Why Unitarian Universalist Must Embrace Evangelism

My normal blog entry works up to a point. I spend time on the facts and details and build my case before making the statement that I am trying to convince readers of. Not today. Today, I think my point is pretty clear, and while I will back it up below, I want to make it now and tell you exactly why Unitarian Universalists need to create a form of evangelism that works for us:

People need us to tell them about our loving, inclusive faith communities. We need people to join us in our work to create and expand our beloved community.

I recently took the time to again listen to a presentation that Peter Morales and Don Southworth gave in 2000 about Unitarian Universalist Evangelism. It is a great presentation, and I highly recommend listening to it. There is an MP3 for it, which can be found on UUA.org, near the top of an article entitled “Evangelism: Letting Our Love Reach Out“. In this presentation, Rev. Morales say that he feels shame when he hears people say things like, “I was a UU for 20 years, but didn’t know it.” He says, rightly in my opinion, “…it means that we haven’t done the very simple thing of communicating who we are.”

On that same page, the UUA itself claims that we have a responsibility to reach out to others, and tell them who we are while we are working to improve our communities. As they put it, “Evangelism is the natural result of a deep belief that we Unitarian Universalists have something important and precious to offer. Evangelism is founded on the beliefs that people have a need for religious community, for deep relationships, for spiritual exploration, for social involvement.”

That is the first half of my claim: People need us. They need to know that they can be loved for who they are, even as we encourage them toward spiritual and personal growth. There are people looking for what we provide. They want us to find them, and we should want them to find us.

I feel like the second part of my thesis shouldn’t need to be defended, but I’m not known for being brief.

We need to share our Principles. They are 7 imperfect statements that form a very functional framework for how humans can share our planet and its limited resources with the rest of creation. If we agree that we should “affirm and promote” them, then we should be eager to tell people about them and how they shape our lives, individually and as communities who gather around them. Certainly, not everyone is ready to embrace them all, but if we can find even one that a person agrees with, then we can find problems that we can agree to work together on.

More over, I firmly believe that people who are exposed to diversity learn to see it as a positive thing that makes a community more adaptable and capable of addressing a wider range of problems. I believe that an educated person will see that a rational approach to the world, as opposed to one guided primarily by superstition, will see that reason and scientific study have solved many more problems than has faith alone, and I hope they will see that science and religion do not have to be at odds when each is given its proper authority. Crucially, I believe that a person who has embraced both diversity and education will find themselves more drawn to liberal religion. It is a position held by a great many fundamentalist, too, who denounce reason and learning, lest their flock find their teachings too constrictive.

If we share, we will grow. Even those who do not join a UUA-member congregation will still be better allies for our social justice and outreach. Our willingness to speak up and define ourselves will help us find partners, and it will help those who already embrace our values become members of our communities and our movement.

We have to be willing to speak of the salvation we offer; salvation from oppression and self-doubt. We need to believe that we have a message worth sharing. We need to stop being embarrassed by the language of religion, and start challenging ownership of ideas like God, Sin, and Spirit.

We need a Unitarian Universalist form of Evangelism that involves more than protests and Pride floats. We need to wear our affiliation proudly when we go out in the world and do good, whether it is volunteering at a food bank or just giving a tourist directions. We need to let the world know that our faith shapes our lives, and that there is a faith for those who want to bring a type of heaven to everyone here on Earth.

The Almighty: Images of God

While far from unanimous, the Western world has largely settled on the idea of Monotheism, or at least that is what the majority would currently profess to, if you asked them. Most of the people on Earth, the world’s Christians, Jews, Muslims, and followers of many other religions with fewer believers, are monotheists in dogma and doctrine.

The trick to monotheism is the idea that there is one creator, who oversaw, designed, or even hand-crafted the universe according to a plan. There is much disagreement about the intent, and whether this being remains “hands on” in the operation of the universe is certainly up for debate. The essence, though, is in the creation and the idea of a design or plan for the universe. As we try to understand this force of creation, our main focus and most valuable tool is our ability to understand what was created.

