I cannot call myself a Unitarian Universalist

Yesterday, my significant other asked me to do something, and I jokingly said “no”. Jokingly, she asked me if it was against my religion or something. I had a small epiphany in that moment.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definitions for Religion include: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.

Religion requires some ideas, or Principles, that believers adhere to. A religion has to have a cause; to be for some things and against others. A religion  requires that the people in it have some kind of common faith and practice that strives to do something, whether in the hearts of the faithful or the world at large.

I have a religion, but it has been made very clear to me over the last few weeks that it is not Unitarian Universalism. It has become clear to me that Unitarian Universalism does not really exist as a thing, because there is no way to define it. If there is nothing that we stand for, collectively and unabashedly, then we wear a meaningless label that reeks of all but the worst stereotypes lobbed at us by the likes of The Simpsons and Steven Colbert. I have ideas, and I will even go so far as to say that I believe in things. More over, there are things that I stand against, not just on principle, but as matters of faith.

I love my congregation because we have a covenant that makes me feel like part of something bigger than myself that has the potential to make our community a better place. I want to continue to help, in my small way, To grow spiritually healthy people who promote love and justice in the world.It isn’t much by way of theology, but we have a doctrine of love, the sacrament of searching honestly for truth, and the prayer of service to the community and the world. Those are things I can believe in, but they are not enough for me.

I relish the goals of the UUA, as stated in the Principles and as carried out by the Side of Love campaign, the Welcoming Congregations and Green Sanctuary programs. I love what we try to be, but I long for a movement that tries as hard to be lively as it does to be inclusive. I want to be passionate about what we stand for, rather than the constant debate about whether standing is a good idea. I want a tradition that actually leaves marks on the hearts and minds of my children and gives them something to be proud of.

I have figured out that there is no meaning in the label Unitarian Universalist for me. It means nothing, and I will sadly have to abandon my personal use of it, as it is less descriptive than calling myself “progressive”, “spiritual”, or even “mindfully human”. Since the only definitions of UU come from either membership rolls that anyone can buy into, or our critics, I refuse to submit to it at all for now on.

So, to my critics: You win. I will stop trying to change your beloved nothing. I am moving on to try and define something that has meaning in the world. I’ll see you in church.

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15 Responses

  1. I think James Ishmael Ford has done a reasonable job of defining UUism, in particular in these two posts:

    “One World at a Time: A Meditation on Unitarian Universalism, Rational Religion & the Great Humanist Way”
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/2012/02/one-world-at-a-time-a-meditation-on-unitarian-universalism-rational-religion-the-great-humanist-way.html

    “The Two Truths of Unitarian Universalism and the Middle Way of Liberal Religion” :
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/2012/09/the-two-truths-of-unitarian-universalism-the-middle-way-of-liberal-religion.html

    • Nice words, but the Principles specifically state that they apply only to congregations, and not to individuals. I have been labeled a fundamentalist for suggesting that the Principles could be a starting point for a conversation about what it means to be a UU. Even though they are intentionally circumlocutions and open to miles of interpretation, they are just too binding for many (see comments on my last few blog posts). Ultimately, they have no reason to offer any commitment to the Principles as ideals; the bylaws specifically exempt individuals from having to agree with the Principles that Congregations are covenanted to affirm and promote.

      The fact is that all I have to do to formally refute those definitions is to say “Nuh uh”.

      No, really. That’s clearly all it takes, because my theology is as valid as that of any board member or president, past present or future. I think that is kind of silly, but it is true.

      Personally, I believe that, if you can assent to the near-theology of the the 1st and 7th Principles, the rest flow pretty naturally from them. I believe in the inherent worth of people, and thus the right of each person to have a say in their own destiny and their own search for truth and meaning. That is my religion, but it is not an essential part of being a Unitarian Universalist. In fact, the president of the UUSC, Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz (2006 Berry Street Lecture “What Torture Taught Me”) does not believe in inherent worth and dignity. Clearly, then, the Principles mean nothing in a current definition of Unitarian Universalism, and thus, there is no essential principle or belief that can be used other than that of “Member”; ie. “one who pays dues”.

  2. Sorry to hear this, Tom. We’ve traveled what to me was a fruitful path, but I always wondered about whether you were basing UU-ness too much on the principles. Yes, they embody one part of the “covenant” we share, but there is also the one that members of each congregation enter with one another.

