The Missional Church and Unitarian Universalism

The Rev. Peter Boullata recently got a lot of well-deserved attention for his articulate, hard-hitting blog post, “The Liberal Church Finding Its Mission: It’s Not About You.” I was one of the many Unitarian Universalists pumping my fist in the air and saying, “YES! Woot!” And also, “BOOYA” and other thoroughly juvenile expressions of excitement and approval.

Peter has got it so right. So painfully right. Our religious tradition has placed its faith in the individual to determine their own “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and mostly failed to insist that there are faith claims made by historical Unitarianism and Universalism to which we are beholden as congregations and as members. Rather than affirming those faith claims and shaping our worship, faith formation, evangelism and social justice around them, we have spent our time and effort inventing a totally definition of religion, squabbling endlessly and comically about how we will grandly allow each other (and our ministers) to talk about it and then peevishly refusing to see why are not taken seriously and why we do not grow.

We have thus far in our post-merger existence as Unitarian Universalists treated our theological legacy with white gloves: as fragile, faded archival material to be handled as lightly as possible and then filed respectfully away in an attic or basement file cabinet, or as historical curiosities to be peered at curiously over the top of our spectacles, smiled fondly over, and left in the church library to be studied by the few UUs who ask for a key to the locked stacks.

We have elevated the voicing of opinion to a sacrament, misinterpreting our first principle of affirming “the inherent worth and dignity of all people” to mean that we are obligated to take every idea seriously and consider every person — no matter how dysfunctional, abusive or destructive –of such value to our communities that we indulge their behaviors long past any other reasonable organization’s willingness to do so.  As a result, our congregations are regularly hijacked by the pre-offended, those I call “perma-victims” and chronic critics who have been led to believe that Unitarian Universalism and the local church are more interested in serving their personal opinions and perpetual woundedness than teaching them how to engage in the mutual deepening and spiritual transformation that leads to love and service.

Now we are in a new era. Many of us who have been railing against Unitarian Universalist terminal uniqueness are thrilled to see lay people, clergy and (most exciting to me) seminarians move beyond the negation-identity that UUs have for so long embraced (“We don’t believe this, we don’t believe in that”) and confronting Unitarian Universalism’s bizarre, misinformed, irrational and willfully ignorant allergy to Christianity (see, in fact, Tony Lorenzen’s interesting take on this in his recent blog post here) that has led to a petulant refusal to participate in the ecumenical community.

I ardently hope that I have made a personal contribution to more UUs growing acceptance of our current identity and location in the American religious landscape as a creative, eclectic but still culturally Protestant denomination. We are at the farthest left edge of the Protestant Reformation heritage. Our form of governance derives from the Puritans and has not changed significantly for over 350 years. Our ways of training and calling ministers are Protestant. Our liturgical tradition is unmistakably Protestant (at least in the vast majority of our viable congregations), and our associational structure, denominational staff structure and understanding of authority and responsibility have so much more in common with Protestant traditions than with any other religious tradition that it is ridiculous to claim that we are in any meaningful way a hybrid of the best of world religions. We are not, we never have been, and in this era of closer examination of the problem of white Anglo hegemony, cultural appropriation and reductionist, simplistic treatments of  world religions, we should abandon all claims to be practicing small-u world religion universalism.

And now all this buzz about mission. What does mission mean to Unitarian Universalists as one religious movement among many who are beginning to wake up to the very real possibility of their non-existence within a few decades?

Peter Boullata has sounded one important alarm: mission cannot be based on what he calls “institutionalized narcissism,” or the continued insistence that religion is at its best and most appealing when you get to make it up yourself.  That affirmation has to end, and I pray that the current crop of new ministers will work with their congregations (and frankly, new Unitarian Universalists who haven’t been thoroughly indoctrinated in this puerile delusion) to quash it for once and for all. I look forward to the day when no one defines UUism as “That religion where you get to believe whatever you want” but teaches that spiritual freedom and the right of conscience are the starting point for serious theological study and spiritual growth, not the comfortable end point of religious meaning.  “Oh, thank [deity of choice] I found this place. I’m done now. I’m HOME among other people who also don’t have to believe things that I find morally or intellectually questionable or just plain dumb.”

We are not home when we have found a religious community that respects our inherent worth and dignity and invites us to develop a personally meaningful theology in conversation with the best of our classical theological tradition and the insights from the sciences and contemporary fields of study. We are rather at a base camp, equipping ourselves for a climb. What we have found is not a “family” and a “hearth fire,” but a group of fellow climbers. It is time to retire cozy, sentimentalized imagery for what we do as religious communities.  The family metaphor, for instance, creates a bizarre disconnect for the way that a huge number of people experience family, perpetuates the idea of spiritual community as a kind of social club for people “just like me,” and puts the minister in the role of Mommy or Daddy whose job it is to keep all the children happy.

The missional church cannot generate its energy from the sighs of relief exhaled by its members who are welcomed into it as a place of refuge from “icky ole religion.” Nor can it be a place where people slide “safe” into home base and stay there for the rest of their church life, with grass stains on their pants and a sense of elation for having made the run. The church’s responsibility is to help such individuals get up off the dirt, brush themselves off, have any injuries tended to, and sent back out on the field, and then eventually out of the ballpark altogether.

The great unspoken embarrassment of many of our leaders today is that many Unitarian Universalists are so out of touch with contemporary religious movements that their well-rehearsed grievances against “organized religion” or even “traditional religion” are laughably inaccurate. Things have changed so much since most UUs paid close attention to the non-evangelical conservative religious landscape in America (if indeed they ever did) that anti-religious Unitarian Universalists now sound like so many Rip Van Winkels, having fallen asleep around 1971 and stomping around in 2012 insisting that they have an informed opinion. They are impossible to deal with, refusing to be budged from their irrational prejudices and insistently clinging to their right to insult a wide variety of theological positions and faith communities based on shallow scholarship and total lack of experience with the people they denigrate. These committed curmudgeons are keeping Unitarian Universalism out of right relation with whole populations of human beings. Their casual habit and group sport of degrading the tenderest desires of people’s hearts is terrifying to newcomers, as it should be. Congregations that fail to grow should look first to this issue. The open disgust and mockery that so many Unitarian Universalists express regarding religious beliefs held by the majority of ordinary Americans is the black mold in our association.  If it is not eradicated soon, I will be only too happy to see Unitarian Universalism die in my lifetime.

