Monday, November 23, 2015

UU's, Microaggressions and "PC Culture"

Lest any UU get caught up in the hysteria about "PC Culture" and other people's sensitivities about microaggressions, let's review our own experience with these concepts.

Nativity scene in front of Ellwood City Town Hall,
eventually removed after suit by ACLU. 
Say the city leaders put up a Nativity scene in front of the town hall. You protested. Why? Their action told you, the Jews, the atheists, the Muslims and all the other non-Christians, that you were not really part of the town. In today's parlance, you were "erased" from the town's population. They acted as though you did not exist. Or that you did not matter. In today's terms, it was a microaggression. A pretty big one, in fact, since it was in their official civic function.

If you asked the city fathers why; they would have responded that they meant no offense. They were just celebrating Christmas, which almost everybody celebrated. They would ask why you had to be so sensitive. You should get over it and move on.

You go to an interfaith event, and all the Christian preachers pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Again, a microaggression, an erasure of your presence. And when you said something, they said that you were trying to censor their free religious expression.

The dollar bill says "In God We Trust" and Pledge says "One Nation, Under God" as though these were obviously true. That's Christian supremacy on full display, and once you notice it, it's everywhere. And when you do see it in action, you have a choice: to protest it and seem like a cantankerous troublemaker, or somehow swallow your feeling of being excluded or minimized with either a joke or a sullen sigh.

Of course, for Unitarian Universalists, microaggressions like I have described, do NOT carry the threat of danger. After all, we do not live in culture with a broad history of anti-UU violence, so there is little danger in pointing out the microaggression.

We should remember our own experiences with being excluded, erased, or diminished by the culture around us when we read about students protesting the microaggressions they experience on campus. Maybe instead of being angry and impatient, we might applaud their bravery, and think over what issue in particular they are raising. In most cases, the students are broadening the debate, not restricting it, by questioning what has been unquestioned tradition for too long.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Mismatches, History, and Hope

In the little world touched by this blog, people have been very likey and sharey and retweety with Mismatches between Unitarian Universalism and the Work It needs to do. I am touched.

Maybe it is just the shorter time period, but people have not responded as fulsomely to the second installment Why the UU Mismatches.

Which should not surprise me; my argument has been that we are out of step with  our times because the forty year period of conservative cultural hegemony turned us inward, limited our growth, and froze our development.  Many resist this line of analysis. As neo-Calvinists, we think that explanations of our disappointments and failures that put the blame on anyone other than our own terrible selves are somehow cheating.

We would rather see ourselves as uniquely awful, but powerful, than ordinary and not in control.

We don't make history as much as history makes us; that is a hard message for us to hear.

But the reign of conservative ideology is coming to an end. That is why our culture is so polarized; we have entered a period of deep conflict and some either/or choices are on the table.

Right now, six social movements are on the move.

  • The Movement for Black Lives, the present incarnation of the Black liberation movement. 
  • The Movement for Reproductive Justice
  • The Movement for LBGTQ Lives, especially the lives and safety of transwomen of color.
  • The Immigrant Movement
  • The Climate Defense Movement.
  • The Movement of low-wage workers and the fight for $15.

Each movement has many fronts and facets, organizations and campaigns. And there are others, as well.

You can trace a direct line between each of these movements and the most important statement of UU public theology (the Seven Principles). People are fighting for the principles we have named as the Seven Principles in the streets everyday.  They may have never heard of Unitarian Universalism. We are not their leaders. The question is whether we will see them as our leaders.

Imagine a world in which all of the social movement I have named  are defeated, defused, and repressed.

Law enforcement continues to kill people at will; the prisons are expanded; women's health is sacrificed for patriarchal morality; transwomen are murdered unnoticed; 11 million people ride cattlecars to the border; the world gets hotter; the rich get richer; the poor get poorer.

What are the prospects of Unitarian Universalism in such a future?

