Re-Framing: From Terminal Uniqueness To Common Ground

The Unitarian Universalist journal, UU World, recently published this article by the Rev.  Jane Ranney Rzepka, listing nine religious “rules” that Unitarian Universalists break.

My critique of this article is based on my larger conversation about what I have called “UU Terminal Uniqueness,” but it is with the caveat that this piece was included in the “Welcome” section of the magazine, so I presume that it was written for the newcomer to the Unitarian Universalist congregation. I did not notice this until I had composed this blog post, so I ask readers to understand that bear that important fact in mind, even as I have decided to go ahead and publish this anyway.

The nine Religious Rules listed by Rev. Rzepka are these:

1. You have to sign onto a list of beliefs.

2. Obey the hierarchy.

3. You must perform the rituals.

4. You have to believe in God to be religious.

5. Your religious beliefs should be based on faith.  (Rzepka continues, by way of explanation, “Our religious beliefs are based on reason and experience. Faith is optional.”)

6. Some objects, spaces and events are inherently sacred.

7. Heresy is bad.

8.Religion is not fun.

9. Religion is stifling.

As I have written many times before, my hope for the new era of Unitarian Universalism is that we will move beyond the need to perpetuate the notion that we are somehow unique in our free-thinking approach to religion.

“We don’t believe in a lot of the rules that our religious neighbors take for granted,” claims Rzpeka in her opening argument. My first question would be, “What religious neighbors? Where?” When we offer this sort of religious teaching based on “us v. them”, we should be clear about who “them” is. Frankly, I do not recognize this “them” in my own ecumenical and interfaith experience.

Starting with the first item on the list, “you have to sign onto a list of beliefs,” it is my observation that my religious neighbors, even while belonging to more doctrinal traditions, have never “signed onto a set of beliefs,” but are in constant conversation, reflection and study of the beliefs bequeathed them by their religious heritage. That’s called doing theology. I wish Unitarian Universalists would do theology  instead of forging an identity on not having any, but that’s hard work. It is time we did that work, however, and let go of the backward-looking glance that keeps us critiquing the traditions we rejected and from looking deeply to the one we have inherited.

I would also argue that there is nothing wrong with “signing onto a list of beliefs,” as long as one has personal freedom, understanding and responsibility for those beliefs. I would like to see our congregations provide opportunities for all ages to do the theological work necessary to crafting credos.

Our own 7 Principles seem to function as a set of beliefs to which Unitarian Universalists are happy to sign onto. We could argue semantics and say that the Principles are not beliefs but propositions, but does that matter? The point is, they provide fodder for discussion, historical review, argument, preaching, and theological reflection in our movement.

We’re not so unique. Every Christian and Jew I know carries on a lively personal debate with the doctrinal teachings of their faith. I would prefer that we welcome newcomers in a way that helps them find some through-line with their rejected past (or with the Church Universal, if they come unchurched) rather than encourage them to see UUism as a radically new form of religious life. We really aren’t.

#2. As far as obeying the hierarchy goes, we’re not unique in breaking that rule, either, nor do I think our “religious neighbors” take obedience for granted.  I can think of ten instances in the news of the past week where religious people challenged the hierarchy.

Catholic priests in Australia are confronting the Vatican on the ordination of women and the protection of pedophile priests. Presbyterians won the battle to ordain gay and lesbian pastors. Muslims argue with their imam about what constitutes a proper Ramadan fast. An evangelical minister in Pennsylvania refuses to hold the party line in his preaching, is disciplined, and leaves the church to start his own. This sort of struggle occurs every day among our religious neighbors.

Rzepka writes, “The members of the congregation are the boss. You can vote to hold services on Thursday at the zoo instead of Sunday in the regular place…”

I like creative hyperbole as much as the next person, but this example is a bit too disingenuous for me because it is misleading. There are limits even to UU creativity and freedom. In this case, although the example is cute, it isn’t fair or reasonable: the zoo is not open to the public for purposes of worship.