Social justice efforts that come out of such religiously toxic environments are not properly called social justice at all, which connotes a foundation of mutuality such as Dr. King named. It is political action organized out of a church and as big a noise as it makes or a big an effect as it ever has, it deserves to be regarded with suspicion as the product of a deeply hypocritical people.

The missional church does not exist to endlessly consider and react to the opinions of its members, knowing that to be nothing more than institutional navel-gazing.  It is permission-giving, ministers to the health of the congregation, adapts to change, encourages creativity in leadership, makes learning and opportunities for service easily available to all ages,  and moves forward. It draws people into community for the purpose of  being changed and challenged by what they encounter together through worship, learning and service, and then asks them to bring their changed selves into everywhere they are in the world.

The missional church says, “It is not enough for you to come to Sunday service, sit in your pew with your friends, chit chat about the sermon (focusing on whether you personally liked it or not, because that’s not the point of any sermon), criticize or praise the music, drink some coffee and then go home, satisfied that you have been a good churchman or woman. We will die if we continue to accept that mode of participation as satisfactory. It worked for many decades because the Church was an esteemed institution in America and all it needed to survive was for men and women who wanted to be associated with the idea of goodness, justice and service to show up on Sundays shiny and well-dressed and mingle with others who also wanted to be publicly identified as upstanding citizens of the town.”

Today the church is an outsider institution, as it should always have been. It exists to question cultural norms, to help us want the right things and to hunger and thirst for justice, to make us uncomfortable with the gap between our professed ideals and our actions. It exists to claim us, to shake us, to demand of us, and to make us new people — brothers and sisters of one another, lovers of the world, workers on behalf of the Kingdom of Equals, and the kind of people that others are so drawn to that they can’t help but ask, “Wow, how did you get trained to be such an amazing human being?”

“My church is training me,” we would respond. “It is a lot of inner work, a lot of thinking and reflecting and talking with people about how to be, and it’s expensive. I give my church a lot of my time and my money. But it really is working a miracle in my life, which feels amazingly freer, richer, more meaningful, deep and hopeful now than it did before I devoted myself to religious community and practice. If you’re interested I’d love you to be my guest for a Sunday service.”

Thank your for listening, and thank you for caring. PeaceBang blog turned seven years old a few days ago and it heartens me more than I can possibly express that we have been able to have these conversations in the blogosphere for that long. May they bear good fruit.

This post is dedicated to the following friends and colleagues who have most recently contributed the most to my thinking on this subject: Tony Lorenzen, Peter Boullata, Roger Butts, Scott Wells, James Estes, Derek Parker, the lay leaders I am privileged to work with in my own church (especially Sue Robinson), Hank Peirce, Stefan Jonasson (there’s a “puerile” in there just for you!) and Joanna Fontaine Crawford.

58 Replies to “The Missional Church and Unitarian Universalism”

  1. Thanks, Fausto. You have been a constant conversation-partner and help in my formulating these ideas, over all these 7 years. Bless you.

  2. Hey, interesting website. I’m another HDS alum (I did my MDiv there), and I was a little surprised to hear you refer to the church as an outsider institution in American culture. Considering the influence of the religious right on American politics, the fact that churches enjoy tax-free status, and the fact that more than 90% of America claims to believe in god, how is it that the Church is an outsider?

    Cheers, from an Atheist, who is an actual outsider,


    [Consider my remark in its context, J. Until recently in American history, church-going on Sunday mornings was a compulsory activity. Anyone who wanted to be considered an upstanding citizen had a church or religious affiliation. Nowadays, no one in the mainline considers church-going or affiliation a pre-requisite for moral living. In fact, many people suspect the the opposite is true, ie, assume that church folk are brainwashed hypocrites. Also, don’t conflate belief in God with church-going. They have nothing to do with each other any more. Also, atheists haven’t been considered outsiders in any institution I have ever been part of, including the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congergations. It depends where you spend your time. – PB]

  3. Thanks for this post. I think you make a lot of good points.

    The flip side of seeing UUism as refuge from “icky-old religion” is another toxic part of the community – believing that we are somehow more right, and better, than those who hold different beliefs. I think that the penchant towards seeing ourselves as some sort of enlightened elite, no matter what the roots of that belief, are just as toxic in my opinion. [I heartily agree with you. Thanks for commenting. – PB]

  4. preach, preach! there’s so much good stuff in there. i am especially intrigued with your concept of church goers as spiritual climbers, i love that.

    i think it’s high time for unitarian universalists to reconsider their relationship with jesus, and wish we could get over our “aversion addiction” to christianity (that phrase taken from tony lorenzen’s recent post at

    thanks for your inspiration! tera

  5. It wasn’t Rumplestilzkin who feel asleep for several decades, but a fellow named Rip Van Winkle. Rumplestilzkin is a German fairy tale character whose name translates generally as hobgoblin.

    Good discussion of important topic. [Thank you, Marsha! I will correct the original. – PB]

  6. (A few bits before I begin: My mother was raised Protestant and became an agnostic. My father is a staunch atheist. Both of my parents are UUs. My father, though I love and respect him, and though he’d never say it to anyone’s face, scoffs regularly in private at people who are religious. Over the past few years, I have become quite involved in my local UU young adult community)

    Pretty interesting. I don’t think it’s really the answer (or the only one, anyway) about why YAs don’t participate in UU congregations, but it does say a lot about what drives people away from UUism in general. (Some of these qualities are present outside of congregation members) I make this distinction because many other “culturally Protestant denominations” are having similar problems with YAs having no interest in church life. I’m reading a book on the subject called “I sold my soul on Ebay” that offers an atheist’s view on why this is (so far, it’s quite level headed and fair, but I’m only a few chapters in)

    That all said, there’s a lot of truth in it. Especially in “The open disgust and mockery that so many Unitarian Universalists express regarding religious beliefs held by the majority of ordinary Americans is the black mold in our association.” It troubles me a great deal to see people doing the very things they speak out against.

    The tone of the piece is rather strong and overhanded, though. It’s true-painfully true- that we UUs often don’t live up to our own principles. It’s human, and a place to start from, though. Not something to be damned for, which is the feeling I get from your blog post. Perhaps the tone is somewhat necessary; perhaps people might not listen unless you push them beyond what is comfortable. But I can’t agree completely with the harshness of your analysis.

