E Pluribus UU

This weekend, I was able to articulate one of my central complaints about Unitarian Universalism.

When I first attended a UU fellowship at the turn of the century, it was a very humanist congregation. I was completely turned off by them. I was vaguely pagan, from a protestant background, and I had been lead to believe that I would find a comforting, church-like environment where almost all religious views would be respected, if not practiced.

What I found was an atheist social club with Christian trappings and monthly mentions of Jesus. They accepted that Christianity was dominant, and that it had shaped our culture, even humanist thinking. They were dismissive, short of hostile, to any other practice (accept possibly Buddhism) as superstitious and immature.

If this had not been a college town, I would not be a UU today. Luckily, other people my age had found Unitarian Universalism somewhere else and refused to accept this congregation’s view of the religion. The fact is, the congregation was doing it wrong. These Young Adults met separately, did their own services and rituals, and helped me see that UU could be what I had been told to expect.

Ultimately, I left that congregation anyway, but some of my peers stayed involved on a level sufficient to found a CUUPs chapter, which attracted more people to the congregation and changed their make-up. Years later, I came back to find a very different reception. I did not join that congregation for a number of reasons, but my interest was renewed. I did seek out another, and I was made to feel welcome. I am proud to be a member of Horizon, in part, because of the way they treat all visitors with respect.

The point is that that Congregation was, at the time, doing UU badly. They were Atheists first, UU second. I have read many comments from others that indicate to me that this is not an isolated incident. Other people have reported that their Christian, Humanist, or Earth Centered spirituality seemed unwelcome at one congregations or another. That’s not the covenant that we made when we joined the UUA.

Certainly, some congregations are going to be made of more Christian UUs, Humanist UUs, or even one I know of that is primarily Earth Centered. This is as it should be to meet the needs of their members,  and allow their leaders the right to preach the truth as it is know to them. But this does not mean that it is ok to belittle any of our sources, or to ignore their impact on UU theology. We are one faith with many sources, but those sources have to be brought together in some fashion to create an identity. We cannot grow as a movement if we are going to draw from one source at a time, and simply allow others to pick their favorite as well.

We must welcome every seeker in the place they are at in their journey. We must value all of our sources for their contributions to society and the parts of their teaching that we can embrace. We must strive to see them as notes in a chord; each resonating at an amplitude that creates the message we want heard. We cannot allow any one source to drown out the others.

We must see ourselves as one faith, with many sources, and not many faiths merely tolerating each other for the sake of political impact and the respectability of numbers.

There is no means to respond to a congregation that is getting this wrong. The UUA has little authority to question, much less rebuke, a congregation that is ostracizing those who come seeking truth. All we can do, for now, is try to get out the message that this is not how we want our religion portrayed or practiced. We have to make it known that we are one faith, and that what we believe not only matters, but can change lives and communities.


8 Responses

  1. I agree with this post. We have to be who we say we are. Hypocrisy is unbecoming.

    • Hypocrisy is a horrible thing, but what can we actually do about it? How do we hold other congregations to a Free and Responsible vision of what it means to be UU? How can we know, when there is no definition for Responsible, as used in the Principles section of the bylaws?

      I’m frustrated, because the real work that needs to be done to allow our movement to grow beyond the place it stalled out at the turn of the century isn’t going to be done because it will upset people and require our culture to change.

  2. “How do we hold other congregations to a Free and Responsible vision of what it means to be UU? How can we know, when there is no definition for Responsible, as used in the Principles section of the bylaws?”

    How about just using the dictionary definition of the word “responsible” to say nothing of other English words.

    “Based on or characterized by good judgment or sound thinking:”

    One of the worst habits of UUs is to redefine and/or reinterpret the commonly understood meaning of English words.

    • If you can manage to keep a civil tone, I’d welcome your thoughts on what “Good Judgement” means in terms of a religion that has no holy book, but does not reject the concept of an unfathomable divinity. There are many, as you have yourself pointed out, who believe that any form of theism goes against “sound thinking”. The problem I am trying to address is that the dictionary definition doesn’t apply here without further clarification.