The mismatches I named earlier are the surface signs of a deeper problem, which is our insularity. And our insularity comes from the way that the historical process has shaped us. For we have been shaped by history in such as a way as to be out of touch with what is ground-breaking and innovative in the culture in which we live. History has shaped us to be on the sidelines.

And on the sidelines, we will wither.

So, we need to get off the sidelines, and into life, as it is known and lived by ordinary people today. There is our hope.

Unitarian Universalism must become the most accessible point of contact for and a holistic expression of the movement for social and personal transformation in our culture.

It is a deep spiritual challenge, but we have the theological and religious tools to guide us in that process of spiritual growth.

More on that tomorrow.....

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Why the UU Mismatches?

More from the comments I made at the Dawning Future Conference
The common feature of many of the mismatches seems to be our insularity. 
  • We build our buildings the way we like them and where we live; 
  • we talk to ourselves in the ways that we are comfortable with; 
  • we treat our religious professionals as though their congregants were their only constituency that mattered. 
  • We finance ourselves just enough to sustain ourselves
  • On the local level, we spend very little on outreach. 

It is as though we think that our congregation is the Beloved Community, rather thinking of the Beloved Community as all humanity made fair and the people one. 

But why are UU's so insular? 

Everything I said about 2013 is even more true now.
It is not surprising when you think about the social climate since 1970. Forty years of 40 years of conservative culture  creates and reinforces a dichotomy between the personal and the social. (Conservative culture is about the personal: individual advancement and fulfillment) Put another way, conservative culture perpetuates a conflict between the spiritual as individual growth vs. the spiritual as the deepening solidarity

In conservative culture, the Kingdom of God becomes heaven, the reward for individual good behavior and faith. In more progressive traditions, the Kingdom of God is more a this-worldly realm of love and justice. 

The Unitarian Universalist response to the conservative dominated culture was to focus on our local congregations where everyone was on their own journey, their own path, to personal fulfillment and serenity. Social justice, well, that’s some people’s thing, their hobby, and they can have their table at coffee hour and their petitions and clipboards. 

The legacy of the conservative era has been our insularity. We have been tending to ourselves, and preserving the peace among ourselves. This has been a self-reinforcing style; congregations become more like themselves all the time, unconsciously narrowing the gate through which people enter.

There is a generational effect as well of the conservative era we have endured.

During conservative periods, liberal and progressive movements do not grow. They don't grow because younger generations do not join them because they do not seem effective and relevant. During the last 40 years, UU's have been so focused on why we can't hold our own young people that we did not really confront the fact that we were not attracting young people at all. 

Consequently, the leadership and the style of Unitarian Universalism aged. Now what? 

In many movements, the existing organizations survive through a tough downturn, but when the underlying movement re-emerges, it often re-emerges in the form of new organizations, with a new style.

The Movement for Black Lives is not the youth wing of the NAACP. In fact, SNCC in 1964 was not the youth wing of the NAACP. The New Left was not the Old Left organizations transformed and brought up to date. The community unions fighting for fast food workers and the minimum wage are not new incarnations of the unions that were so successful in the 1950's. New periods bring forth new organizations, new styles, new leadership to bring life and vitality to on-going and long-standing struggles. 

The situation that we are in is that the Unitarian Universalism we know now is not well-suited for the times that we now live in. It is not the result of a particularly heinous moral failure on our part. It is just the history of our time.

But just as the historical developments of the last half century help explain where we are now, the same "historical understanding of a possible future" can give us guidance to move forward. 

More on that tomorrow. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Mismatches between Unitarian Universalism and the Work It Needs to Do.