    That also said, near the end of your post, you made a point which speaks exactly to why I (personally) no longer attend services. In our services, there’s rarely the kind of passion and challenge, the high stakes, the risky positions, that are in this blog. At best, sermons are usually interesting or reflective, not stirring and troubled. I think *that* is what is missing the most in churches, not only in the UU community but in all the Christian churches I’ve attended services at as well (albeit perhaps a small number, but better than none). I have, however, seen that kind of fire to question in a short sermon a Christan youth pastor gave at a friend’s youth group when I was in high school. I was a (known) atheist in a group of Christians and it still reached me. On a number of occasions, I have seen Christians show more religious acceptance (in contrast to haughty ‘tolerance’) than most UUs seem willing to. I suppose it gives me something to strive for.

    My… 2 cents, for what it’s worth.

  7. “I look forward to the day when no one defines UUism as “That religion where you get to believe whatever you want” but teaches that spiritual freedom and the right of conscience are the starting point for serious theological study and spiritual growth, not the comfortable end point of religious meaning.” Oh, yes, Yes, YES!

  8. I was astounded to see my name among those that you say have been contributing to your thinking about missional Unitarian Universalism. Many times I feel that I work in obscurity, out at the fringes of our UU community, or even out in the heavily neglected world of our ecumenical partnerships/relationships. As I have tried to be more grounded in the rich stream of our Universalist heritage I have struggled against our own hyper-sectarianism, our cultural narrow-casting, our idolatrous self-worship, and our tendency to heavily edit the witness of our fathers and mothers in faith (eg. Yes Judith Sargent Murray was the grandmother of theological femminism, BUT we must not obstinately deny that her inspiration was Biblical).

    In my work and witness, I have not always felt affirmed in my relationships with contemporary UUism. And more often than not feel that I have been held out at arms length. Your expression of gratitude means ALOT to me. And I want you to know that I am also very gratefull to have you as my sister in service to the people of God.

  9. You write:

    “there are faith claims made by historical Unitarianism and Universalism to which we are beholden as congregations and as members.”

    By my count there were 11 self-identified Unitarian ministers who signed the humanist manifesto of 1934. (That’s 11 of 34 signers.) That document says:

    Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant… Religious Humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life… In the place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being… It follows that there will be no uniquely religious emotions and attitudes of the kind hitherto associated with belief in the supernatural.

    I’m not especially well-versed in UU history, but those ideas must be part of our heritage, because otherwise where did those 11 ministers come from? And the transcendentalists are certainly part of our heritage, with their emphasis on the individual experience of the divine.

    So what are the historical faith claims to which we are beholden? Can you be more explicit?

    I’m not asking in order to be sophistical or to start an argument (spell them out so I can quibble with each and every one), but when you talk about historical faith claims and say we’re best described as a form of protestantism, it’s not clear to me what you’re referring to. What are these claims and what part of our history are they grounded in?

  10. Thanks, PB for you comments about retiring smarmy imagery: “What we have found is not a “family” and a “hearth fire,” but a group of fellow climbers. It is time to retire cozy, sentimentalized imagery for what we do as religious communities. The family metaphor, for instance, creates a bizarre disconnect for the way that a huge number of people experience family, perpetuates the idea of spiritual community as a kind of social club for people “just like me,” and puts the minister in the role of Mommy or Daddy whose job it is to keep all the children happy.”

    The idea of the Church as “family” is a condescending patriarchal throwback to “Father knows best” that’s an insult to any sentient being.

  11. Christine, I agree with you, although I would want to add that our freedom and enlightenment comes more from our method than our status. For ages we’ve presumed to have a better way, although that doesn’t necessarily make us better people. As you may gather from my Faith of the Free website, I’m proud (hopefully in the good way) of this liberal tradition in religion and want to see it become better understood and revered in larger society.

    I agree with those here and elsewhere who call for more of a mission-orientation, although I am a little more cautious than some in regard to the “theological details.” All earnest seekers of truth, and people who are thoroughly committed to following whatever its dictates in their/our personal lives and larger relationships, should be welcome into our “communion of the free”…regardless. To me that means that we should always have a place “at the table” for honest questioners and doubters, whether they consider themselves to be “free-thinkers,” agnostics, skeptics, humanists, etc. I think it’s entirely possible for us to be more “missional” without throwing out the entire “liberative paradigm” with the bathwater.

  12. I’ve got a couple of questions that I legitimately don’t know the answers to. Hence, why I ask, and I’d like to hear your thoughts-

    -Didn’t a lot of Unitarians sign/write the Humanist Manifesto? Isn’t that part of our history we’re beholden to as well?

    -Wouldn’t moving towards, well, being a liberal protestant denomination cause us to get lost in the shuffle? Maybe this comes from living in Atlanta, but if I wanted a liberal but still Christian faith, I know which churches I could get that from (and they aren’t Unitarian.) But that might just be from living in a big city with lots of faith choices. It seems like that would decrease any possible growth (“just one of the same.”)

    -On the curmudgeons. I do agree here, but, in part. Part of me wonders if there’s a generational difference (I see that attitude lot in the boomers in my church, but not a lot in my fellow YAs.) But often they do have legitimate pain. I came in to UU unchurched and hyper negative connotations with the word God and prayer. Growing up in South Georgia, I got told I was going to hell at least once a wee all throughout high school. Started off because I didn’t go to church, then because I was an atheist, then a lot when I came out. And people would tell me “I’m going to pray for you” because they wanted me to stop being an atheist or magically turn straight. I’m still not 100% comfortable with the words prayer and God, although I am getting a lot better. How do we provide the space for those curmudgeons to experience the lexicon positively and change? Is it up to ministers? Is it up to some kind of RE program? Or if you don’t get it, are you just shown the door after a certain amount of time?

    (For me, it was mostly online and through UU communities on twitter and Rev. Naomi who have made the biggest strides in getting more comfortable with “those” words, but for the first couple of years as a UU I certainly wasn’t.)

    -kinsi, who is a huge fan of the uu missionalists I’ve seen out there

  13. What initially attracted me to the UU Church was its openness to a variety of religious ideas, including agnosticism and atheism as well as Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, paganism and new age religions. It gave discussions a depth and meaning that could not be obtained in a dogmatic setting. It lived and breathed tolerance and acceptance. It showed that an institution could promote ideals without promoting ideology.