Thus, there are, even within monotheistic religions, many different views of what this creator wanted for creation and why there is a creation at all, and most importantly how we are supposed to react to the creator and the rest of the creation. Each person, even in hearing the same words, even those who internalize the same stories and doctrines, must shape their perception of God around their experience with creation.

For many of us, our understanding of God is, at the most basic level, the idea that God is almighty and powerful. After all, isn’t the creation of the universe enough to indicate the absolute power over the universe? We shape our idea of God based on our idea of power. The things we see as “Powerful” and “Capable” become the things we ascribe to God.

This is why many depictions of God give the creator a masculine body, and generally one that is elderly, with white hair and a beard, but also physically fit and imposing. God, of course, would have none of these traits, inherently. If the creator of the Universe is still in existence, then our concept of age clearly does not apply, and even if, as Genesis tells us, man and woman are both created in the image of God, then God must not conform to our gender roles or sexual characteristics.

What we are left with, then, in my opinion, is an image of God that mimics our image of power. The people in power in the Middle East and in Europe were mainly older men, and that became intertwined with the idea of power and authority. Being the ultimate in both power and authority, God, in those cultures, took that form in their collective consciousness. Whether this was God’s intent, or just the only way that certain people or groups could relate to the idea of The Almighty, we may never know.

Many ancient peoples and pantheons held that the creation of the universe was the act of a primordial mother, or a primordial “couple” forming Earth and Sky. The primary Greek creation myth was one of the Feminine Primordial Gaia, who created her own mate and birthed the Titans, who gave birth to the Gods, who created the world as it was known to the Ancient Greek people, who understood on some level that the planet was much older than their civilization, and incorporated that into their mythology. Ultimately, though, the world of the Greeks was ruled by men and by Gods who took the power for themselves, making it theirs by right of strength. In a way, this mirrors the progression of theology through most of the world: masculine figures taking prominence, and eventually displacing any divine feminine figures more or less completely.

Clearly, then, our image of the divine is shaped by our perception of potency and the essence of what makes something powerful. Many people see power in strength. Many see it in some form of magic or in the promise of technology. In reflection, some deities are strong, some wise, and some clever, but the monotheistic God is usually all three. Gods are born of ideas, and powerful ideas become powerful deities. Likewise, the attributes that you ascribe to God say a lot about what you value in leadership, in relationships, and in your life.

It is important, then, to consider what you really think  about God, and not just what you have been taught, or what you say in front of others. Is your true concept of the divine as loving as you say? If so, then how is that love manifested in the world? How do you emulate it? Is your vision of God vengeful? Does that make you vengeful, too? Does that improve your relationships? Is your God forgiving? Does that help you to forgive? Has that been healthy for you?

Another common and important factor in monotheism is that God is “good” and that the intent of creation was to give rise to life, and ultimately to intelligence, and that intelligent life was meant to have a relationship with God. We are meant to be “good”, helping to bring about what God wants in the Universe. Being like God is being good.

By really examining your view of God, and thus your perception of what makes one “good”, you can shape your whole being. If you know that God is vengeful, and live in fear, then you are likely to resent those who see God as loving, and live at peace with their place in the world. If you know God in absolute terms, then you will be distrustful of science, revelation, and even your own senses. If you know there to be no God at all, then it is possible to fall into arrogance and conceit, looking only at the world around you for your sense of purpose and power. Your image of God both often both dictates and mirrors your best and worst traits.

Robert Ingersoll once said that “There can be but little liberty on earth while men worship a tyrant in heaven.” This is the essence of what I am trying to say: As long as we value anger, discrimination, and vengeance as divine traits, it will be impossible to remove them as cultural institutions. We must examine our concept of God, and decide, objectively, if it matches our understanding of what is good in the world. If you wouldn’t respect your God as a neighbor, then you have to understand that your image is too small and too personal. We need a universal God, who is good without resorting to divine dispensation. We need a God willing to give us our curiosity and senses in order to use them, rather than one seen to tempt us with knowledge we are forbidden to seek. We need a God who loves all humanity, rather than picking and choosing based on situation of birth. We need to see God for what God must be, rather than for what our tribal ancestors had hoped was a champion for their way of life.’

