Sunday, December 29, 2013

Unitarian Universalism:
Dead or Alive?"
January 15th, 2006

Reverend James Dace

A perhaps-upsetting, probably befuddling, hopefully thought-provoking service by (and mainly for) the Rev. James Dace, inspired by the Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr.

Last Spring, in the Meadville/Lombard Theological School’s “Journal of Liberal Religion,” there appeared an article titled: “Why Unitarian Universalism is Dying.” Its author, The Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr, is the senior minister of the First UU Church of Austin, TX. He was, also, the only UU participant in the Jesus Seminar—one of just 200 scholars invited from all over the world—so he is no intellectual lightweight and, however controversial, his opinions should be carefully considered. That article of his from last Spring is the source (much edited and paraphrased by me), especially of Part I.

Part I: “Why Unitarian Universalism is Dying”

 The movement called “Unitarian Universalism” has been dying ever since the two groups merged, and its slow but steady death is the elephant in the room that few in the UUA want to face, let alone talk about. Between 1970 and 2000, the UUA lost over-12,000 adult members, a decline of more than 7%. But, during those same 30 years, the population of the U.S. increased by over-37%. With our membership about what it was at merger in 1961, we cannot pretend that these facts paint a picture of health. To see how this happened, we go back to the beginning:

For the better-educated, the supernatural world ended with the late-18th century Enlightenment and the birth of a whole host of natural sciences which changed our picture of the world. By 1800, most people still thought the world was just 6,000 years old; Thomas Jefferson believed no species could ever become extinct. This was the worldview that was to change almost completely during the 19th century.

Theologians, preachers and churchgoers had to decide whether to hold on to the old faith or accept the emerging picture from the sciences that challenged it. The voices that wanted to keep the same safe feel on Sunday mornings—many of them in Unitarian churches—urged denial of the new knowledge. But they lost, and the voices that won were those that trusted the future more than the past and expected their religion to reframe its message, accordingly.

So, with the courage of a pioneer spirit, a few Unitarian leaders left their tradition of 18th century Christianity. But, in leaving, they left behind a faith with its own rich understanding of the human condition, its fall and its cure. Rather than seeking a new, distinctive vision and faith tradition of their own, 19th century Unitarians began following the path that has led us to being a group of over-educated, increasingly marginal, people.

In place of a new religious center, Unitarians moved toward a political center based on an unbalanced concern for individual rights (unbalanced, because there was not the equal concern for individual responsibilities. Their sacred scripture—or, at least, their main reference document—became not the Bible, but the Bill of Rights. This isn’t bad, but it is a political center, not a religious one. Unitarian leaders had moved out of theology into psychology, sociology, anthropology and politics.

Universalism, on the other hand, died because its pleasant answer—“All dead people go to heaven”—no longer fit the questions people were asking: in the 20th century, liberals were not worrying much about where dead people went.
By mid-20th century, the religions of Unitarian Christianity and Christian Universalism had each mostly exhausted their spirits: neither Unitarianism nor Universalism was a vibrant force. What was significant about them was not theological, but political and cultural; both, to differing degrees, had become identified with America’s well-educated liberals.

So, when the Unitarians and the Universalists merged, there was no common set of religious beliefs (beyond a disinterest in the supernatural), no shared understanding of the problems of being human let alone any prescriptions for their cure. In other words, there was no religious "salvation story," no unique efforts for satisfying deep spiritual yearnings that have always marked serious religions, no instructions for followers on how the living of their story would make their lives more useful and fulfilled.

Without a religious center—with no more than a social/political center inspired by generic cultural liberalism—the UU movement had become redundant. By the late-1970s, UUs were complaining: “Our children don’t know what to tell their friends they believe.” Looking back, the problem was not that kids didn’t know what they believed; it was that adults—including too many ministers—didn’t know what they believed that had any religious relevance any more.
We didn’t know how to tell others—let alone ourselves—who we were in any profound sense; we were unable to voice why we mattered any longer. We were—and still are—best known to most people only as the butt of Garrison Keillor’s jokes. We no longer asked hard religious questions, questions like: “Are there deep and abiding truths capable of sustaining honest spiritual quests without supernatural underpinnings?”

Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and others, each have deep and seasoned wisdom gleaned from their fertile mythic truths, teachings that have helped billions to become persons of responsible character over the centuries.

No one would want to set something as trivial as Unitarian Universalism in such a list of real and noble religions. But Unitarian Universalism was never meant to be a religion: It is a name we gave ourselves, a name for all those cultural liberals coming to our churches; it gives us an identity, something our children can say to their friends.

Thus, for Unitarian Universalists, religion was replaced by politics. The UUA and most UU churches have circled their wagons around unquestioned assertions by loud political leftists for so long that we’ve not noticed we are no longer critical: we have no distinctive religious vision and, what’s worse, we don’t even seek one, leaving us to focus solely on the individual in the here-and-now (though we do like to think a few dead people from 150 years ago were, also, members of our private club).

“I do not believe Unitarian Universalism can be saved,” concludes Davidson Loehr; “It’s too political, too self-absorbed, and too paltry. But I do know that many people are hungry for truths that can set them free rather than mere political posturing that just draws attention to them.”

Part II: “Unitarian Universalism: Dead or Alive?”

Unitarian Universalism: alive or dead? Like Davidson Loehr, I think it’s on life-support, unlikely to be saved. But, whatever its condition, does it really matter anymore?

After almost three-and-a-half years, I’ve stopped writing my column for the “Faith” section of the Saturday Pueblo Chieftain: I was running out of things to say and raising too many unanswered questions for myself. (I also discovered how seductive it was to start thinking I really knew what I was talking about.)
Now I work with a non-profit, interfaith coalition of 21 churches on the west side of Colorado Springs helping to meet city requirements and neighborhood objections to opening a soup kitchen at one of those churches. Since all those churches call themselves “Christian” (including the Mormons), the first thing I wanted the Director to understand about me was: “I am not a Christian.” He replied: “You do have faith, don’t you?” which I took to mean “Was I religious?” I answered “Yes, I’m a Unitarian Universalist;” and, after a pause, he said: “Well, that doesn’t matter.” (He meant, of course, that I was “acceptable” to work with that organization but, once again, I was forced to ask myself: does being a UU make me “religious”—and, more to the point, does it matter?)
In the 19th century, Unitarian Christianity and Christian Universalism were, indeed, religions but, as Davidson Loehr said, by mid-20th century, both had largely exhausted their spirits. And, while Loehr suggests that the merger of the two groups into Unitarian Universalism was never meant to make a religion—just a self-referential identity—I, for one, believed it was my religion: through ministerial training and in my years as a parish minister, I never questioned that: having grown up with no religion, I needed to have one, and Unitarian Universalism was my chosen religion. (Upon recent reflection, however, I find myself seeking, once again.)

I was once asked by a friend—a minister of another denomination—to describe the religious makeup of a “typical” UU church. Eventually, I answered: we’d likely have a few Christians; maybe twice as many responding to Nature’s way or to an Eastern religion; a much larger group would call themselves Humanists or atheists or agnostics; and the rest—perhaps even a small majority—could be listed as “none of the above” (which is a polite way of saying that they don’t have a clue).

We take pride in such religious diversity, even seeing UU churches as “way stations” for seekers to come and learn before moving on. But does having so many individual religious paths among us make Unitarian Universalism, itself, a “religion?” “Unitarian” and “Universalist” are still valid theological positions, but a point of theology, by itself, does not make a religion. Affirming our UU Principles (Loehr calls them “The Seven Banalities”) is important, but what distinguishes ours from those affirmed by other denominations?

I believe one key reason that Unitarian Universalism is dying is because it has nothing to say that has not been said already (and in better ways) by other religions; there is too little of that which energizes and inspires members of other religions. So, what are we missing? I suggest, for me, three things:
First, as Loehr said, we don’t have a religious “salvation story” of our own: we have no united approach to satisfy our innate urge for connection to the realm of the spirit; no distinctive perspective of meaning and purpose for humankind; there is no collective sense of why and how we should be living our own story in order to make our lives more useful and fulfilled.

