Everything to Everyone: Defintions Mean Exclusions

This is something of a follow up to a previous post. In that post, I talked about how Unitarian Universalists have been much more vocal about their disagreements with my writing than have those of other faiths and beliefs. There is value in that, and we need to be having conversations about who we are, individually and collectively. Sometimes, though, the criticism seems to be reactionary, more than out of some concern for my personal search for meaning.

Last week I found myself being called out for “anti-Christian” remarks stemming from my assertion that Universalists were different from other Christian groups because they rejected the concept of eternal damnation. Now, this may still surprise a few people, but that is the definition of a Universalist, and it has a definition because it is contrary to the teachings of the majority of Christian denominations, both historically and today. Pointing out that I was proud of our theological heritage was offensive to a couple of people, and one person felt the need to lecture me on the topic. For the record, I consider myself to be a follower of Jesus, in line with my Unitarian and Universalist beliefs, but that is a post unto itself.

Now, I fully recognize that we Unitarian Universalists have a commitment to “encourage spiritual growth” and to help each other in our “responsible search for truth and meaning“. I understand that this means that we should discuss, question, and even debate ideas with our friends and fellow congregants, in a way that doesn’t detract from their own sense of worth or dignity. I tried very hard to live up to this with the strangers who have confronted me over the last few years of my personal ministry. I have attempted to remain civil and respectful to UUs, non-Us, and former UUs who have tried to inform me of some presumed deficiency of logic or contradiction in reasoning. I have learned a great deal from some of them, and I have been less successful in maintaining my grace and composure with others. The fact that most of them have been fellow UUs is still somewhat confusing to me.

We are different from other American religious movements, though. It is important to an understanding of who we are. Notice how little fuss we make about our belief in gravity? There is no page on the UUA website that talks about our acceptance of the heliocentric model of the solar system. Those aren’t crucial declarations for us; people who deny those facts are not going to be swayed by our reason and compassion. Instead, we write proudly of our Universalist belief that no one should be denied equal rights under the law or subjected to public ridicule and derision. We devote pages to our embrace of multiple sources of revelation and the right of conscience in creating a personal theology. We tell people why we are different, because it matters that we are different from the Catholics, the Hindus, and even other liberal faiths. We embrace a broader scope of human experience than most Western Philosophies, and many originating in Asia. We acknowledge an on-going revelation, which is a crucial part of our theological heritage, though not unique among faiths rooted in the teachings of Jesus. These differences matter. They are why Unitarian Universalism matters. We offer the world a rare combination of love, acceptance, reason, and honest searching for meaning.

This particular conversation turned from a general dislike of comparison to a concern that we should not be defining ourselves in terms of what we don’t do. That is important, and I can agree with that much of the argument, but every definition is also a limit that we impose on the word. If there is no limit, no distinction 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 aim to define ourselves in positive terms and by setting goals, rather than citing aversions, being proud of what we believe isn’t the same thing as telling others that their beliefs are offensive or the mark of bad people. I am a unitarian, too, but writing that there are those who believe that Jesus was/is God wouldn’t be read as an insult by those people; nor is my observation that universalism isn’t a universal belief.

We have to stop being so sensitive to our past, individually and collectively, if we want to have honest conversations about our future. Unitarian Universalists need to stop demonizing the humanists and the Christians alike. There are plenty of each who want to help move us forward; to help us stay grounded in evidence while exploring what science cannot yet map. There were people who held the Earth as a sacred whole long before biology and ecology proved them right, and there is a lot of other ancient wisdom that we ought to remember while science catches up to revelation. There are also a lot of clannish and parochial ideas that religion has codified that humanity needs to outgrow. We need to be willing to embrace all of our sources and to create our own identity as Unitarian Universalists. We might also consider creating a name that does the same.