It is said that most people have some instinct for good, and that this “conscience” is an echo of the voice of God in our lives. Whatever the origin, we know what good is. Our understanding of the Universe, both of what is true and of what feels right, must be applied to our understanding of the creator. What is wrong to do to one another in any other cause is also wrong to do in the name of God, or the name of God isn’t worthy of our worship and reverence.

 

A Congregation is a Covenant

I had an interesting conversation this weekend about the workings of  Unitarian Universalist congregations, and my congregation specifically. It seems that, at times, people in positions of responsibility feel obliged to pressure members to do things, give things, or accept things that would be good for the Congregation. At other times, I have seen, people who have some authority forget how it feels to be a lowly member with some knowledge or skill that is under valued.

What bothers me about this is the idea that this is someone speaking to another person for the congregation, as though the Congregation is an entity that exists separately from them and is bigger or more important than one or both of the members in this conversation. Officers and staff have appointments, but they must answer to each and every member, because that is where the congregation’s true authority is.

It bothers me because the congregation, to my mind, only exists as the covenant between individuals. There is no promise made to “the congregation”, but the promises made to these people is what makes us a Congregation. If it seems like a small difference, then let me assure you that it completely changes the intent and the tone of conversations when members are addressed as equals by officers and as managers, or even customers, by staff.

If someone comes to me, as a person whom I share a covenant with, and tells me of a need in the community that they think I can help meet, it gives me a  chance to talk to them, tell them what commitments I have that might conflict, or reasons why I may not be able to do the thing that needs to be done. We can talk as friends, or at least as partners in a mission. If I come to them with a concern, and we see each other as equals with a common goal, even where we disagree on the means to move forward, we can operate out of love and respect.

If, instead, I am approached by an officer, letting me know that there is a concern that I am not giving my best to the Congregation, or that they simply need more from me, because I have made promises to this entity that we both serve, there is an uncomfortable pressure, as though the community may look down on me; as though my superior might dole out some consequence. This is how people are coaxed into giving too much, and are burnt out: The Congregation becomes an entity unto itself rather than being built on the covenant between people. When the Congregation is seen as bigger than the members, it becomes easier to forget that covenant must go both ways.

The Congregation is the community, and the community has shared resources that allow us to achieve things together that would be hard for any of us to accomplish alone. It matters that we articulate goals that we all agree to support. It matters that we support each other and that we work together to better our lives and our neighborhoods. The covenant to come together to advance certain goals, to respect one another, and to live out our values in the rest of the world are all promises we make to each other and to ourselves. They should not be pledged to an organization, be it the by-laws of the Congregation or the UUA. These are corporations, inhuman and unfeeling, and we cannot let them have power over the people they were created to serve. We need to remember that, and to treat each and every member as an equal partner, according them the respect and deference that they earn. If it is truly believed that they should give more, talk to them as partners in need. If it is simply that they have a talent or resource that no one else can offer, then negotiate with them to insure that they don’t feel put-upon unduly.

Covenant is a verbal contract. It calls on all parties to uphold certain duties in the promotion of an idea or the progress towards a goal. This is where the congregation should exist, serving to guide us in our covenant. Each person in the congregation needs to be encouraged to take ownership and to feel responsible for the outcomes of projects and fruits of our labors. We share in those outcomes, and we need to feel a call to give, to the best of our ability, to see our mission at work. This isn’t best achieved  through shame or directive, but by working as a community and living up to our covenants.

What we are, what we are not, and what we could be:

We have a name that has never, in our 52 years, spoken to who we are.

We have a dysfunctional claim to Congregational Polity, though some of the membership accounting and so much of the business is dictated from Boston.

We have congregational authority to ordain ministers, granting any sage or fool the title of “Reverend”, yet the UUA sets a high bar for “fellowship” that ensures that only the politically savvy and financially committed receive the blessing of medical care and the chance at a secure retirement.

We have several national campaigns with political focus that, while reflecting our values in general, take the focus off the congregations and the individuals and put them on “issues”.

We have 7 Principles that have no spirit in them, and sound like a UN resolution.

We have 6 sources, but no one cares if you ignore any of them, unless the one you ignore is the one they take personally.