The mismatches: 

  • We have buildings, many beautiful buildings; but modern communications make place irrelevant. 
  • We are skilled in written words; but the world now communicates in image and music.
  • We have spirituality embedded in a long and glorious religious tradition; and much of the world wants spirituality but actively and consciously rejects religious tradition.
  • We have an expensive membership-based business model; the people have declining standards of living. The membership of the local congregation shares the expenses of the congregation where costs are rising. The membership, for the most part, is not seeing equivalent income growth.
  • Our finances are first dedicated to existing local institutions which are unsustainable at our membership level; but where we need to invest is in new institutions and ministries. Our primary form of support is pledges to local congregations, which are caught in a financial squeeze. Less to give denominational bodies, too little for innovative new ministries.
  • We have and require a learned ministry; but wisdom is no longer associated with educational attainment, but with authenticity: real experience passed through the fire of thought.
  • Our expectations of religious professionals, especially parish ministers, are unrealistic. We expect high quality worship leadership, executive leadership of the institution, and significant attention to the pastoral needs of the congregation.
  • We are led by and culturally defined by baby boomers; the people now making religious choices for their lives are later generations.  (most Boomers have made their choice already.)
  • Our shared default ways of doing and being are monocultural in a multicultural world. 
From my keynote presentation at the Metro NY District Conference: The Dawning Future. Held at UU Congregation of Shelter Rock on November 14, 2015. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Humanism in Context -- Questions Arise

So many interesting questions are arising from the essay Humanism in Context -- it's on the "pages list" on the right hand side. Read the comments, please.

  • One question is about whether there is a difference between the overbearing Christian nationalism of the Cold War era and the overbearing evangelical culture in much of non-urban America. Especially since, it is noted, that this is where Unitarian Universalism is growing. While I think that it is a different sort of push for conformity, it probably feels the same to the people who find themselves on the outside of it. So, I suspect that it makes joining a UU congregation an easy fit. Like attracting like.
  • A couple of comments about what a different world the new fellowships were -- how even the ministers they called came from a different educational and cultural background as the prevailing New England norms. It makes me wonder how much the Unitarian denominational leaders knew they were going to grow by diversifying when they authorized the Fellowship movement. Or did they assume that the liberal Christians were going to evolve in same direction. 
  • I am now becoming curious about A. Powell Davies and James Luther Adams, two of our leading theologians and ministers during this time of Cold War Christian Nationalism. And then there is the case of the Los Angeles congregation, which lost its tax exempt status for refusing to sign a state required loyalty oath. And also Rev. Stephen Fritchman's controversial career. 
  • But mostly, I wonder about the effect of this formative experience for many of our congregants and congregations, of being culturally resistant, affects us now. It raises the following question to me: if we understand ourselves as being resisters and rebels, why has it been so difficult for us to make alliances and enter into coalitions and expand our reach into other groups who also are outsiders in American culture. One possibility is that as much as we see ourselves as outsiders, no one else sees us that way. They see our privilege and power. And a lot of people don't see atheists and humanists as an oppressed group. So our presumption that everybody would see us allies in  whatever struggle can seem presumptuous and overbearing.
Other thoughts and questions?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"Humanism In Context" further contexualized.

For those of you who are too impatient to read 2000 word essays on UU history, let me summarize
"Humanism in Context" for you.

That sense of the cultural radicalism that one feels in Unitarian Universalist congregations does not flow from the few radicals of the 19th century Unitarian movement, nor does it flow from our participation in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. No, our sense of cultural radicalism is the result of many of our churches being formed in resistance to the overbearing and aggressive Christian nationalism of the Cold War Era. 

I came to this insight by mashing up Kevin Kruse's "One Nation Under God" with Holley Ulbrich's The Fellowship Movement". Kruse describes the setting: the national elite (business, political and religious leaders) aggressively promoting a conformist form of Christianity as an essential element of Americanism and patriotism. Ulbrich describes what was happening in Unitarianism at the same time: the formation of mostly humanist fellowships across the country. My essay just connects the dots.

