counsellor or therapist. The folder that Williams waves contains photos of a younger Matt Damon bearing the bruises and wounds of the abuse he endured as a child by his father.

Will Hunting moves with a cocky bravado that masks much deeper insecurities. He is unable to sustain relationships and cannot fully seize the opportunities that his prodigal intelligence has put before him. He is underperforming his potential.

Unitarian Universalism is obsessed with the perception that we, too, are underperforming our potential. Given our aspirations, we should be larger than we are. We should be more spiritually and theologically clear than we are. We should be more diverse than we are. We should be more active and more resolute activists for social justice than we are. We should be more family-friendly than we are. We should be more welcoming than we are. We should be more generous than we are.

We cover our sense of inadequacy with externally directed bravado and internally directed competitiveness. We present ourselves to the world as smarter than we are, and as more unique. And among ourselves, we distrust each other's motives and sincerity. The friendships that we form among ourselves are often alliances against other UU's.

Like Will Hunting, we cannot form sustaining relationships and we cannot really grow into our potential.

Our animating question is "what is wrong with us?" Our presumption is that we are somehow failing.

I want us to consider, for just a moment, that "it is not our fault."

For the most part, we have not ever considered our history from that angle of vision.

Liberal religion, in all its forms, has taken a beating for the last forty five years. The conservative backlash to the social movements of the 50's and 60's included broad challenge to religious liberalism as too permissive, too activist, too politically correct, and too secular. Conservative churches claimed to be counter-cultural, and painted liberal religion as the most romantic and idealistic branch of the liberal establishment.

Millions of people left the mainline churches, some for the evangelicals, and others left organized religion altogether.

Unitarian Universalism did well to maintain itself during this difficult period. But, we are not aware, however, of how this adversity has changed us, the bruises we carry. Like Will Hunting, we know only in a glib way, but have not really grieved. We lost the thread of our own story and our confidence in our own tradition. We were growing toward a holistic contemporary form of liberal living in the 1960's, and we lost that wholeness. History happened to us, and it was a particularly hostile time for us. It's not all our fault.

Of course, I don't mean that we should not engage in critical self-examination, and that we should not be accountable for our actions and attitudes. We make lots of mistakes and have some bad practices. I am not trying to change what we know about ourselves. I do want to place it into a different context, to embed the incidents of our history in a larger and more generous narrative.

Of course, I will have more on this subject as time goes on....







1 comment:

Pete M said...

I don't have the numbers handy, but my understanding is that Unitarian Universalism's membership has held roughly steady over the last 40-50 whereas liberal, mainline denominations have seen their membership fall significantly. Staying the same may not be an accomplishment to trumpet, but it's better than a 30 percent decline.

Liberal religion needs to change and adapt, and I think that it's worth seeing what can be learned from churches with very different theologies than ours where they are growing.

That said, I largely agree with the heading of this post. It's largely not the fault of UU churches that they aren't growing. A conservative church has an inherent advantage. While the post-'60s black lash led to a rightward turn in politics, this country's views on traditional morality have moved steadily and fairly continuously to the left regardless of which party controls Congress. For people disoriented with these changes a conservative church is the natural place to find like-minded souls and allies. If, on the other end of the spectrum, a person's concerns are economic inequality, the environment, civil liberties etc. there are many secular groups that might seem like a more logical place to land than a church.