    Lately, though, I’ve been seeing more and more blog posts and articles similar to this one, complaining about our lack of focus, our insistence on not self-identifying as Christian, our acceptance of non-mainstream theologies or personal theologies as valid. This post, and others, typically characterize such concepts as selfish, self-absorbed, “petulant”, “misinformed”, “negation”, etc. I guess this is considered a justifiable attack on a large number of people who have solidly supported UU churches for years because the more christian-leaning UUs have felt under attack for years, and now that they are on the rise in numbers and power, want a chance to get their licks in. That’s understandable, if not exactly praiseworthy.
    However, when you get to where you seem to me to want to be, what will make UU churches stand out among liberal Christian churches? Disbelief in the reality of the trinity and belief in universal salvation are not as heretical now as they were when first proposed. And, if I am following your post correctly, we must quit insisting that we draw from all religious traditions and plant ourselves solidly in Christian protestantism, with only the barest of nods to other religions or theological ideas.

    Who is this going to attract? It certainly will spell an end to my participation in the UU Church, and I’ve been doggedly working at this for decades, accepting the shift back to more “spiritual” services, the increasing emphasis on our Christian heritage (which I’ve never denied) and the elimination of congregational feedback. Now, this blog and others, and many articles within UU publications and newsletters, are making it clear that they are ashamed of people like me who enjoy open discussion of differing points of view and don’t feel that a church needs to be dogmatic to be effective. Well, I have finished my second three year term on the Board of Trustees, and I’ll be finished teaching the OWL class by May, so I will, with some regret, bid this former home of acceptance and free thought goodbye, as many of my humanist, agnostic, buddhist and pagan friends did years ago. It’s too bad to see the life and color drain out of what was once a remarkable and unique institution.

  14. Eric, your reading of my post is inaccurate, to say the least. You make the typical UU mistake of assuming that theology equals dogmatism, which is one of my chief frustrations with the movement. You have framed your entire response in the old, tired “Christians vs Humanists” false dichotomy, eg, “The Christians are mad and now that there are more of them, they’re trying to throw us out.” I won’t fall for that kind of “I’m going to pick up my toys and go home” emotional manipulation. It is not productive in the least. I have not suggested that we become a Protestant church; I have argued that we ARE a Protestant movement at the far left of the Reformation tradition, and that we should question our integrity when we deny that and claim to be a happy little conglomerate of world religions. Humanism and agnosticism are not world religions. Those who lump those two theological categories with other world faiths help me make my point about UU willfull ignorance. Again I assert that UUism is being held hostage by reactionary individuals who don’t know much about religion but think they do, and who are so indoctrinated in binary thinking that they are unable and unwilling to clearly see the issues I outline. I have been writing on this subject for seven years and I have yet to post something along these lines that didn’t draw half a dozen equally confused, defensive and irrational responses. I am very sorry for it, and I don’t understand how to help people move beyond their panicky reactions and threats to leave if the UUism they know and love changes. I have never suggested that we abandon acceptance and free thought, but that’s always the first accusation when I write along these lines, as is the ridiculous assertion that I have an agenda to make Unitarian Universalism a Christian religion. I have grown used to this sort of insult and am happy to be in conversation with dozens of UUs who DO understand what I’m saying, DO get that I’m not threatening humanism or agnosticism or free thought, DO get that I support and encourage them in their chosen spiritual path (as I appreciate being supported in mine), and DO affirm the covenantal obligations that Unitarian Universalism is based on.

  15. Wow…PREACH! Thank you.

    ~ Your Friendly Neighborhood Progressive Baptist [Thanks, Tripp. One of the greatest joys of my life in recent years has been to develop strong ties in the ecumenical community. – PB]

  16. The great blessing of FSC is that we are outside the UU gene pool with its allergy to religion and religious language. Same values as UUism but without the cultural baggage. The stuff you are talking about we are doing. To get a sense of it all check out my latest FB note where I posted my road sermon on this subject. Been preaching it now for five years in fact. [How nice to hear from you, Fred!! Blessings to you and your congregation. I look forward to reading your FB note. – PB]

  17. We loosed our relationship with Jesus with the Unity Men, our relationship with God with the Humanist Manifesto, with ministerial leadership during the Fellowship Movement, with respect for institutions / authority in the “Revolution.” Since the 1980’s we’ve been trying to define ourselves, and are now just looking back to our historic roots — imagine a UU world where the words like “God,” “Jesus,” and “church” doesn’t draw shudders in our “accepting” congregations …

  18. I am confused. Several issues:

    If you are saying that uu’s have their historical legacy in proestantism, well sure. But if you are saying we are now still liberal protestants (and in standard parlance, protestant =christian), i strongly disagree as would most UUs i know. [Look at my list of what makes us culturally Christian. Do their congregations worship according to the typical order of service on Sunday mornings? Do they call their ministers according to the UUA search and call process? Etc. etc. etc. If they do, then their practices are essentially Protestant. There’s no opinion about it. It’s a basic reality check. – PB]

    I also question your statement in the the comments about how atheism and humanism are not world religions. While technically this is a true statement, what does that mean? It sounds like there is an implied “therefore, they are not relevant” or something. Can you explain? [Sure. It’s a correction. You made the implication. – PB]

    More directly, i feel very threatened by statements seeming to require uus to become more christian or metaphysical because those are contrary to my belief system, one i discovered before i discovered uu. I feel threatened because, as an atheist humanist, i have no other religious home, or more correctly, they don’t want me unless i lie about who i am. I want the spiritual and emotional connections and communities that an ethical society does not bring. There is a huge sense of rejection lurking in many non cradle uu’s that we are hugely senisitve to, and the sense that no one will have us. [Yes, well, that’s my point. Our conversation about what makes us toxic gets stymied when people refuse to engage in it because they feel threatened. The fact that you feel threatened interferes with your ability to read my post and I’m very sorry for that. However, I can’t stop having this conversation because it will be misread by sensitive, anxious UUs. One of the failures of our congregational ministry is that it has not taught deep listening and non-anxious ways of being in community. – PB]

    Thirdly. I get the zeal most ministers have for theological exploration, but there is another role for the ministry -comfort. Honestly i am far too exhausted most of the time with my day to day life of being business owner, wife, mother of two (including one with special needs), and citizen to add a spiritual climb to my list. I am not looking for a pass, but rather acceptance and community. [Comfort is a great word that needs more attention in our communities. How have you found your UU congregation to offer you comfort? I’d love to hear some of your good news! – PB]

  19. Brilliant! Sadly, the very issues you raise so eloquently, PeaceBang, are why I left Unitarian-Universalism & began attending a far more tolerant United Church of Christ congregation where theological discussion actually takes place. I found that there were several other disaffected UU’s already there….none of us “believe” what UU’s THINK all Christians believe…some of us don’t even call ourselves “Christians”—whatever that means. Actually, early Christians weren’t even “Christians” in any so-called “traditional” sense!