I am trying to imagine what that period felt like to those newly self-identified Unitarians. The atheist and the non-believer were being identified as an internal enemy of America, the people whose religious opinions were unacceptable. And so, joining a Unitarian fellowship was both an act of defiance and an act of camouflage. Atheism disguised as a church. (Someone could write a whole history of our modern UU movement, its liturgies and pieties, as the working out of that weird proposition in practice.) Non-believers who got up and went somewhere on Sunday morning.

What I am suggesting is that this process of being formed as a center of resistance to Christian Nationalism gave the UU's as sense of themselves as "critical insiders/outsiders" to American culture. On the one hand, we were the "excluded other," perhaps even a dangerous element. And on the other hand, we were the "elite in exile." I think that much of current thinking about ourselves focuses too much on our self-image as the exiled elite.

Well, I could go on and on about the possible implications of this, but this is my starting point. UU's sense of themselves as outsiders and cultural radicals come from the circumstances of our creation as a modern religious movement, and more importantly, it comes from our own historical experience of being identified as outside the norm, the other and the scapegoat.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Blessing the Stranger (Who happens to be a Baby)

I was born in 1949; my father was a Unitarian minister, serving Follen Church in Lexington, MA. I was "christened" -- which, as far as I can tell, was theistic quasi-Christian step down from a Baptism, mostly involving a naming ceremony, but without the washing away from original sin. 

The 1937 Hymns of the Spirit does not have a liturgy for any form of baby blessing service, although in its index of hymns it lists four as appropriate for "Christening services or dedication of Children." 

When did the practice of baby blessing become absorbed into a congregational rite in UUism? Somewhere in my lifetime, I think. The baby blessing service became a "Dedication of Children", performed during the worship service. Its purpose was to ritually commit the congregation to the care and nurture of the child. It welcomed the child into the "extended family" of the congregation. 

This congregational understanding of baby blessings became so ingrained that many UU ministers routinely turn down requests to ritually bless babies from families outside the congregation. 

But think of the theological and ecclesiological implications of that development ! There is so much to unpack in that practice. 

I think that this has to be seen in the context of the search for the transcendent in Unitarian Universalism, a search that became very complicated as we tried to manage the divide between humanism and theism. 

In practical terms, the congregation became the source of the transcendent and polity became theology.  The covenant, by which we meant the covenant that creates the local congregation became the functional equivalent of the creed. Building our local communities became the way that we evangelized liberal religion.

Thus we have arrived at our current cul-de-sac: most of our congregations offer membership in the community as our path to spiritual growth, yet the culture around us is highly resistant to leaping into that sort of commitment. 

Young families are undergoing the life-changing experience of parenting a new human being, a child.  They want a ritual celebration of this new life, and an auspicious launch of their child's growth, and a chance to pledge to the child, their own parents and family, and the mysterious powers that govern the Universe, that they will try their best to be good parents.  

Like many young families, they are not connected to a religious tradition, and the traditions of the families of origin are not what they want, so they present themselves to the local UU church for help in that little ritual of blessing their baby.

And they are turned away. Because they are not members of the congregation already. All talk of "welcoming the stranger" and "radical hospitality" notwithstanding, they are turned away. 

Because we have lost the capacity to provide means of grace to someone outside our community.

What is our ministry to those who are not Unitarian Universalists? Ministry is more than a service. It is a service AND an invitation: an opportunity to pray, to pledge, to promise, to confess, to say aloud, to thank, to praise, and to reflect. Ministry is a service and an invitation to make a relational gesture toward the ultimate. 

The opening clause of James Luther Adam's "I Call That Church Free" is "I call that church free which enters into a covenant with the ultimate source of existence." Clearly, he is saying that the ultimate source of existence is not the church itself, but that which the church covenants with, that which the church and congregation point towards. 

And is not parenthood one of the decision points in which parents and families are ready to make a covenant with past, present, future, and ultimate forms of existence? 

The question, beyond the question of blessing strangers who happen to be babies, is how do we invite strangers into a covenant with the ultimate source of existence?