We have 5 “Smooth Stones” which have depth and meaning, but aren’t all that accessible without interpretation and aren’t officially part of the bylaws the way the Principles and Sources are (though they are folded into the sources and they are cannibalized for the Principles.)

What we don’t have is an identity.

What we don’t have is unity of purpose. (Is it possible to be a Unitarian Universalist without “humanist”, “Christian”, “Pagan” or some other modifier?)

What we don’t have is a focus on personal growth and development.

We have a problem, and we keep trying to act as though it is the solution.

We claim to want to be “A religion for our time”, while failing, by most standards, to be a religion at all.

I love the promise of Unitarian Universalism, but it is a promise that is not being kept; potential being squandered.

I am not alone in being disillusioned by the traditions and momentum of our religion. Most young adults seem to share some of these concerns. Some are content to wait until we inherit leadership. A few are trying to work with the system. There have been Unitarian Universalist, even among our clergy, claiming that we have no future. I refuse to just watch. I refuse to simply wait for my turn. I refuse to “work with” a system that clearly doesn’t work.

I am evangelical about my liberal faith, grounded in multiple sources and aspiring to create a kind of heaven here on Earth; a bloved community of equals. My faith is not what Unitarian Universalism is today, but what we have today won’t last another 20 years if we don’t find and embrace a center. We cannot be “a religion for our time” if what we focus on is politics. We cannot expect people to come to us if we don’t focus on people. We cannot expect spiritual leadership from politicians and “organizers”. We need to be bold in our faith, so that we can find it again, if we ever hope to make it into something we can share.

What “Non-Creedal” means to me.

My ideal of Unitarian Universalism is that we find it easier to communicate the relatively small number of things that are wrong, rather than trying to pin down in a recitable form only those things that are right. That is the difference, to me, between our Principles and a creed. We have a covenant to be good people, defined by the Principles of universal worth and dignity, a respect for all life, and the right of all people to find their own place and passion in the world. Everything else is fair game.

It is often said that Unitarian Universalism is a “Non-creedal” religion. It is also often said that this negates our claim as a religion, often from those with a Holy Book, but occasionally from proud UUs who think that religion is a bad thing and that the UUA should get out of the business all together. I disagree, of course, though I think that the Unitarian Universalist Association has had a lot of trouble declaring its religious intent for fear of frightening anyone away from the pews.

The fact is that what we have is a broad and reasonable religious pasture that expands farther out to the horizons than some people can see see from their religious perch. It allows for a wide exploration of the universe, with trees to climb and deep caves to explore, wooded areas with narrow and leaf-covered paths as well as broad trails where seeming parades of seekers roam arm-in-arm. We have built a fence of some of our Principles that tell us not to venture into the thorns of dispassion or callousness, and to stay out of the mire of privilege or convenience at the expense of others or the environment. But the things we deny ourselves are relatively few, because we believe in a Universe of possibilities and wonder, and we claim no right to restrict anyone’s desire to learn the how or why of a situation as long as they do so responsibly and with regard to the rights of others.

This is in defiance of so many other religious traditions in the US, that prefer to set a narrower track for their adherents to venture on, to see only that portion of the Universe visible from the hills that well-trod lanes take them across. They think the Universe is inherently against humanity. Some actively teach that it is a trap, meant to ensnare our very souls in the evils of reason and doubt, marking out not just a path, but metaphorical stepping stones upon which adherents are expected to stay. Though many others have widened their paths such that people can look out and see different sides of certain theological hills without leaving the acceptable walkway, they still feel that the idea of simply letting people walk on the grass is akin to theological anarchy. In almost all traditions, there are people who risk institutional rebuke in order to feel the grass between their toes. Americans long for religious liberation, even as they hope to remain part of their communities and traditions.

This, to me, is the essential difference between “Creed” and “Covenant”. We ask our members to make promises to each other and to their communities such that they can all run free without fear, knowing that each will lookout for the other and lend a hand when someone gets in over their head. A Creed tells you what to think, and rather than giving you the promise of aid, it gives one the feeling that you will be judged for allowing yourself to wander out of bounds. The idea that people are required to believe in the supernatural, ultimately unquestioningly, or be excluded from the body of the congregation, is unfathomable to Unitarian Universalists. We question those beliefs that seem to contradict science, and we ask people to consider real facts and likely outcomes; prayer can’t hurt, but it can’t help more than real effort, either.