I know of a dozen non-Unitarian Universalist congregations that used the democratic process to decide to hold worship on another day than Sunday; there is nothing radical or unusual about that any more. Many Emerging Christian churches, in fact, do not worship on Sundays and change their scheduled services frequently to meet the needs of their communities. They are remarkably protean in quality and far more open to change than most Unitarian Universalist congregations I know, which have extremely conservative, 19th century ideas of how to do church.

Rzepka goes on to say, “You can criticize the minister – heck, you can fire the minister…”

The right to fire the minister is also common to many other religious traditions (let me tell you about my rabbi friend in Florida sometime!).  Unitarian Universalists need to know that there is a wide chasm between the perceived inflexibility of hierarchical church polity and their living praxis. It was not until I began regularly consulting with Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Reform evangelicals that I realized how congregational their forms of polity actually are, if not on paper, then in practical reality.

I am concerned that teaching that our polity is entirely unique may be misleading and confusing to newcomers. When they talk with their friends about how special and different their new religious community is and reference the democratic process or the ability to hire and fire ministers as examples, they are likely to be met with bemused expressions and “We do that at our church, too.”

Rzepka’s items 3, 4, and 5 imply that Unitarian Universalists do not have prescribed rituals. She implies that our religious neighbors (again, I have no idea what is actually meant by this vague designation) do not question or deny the existence of God, and that they often assume that atheists cannot be spiritual or moral people.

Fair enough, except that UUs do have rituals, and woe to the UU minister who arrives at a new call and tries to change them! I took a midnight call this past Christmas Eve from a colleague who was locked in a death match with a music director who refused to vary the “Silent Night” ritual, and have spent hours of consultation with Unitarian Universalist worship teams who hardly dare admit their deep desire to change or (gasp!) do away with a cherished ritual of the Sunday morning service.

We are far more conservative than we like to admit. And I have to think that seekers to religious community are not particularly comforted by the idea that the congregation has no rituals. Perhaps we would do better to explain the rituals that we do have rather than give the mistaken impression that we are constantly re-inventing our practices.

As far as the assumption that one has to believe in God to be religious goes, yes, that is true in most places. However, it is not true that there are not atheists in other religious traditions. I have often said that Unitarian Universalism is unique in its overt welcome of atheists, and in its attempts to create meaningful worship and spiritual community for non-believers, and I think that can be considered one of our strengths. However, it can also be counted a weakness, when our congregations get hamstrung by debates between atheists and theists about what words and ideas are permissible in sermons, readings and hymns.

Newcomers and experienced UUs alike should be schooled in how to participate in constructive theological conversation.  I ardently hope for a Unitarian Universalism in which thorny issues of theological pluralism cease to be so fascinating and the congregation is motored by a shared commitment to finding meaning, developing spiritual practices toward peace and compassion, and sharing acts of service and justice-making.

In rule #6, Rzepka writes, “nothing – or everything – is inherently sacred.”

I would like to re-frame Rzepka’s claim here and suggest it as a challenge. Instead of offering the notion of sacrality as a “religious rule” to be broken that others take for granted, I would ask us to reflect on this issue as a way to connect with our religious neighbors. What of the sacred may we find in common with the broader religious community? I am concerned that a newcomer might read this as a claim that nothing is sacred among us.

I like #7 very much, and I do claim it as a point of Unitarian Universalist uniqueness. Rzpeka writes,

“Heresy is bad. How UUs break the rule: Heresy can be heroic. Throughout our history, we have often identified with theological heresies. Are human beings depraved at birth? Unitarian Universalists say no. Are events predetermined? We say no. Do people go to hell? No. Is Jesus God? Again, no. Are scriptures infallible? We say no.”

That’s good, pithy and accurate historical teaching right there, and great material to launch deeper conversation on our history and heritage. Rzepka goes on to quote a story about Pope John XXIII’s meeting with then-Unitarian Universalist Association president Dana McLean Greeley at the Vatican Council, during which the Pope said, “You made a religion of all our heresies.”

We did indeed. But now it is time to craft a theological identity that is more than just those heresies, and more than an identity of negations.

