Friday, August 11, 2017

The Buried Narrative in the Sources Statement

In the 20th Century, the Liberal Protestant denominations of Unitarianism and Universalism were challenged from within by a Religious humanist movement which questioned the existence of the God of the Bible and the continued use of liturgies that directed worship to that Deity. The Humanist movement reflected the theological and philosophical trends in the intellectual culture of the times.

The Humanist challenge to traditional Unitarianism and Universalism took on a geographical and historical character. The Humanist congregations tend toward the West (meaning West of the Hudson River) while the Liberal Protestants were stronger among the older and more established churches of New England, many of which pre-dated the Unitarian controversy of the early 19th century.

The conflict, which became known as the humanist-theist conflict, was sharp and protracted. Congregations split, members left, ministers lost their careers, stained glass windows were removed or covered up, hymns re-written, liturgies changed.

But before either denomination formally split, the controversy was defused by a turn toward a pluralistic agnosticism. Both sides tacitly agreed that no one knew the whole truth, and that therefore, multiple and competing theological perspectives could co-exist in the same worshipping community.

The merger of the AUA and UCA took place well into the history of the humanist-theist conflict. By 1961, Humanism was dominant in both denominations, but in a tense series of negotiations, just enough room for Liberal Protestantism was preserved in the new denomination to maintain the support and participation of liberal Christians and other theists.

Merger cemented the consensus: The prevailing theological perspective was an "agnostic pluralism" and UU liturgy was conducted, in most places, with a humanist language set. A small minority of congregations continued to use Liberal Protestant or otherwise theistic liturgies. The humanist language set became the official language of UUism at the time of merger and ever since.

The turn toward Pluralistic Agnosticism set the stage for Unitarian Universalists to be inspired a wider diversity of theological perspectives: mysticism, world religions which were included in the original Sources statement. The inclusion of the 6th Source established an institutional process by which additional Sources could become official acknowledged.

While the diversity of theological perspectives has become a centrifugal force in Unitarian Universalism, it is has been offset by the centripetal, or unifying, force of our public theology. Our public theology is our theological understanding of our work in the world, or mission. Our public theology is expressed in the Seven Principles, which have also continued to be developed over time. The most important development in the Seven Principles has been the further commitment to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural religious movement.


Comment: This is what I consider to be a thumbnail sketch of the story behind the Sources statement. This history, however, is only a part of a larger history, which I think needs to uncovered. The question is this: how does the story we tell about ourselves hide the decisions that were made to keep black religious liberals out of power in the UUA?

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

More on the Sources

The main problem I see with the Sources is that they hide the theological dispute that has shaped contemporary Unitarian Universalism: the Humanist rebellion against liberal Protestantism, a historic event that happened throughout most of the 20th century.

As is true with all historic events, that Humanist Rebellion against Liberal Protestantism has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is a story. It is, to a large extent, our story.

By simply listing brief summations of Humanism and Theism as differing options on a menu of theological perspectives, the Sources statement don't explain how their clash threatened to split liberal religion, and how that clash was defused and partially resolved.

I won't retell the whole story of the conflict, but will remind everyone that it was not a silly conflict. It was a serious dispute over the nature of reality that would define the teachings and liturgy of our religious communities. A lot was at stake: churches gained and lost members, ministers lost their careers, congregations were split. Beautiful stained glass windows were covered up or destroyed.

Ultimately, Unitarian Universalists moved toward a theology of pluralistic agnosticism about the propositions of formal theology. All opinions would be welcome, as no one really knows the whole truth. (The parable that best exemplifies the retreat from the battle lines is the story of the "Blind Men (sic) and the Elephant" which seemed to come into Unitarian thought with its re-telling by Sophia Lyon Fahs in "Long Ago and Many Lands" in 1948).

The Sources statement also exemplifies that Pluralistic Agnosticism: a menu of differing theological traditions that allows each person to pick and choose their truth.

The defusing the Humanist-Theist dispute by turning to Pluralistic Agnosticism had two major effects.

1. Pluralistic Agnosticism allowed UU's to acknowledge other spiritual and religious traditions beyond the binary of humanism and theism. These newly discovered, or re-discovered, and acknowledged influences are summed in the source statements about mysticism, world religions, and earth-centered spirituality. I suspect that as time goes on, more sources will be discovered and acknowledged in a statement of the influences on our living tradition: western Buddhism, Feminism.