Every respected world religion has their own mythology, their own salvation story, to guide and inspire believers. What does Unitarian Universalism have —other than the “story” of political liberalism (which, Davidson Loehr points out, requires victims in need of “rescuing” so rescuing liberals may feel virtuous)?
For the second thing that is missing, consider this: For Christians, the season of Advent has just concluded, the days that lead to celebrating the birth of Jesus, the start of their salvation story. For them, Advent is a time to expect —and get ready for—the unexpected, a time of anticipation and preparation. All other real religions have such times as part of their story: times for reflection, times of anticipation and preparation, times for celebration; what does Unitarian Universalism have that is not borrowed from somewhere else?

The third thing missing, for me—probably the most profound reason I believe UUism is dying—can be illustrated this way: The Rev. Mike Tipton, formerly minister to the Pueblo UU congregation, is now in Kiev, Ukraine, working, primarily, to train managers in the business sector. Hired by a Ukrainian entrepreneur who spent many years in the U.S. as a UU, it is understood that a part of his work is to assist the very few UU congregations there, especially their homegrown ministers.

Mike writes: “Though these groups are small, they have a passion for this faith that is totally lacking in the U.S.; they see the open expression of their personal religious beliefs as a privilege rather than a right. Ukrainian UUs begin their worship with a heartfelt time of reflection on that which drew them there. They hold hands as they share this,” he says, “and I found myself in tears the first time I entered into their circle, so sincere, so wondrous, so holy; it flows, and it is real, very real.” (In other words, for them, it matters: perhaps it must be taken away before it can, again, be found.)

But that, I believe, is the main reason UUism as a movement is dying: we are missing that sense of what is “real;” we take it for granted; it no longer matters. Our focus on the individual has led to a Romanticism that goes back to those few Unitarians who left Christianity with a pioneer spirit; we delight in seeing each individual UU as a lone rider out on the vast plains with nothing to fence him/her in—certainly not anything like an organized religion.

By being fixated on the individual—and typically denying all but the rational—we lost our religious center. We tend to become smug knowing we have the right politics and the correct ecological sensitivity; we no longer see the need to push ourselves toward a genuine spirituality. Without a religious center, we have deluded ourselves into believing that this is a religion; it may much have value for us but, by my way of thinking, it is not a real religion. What we are missing—what I am missing—is that overwhelming heartfelt sense of the sacred, the sincere spiritual reflection which draws us together on a common path.

Humankind cannot live by bread alone--and UUs cannot grow in politics, alone. What demands do we place on ourselves to move toward becoming more spiritually mature, toward reconnecting with a religious center of our own? Coffee-hour fellowship and social action committees are important, but they do not build a foundation for the spirit; they, alone, cannot push us toward deeper, more reverent lives. Besides bread for physical survival and politics or bettering society, we must believe that it matters.

Too many seem to have stopped asking religious questions: we still ask questions of science (to explain WHAT we can know); we still ask questions of morality and ethics (to learn HOW to better live together); “But,” as Albert Camus wrote, “one day, the question of why comes into it, and everything begins in this weariness tinged with amazement.” It is our religion that tells us WHY it matters…why we matter.

It’s been said that: “Seekers are looking for a path; pilgrims are following a path.” I’m not sure we’re even seekers, anymore; but I am sure there are very few pilgrims amongst us. We may have many thousands of individual private paths, but what is the UU path? Being a pilgrim must begin in the heart before it moves to mindful purpose; is that possible for Unitarian Universalism, anymore?

What is left that matters for today’s UUs? When I was writing my newspaper column, readers struggling with their own religious questions would sometimes write me, like: “Is there such a thing as a group which is united in an intelligent quest for truth? It's a lonely world for those of us who are not so-called Christians; there’s no place to meet where we can offer each other friendship and hope, encouraging greater understanding and inspiration to live better lives.”