    UU is more about a shared methodology and approach to religion, I think. It has always had a “stubbornly protestant” streak and a “broadly catholic” one, even to the point where neither could be confined to the boundaries of any one existing faith tradition. I’ve tried to put together what I think is the core of UU, based on some ideas that have been advanced by the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar of All Souls, Tulsa. Here’s what I have so far:

    — Unitarian Universalism is fed by three primary streams. Their waters have been flowing together for centuries and appear to have continuing if not growing relevance for us today. They are… 
    (1) a “humanistic stream” (or methodology) of critical thinking and open, free questioning which goes back thousands of years, and can be found in both Eastern and Western religion, but continues to inform and guide our general methodology for our personal and shared journeys today; 

    (2) a “mystical stream” that embraces our ultimate oneness (within a rich diversity). It has not been confined to, but has drawn largely from 19th Century Transcendentalism, with its focus on individual development within a larger web of interconnectedness and interdependence (…and from this we also have inherited much of our radical inclusiveness and multi-faith interests); and…

    (3) an “ethical stream” of ongoing exploration and application of “right-relations”, primarily drawn from within, but not exclusive to, the practical, liberal Judaism and Christianity in which our tradition is historically rooted…from their freedom-narratives and their teachings of responsibility, of brother/sisterhood, of inherent worth and dignity, sharing, forgiveness, and especially of the guiding spirit of expansive, unbounded love; 

    These three streams, or tributaries — one more intellectual, one more spiritual and one applied and behavioral — continue to flow together to form our living tradition in religion. They are deeply interwoven and work together to form a uniquely questioning (and science-friendly), broadly inclusive and ethically engaged tradition in religion, both very old and very new. They continue to be reflected humanistically in a “stubbornly protestant” emphasis on free and open inquiry and personal discernment…of thinking for oneself and the “prophethood and priesthood” of all believers and seekers. Likewise, the mystical discipline (and its Transcendentalist influences) offer a vital spiritual, meditational and “holistic” element to the mix, celebrating the interdependent web of all existence and of our part within it, and the unity of spirit that connects us all, reaching out for greater truth and meaning from whatever source and faith-tradition it may come, religious or otherwise. Together, they have led us into a new understanding of the religious quest for truth and meaning which could no longer be confined by the walls or barriers of any one revealed religion or truth-source, a quest for the inquiring mind and the beating heart.

    But they also contribute to a larger, equally vital “ethical” conversation and exercise in right relations, a practical methodology about how we can better treat ourselves, one another, and the world in which we live. It is devoted to how we might be able to live in utmost individual/personal freedom within an undeniable reality of ultimate interconnectedness and interdependence. It is about taking the steps that are necessary to build, individually and together, to grow civility and mutuality, not only for our own benefit, but for the overall health and sustainability of a faster-moving, ever-shrinking, deeply conflicted world. 

    Again, these are based on ideas from Rev. Lavanhar, also from Roland Bainton’s book “The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century” (chapter on Free Spirits discusses the rational and mystical wings of what went on to become Socinianism and Unitarianism.

    Tom, to me this unique experiment in religion is only beginning. I realize, however, that not everyone can, or will, equally sense its possibilities and potential, whatever name it goes by. All the best, to you Tom.

    • I will have to respond more fully later, as I have a busy day ahead, but I want to say that I agree completely that this experiment is only beginning. My point is that there are soon going to be branches in our faith, as is already being proposed in England I am told.

      I am not abandoning my faith, my theology, or my congregation. I will be fighting to either bring meaning to the term “Unitarian Universalist”, or, and this seems more likely from where I sit, to create a new term that has a definition and a purpose behind it that I can wear in place of the UU label.

      As I have already pointed out in another comment, there are many people who have a definition for Unitarian Universalist. Currently, around 683,000 in the US. And they are all equally valid under the current system. That is a problem, whether the old guard wants to admit it or not. There will be abuses of that system, and that name will become a burden to us if we don’t do something about it.

      I plan to do something, even if it means doing it alone in the beginning.

  3. Ay our last disttict assembly, the keynote spraker suggested that we do start with the principles, and even had another minister spontaneously leap to his feet and PREACH the principles. It was wonderful, and impressed my 15 yr old son to the point that he sees helping others regisyer to vote as part of his religious duty. So interesting that “fundamentalism” has become a bad word too. What is wrong with wanting fundamentals?

    • Absolutely nothing, in my opinion. I’ve been asking why we don’t have a covenant and a purpose.

      I think we need to be able to say at least a couple of things which are true of all UUs, so that we can be defined by something other than our complete lack of conviction.

      • Thomas:

        You say the following: “I think we need to be able to say at least a couple of things which are true of all UUs, so that we can be defined by something other than our complete lack of conviction.”

        Why do we need to say that? We can’t say that about all Catholics, all Buddhist, all Quakers, all scientists, etc.

        Why can’t we say, as people like Rev. Ford say, that “any serious observer can see something as common among us, so common as to be descriptive”? That is quite compatible with complete freedom of conscience among individual members of UU churches. But, as he says in the two sermons I quoted, UUs “generally” have in common a focus on this world, and a belief in both individual human worth and interdependence. He develops these themes much more eloquently than I have here.

        • All Catholics believe that there is a single, hands-on creator to the Universe, and that Jesus of Nazareth was created divine intervention for the purpose of serving as a universal sacrifice for humanity’s sins, though there are many variations, each with their own defining characteristics.

          All Buddhists believe in personal enlightenment, without the need for divine intervention, though there are many sects with their own teachings.

          There are definitions, even though there are people who refuse to recognize the definition because they want to use the label. The definition of a word is crucial to the ability of two people to communicate using that word. The label “Unitarian Universalist” has no definition outside of membership, and so it is useless in any kind of communication outside of official UUA business. If that is the case, then it is a useless label to use for an individual, and thus, I can no longer apply it to myself.