2. But for all the growing diversity of theological influences on contemporary Unitarian Universalism, what unites UU's (as much as that is possible) is our public theology, as expressed in the Principles list, and in the 2nd Source: "words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love."

(Isn't it interesting that the Sources statement was explicit about the powers and structures of evil" which the Principles fail to describe what stands in the way of their realization?)





Monday, August 07, 2017

The Sources of our Living Tradition: A Critique

The Six Sources portion of our bylaws needs to be examined again. I think the Sources statement are a mess, more confusing and confused than wrong.

First of all, they are ahistorical. They do not describe the actual historical process of our formation. You would think that a "sources" statement would describe an intellectual history. There is a when and a where and a who behind each of these sources, which is not explained.

For example, our historical origin is in Protestant Christianity. Indeed, many of our churches were actual Protestant Christian churches for long periods of their history. It is also true that for many current Unitarian Universalists, their personal religious history begins in Christianity. Unitarian Universalism sprouted from a specific branch on the Christian family tree and our sources statement should be able to explain that.

One of our most important sources is the humanist movement of the 20th Century. The Sources statement bows to it in the Source Five.  But the Sources statement does not describe the revolutionary character of Humanism as a religious movement. Historically, humanism makes no sense except as a rebellion against liberal Christianity. Our Sources do not convey that fact that our religious movement is rooted in both sides of what seemed to be a "zero-sum" theological conflict.

I believe that the Sources statement is a like a family narrative that hides, or disguises, or minimizes, a family trauma. The falsity at the core of the narrative is the implication that to our ancestors at the time whether or not one believed in God was a mere difference of opinion without any lasting consequence. This is like thinking that Cain and Abel had an minor difference of opinion on agricultural policy.

If the humanist rebellion against Protestantism was the trauma, liberal religion survived it. But how? Because how we survived the trauma has formed us, even more than the trauma itself. Theologically, the mechanism of survival was to move to a stance of agnostic pluralism. Agnostic pluralism says that no one can really know the ultimate truth, so therefore many opinions about the truth can coexist.

The move to agnostic pluralism is the hidden, or buried, event that dictates the form of the Sources statement.

Each of the other statements refer to a historic event in our common intellectual history. Those events are presented as disconnected summary ideas abstractly stated. Hidden in those summary abstractions are the influence of the Christian social gospel, the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent liberation movements, the rise of Western Buddhism, global immigration, the women's movement and on and on. All of this social history has been our sources, and all of it is hidden when we talk about those Sources.

None of this rich intellectual history is revealed in the Sources statement. The statement is designed to blur this history in order to avoid conflict.

The Sources are, therefore, not only ahistorical; they are idealist. Movements of people and of the Spirit, are reduced to summarizing phrases and then those disembodied ideas are thrown into a pot together without explaining their interrelationship.

The result is that our sourcing statements promote a theological pluralism that is individualistic. We have a cafeteria-style history, a salad bar of memory. You pick and choose. The Source statements frequently refer to "we", to "us" and to "our". But in all cases, that collective pronoun is assumed to partial and voluntary.

Note how we assume that the Principles make a unified whole, but the Sources do not. And so, the Principles take on a normative dimension -- they describe how we should act, a set of guidelines to which we can held accountable. The Sources defeat any attempt to appeal to a common history, or to common obligations that arise from our past.



Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The 8th Principle

An Eighth Principle has been proposed.

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

The Eighth Principle brings to the level of our Principles the commitment to anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism that we first declared in a Resolution of Immediate Witness in 1994, and further as a Business Resolution in 1997.

The Principles are the statement of our common theology, which, by our many previous commitments, is necessarily a public theology. (As soon as the UU's began to say "Deeds, not Creeds" to describe our theological approach, we withdrew, as a body, from a common approach to the categories of traditional systematic theology.) Unitarian Universalist hold many diverse theological perspectives; what unites us is our public theology: our mission in the world, our ways of doing things, and our journey toward wholeness. Our Principles are our public theology, as of 1985.

The Seven Principles, as written, do not describe what opposes them. They are sunny and utopian. Their shadow side, though, is our self-righteousness, which follows directly from the Principles one-sidedness. They do not name why they are not universally practiced and why we ourselves fail them so often. After all, if we have such high ideals, then we must the good ones. And those who don't agree must, therefore, be the bad ones.

