What's In Our DNA (Dialectical Theology, part 7 of many)

The institutional DNA of the Unitarian Universalist Association was established at the time of merger. (I am talking about the UUA, not individual congregations, or this larger thing of the "liberal religious tradition in the USA")

I see three governing assumptions that come down from the time of merger.

(1) We are going to be bigger. The merger generation assumed that we were poised to become the religious movement that captured the emerging new consensus: progressive, modernist, liberal, cosmopolitan, tolerant. Millions of people were coming our way; our work was to make them room.

The problem with the assumption that we are the verge of growth is that it has created a recurring frustration, a nagging "what is wrong with us?" bouncing around in our collective heads.

(2) The merger generation thought that public ministry was our most important work. The President would be our public spokesperson, and their ideal ministry setting was the steps of the Capitol.

The problem with the assumption that public ministry was the most important work is that we ride up and down with the state of other movements in the society. The long period of conservative cultural dominance (1980-2012) was dispiriting and demoralizing.

(3) The questions that were glossed over, ignored, or delegated away at the time of merger come down to us now as questions that the UUA has no means to address. The merger generation delegated theological and liturgical questions to the local congregations. The question of ecclesiology was glossed over. After all, the new denomination already had churches, and did not need to answer the questions of what is a congregation, who is it for, how is it formed, what does it do?

A case in point: The UU consensus on theology as expressed in liturgy has emerged as "belief in God is not a primary religious question. Religious liberals consider it an open question, with which much of humankind struggles. Our congregations' liturgical practices should not close this question but allow for it to remain alive for worshippers."  It could be phrased in many different ways, but my impression is that this is the rough approximation of how most of our ministers set the boundaries of their liturgical practice and preaching.

Yet, how much energy has been wasted over the decades in local congregations over conflicts and complaints about this question. A rough consensus has emerged among our religious leaders, but no forum exists for articulating the consensus on a denominational level, or even having the conversation. We assume, which is an assumption that is in our DNA, that this are not even a legitimate question.


  1. Tom, in regard to this:

    "Belief in God is not a primary religious question. Religious liberals consider it an open question, with which much of humankind struggles. Our congregations' liturgical practices should not close this question but allow for it to remain alive for worshippers."

    Suppose one wanted this to be the position of the UUA, regardless of discussion. Would it be possible, in theory, to do that within the rules of the current structure?

    I ask not because I think it would be a fine idea--I do think that, but it's not my point--but because I'm curious about how to raise this sort of question. A drastic one is to force the issue organizationally.

    1. John, you have gotten my point. By our tradition, (by which I mean the governing assumptions of the UUA), it would be a very radical action to even propose such a conversation. I suppose that one could imagine amending the by-laws where it says that congregations have to regular religious services to include a specification that the liturgy at that religious service did not close the question of the existence of God. That proposal would be denounced as "Un-Unitarian Universalist." Which it would be, according to our governing assumptions. Such is the inheritance we have from the Merger Generation's decision to punt the question of theology and liturgy to local congregations.

    2. Tom, I've been enjoying your recent series. I have a question. When you predict that a bylaw stating that the question of God's existence was not closed would be denounced by some as Un-Unitarian Universalist do you think that reaction would come largely from non-theists who feel the question is, in fact, or should be closed? My sense is that most UU theists accept that there are clergy and congregants who do not believe in a higher being.

    3. Hi Pete! I suppose you are right about who might be the most vocal, but I think that the general reaction would be that the UUA was out of bounds in giving any sort of directive about the liturgy/theology of local congregations. Which is interesting because the UUA does provide a lot of leadership about inclusivity in liturgy -- for example, the present effort to get rid of ableist language in liturgy. I am trying to name an unspoken assumption that on such overtly theological points as the existence of God, the UUA (or "Boston" or "HQ") should not say anything. I think that expectation is a habit of thought that comes from the politics of merger.


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