    My upbringing as a UU “spiritual-but-not-religious” humanist included a total rejection of Christianity as an absurd superstition. Virgin Mary?? Son of God?? God?? You’ve got to be kidding, right?!

    Yet, when I went to seminary (Union Theological Seminary in NYC) to get the credentials to become a UU minister I was beyond surprised to find what to me was a previously unknown range of “Christianities….” I discovered–aha!–the concept of a metaphorical understanding of the “Christian narrative.” I came to understand that my/our rejection of “Christianity” was a rejection of the LITERAL reading of the text & I found that many Christians has also rejected this literalism! This was such a shock that I was initially completely disoriented. Gradually (it took me 6 years!) I, too, began to see the beauty of the spiritual path that lay in the “Jesus Story.” I came to understand that there were actually Christians who had a “NON-THEISTIC” idea of “God” or “God-ness.” And I discovered that very few of my fellow seminarians “believed” in a virgin birth, or a literal son of God–or any of the other literalisms I had always attributed to “them.”

    When I tentatively began to discuss this with my fellow UU congregants I got reactions that ranged from mild dismissal to outright hostility. Many of the Christians I knew were asking theological questions; too many of the UU’s seemed to think they already had the answers.

    As I’ve already mentioned, I eventually became a member of a UCC congregation that actually WAS tolerant of a range of “beliefs”– from a somewhat traditional theism to non-theism to outright atheism. There no one cringed when a sermon used a biblical quote or a “saying” of Jesus as a starting point & the word “God” was not forbidden—or assumed to mean an old actual God-as-old-man-with-white-beard,” who lived in a place called “Heaven” located somewhere overhead….

    By contrast, when I had preached at a UU church & given a sermon based on an exploration of the Book of Job, there was a definite tension in the air. On another occasion & at a different UU church, I was briskly informed afterward that I had used the word “God” twice!

    At neither of these “religiously tolerant” UU churches was there any real room for discussing the tremendous power of the metaphors of crucifixion & resurrection as personal experiences. When I attempted to open a discussion of the Hebrew or Christian scriptures as having value as potential “truth” that lay beyond mere historical “fact” I was met with a complete lack of comprehension–and a total disinclination to discuss this any further.

    Of course, all UU’s and all UU churches are not the same. (Neither are all UCC’ers or UCC churches.) That said, PeaceBang, you make a strong argument & one that I personally found valid to my own particular experience. Attitudes can & do change.

    I do not intend to become ordained in the UCC (although I considered it & even went quite far in the UCC ordination process). I eventually concluded, however, that I don’t choose to spend the rest of my life with a label that leads anyone to assume they know what my theological perspective is or is not. I DO still feel “called” to ministry. However I’ll be practicing it outside of any specific faith tradition as a Celebrant of personally designed rituals & ceremonies (including weddings, funerals & the many other occasions in our lives worthy of special celebration or recognition) that fully reflect the values & faith/belief systems of those whose ritual or ceremony I am performing.

    Peacebang, I applaud you & other UU’s who are willing to do the hard work of revitalizing Unitarian-Universalism. Similar efforts need to be made in many of the churches (including the UCC and other Protestant denominations) where too many young people are not finding an open-minded spiritual inquiry that focuses on questions without assuming there are any definitive answers.

  20. I think an important question to ask is whether Unitarian Universalism is intended (or should) be a ‘religion’ in the traditional sense, or something else. I have long thought of it more as a mindset, a sense of principals, and a way to live by. I have seen it as compatible, rather than mutually exclusive, with religion. I haven’t used it as an excuse to say, “I’m here, I’m home.” I have found a spiritual home within Unitarian Universalism, and because of that I’ve been able to sift through religion with an open mind, and discover that no, I’m not an atheist, but no, I’m not quite sure where my religious home is yet.

    I am very interested in our Unitarian roots (something that seems to be unusual among UUs). I suspect that if Unitarians (as they existed before the merger) still existed in the USA, I would likely be one (though I never would have been open to it if I hadn’t been UU first). But I do not think that the only way to move forward and move away from the self-interest, elitism, and entitlement is necessarily to move towards being more like a ‘church’ in the traditional sense.

    I acknowledge willingly that we have a Protestant heritage, and by your definitions, are a Protestant tradition, in terms of our organization and structure. It is something I am proud of, and that perhaps most UUs aren’t really as familiar with as they ought to be. I have also been at a number of sermons where the minister talks about another religion, often non-western, trying to find the truth in it and bring it to us. The problem, perhaps, is that this is done often more out of a sense of curiosity than out of a driving need to find real truth and challenge our foundations to make sure we know who we are.

    I agree that the reputation for “believing whatever you want” is both true and one of our biggest flaws, because it makes religion into an ‘art form’ rather than a search for meaning and truth. I agree that among UUs there is a huge sense of entitlement and superiority, often the very things that UUs condemn Christians and other religions for.

    But I also see that sense of superiority, the “I know better,” in your blog post. You make a lot of very strong, valid points, but the language you use I can only think is phrased to provoke the maximum reaction rather than to really sway people who don’t already agree with you. Why else would you say something like “I won’t fall for that kind of ‘I’m going to pick up my toys and go home’ emotional manipulation” when you say what you want is open and honest dialogue about this?

    Ultimately, on most of your points, I agree with you. There are many things UUs have become averse to, not the least is discussing the “allergy” against organized religion. There are many ways we need to change if we are to survive as something more than the ‘rotary club.’ But I don’t think accusing people of being shallow minded and reactionary while being reactionary yourself is going to get us anywhere. [Except that we’re definitely getting somewhere. And I’m guessing, by your sense of entitlement to analyze my writer’s voice and tone, that you’re under 30. 😉 – PB]

  21. You are absolutely right that it is not about just us and rather should be about all of humankind. Also, let us move away from anything that claims to be a God centered religion. The best thing about Unitarian Universalism is that it allows us to not have any faith at all in religion. We should run as fast as we can from any connection to traditional religions, including our original roots. Good to be tolerant of religious pluralism since that embraces ‘universal’ freedom. Better to learn from all these mistakes. A genuine hope is that instead of houses of worship we become more and more habitats for humanism. While certainly not worthwhile to just revel in being different, a far better pursuit is to move beyond religion to a much more relevant and meaningful philosophy of life for us all.

  22. Thank you for this thought-provoking article and this dialogue. I’d like to pick up on your discussion about “home” and “family”.

    To me, “home” represents the place of love and acceptance from which one may grow toward maturity. “Home” in a church context can be seen as a framework to support spiritual growth…so long as there are wise elders around who don’t let us park ourselves on the spiritual couch. (You said this too, I think, with your point about “home base”.)