To bring anti-oppression to the Principles identifies what opposes our sunny view. We are stepping beyond the "We Good; They must be Bad" world of the Principles. We say that Oppressive Systems are what opposes the Principles, and we acknowledge, because we are talking about systems, that we are implicated in them as well. We are all implicated in the oppressive systems that rule our world, different only in angle and degree.

Anti-oppression is not a political, or sociological, assertion. Implicit in its generality (not listing certain oppressions and struggles) is a statement correcting our too optimistic view of human nature, Human beings establish relationships of domination and subordination. Human beings oppress and exploit one another. Human beings organize themselves to oppress one another. Human beings build oppressive structures. Human beings are guilty bystanders in those systems. At the root of what we have called sin is the participation as the dominant side in those oppressive relationships.

What can save us from "this body of sin," to use the words of Paul?

The proposed Principle says that Beloved Community is possible on the other side of "dismantling racism and other oppressions in ourselves and in our institutions." There is a interesting ambiguity in the word "our" here. I think that "our" must refer to the global humanity community; our goal must be more than the creation of Unitarian Universalism itself, as the Beloved Community.

I support the adoption of the eighth principle as a positive step in our theological development as a faith community.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Recovenanting Task Force Report

People have asked where they could get a copy of the ReCovenanting Task Force Report. Until it is published in the proceedings of the GA, enjoy this copy of it in draft form. The actual delivery may have been slightly different.


Report of Re-Covenanting Task Force
Delivered by Rev. Susan Ritchie, accompanied by Kathy Burek, Rev. David Miller and myself.
General Assembly, New Orleans
June 22, 2017

On October 15, 2015, Moderator Jim Key called for the Board to consider ‘how we might imagine moving from the notion of membership to covenant’.  

And, 

let’s imagine, rather than signing the book, people entered and were welcomed into a covenant that could be renewed periodically. Imagine if congregations entered and were welcomed into covenant with the larger association that would be renewed periodically. Perhaps this is an approach that would energize our movement….”

Jim Key proposed a Task Force, to be led by Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie to take up this initiative. We are that Task Force, and we are here to report to you our thinking and progress and to make a proposal for your consideration: a proposal that we think will help move our association and congregations in the direction of greater mutual cooperation and accountability, and toward greater enthusiasm and commitment to our shared work. 

The question that we felt that we needed to answer first was “what is this covenant?” that we are being asked “to enter into and periodically renew”, to use Jim Key’s phrase. 

That covenant must be more than a set of carefully chosen words that we periodically recite, like the pledge of allegiance. 

That covenant must be more than agreement between us to treat each other with respect. It must be an agreement between ourselves and something larger than ourselves.

That “something larger” is a compact between ourselves and the work we share in the world: our mission. Not our mission statement, but our mission.

We were inspired by the work of the American Baptists who engage in a form of collective discernment they call “the mission table.”  The Baptists have a simple clarity of their overall mission, “spread the gospel of Jesus Christ”, which is different than the way that we would express our work. However, they have a vigorous process of discerning how each entity in their world can work together through their work to fulfill their collective mission. They sit at “the mission table” and discuss their work, their challenges and obstacles, their strengths and capabilities, and align their work together. 

Upon reflection, the task force has come to understand that for Unitarian Universalists to genuinely covenant together, they would be engaging together in theological reflection—broadly defined to include humanism, atheism, and agnosticism--to determine the why, what,and how of our shared work as a religious movement. To covenant is to commit to that engagement and to agree to be mutually accountable to what comes of it. We do not renew our covenant periodically but continuously.

Our response to Jim Key’s invitation “to imagine moving from the notion of membership to covenant”  is to imagine all Unitarian Universalists, in all our forms, actively building mutual accountability to our collective discernment of what Unitarian Universalism is called to do in the world at the time. Covenanting is discerning together and being accountable to our mission. 

It’s fairly basic, doesn’t it? 

People joining together, agreeing on a mission and purpose, and being accountable to each other to fulfill it. 

 Why would the task force feel that what we are proposing is not what is already happening. After all, aren’t our congregations having regular congregational meetings? Don’t we take lots of votes here at General Assembly? Don’t we elect our President and Moderator? 