So, I am proud to be part of a tradition, even a young one, where people are respected and allowed to build their own lives without fear of reprisal for anything other than being asked to defend the logic and consistency of your theology. You may be counseled in a way intended to further your spiritual growth.  You will not be turned away, though, as long as you keep your covenant with the congregation.

What do Unitarian Universalists Believe?

I liked having a writing prompt last week. It was a hard schedule, but it was possible because I knew what my topic was, having a Principle a day, and vaguely that I was going to talk about how and why we celebrate it. I know I still need to finish “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith”, but it is a deep well to draw from, and I want to get that right.

I was trying, last week, not to get caught up to much in my problems with the 7 Principles. I do think the Unitarian Universalist Association could describe its self better, and thereby define its mission in the world today. I understand that it would require a lot of discussion and debate about refining the wording, but we shouldn’t be afraid to do that.

So, today I would like to discuss my understanding of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist, and what it means to me to be a member of a UUA- affiliated congregation. I take my info from the UUA.org website, the very handy “100 Questions That Non-Members Ask About Unitarian Universalism” published by the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Nashua, New Hampshire, and personal experience along with my communication with hundreds of UUs and my reading of dozens of UU blogs. I think that we need to establish a few common beliefs, and that we need to use those as a broad outline for faith exploration within our liberal religion.

Unitarian Universalist believe that we are part of something bigger. We are part of a greater whole. Each person has their place; each has their talents and perspectives. No one is inherently better than anyone else, because none of us can do it all. We rely on each other to allow us to focus on the things we contribute. Some of us are good with our hands. Some enjoy manual labor. Some are good with words, and some with numbers. The thing is that the person who runs the organization has different skill from the people doing the accounting or the physical effort, but the organization needs them all. Not everyone has the same capacity to do brain surgery, but the surgeon isn’t likely to grow food or sew clothing. It is how you use your talents and how you relate to the rest of the world that determines your worth to the greater whole; whether you develop your skills and relationships in positive and productive ways.

This is an essential “belief” of the Unitarian Universalist: The inherent worth and dignity of every person. I spent the last week explaining how most of the other Principles of the UUA flow out from this one. The other belief, which is easier to establish as factual, is that we are part of, not just something but everything: an interdependent web of all existence. These are the two beliefs that form the whole essential foundation of the Unitarian Universalist movement. They can be oversimplified as being a dogma of love and respect.

Our love is a love of self, but it comes with the understanding that “self” is bigger than our bodies. The Unitarian Universalist strives to remember that our “self” includes the community and indeed, all of creation in many ways. We have to think about how our actions will ripple through our families, our congregations, and our work-places and from there out into the rest of the world.

We love Humanity, as each person is a part of  the whole of human experience and is a reflection of our own desires, possibilities, and our own limitations. Everyone you meet can teach you something, if you are willing to listen and learn. Every person is in a constant state of growth, and we can be a positive influence on everyone we meet. Each of us is incomplete, right up to the moment of death, and constantly adding new experiences to our sense of self. We are never done becoming who we are, and we have choices each day that determine part of how we will be remembered.

We love creation. We love the stars that formed our elements eons ago and the plants that created a habitable Earth for us, and the crops and animals that make our lives easier, and that, through their deaths, feed us each day. We understand that humanity has thrived as part of the Earth and the myriad ecosystems it supports. We have a seemingly unique capacity to use resources and alter the environment, and we have a responsibility to be cautious about how we use it. We have to learn to take only what we need, and to give back as much as we take, lest we continue to unbalance the system and pass the tipping point of sustainability.

All other beliefs flow form this. Neither of these is a particularly mystical philosophy, but they can be transformational when you really work to embrace them. To know that you are not alone, and that you are always standing on the shoulders of history, both its luminaries and its unremembered multitude. Few of your experiences are genuinely unique, and yet the composite of those experience, the perspective that makes you who you are, is singular and a vital part of the human experience. We are humanist, with a mystical streak to be sure, but our essential belief is in humanity and in our ability to be kind, generous, and helpful, and to extend those qualities beyond just humanity. It doesn’t require the hand of God or battles over points of faith. Ours is a belief that relies, primarily, on the ability to love. If you have that, then you might be a Unitarian Universalist and not even know it.