    Our UU Principles call us to affirm and promote “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning” (not “the belief that one has found all the answers”). We’re also called to support spiritual growth in our congregations, which is to say, ongoing transformation from the self-centered, materialistic and short-sighted people we too frequently are, to people who understand themselves to be part of a larger Whole and who are courageous enough to act for the preservation of it.

    It seems to me that the UU leaders who understand this do not hesitate to use the teachings of Jesus, among others, to model and inspire such transformative change. However—and wisely I think—they do not seek to limit or define the path toward transformation by placing it in an exclusively Christian (or other) framework. Sure, UUs model our worship services on Christian Protestant traditions, but let’s not confuse the style of the container with the substance within.

    I hope that UUism will remain neither incompatible with Christian faith, nor excluding of atheism and humanism or personal spiritualities that defy simple description. To quote Rumi, “there are numerous strings in your lute”. No matter what path you’re on, however, there must be movement: towards wholeness, toward the Divine, toward Christ, toward That Which is Bigger Than Us. That movement is difficult and involves risk: so much risk, that I suspect most of us benefit from having other people around us who are similarly brave (hence, the “home”).

    One last thing. “Know-it-all”, “me-first”, “they’re all wrong” attitudes are well-known features of adolescence. You’ve got to go through adolescence to become an adult…and haven’t we all been there? It’s true, some people get stuck in that place, and no doubt some of them can be found in UU congregations. But we will only grow out of spiritual adolescence if we are encouraged and guided by wise elders who offer patience, love and compassion. No home is perfect, but that’s the one I want to grow up in. Thanks for the engagement today!

  23. I’m a white male UU who does not believe in deities but also believes in the persistence of consciousness beyond death, so not your conventional atheist either. I have been a UU for 20 year and my partner Sally and I raised our two kids within the denomination in Sunday youth groups and later the YRUU program. Our kids are now young adults and participate in UU young adult programming but have not joined congregations.

    I appreciate your critique of a lot of conventional UU beliefs and practices that are more about saying no to things than saying yes to a profound ethical/spiritual path. You make very good points and I hear your frustration. Though we like to explore key elements of many different religions and ethical practice, many among us do at times have an aversion to Christianity. As a dominant privileged religion in this country, particularly the Protestant flavors, many people have grown up having it stuffed down their throats or been ostracized if they were not practicing it.

    This was true for my partner Sally who grew up one of a small community of Jews in Phoenix, being harassed at times by Christian classmates. Sally has evolved in her thinking a great deal, including moving beyond the Judaism of her extended family, but has no interest in anything remotely “Christian”. She and I as partners and parents were both comfortable joining the UU congregation (The “Onion”) in north part of Los Angeles, because it was not defined as a “church” and not as a “Christian” denomination.

    Our kids grew up going to our congregation’s youth group on Sundays and later got deeply involved in the YRUU teen community and now continue to be involved in UU young adult community events (tho neither seems interested in joining a congregation).

    Actually, seeing how we adult UUs have structured the YRUU program was the real “miracle” for me. I have never seen a more truly egalitarian approach to youth-adult interaction, which include allowing older youth to completely govern their own events and their own community. To me, that is the essence of really walking the walk of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I don’t know any other denomination that treats its youth with that much respect, as part of a circle of equals rather than at the bottom of a hierarchy of control. Somewhere in that what I would consider “right relation” between adult and youth is the essence of UU in my opinion.

    Cooper Zale

  24. The saddest thing of all about Unitarian Universalism is that it is, above all else, a welcoming home for people who feel they were harmed by another religion. New members join because they want their children to be raised in a positive, free, and open-minded religious tradition. UU children are raised to be spiritual, and they are invariably enthusiastic about their faith, until they realize that they have been raised in a religion that is completely different from the religion of their parents — which is, arguably, no religion at all. [UU children are raised to be spiritual? Not this one! – PB]

  25. I cried a little bit reading this post, especially when you talked about “confronting Unitarian Universalism’s bizarre, misinformed, irrational and willfully ignorant allergy to Christianity.” I’ve had the most rude, condescending comments directed at me, such as “But you seem so intelligent” and “Why do you bother to attend here?”(this from the leader of the atheist meeting group) and “You obviously picked that up in the fiction section, which is where it belongs” when someone noticed I purchased a bible at our annual Fall Festival book sale. That kind of crap, coupled with the figurative and literal eye-rolling and receiving line smackdowns whenever the minister dared to mention God, or prayer, or (lord preserve us!) Jesus, made church feel like a battlefield for me. After more than 10 years at my UU church, I left it this past autumn because I simply couldn’t take it anymore. [Gina, I grieve for that, and I have experienced everything you describe in my UU travels. All of it. The insults, the snide remarks, and because I have a Jewish name, the “come over here and talk with us about the silly Christians who are trying to start a Bible study at our church.” That was after I had guest-preached somewhere. I said, “Oh, are they meeting today? Please excuse me, as I’d love to join them!” We are sorry to lose you, may you someday forgive our unkindness. – PB]

  26. I agree with your post and love the way you describe things. The discouraging thing is that I felt that way 30 years ago when I entered the ministry — that the reactivity against religion and Christianity was getting in the way of being true to our grand Unitarian Universalist traditions. Most of my baby boomer classmates had similar views, I think. What is discouraging is that although many of us have challenged congregations to move forward and some have, the reactivity and anxiety around Christianity continues to hold sway and to drive away potential UU’s of all ages that could help us all transform Unitarian Universalism. I am now leaving a congregation that doesn’t understand why I felt that their sponsorship of a “new atheist” who compares Christians to Nazis, was inappropriate. I actually left UUism as a child because of the intolerance of the 50’s and 60’s and I feel discouraged that as I near retirement, I am thinking I may need to attend a UCC church for spiritual nourishment, even though I am not really a Christian. [Oh, Kate. Thank you for weighing in. It breaks my heart to hear your report from your perspective of so many years and such fine service to our ministry. – PB]

  27. I’m trying to understand the direction you and the others UU ministers I’ve read recently are attempting to pull the church. Like Jamie H-R, I would like to see the faith claims that “we are beholden as congregations and as members,” spelled out more clearly. Also, in what ways do you think we should be beholden to those claims? For instance, I would assume one of those faith claims would be Universal salvation which implies the existence of an afterlife. Many UUs don’t believe in an afterlife, so is it part of their responsibility to the church attempt to bring that into their sphere of beliefs, or would it be enough to learn about those ideas, accept them as part of our heritage, and not freak out when they are mentioned in sermons?