 Elections and debates are insufficient to generate the discernment of mission we seek. Unitarian Universalism seems by its structures and processes to sideline theological reflection and keep mutual accountability to our mission at minimal levels. From top to bottom, Unitarian Universalism is a membership organization, with minimal expectations of each other. The result is a half-hearted religious movement.

The way we do things are the result of the values that were important to our forerunners. 

The UUA is organized as standard non-profit enterprise. The standard non-profit organization structure, first evolved in the early 19th century, was itself a copy of the business corporation, and specifically, a small New England business corporation that saw virtue in consolidating power to a limited number of patrons.  The 1825 establishment of the AUA was very much a part of this milieu (see The Transformation of Charity in Postrevolutionary New England by Conrad Edick Wright), and while there have been many changes since that time some core patterns of distributing power remain the same.  Indeed, in many ways the UUA maintains much of the structure given it by Samuel Atkins Eliot (American Unitarian Association President, 1900-1927; some even call the UUA the “House that Sam built”).  Eliot did work to deliberately match the AUA organization with that of business models, especially in terms of disempowering the Board, along the lines of successful “banks, insurance companies, and mills.”  Of course, in doing so, he was also bringing the AUA even more in line with how wealthy New England families were accustomed to running New England charities. 

Our structures inexorably reduce discussion of our mission and of the work of the Association, into the business of the Association. How can we discern together what the world needs from us, and what we have to offer the world, if when we come together we meet as shareholders in a non-profit corporation, to hear reports, to elect pre-selected slates of candidates, and line up at pro and con microphones for resolutions that do not address the fundamental questions of our mission? The way we do our business inevitably keeps us focused on technical issues, rather than the adaptive issues that really challenge us.

Our present structures, ways of relating, ways of talking together are structures which maintain the supremacy of white, middle and upper class, male elites within Unitarian Universalism. 

The Task Force has come to the conclusion that if Unitarian Universalists are to fully covenant with each other, we need a different way of being together. 

Fortunately, our history has examples of more substantive ways of coming together: specifically, the General Conference.  

Both the Unitarians and the Universalists, like almost all denominations, have historically had two wings, the administrative and ecclesiastical bodies.  Traditionally, administrative wings are responsible for providing services to the congregations and to the larger world on behalf of the congregations such as the congregations cannot practicably assume themselves.  The ecclesiastical body is an intentional community of delegates who come together for the mutual strengthening of the congregations, the creation of relationships of mutual aid and accountability, and theological discernment.  The ecclesiastical body is responsible for discerning the religious movement’s ultimate and broad purpose.  Ultimately, the ecclesiastical body asks and discerns answers to the question: “what is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism in these times?”
A General Conference is an ecclesiastical meeting of delegates from congregations, covenanted communities and trans-congregational organizations that represent historically marginalized UU’s.  These general conferences should be smaller than our current General Assembly, so that meaningful discussions can be held. We might, for example, limit congregations and organizations to a small number of delegates. Every effort should be made to make these conferences affordable, so that attendees are not limited to older people of means. Further, so that these conferences can build for the future of our movement, we should actively engage youth, young adults, UUs of color, and other historically under-represented groups.  The conferences should engage in one or two large questions in depth over the course of several days.  It should be without activities that not directly advance the focused conversation.  
The Task Force welcomes feedback from all UUs. To that end, we have been reaching out to all of the identity and professional groups we know of to hear what you all have to say. We invite you to talk with us here at GA, or to email your comments to

Summary Recommendation: The Task Force recommends that the UUA Moderator call for a General Conference of Unitarian Universalists as soon as possible and no later than the fall of 2018, for the purposes of exploring what the UUA is called to be and to do in today’s world. We further recommend that the Unitarian Universalist Association schedule general conferences on a regular basis, perhaps in biennial rotation with General Assembly business sessions.  Prior to merger in 1961, both the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America separated the business meetings from ecclesiastical gatherings that fostered deeper discernment of the underlying theology and philosophies of the respective movements. These conferences were unfortunately abandoned at the time of consolidation. The Task Force believes it is time to bring them back. Further, the Task Force believes that the organization DNA of the UUA be re-assessed given the racist, sexist, and class biases that formed and which are reinforced by our structure, precluding the full realization of covenantal relationships.   

Sunday, June 25, 2017

An Endorsement

Water, as you know, freezes at 32F degrees. 