Chalica Day 7: The Interdependent Web of All Existence

First, I am sorry that this is late. It is hard to write on the weekends, and I didn’t get ahead of this project like I had hoped. This was a hard one to write, because the subject is both engaging and broad, and because my weekends are full to the brim with family. If I have complained at all about the imprecise language or the lack of explicit meaning in any of the other Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association, please know that my dislike for the wording here is greater, even as (or perhaps because) I love the Principle its self for what it means to me.

Today, we ponder our respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. This seems to me to be either far too simple, or worse, deliberate ambiguity. See, there is a web. A web of “existence”. We are part of that. *sigh*

This is a really important Principle, and one that stands the test of both ethics and science. The idea that humanity is a part of creation, and neither above it or below it in some grand plan of damnation or salvation, is crucial to the Unitarian Universalist message. It grounds us in the reality of both our reliance on the creatures, plants, and ecosystems of the planet, and our collective ability to alter those ecosystems, whether through intent or carelessness.

Some people view this Principle from a human-centric view, that all of humanity is one species that must find a way to live together to make the world more livable for future generations. Some people look it from an ecological view point, and will speak of human responsibility and stewardship of the greater web of life on Earth. Some will take an Earth-Centered view, where everything must be balanced and all life is deserving of respect. Each of these views is, in my opinion, lacking.

For one thing, you and I are not humans. Not entirely. There are as many cells in your body which do not carry your DNA as there are those that do. You have the host to a whole ecosystem of bacteria that are needed to regulate things in our bodies, thousands in your digestive tract alone. Many estimate that you cells make up as few as 10 percent of the cells in your body over all.

The web exists within us, and it is interdependent with us.

We must take our environment, the whole of the biosphere, seriously. We cannot predict all of the impact of the changes we make to the course of a river or the leveling of a hill, much less from the intentional splicing of genes. It isn’t wrong to use technology and to shape our world, but we have to be ever aware that these changes can have long reaching consequences. Technology must be used with care and deliberation.

We are, ultimately, not above or below the realm of nature, but a part of it, though one that has become partially aware of the ebb and flow and is figuring out how to change it. Beavers create dams that reshape rivers and valleys and even the lowly ant builds mounds and tunnels to house the hive, inadvertently aerating the soil and improving the dispersal of water. Our capacity to shape our environment is unique primarily in scope. When we alter the landscape, we reshape the very forces of wind, rain, and sunlight on the environment. Truly, when I think of the web of all existence, I know that it encompasses the whole of creation. That doesn’t make it unnatural to be a human. We simply have to be conscious and conscientious in the use of our technology and how it effects the other animals and plants with which we share the planet, our mutual home. In fact, so many of those advances have come from, or at least been inspired by, our fellow earthlings that we would not be the creatures we are today without agriculture, animal husbandry, and the medicines and engineering advances that we’ve gleaned from our studies of the rest of creation.

It is important to keep all of this in mind, because every species that passes away leaves us with fewer clues to the great mystery. Every bug exterminated destroys a link in a chain that we may not be able to predict. Again, this is not to say that we don’t sometimes have need to rid our homes or businesses of pests, but it should always been done with thought and, hopefully, a bit of remorse.

We live in a complex system that has grown ever more reliant on our exploration, our technology, our refuse, and most importantly now, on our discretion. Our willingness to shape the world for our own needs has been short-sighted in the past, and some of the choices we’ve made have been irreversibly detrimental. There are plants with medicinal value that will never bloom again. We allowed that of our fellow humans. We owe it to the future generations of every species to avoid that whenever possible.

There is a web, and through it we are connected, and interconnected, with all life on this planet. We have to respect that for our own good, as humanity is far from self-sustaining. We need the plants and animals, we need the rivers and the lakes. We need this rock full of biochemical reactions. Humanity evolved as part of this world, and we are a long way from leaving it behind. We have to make peace with our place in it, and we have to accept that we need it as intact as we can keep it in order to secure our own future.