Is there a group united in an intelligent quest for truth?” Many might say this describes “Unitarian Universalism,” but I don’t think it is united in any “quest for truth” (intelligent or not). What unites us is not religious or spiritual but political and cultural. There’s nothing wrong being part of such a group, but I wish it was a religion.

Is there “a place to meet where we can offer each other friendship and hope, encouraging greater understanding and inspiration to live better lives?” I think this could describe some congregations that now call themselves “UU” (even as the movement called “Unitarian Universalism” is dying).

Perhaps the greatest value of a UU church is the freedom it allows for people to discover their own religious beliefs so they may live better lives, more useful and more fulfilled. But by focusing, almost exclusively, on political and social issues, we are not encouraged to pursue a far more essential mission: to become a pilgrim following a religious path, rather than stay seeking a political path as “do-gooder” or an agitator. True, one may be both a pilgrim and an agitator at the same time (like the Evangelicals), but, I think, being a pilgrim following one’s religious path should come first (again, look at the Evangelicals). The peril for Evangelicals, of course, is that their “religion of certainty” leads to closed minds and a demanding, intolerant agitating; the peril for liberals is that their agitation often comes from minds so open they want to tolerate everything and, thus, end up with nothing of their own.

To help us become pilgrims on our religious path, I believe that today’s UUs need to understand two things: first, whether it was meant to be a religion or not, Unitarian Universalism is dying because its center is not religious but political. By accepting that Unitarian Universalism is not “a religion,” perhaps we may feel freer to passionately join with others seeking a broad-but-common religious path to follow—the way of a true pilgrim.

And the second thing today’s UUs must accept is this: if this is (or ever was) a religion, we’ve had it way too easy (which, probably was one of its chief attractions). As Davidson Loehr puts it: “To plant seeds for any noble religious future, we need to understand what every great world religion has taught: that the treasures of honest religion must be earned; that the way is narrow and few will even find it, let alone have the courage to follow it. We need our religion to make the very highest demands upon us; we need our religion to raise our sights so we can see what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Then, we need to live that faith, but, being human—easier said than done.

How can our religion make upon us its highest demands? By being receptive to it. Lately, I’ve been looking into something called “Practical Theology.” This is not “ivory tower” theology (“how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?; “did Adam have a belly button?”) and it’s not Liberation Theology (seeking scriptural authority advocating more power for the oppressed in poor nations). Practical Theology is a way to live reverently while acting: It begins with periods of heartfelt reflection (some might call it prayer), asking, “Is what I am about to do worthy of who I am?” and, then, more reflection and discernment before I act again (a far cry from my usual “let’s do something NOW and hope it’s not wrong!”).

I do seek a church that “offers fellowship and hope, with greater understanding and inspiration to lead a better life.” That, for me, is a church with a non-dogmatic approach that emphasizes the spiritual before acting politically through encouraging the discipline of silent reflection. (As an example: after a long time of reflection at a recent Quaker silent meeting [my mind whirling around, trying to solve an accumulation of personal problems], this message got through to me:”It’s not about you.” What did it mean? How am I to live it? Could it mean that, while faith is always personal, it can never be private? More questions. )

What do I think is left for today’s UUs? While I think Unitarian Universalism as a religious movement is dying, long live those UU congregations whose members are committed to pursuing honest and profound religious paths; paths that are, as an ancient theologian put it, “useful to us, and worthy of God.” Within some UU churches, there is still the freedom to choose such paths. For myself, as an “old” new-seeker, I like the way those Ukrainian UUs open their worship, beginning with heartfelt reflection and open sharing —which can lead to renewed questioning and further reflection before acting in the world.

To CLOSE: a much-too-brief time of heartfelt reflection as do those Ukrainian UUs to begin their worship (but in silence): what draws you here? what path do you seek? Reminding yourself as you reflect and question in time to come: It’s not about you…and, you are blessed.

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