“When In Doubt, Pray. When In Prayer, Have an Existential Crisis.”

Oh for heaven’s sake, what new nonsense is this?

when in prayer doubt

Yet again the Unitarian Universalists are choosing to market themselves as the “faith” for those who are totally ambivalent about whether or not intelligent people should have any faith, and playing the old “we’re not led by creed or doctrine” bit, which is getting SO TIRED. How many 21st century religious individuals mindlessly obey their religious tradition’s doctrines in the first place? Hello, post-modernist angst about the validity of religious institutions and broad eclecticism in personal spiritual practice: not just for unchurched seekers anymore! WHEN will the UUA stop marketing trumpeting unique aspects of our tradition that are incredibly un-unique?

It’s the old definition-by-negation business again, and it assumes that we have no doctrinal, dogmatic attitudes or creedal practices or individuals among us, which of COURSE we do. Just look at how we treat the precious Seven Principles, which have been lifted to quasi-creedal status by many serious UUs (and maybe that’s not such a bad thing). Ech. More terminal uniqueness. Quippy, cutesy crap. Clever wordplay instead of a warm and loving invitation to find us and worship with us.

It would be so much less offensive if Unitarian Universalists weren’t notoriously uncomfortable with the mere notion of prayer and famous for using a long, comma-separated series of euphemisms to introduce That Portion of the Sunday Service During Which We Come Into the Place of Honesty, Or Join Our Spirits In Openness and Compassion, Or Meditate, Or Muse Or Think Good Thoughts Or Even Perhaps Join In (The Spirit Of) Prayer (Because You Musn’t Say ‘Let Us Pray’ For Fear Of Being Run Out Of Town After Coffee Hour, That Is, If You Make It Alive To Coffee Hour).

I’m sorry I used the word “crap” to describe this ad; that’s strong condemnation. But I’m not editing it out. I’m sick and bloody tired of insulting Baptists, Methodists, Muslims, Episcopalians, Catholics, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Orthodox Jews and others whose religious traditions are creedal and doctrinal and who often manage, nevertheless, to have wonderful ministries, whose communities are welcoming and even rebelliously so (how many of you know of renegade Catholic, Episcopal, Presby or Lutheran individuals or parishes that openly welcome and advocate for the g/b/l/t community, for example? I thought so…), and whose life together is a thing of beauty that draws more seekers to find, and stay with them, every year. Those doctrinal, creedal congregations are not necessarily any more dysfunctional or even close-minded than our own non-creedal, non-doctrinal ones. We must stop advertising these aspects of our tradition as if they confer upon us some magical ability to love, to minister, and to support an individual or a family’s search for truth and meaning. They do not.

“When in doubt, pray??” How about,

“All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.”*

Join a Unitarian Universalist congregation near you for Sunday worship. We are waiting to welcome you, and to include you in our circle of caring.

“The Unitarian Universalists welcome you to worship with us, and to join in the great work of loving the world.”

“Unitarian Universalism: The search for truth in the spirit of freedom. Don’t walk the path alone: come for Sunday morning worship and stay for community.”

I mean, these aren’t genius or anything, but they took me fifteen seconds to think up and I’m not getting paid for them, if you know what I’m saying.

The best advertising for our tradition, or any tradition, is for our congregations to be healthy communities full of individuals who have a strong sense of ministry and are guided by an ethic of love and covenantal relationship. They should make the news for doing good works in the community, and when people walk through their doors (as they will if they are guided there by spiritual need, not prompted by an ad in Time magazine), they should encounter powerful worship services, quality religious education, well-organized, inclusive pastoral and prophetic ministries, and people with authentic welcome on their lips and in their hearts.

And when they are invited to pray, it should be in the spirit of hope and faith, because why the HELL would anyone who understands the first thing about the Unitarian or the Universalist traditions suggest that prayer and doubt are a wise pairing in the search for truth and meaning?

All right. Rant over. I have a sermon to finish. I’ll leave the rest of the rant or the BangBack to you, my friends.

* quote by George Odell

Fourth Principle: Free and Responsible Search For Truth and Meaning

I am working on a sermon on the fourth UU Principle: “we covenant to affirm and promote…A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

In agreement with Paige Getty’s fine essay on the principle in the new collection, The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, I am focusing on Unitarian Universalism’s love of freedom in religious inquiry and practice but lack of understanding or agreement about what constitutes “responsible.”

In the older six principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the free search for truth and meaning was the first principle. It read,

To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship.

Now isn’t that interesting? What I love there is the use of the word “disciplined,” which, to my ears, rings with a kind of integrity and commitment that the murkier “responsible” does not evoke.

For those who see UUism as a smorgasbord of world religions, this seems a particularly important principle. For instance, how do we “responsibly” or in a disciplined way engage with Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Sufism, Native Americans spirituality in our congregations and as individuals? Is it responsible for me to include a Muslim reading in worship? I like to think so. However, it is important for me to take responsibility for the fact that many Muslims would vehemently disagree with me. Therefore, as part of my religious discipline I am obligated to study and try to understand more about the various religions I am quoting or referencing of a Sunday morning beyond convenient “we are the world” sentimentalism.

It’s hard work. And it’s work we don’t do well enough.

It seems to me that UUs have yet to acknowledge the fact that while we have made it our “good news” to affirm and proclaim the essential harmony between world faith traditions, we have done so with little or no input or consultation with adherents of those faith traditions. We therefore operate on the assumption that religions “belong” to everyone and anyone who wants to claim them. I wish this was so, but it is not. Religions can only be responsibly understood in their time, place and cultural context. If we want to be a world religion religion, we must take the study of them far more seriously and make education in world religions a staple of our adult religious education offerings. I know that some congregations do this, but not many. Nor has the UUA provided curriculum to help with this knowledge deficit.

While much of the religious world is entering into dialog based on an assumption that the specificity of tradition means something real which no parties to the conversations desire to minimize or ignore, Unitarian Universalist liturgical materials are still a happy mash-up of phrases, readings and sound bites taken entirely out of a context we neither have the time nor the interest to fully study. Our worshipers go away with the sense that we are a delightful Chinese buffet of beliefs respectfully culled from all the world traditions. It would be more honest to say that we have rather taken attractive bits and pieces from various traditions and employed them in the service of our liberal vision.

Is this wrong, unethical, and sinister, as our opponents charge? Or is it merely optimistic, creative, and charmingly anachronistic?

For all the Unitarian Universalists out there who define our faith tradition as a kind of new world religion among world religions, how can we responsibly theologically educate the next generation of UUs (both youth and come-outers) to participate in that vision?

I ask because I do not see UUism as a world religion, but as an essentially humanistic religious community that gathers in covenanted community to do the work of individual and societal transformation guided by its foundational liberal Christian values, more contemporary Humanist wisdom and the theological insights of various world religions. The insights of various world religions, in my opinion, comes primarily from serious students and practitioners of those world religions, not from the general UU community.

I’ll stop there and let you comment.