The final two items on Rzepka’s list of religious rules that Unitarian Universalists break hurt me deeply. They are, “Religion is not fun” and “Religion is stifling.”

First of all, I am troubled by the implication that our “religious neighbors” don’t have fun, or that they are stifling (or that people take those qualities of religious community for granted!), but that is not what Rzepka says so I won’t pursue that issue. I just wish I saw more evidence of what she does claim, which is that we’re having a good time out there in our congregations.

Now, I don’t talk much about my own parish work because this is not a blog about my parish ministry, but I do want to say that in my own congregation we do laugh a lot, we do have fun, and we are committed to a spirit of celebration and creativity. There is a reason I have been with my congregation for nine years: they inspire me, they are a delight to work with and for, and they sparkle. Even in the hardest work we have ever done together there is laughter, there is zest, there is healthy irreverence. So I am lucky enough to have lived what Rev. Rzepka proposes. My broader commentary on church life is never a veiled reference to my own congregation, it is based on conversation and visits with UUs all over the country. I just like to throw that in there once in awhile as a clarification of my context.

As I have consulted with ministers and laypeople from all over the country, I cannot help but observe that for many UUs our religion is not fun — and it is, in fact, quite stifling. In too many cases, we are not living together joyfully and in a free and visionary manner. If we were, we would be attracting more seekers to us, taking better care of each other in our congregations, taking more chances, moving out of 19th century or mid-20th century ways of doing church, and fighting far less. We would be rich with scholars and theologians, publishing books that contribute to the larger ecumenical understanding, and thriving.

In a spirit of cheerleading and encouragement, Rzepka writes, “Well, we rock.”

That’s fun and nice but I don’t think “We rock.” I don’t need us to rock. I feel that God rocks, and that the Church and the broader religious community rocks. I think that while it’s wonderful to have those who just find Unitarian Universalist congregations feel like, “Wow, this community ROCKS!” it is just as important for us to embrace a ministry that moves us beyond that initial tribal pride and clan loyalty to a broader ecumenical and interfaith presence and participation.

I would love to see a day when Unitarian Universalists make it their goal not to identify themselves as “the ones who stand apart from those other religious people because  ________________,” but as “the ones who have these particular gifts and strengths and commitments to contribute to the religious community, because we love and care about it so much.”

I would like to see us re-frame our welcome to newcomers so that they are being welcomed not into a clan that sets itself apart from the wider religious community, but one that humbly and deeply knows its place in that community, is grateful for it, and seeks to help that individual find their own ministry within it.




7 Replies to “Re-Framing: From Terminal Uniqueness To Common Ground”

  1. We don’t believe in a lot of the rules that our religious neighbors take for granted..

    I read “we” often in UU blogs and writings. It is bothersome. I wish authors would take the time to clarify just who they mean when the write “we”.

    The rest of your post right-on. Thanks

  2. I was just wondering if you could site the reference for the following statement:

    “Methodists won the battle to ordain gay and lesbian pastors.”

    I was excited to read it then couldn’t find anything about it through a Google search. [Hi Nikki, my error. It was the Presbys I meant. I’ve corrected the copy, thanks for catching it. – PB]

    Great article!


  3. I hate to break it to you, but I don’t think you can claim #7 as unique to UU. I’m saying this as the managing director of Confirm not Conform, a confirmation program distributed by the Episcopal Church’s official publishing arm and used in about 500 parishes (as well as a smattering of other denominations). The homework for the very first lesson is for students to “Pick their favorite heretic.” Students are asked to:

    “Use the space on the back side of this page—or your own paper—to create a
    one-page essay. In it name your favorite heretic and explain why he or she is your
    favorite. Your heretic doesn’t have to be someone listed above, can be alive or
    dead, and come from any field. In your essay, answer these questions:
    â–  How did (or does) your heretic represent accepted beliefs?
    â–  How did (or does) your heretic challenge accepted beliefs?
    â–  How was (or is) your heretic able to make a difference?”

