Training for Faith

Training for Faith
Originally uploaded by Peacebang.

Last week in my doctoral seminar I was trying to explain to the room of mostly very conservative Christians about Unitarian Universalists, and presenting my plan to write a dissertation on the relevance of covenant to our contemporary congregations.

People tried to be respectful but when I initially described our theological pluralism, their faces were studies in bewilderment. A religion where everyone is free to search for truth and meaning? A religious tradition that welcomes atheists and makes no effort to convert them? Whaaaat? (When someone asked the inevitable question, “But why would an atheist want to go to CHURCH?” I replied, “I don’t have time to try to answer that,” earning chuckles from the few liberal Christians in the room who are acquainted with UUism.)

I tried to steer the conversation away from feeling I should offer apology for Unitarian Universalism’s mere existence and into a place where I could get feedback from the group, who are a lovely and earnest people (and who represent six different nations).

At the end of my presentation, a Baptist peer offered this: “I get the image of training wheels. Is Unitarian Universalism a sort of training ground for faith? After they begin with your church, do they then leave you?”

I was so furious I could not answer beyond a “No, they don’t leave.” His question was specifically asked in the context of covenant process, as in “After you all develop a non-Theist covenant together, do they take off in droves, hungry for the Living Word?”

I mean, of course some of our people leave. I’ve been hollering about that for years and years — especially about how our children leave in droves because we give them nothing substantive within the great wilderness of FREEDOM.

His inquiry deserves a fuller answer, though, and I’m finally getting calm enough to give it.

No, L., they don’t leave our congregations. In fact, quite the opposite. They have left YOUR congregations to come to Unitarian Universalism. They are not riding the training wheels of faith. They have taken OFF the training wheels of the creedal, doctrinal faith traditions that would seek to fill their heads with proscriptions, superstitions and unproven certainties, and now they’re riding free and upright.

17 Replies to “Training for Faith”

  1. Being free means having overcome proscriptions, superstitions, and unproven certainties? I admire your belief in the innate goodness and rationality of every person, but it sounds so 18th-century to me. Rousseau does not seem to be the best answer for today’s questions.

  2. Clyde has a nice little piece that does a good job of explaining what I was looking for when I came to UUism as an agnostic. He talks about covenanting together in the search for spiritual transformation.

    What is so exciting to me is how the whole world opens up. Instead of moving towards an increasing doom, instead of the promise of the end of the world and MY particular salvation, there is the possibility of finding better solutions, and of discovering new things about human capability and the universe.

    It’s a much more optimistic view of things, I think.

  3. Unfortunately, though, he’s also hit on something that is true– how often is UUism the welcoming space between unhealthy versions of Christianity and liberal Christianity? People come to be tended and healed, as you suggest, but often times they do move on when they want more rooting in a specific articulation of faith, versus a free search. (The same thing happens with Quakers, I’m told. They welcome in silence those who’ve been hurt, but those people don’t always stay.)

    It is certainly unfortunate that your classmate has reduced UUism to a “special ed” model of religion (which assumes we don’t have people who are comfortable and mature, just the theologically wounded who aren’t ready for immersion) but by the same token he’s also nailed not UUism but many of the people who move through it.

  4. I once made a comment at a Massachusetts Bay District get-together to the effect of “If UUs are searchers trying to learn the truth, then those who stay a long time are the slow learners”.

    Got a lot of nervous-sounding laughs.

    I’m not so sure the idea is totally without merit. In my experience, a lot more people leave than stick around for a long time. That may not be because of the inate qualities of the religion itself, of course, but … wait a minute … what are those inate qualities exactly? Did the people who left ever find out?

  5. Thanks for commenting, everyone. Lots of you have good insights — I guess the reason I got so especially pissed was the old, “I can be critical of my own people but you don’t get to be” thing. Paul’s question is an interesting one. I know that a number of UUs leave for other faith communities but my assumption was and is that the majority of UU drop-outs become part of the Great Unchurched.

    Does anyone have any numbers on this? Or thoughts?

  6. Maybe that should be the focus of your project? It might seem to dwell on critique, but if we can understand what’s called in education “the dropout problem” we’ve begun to get a handle on prevention, and the UU community would definitely benifit from that.

  7. Perig, that would be a wonderful project for someone, but I’m far too biased to do the research and that kind of research doesn’t interest me at all. It would depress and anger me too much to pursue the answer to that question and to serve in the parish in the meantime. If I stick with my project on covenant, I can make what I hope will be a positive contribution.

  8. Well, let’s make someone do that research! I am kinda curious now, what kind of work in this area is done by the UUA. It can’t all be theologizing on pluralism, covenant, etc.–there must be some social sciences rooted fieldwork and research that can better contribute to our understanding of the history and trajectory of the UUA. Are the UU seminaries doing any work in this? This is often where research and writing is produced in non-UU denominations. Hmmm. Anyway, I would like to read what you end up working on…the concept of covenant is pretty important to me (and is one of the reasons I am still UU).

  9. I dont know of any church that keeps every member (or even close), most visitors come and go —-
    — the disadvantage that UU has is that we dont have the overwheming quilt that keeps many folks going to many denominations (not implying that that is the sole reason some folks go to church, but it certainly is a reason that some to many go). People that go to UU want to go, and not everyone goes for the same reason — which is why we need more UU churches, so folks can find a better fit!

  10. I hope this is ok, but I found a post by Doug Muder that describes this issue really really well, so I will paste it here for you:

    Doug Muder:

    Creedlessness is a valuable part of our tradition that we explain very badly. Being non-creedal is a positive choice, not a “Watch This Space” sign.
    Holt seems to have noticed that the Principles aren’t a good creed. Creeds are supposed to define who’s in and who’s out. (That’s why Christian churches started reciting them: to make heretics perjure themselves.) So if “any average Rotary club” can affirm your creed, it’s not doing its job of keeping out the infidels.
    But the Principles aren’t supposed to be a creed. UUism is covenantal, not creedal. We don’t look out at the world and affirm that we see the same things, we look at each other and make commitments. That’s a choice, not a flaw, and I don’t want to see it “fixed” by producing a new set of Principles that will make a better creed.

  11. Pregrinato asks about social science research at the UUA — we did have such a staff once, but it was cut with the budget cuts of 2003-4.

    If we are to have a ministry to UUs who have moved beyond the 7 principles and chalice art we need to intentional. We do lose folks who no longer find a place that supports there growth, but only some of them become Baptists or other denominations likely to be represented by DMin students on the Hill.

  12. I misspelled. It was Peregrinato that I intended.

    Writing in little boxes is a growing edge for me.

  13. I don’t at all have any hard evidence for this, but anectdoal evidence among semiarians I know, at least, suggests that some people do indeed leave UUism for liberal Christian denominations (such as UCC). This may be a quite different dynamic than what happens to UU members, but having been a subscriber to the UU Christian fellowship list for a while suggests that this might not be the case – that list is full of ex-UUs who are now going to a wide range of non-UU churches, primarily because they’ve come through a healing process by being a UU, and decide (for a variety of reasons) that they need something different – often something closer to the churches they grew up in.

  14. As a former parish minister, I remember the anxiety about retention and drop-out rates.

    It seemed to me that despite my best efforts to frame the problem as concern for the well-being of those who “we hadn’t seen in a while,” my real commitment was to the well-being of the organization.

    I didn’t really like my “clutchiness” then and still aspire to be like the Buddhist monks who work so painstakingly to create a sand mandala, only to sweep the sand away when the mandala is completed. Then they carry the muddled sand to the river, and the river carries it away.

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