      • I disagree with your contention that “the label “Unitarian Universalist” has no definition outside of membership”. For reasons I have outlined before, I think it is quite apparent that there are certain beliefs and approaches that are “common among us” that serve as a functional definition.

        • I appreciate that you disagree. Please provide me with a reference to something that backs up your point.

          I have the By-Laws on my side: http://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/bylaws/articleii/6909.shtml

          Section C-2.4. Freedom of Belief.

          Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.

          Rough translation from the legalese: There is nothing that defines a UU, and anyone is free to use the label however they choose. The only way to get it wrong is to try and impose a definition.

          ****ETA****
          I have read the sermons you linked to, and I have already refuted their authority in this discussion. I wish it weren’t true that they are just one person’s opinion, and are, in reality, forbidden by organizational by-laws from being used as a definition. They are wonderful, in as far as they go, but they are not useful as definitions.

      • Thomas:

        We’re talking past each other. You want some definition by the UUA of what one must believe to be a Unitarian. I’m saying that there is already a functional definition by what is actually believed and done in UU congregations by UU members and ministers. I regard the latter “functional definition” — let’s look at what people actually do on a day to day basis, and what beliefs and practices they follow — as far more important than whatever document someone in the UUA might in our imagination come up with.

        Now, should that “functional definition” be strengthened? I agree with you there, and I think various ministers, including Rev. Ford, are trying to do so. I am sympathetic to ministers such as David Bumbaugh, who has argued that we need to build on our Universalist traditions and be more willing to define what we believe. http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/183364.shtml

        However, I doubt whether such better definition will ever come about through the UUA taking the lead by formulating what amounts to a UUA creedal statement. I think it is more likely to come from ministers such as Rev. Ford and others, along with UU congregations, implicitly agreeing to reinvigorate the seven principles by making them more focused and inspiring. UUA documents will then follow. In other words, this is more likely to succeed through a bottom-up process than the top-down process you seem to prefer.

        A bottom-up process is messy and chaotic. Top-down is neat and tidy and logical. But a bottom-up process is more congruent with UU traditions as thte way to give better definition to the beliefs of UUism.

        • The UUA is a corporate entity that, in effect, controls the label “Unitarian Universalist”. No definition has any meaning if they do not apply it. Any attempt to give it meaning is pointless until we reach a tipping point in the membership that forces them to accept it. That isn’t going to happen any time soon. It might not happen before the demise of the UUA if the current trends continue.

          I would be very happy with a bottom-up solution, but it will not work on the level of the UUA, and thus will not give meaning to the UU label. I have been introduced to one British answer to the question in Andy Pakula’s U+ initiative. (http://throwyourselflikeseed.blogspot.com/2012/09/u.html)

          I think we are coming to a place where we understand, and maybe even agree. My point still rests in the fact that the UUA has had 50 years to search for truth and meaning, and it has failed miserably to find it, though it has harbored enough real seekers who have outgrown its limitations to say that the project has been worthwhile. The question is now: Do we say it against its own will, or do we do something extra-organizational to build on the limited successes and move on? I am not sure yet, but I know that, in the mean time, I will support the UUA and its dedication to the proclaimed Principles and Sources, but I see no point in using the UU label for myself (or anyone else, but that’s not for me to pick for them).

  4. Greetings, Thomas-
    I’m going to post a possible answer to your questions. These are not my words. I know who wrote them, but they were posted under an internet ID, not the person’s name, so I’ll leave it that way. This understanding of what we do works for me. I’ve been a Unitarian/UU for over 40 years.

    “How about a spiritual center? Lots of folks do look at the UUA and say, “If you have no creed, how can you be a religion?”. Is UUism the only religion in the history of the world that doesn’t require its members to profess a creed? No. Most religions do, of course, require participation (or at least lip service) to a central belief. Others, though, require participation in particular practices, without respect to belief. The state paganism of Rome was such a religion – there was no need for a citizen to believe that the gods existed as individuals, provided the citizen participated in state rituals and made requisite sacrifices. The Romans were known for their ability to incorporate new religious movements into their religious lives, provided that they didn’t require anybody to give up key elements of the state religion. This was, of course, where the Roman pagans and the early Christians had their falling-out. The Christians were an orthodoxy (requiring a specific belief), and the Roman pagans were an orthopraxy (requiring a specific act). The idea of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy continues in some forms of neo-paganism as well. Are those real religions? The pagans certainly think so. UUism, particularly taken from the perspective I outline above, could well be an orthopraxic religion.”

    • Actually, you almost describe my problem: It is too easy to look at the average UU building as a Spiritual Center, rather than a Church. It is much more like a community center for people interested in spirituality than it is a place where people come together in mutual exploration of the topic. It is more like a community center, or social club, than a church. This isn’t true of all congregations, but if it is allowed to be true of any, with no objections, then it is true of the whole movement.

  5. [...] between what a thing is and what it isn’t, then there isn’t a useful definition. I’ve written about this before, if anyone is interested in further thoughts. Right now, I just want to say that, while we should [...]

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