    I really think the details of this vision of the UU church matter, and the atheists among us are probably assuming the worst imaginable outcome for themselves. [You are. And this is a perfect example of what I and other UU ministers mean by reactionary fundamentalism among us. Please don’t imagine I am saying that with anger. I say it with dismay and tremendous pastoral concern. In my two posts, I name very clearly behaviors, attitudes and assumptions that are holding our movement hostage. As an anxious atheist, you fixate on … universal salvation? I wish we were face to face so you could see my expression. I want to shake you and laugh with you about this (not at you, WITH you). It’s like…. Aaron… Mr. Fisher, REALLY? You genuinely think that I, or any other minister, cares whether you believe in the afterlife? I’m as orthodox a Christian as you’re ever going to find in the UUA (yea, that’s what happened to me on my free and responsible search for truth and meaning… I found Christ!) and I don’t even believe in the afterlife! What I do believe in is the immortality of the soul. However, I don’t care whether or not my parishioners believe that… all I dearly want for them is to have found meaning in their lives, comfort for their suffering, and a sense of peace when it comes time to die. If they want to talk about Heaven, I’m good with that (even though I don’t share their beliefs about it, I want to hear their beliefs, I want to say prayers that comfort them, I want to love them where they are as they step into the great unknown. It doesn’t MATTER what I believe. If they’re atheists and they see their body as a machine that is breaking, we give thanks for that body, for their lives, and I accompany them as they review their life and chalk up what was good, what hurt, what worries them. Again, I just want to be there with them so they are not alone, I want to bear witness to their life. I plan each memorial service with the close friends or family of the bereaved, and while no one ever comments on the services that I give for Humanists or atheists, there are invariably questions when the service is unmistakably Christian, with Scripture readings and traditional hymns with the traditional words. No matter how long I have been in the ministry, there are some people who still have a hard time remembering/accepting that the minister plans the memorial service according to the wishes of the deceased, not according to their own theological preference. What I want to say sometimes is, “YES, that WAS a very ‘Christian’ service. Those were the words that So-And-So wanted spoken when she died and was laid to rest. Isn’t it sad that we couldn’t get beyond our Christophobia while she was alive so that she could have heard these prayers and sung these songs in her own church occasionally?” That is where I, and others, are trying to “pull the church.” We want it to be allowed to be really free, not free just for those who are rejecting traditional religious ideas. Your leap from a general remark about “faith claims” to an assumption that I mean, “universal salvation” is exactly where our conversations get stopped cold while ministers have to backpedal to minister to fear, anxiety and outright paranoia. Constantly doing that means we can never move forward. It means that those who aren’t averse to the “threat” of theological exploration never get to do it. And so we dabble in the shallows…. forever. – PB]

  28. I am glad to have read this and the other blog posts and comments. A couple of things:

    The defensiveness of atheists is not unique to UU – in fact, most atheists I know feel very attacked and threatened in general culture around them, which I think must be taken as a backdrop for the anxious atheists you see. Because literally, no one else will have us, and we are targeted or reviled by many wearing the name “Christian”. Christian UUs (it is commonly believed) have a ton of other options for liberal christian churches, but atheists have none. So combine the fact that we feel like we are under attack in a predominantly Christian nation anyway with even the slightest hint that our own religion may be no longer accepting of us and you get a recipe for high drama.

    So my recommendation to you is to view the emotion that people bring to this debate in that light. It isn’t fair, I know, but it is there, and it needs to be dealt with if the conversation is to move beyond anxious atheists.

    One area I would like us to explore is the divide between those who allow for belief in the supernatural (of any kind) and those who do not. Because when I probe a lot of liberal Christians I know, very few believe in the literal virgin birth, literal son of God, literal reincarnation of Jesus, or the literal sacrificing himself for the world. They believe in the historical Jesus or that maybe Jesus never really existed, but they believe deeply in the metaphor and symbolism of it all – and you know what? I do too. And I call myself a non-Christian. THAT is an interesting conversation for us to have.

  29. I leap from a general remark about faith claims to the specific of universal salvation because you did not spell them out and it happens to be a significant part of our theological heritage which you rightly pointed out should not be locked away. I have no problem with Christian ideas, songs, and prayers popping up in church from time to time. Some of the Christian stories have been instructive and useful in my own atheistic life. I just want to have a better understanding of what you mean when you write about faith claims we are beholden to.

    You may want to consider a more graded approach to you responses to us curious atheists. Going to DEFCON 5 and calling me a reactionary fundamentalist certainly is not a good first step toward greater understanding. [Fair enough. I’m sure my response to your query was colored by the dozen far more anxious and even paranoid queries from atheists I responded to yesterday. It’s impossible to read someone’s tone and your comment initially sounded to me like white-knuckle atheist paranoia. “Where are you people trying to PULL the church” probably had something to do with it. I hope that my passionate and thorough response was informative. One person’s passion is another’s DEFCON-5. – PB]

  30. I never answered your question.

    My church (Accotink UU Church) is low on debate and high on comfort. We have a lot of families with young kids and a fantastic pastoral care team, with a great minister. I think in fact we are very light on theology, relatively speaking, and heavy on community and social justice/love.

    We are kind of an odd church because we also have a lot of veterans (because of where we are located – Burke, VA), mixed faith families, and a lot of families looking for church for protection against folks (all wearing the name “Christians”) trying to proselytize to our kids.

    I don’t know what it is like in your area, but when your four year old is asked by neighbors “did you learn about how Jesus saved you yet?” or 90% of preschools have explicitly religious curricula, or other kids tell your kids on the playground that they are going to hell because they are not Christians, well, yeah, you start to feel like you need a refuge for your family. I have friends at the JCC who tell me they never felt more Jewish than living around here because religion is so visible here.

    And friends of mine who live in the deep south or more rural areas say it is even worse there. Church becomes a refuge against a community which is out to convert or expel you.

    I think what I am trying to say is that the experience of UU with religious language, Christianity, etc. really depends on what part of the country/what demographic one is in as well as personal history.

    Personally, I think using Christian language and imagery in our services is a great idea because:

    1. there is a cultural literacy that we both have and need to be included in to address the big issues of our times. It gives us an existing language to use and redefine as needed.