But if you look at a cup of water which measures 36F, it is liquid. 

At 35F, it is still liquid. 

At 34F, it is still liquid, and if you want an ice cube, you are getting impatient about now, wondering why nothing is happening. 

At 33F, you think there must be something wrong somewhere. It’s getting colder, nothing is changing, it seems. 

But, at 32F, there is rapid and dramatic change. Liquid becomes a solid. The water has been transformed. A long series of incremental, quantitative changes has brought about a qualitative transformation. 

Change is gradual and continuous, but often imperceptible. However, long periods of small changes finally culminate in a transformative moment, when something long submerged reveals itself, in what seems like a wink of an eye. 
It feels like Unitarian Universalism is in the midst of one of the transformative moments of its history. 

Unitarian Universalism has always been a combination of competing impulses and aspirations. On the one hand, it is rooted in the New England elite establishment, whose customs and methods of stoic noblesse oblige suffuse it. It likes to think that Unitarian Universalism is disinterested, tolerant, above the pettiness and passions of the moment. Its self-image is respectable and even, noble. And when it acts with cruelty, or for exclusion, it does not see it, because it sees only its high motives of institutional integrity.

On the other hand, Unitarian Universalists themselves, have far outrun their establishment origins. Its most widely felt aspiration of the last century, individual religious freedom, became over time a commitment to self-determination for all, and then, a vision of the beloved community, and now the realization that the beloved community is thwarted by the systems of oppression that rule our world. If one was not looking carefully, these transitions seemed like insignificant rhetorical intensifications which changed nothing, like the difference between water at 34 degrees and 33 degrees. 

Unitarian Universalism has become radicalized in contradiction to its establishment DNA. That push and pull of its own opposing energies broke open this year over the UUA’s hiring practices, which rapidly spread into a crisis exposing the anti-blackness and institutionalized white supremacy of our systems. 

The crisis has taken its toll on Unitarian Universalists emotionally and spiritually, but a new question and possibility has come from it: what could Unitarian Universalism be if it no longer centered white people?  

What if the present generation of white Unitarian Universalists loosened their grip on the institutions of Unitarian Universalism, freeing them to become agents for, and a foretaste of, a deep global Universalism?

What is happening in Unitarian Universalism is not just happening to us, but is happening to the whole world. New leadership is emerging on a global scale. 

So I come to the task of endorsing a candidate for the Presidency of the UUA for the next six years, a period filled with the possibility of transformative, qualitative change, a time when we might be able to make an historic breakthrough to new way of being.

I don’t believe that the ways that we have evaluated candidates in the past will work in this moment in time. Experience, knowledge of the UUA systems, good proposals, even interpersonal skills will not be enough. 

What we need in the next President of the UUA is (1) the ability to see into the future and grasp what is possible now — to see what is being born as well as what is dying away and (2) the ability to lead in those breakthrough moments when water freezes, or the dams burst, or the butterfly emerges, the unpredictable and unrepeatable moments of genuine change, and (3) the ability to offer the people of world an experience of the Spirit that can hold us all steady in the struggle. 

After careful consideration, I am going to support Susan Frederick Gray. 

I think I see in Susan that ability to be present, to lead, in the unpredictable moments of real change. I see in the way that her talk seems to always return to “mission” a clarity about how we can shape the future. I think that she is brave, and faithful, and accomplished.

No UUA President can lead all of us where we don’t really want to go. But if UU’s are ready “to trust a dawning future more”, I believe that Susan Frederick Gray can lead us there.  







Thursday, June 01, 2017

The mystery of Dating the posts

I have been asked to clarify the dates on which I posted my posts of appreciation of the UUA Presidential Candidates.

I published the first four posts -- the Big Picture post, and the three appreciations on 5/21. I published the endorsement on 5/30.

Upon the request of Susan Frederick Gray, I made two corrections to the appreciation of her: the first to clarify that she did not start running for the President of the UUA in 2012, but started thinking about running in 2012. The second was to clarify that her parents did not actually divorce in her younger years, but have stayed together after a difficult renegotiation of their marriage.

I received both of these requests before I made my endorsement of her, but made the corrections after her. Blogger persisted in listing the posts in reverse chronological order.

I have now learned how to keep my endorsement at the top of my blog by saying it was published in the future.