    The second lesson is called “Heretics R Us.” In the Adult version of this program, the introduction of lesson 2 lays it out this way:

    “The word heresy is actually the Greek word for “choice.” Every participant in CnC
    Adult is a heretic by virtue of the fact that being an adult means making choices.
    In the youth curriculum, this session is largely dedicated to “demolition,” clearing
    the way for new growth and beginning to make their own choices. For adults,
    although there may be some demolition, it is as important for them to see what has
    been built, to celebrate their heresies, and to consider what renovation may be in
    order as they look at the second half of their lives.”

    Given how many times those of us who are liberals in the church have been labeled heretics, I think heresy has lost its sting for many of us. I think many of us hold the attitude that if “heresy” is what happens when we seek the truth of God’s will, then let us be heretics. I’d rather be lovingly heretical than hatefully orthodox any day. [LOVE IT!! And I’m so glad to know this!! Another brick thrown against the wall of Unitarian Universalist Terminal Uniqueness. Let the wall come down! Thanks, Laura – PB]

  4. I find it interesting that your piece is circulating the same week as Lillian Daniel’s screed in the Christian Century about the “Spiritual but Not Religious.”

    I propose a cease-fire. Unitarians can stop calling everybody else “mindless dogmatists” and everybody else can stop calling Unitarians and the Spiritual But Not Religious “fluff-heads.” There. Problem solved.

  5. Thank you for your comments about Dr. Rzepka’s UU World article. I must say along with others that the work was not her best, and I suspect it was pulled from the archives. Whether that’s true or not, it has become tiresome to me to hear our faith described in counterpoint to our neighbors’. It gives us the excuse for being small – “we’re too weird for most people” – and makes us lazy. Keep up the good fight, Vicki, for theological work among UU’s, and know there are plenty of us out here who identify ourselves in more positive, affirming and friendly ways.

  6. As I’ve digested the article I’ve found a few things to comment upon.

    RE: 1. You have to sign onto a list of beliefs.

    I think that Jane Rzepka has somewhat conflated creeds with beliefs, a common error in thinking among UU’s. UUism is a non-creedal tradition, meaning that we do not lend any saving power or definition of membership to creedal formulas of faith. In this we are not alone. Other non-creedal traditions include Quakers, Congregationalists, Baptists, Disciples, and many independent Evangelicals. All of these groups, including UU’s, have unofficial lists of commonly accepted beliefs that crop up in the folk practice of each tradition. In fact, I would contend that there are no religious traditions that do not have some set of commonly held beliefs. If you do not adhere to a majority of these beliefs, you may find full inclusion in the respective community. For example, in quite a few UU churches I’ve been to there is an unofficial expectation that one’s beliefs include a commitment to left-wing politics, a belief that it is superior to be inter-faith in spiritual practice and not too committed to any single faith tradition, beliefs in GLBT equality, that both genders are eligible for ordination, etc.. As Liberal Religious Educator Sophia Fahs would remind us, beliefs matter. Some beliefs are life enhancing, and other beliefs are not. What is important is that we are honest about our beliefs, about why we hold them, and that we should be leery of attempts to use lists of beliefs as purity tests (which in itself is also a belief statement).

    RE: 5. Your religious beliefs should be based on faith.

    Here she renders “faith” as perhaps the act of holding something to be true, without any evidence. In some popular English language usage of the word “faith” this might hold true. However, it was my understanding from seminary that the word “faith” is often translated out of Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and even Sanskrit from words that more closely mean “to set one’s heart upon”. If that is true, faith has more to do with the loyalty of our hearts, and less to do with making an unfounded leap of thinking. This renders the question “Do you believe in X?” as a different question from “Do you have faith in X?” Belief that something is true may lead to loyalty, but loyalty is not then inherently born out of sloppy thinking. One can believe something based upon evidence, and then develop a loyalty in that belief. I would love to see liberal people of faith reclaim a language of faith as a language of loyalty.

  7. Correction of omitted word

    The phrase “you may find full inclusion in the respective community” should have been “you may NOT find full inclusion in the respective community”. One word makes a huge difference.

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