      Without trying to place blame or call anyone out, your own quest for truth and meaning has been accused of being irresponsible. You disagree. As it stands, both sides are right. Both sides have just enough merit that they can make the claim, and there is no way to arbitrate between them. That clearly poses a problem.

      As it stands now, anything that isn’t in direct, unequivocal opposition to the other Principles is “responsible”, and your own history shows that this just isn’t good enough to guide a movement.

  3. Thanks for this,Thomas. I’ve been feeling the same way, and it’s good to know that I’m not alone in my perceptions. Sometimes, I get the feeling that there are UU members who don’t have a clue as to what it means to be a UU. They might be nursing old hurts or unresolved personal issues—I don’t know. However, they seem to be very caught up with Not being something else, and Not wanting to be even remotely reminded of that something else. It’s very frustrating, and it’s also very sad. I feel that until they can make peace with the past, they’re not able to move forward and make the Seven Principles more than just words printed in the Order of Service.

  4. My thoughts: UU must strive harder to define ourselves by what we are rather than what/who we are not. I found in the mid-90s in a small congregation many people working through personal damage wrought by dogmatic theology. At some point, the group has to pull out of that and move toward what they DO want to be.

    I’m now part of a very large and theologically diverse congregation that tries to be all things to many. Consequently, there are only one or two services each month that hit near where I am personally. I try to go more often to hear the music or be in company of other UUs, but the readings, sermon, etc are increasingly not “speaking” to me. I know we are responsible for our own spiritual growth, and that is as it should be for me, but it would be nice to have a more clearly defined identity as a church that informs the structure of the services.

    Example: not a hard decision for me to sit out last Sunday; UU Christian Fellowship was in the driver’s seat doing a Pentecost service. I grew up with enough of that and it’s not where I am now. Many weeks before it was almost 100% political with defeating the unfortunate Amendment One; week after week was more of a political rally than a church service. Important, but not inspiring.

    Anyway, I’ve droned on enough and I’ll listen now– your experiences are valuable to me in evaluating what I’m going through. Thanks to all of you for sharing them.

    • While I don’t doubt that the Pentacost is worthy of reflection, I am curious how it is viewed in a uniquely UU way. We don’t believe the event to be unique, and we don’t even proclaim it as a holy event, though it certainly could be. I am guessing, though, that it was more traditional than introspective, and that is exactly the kind of problem I am talking about.

      I think it is good that there are UUs who still believe that Jesus is their best example for how to be a positive member of a culture which is so heavily influenced by his supposed followers. I don’t mind that UUs favor one source, as long as they do not belittle any other in the process. There is a difference in being a liberal Christian, and being a UU.

      There is absolutely the chance of being so diverse that we end up with no discernible center. If our message isn’t any better than “come as you are”, then why come at all? We have to offer something more than socialization. We have to question assumptions and preach our own identity.

      I am also, quite frankly, against using Sunday services for political work, especially in direct support or opposition to a ballot issue. I don’t mind a sermon that tries to sway me on the broad topic, but please do not use the pulpit (or lectern, or podium) for campaign work. It even bothers me when more than one breath is used in announcements for a single issue, even one I am involved in.

      You are welcome to voice your thoughts here any time. I am still working on the UU Social Media project, and I am hoping that more people will be willing to voice concerns as well as acclaim when we can do so safe in the knowledge that we are only speaking to each other in a place of mutual respect and love of our liberal faith. Such a project would be pointless without people like yourself.

      • Exactly– “come as you are” is a starting point, but there should be a destination as well. We have a lot of what I think of as “hipster” churches in our area that meet in movie theaters, etc. who promote “come as you are” to attract 20-somethings for Jesus’ message delivered in a contemporary fashion. UU has to offer something discernible from that.

        I supported the action against the discriminatory Amendment One with all my heart, but I truly did not feel it needed the amount of time and energy it received in my church. If I had to think of one thing that has soured me a bit on attending services, it’s the political tone my church has taken in the last year.

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