    2. it gives us more “cover” with those who do not know that we are not explicitly Christian. It is why I chose a church and not a fellowship. when my kids ask where they go to church, they have a quick answer and they have the t-shirt to prove it. I am dead serious here – most of the time I do NOT want to get into a theological debate with a neighbor and it is a lot easier to go unnoticed if I go to a church that has worship services and a minister and sunday school…

    I do disagree with being called Protestant because Protestants- in all definitions I have seen and am aware of – are Christian. The definition of a Christian, at its most basic form that I can find, is believing that “Jesus Christ is the son of God and personal salvation is achievable through Christ and his teachings”. If your church (note: not members of the church – the actual church doctrine itself) – does not state this or something similar as its doctrine, it is not Christian. Period. Like how to be Muslim you must believe that “Allah is the only God, and Mohammed was his final Prophet”.

    Doesn’t matter what you call your worship space or leader, the format of your service, the structure of your leadership. While structural-functionalism is relevant (I think we are more Protestant-like in our thinking and actions than many care to admit), it is not deterministic either. While we may be culturally and historically Christian in our roots, this does not mean we are still thoroughly Christian now. I am not rejecting our history – in fact I think it is awesome – but I also want to outline the boundaries of that history as well.

    btw, I do know that in my argument, I am essentially saying that Unitarians were not Christians, since many did not believe in the divinity of Jesus. I sort of see Unitarians as the bridging of UUs out of protestantism/Christianity into something else.

    If you disagree, what IS the definition of Christian?

    (btw, the reason why I am spamming your blog is because a. you are that damned interesting and b. I just got over food poisoning and I have slept for two whole days and am finally feeling better… I will go away soon, I promise. )

  31. What a good post! You are exciting exactly the conversation we should be having.

    As a born-in UU I find the level of hatred in current UU culture very disturbing. We are supposed to hate Christians, Republicans, Mormons, Canadians (because their immigration policy is different from that of the US).

    Yet there is no outlet in UU culture for dissident perspectives.

    So the vast majority of UU kids choose not to affiliate as adults.

    I suppose 25 has made a calculation that we are expendable.

  32. As a former UU this is all to familiar and sad. Unfortunately, UUism is unable to change and will not change. There are too many hardline humanists / atheists around to turn off the seekers, typically a young couple with young children looking for a church,. All it takes are one or two to spoil the environment. By the time the old line humanists have departed, the remaining UU churches will be few or extinct. IMHO we are witnessing the slow but inevitable death of UUism. I think the future is along the lines of the FSC church noted above. When I looked over their website I was very impressed. I have never been their and have no connection to it but it seems they represent a way forward for the more theistic / deistic UUs.
    [I would like to avoid blaming the hardline humanists and atheists for the demise of UUism. I am also concerned about the ideological inflexibility displayed by many of our self-identified “prophetic” UUs — who consider it sacrilege and heresy when individuals question their political agendas and activities in the name of UUism while expressing virulent hatred for conservatives who do the same. – PB ]

  33. Agree 100%…..being conservative in politics myself was already an issue in church and adding a desire for some actual Unitarianism or Universalism seemed too much. There are more ways to address a social “justice” issue (I really dislike the term) than one political framework. It would be great if a church was open and encouraging to all seekers without jettisoning its historical origins. If humanists and atheists want to attend, fine, but they should realize they are the ones who hijacked a faith tradition. Just my two cents.

  34. PB, we e-met several years ago when I posted a sermon on FUUSE about UUism’s Christian heritage. Thanks so much for keeping this conversation going! I particularly appreciated your critique of some UUs adolescent conceptions of Christian denominations — as if all members of any particular denomination believed in a sort of comic-book God and Jesus.

    The thing I posted led to some pretty good discussions (meaning, I learned a lot about people’s fears.) I figured out that there’s a distinction that’s important to make early and often: The difference between UUism and UU congregations as institutions having a Christian history and being part (however peripherally) of a Christian spectrum, versus UUs as individuals having personally Christian theologies. I think the former is really important and the latter is not. I do think non-Christian UUs should have some literacy in modern-day adult Christian theology (and other theologies), but they don’t need to personally believe it.

    We need to be stewards of our historical location in the Christian spectrum in the way we are stewards of our physical buildings: Everybody needs to be literate in how the building generally operates, where all the rooms are, how the keys work, and its unique idiosyncrasies. Not everybody needs to be on the Buildings and Grounds committee, but a few people should be, and everyone should at least respect the building. Anyone caught defacing the walls or trying to burn the building down should be dealt with immediately.

    My congregation has a Senior Services program. Even though I’m not involved in it because I feel more called to other parts of congregational life, I appreciate that the program is there for that ministry. I’d like to see a UUism in which the UU atheist/agnostic humanists are grateful to the UU Christians for standing up to Christian fundamentalists, by speaking with a liberal Christian voice that they (atheists) would never be able to use.

  35. [New idea, new comment!]

    I’m a Gen Xer who was raised UU, and one of the few among my cohort who did not become a minister. I think many raised-UUs go to seminary because it’s the only way they can deepen their UU religious education… they come out with pretty well-developed theological perspectives, and I sometimes see and feel their disappointment when they get settle into “spiritual sandboxes”. I hear complaints at GA like, “Well, I’d love to get into that with my congregation, but they’d completely freak out. There is definitely a belief that we can’t get into concrete theology with congregants because the backlash would be merciless.

    But my question is, I wonder how much of this is actually still true. I don’t question your diagnosis of the seriousness of the disease, but I wonder how widespread it is in the congregation. Is it possible that what holds us (esp. ministers) back from going deeper is not a huge majority of the congregation, but a few loud people? Just enough to enable us to perpetuate our unhealthy stereotypes, our own gripes about our religion?

    What would happen if we just started behaving “as if”? What if ministers didn’t feel like they had to contextualize or pre-apologize for wearing a clerical collar at a march or rally? What if we just stopped avoiding using the word “God,”? Or if we didn’t feel the need to frame every mention of the name “Jesus” with a lengthy disclaimer about how not all UUs are Christian and how we don’t believe XYZ (I have NEVER heard a UU minister who quotes the Buddha or Lao Tzu offer such disclaimers.)

    In a recent covenant group meeting, a reading we had made a reference to “Unitarians” being kind of stodgy and intellectual and not being prone to enthusiasm or dancing during worship. One of our newer members was shocked! (She gave permission for me to share this.) She said she hadn’t had that impression at all and was struck by how caring and inclusive we were.

    So how about it? When we tell these stories about how terrible we are, are WE, in part, culpable for maintaining this damaging stereotype? What if we just started behaving “as if”?

  36. Dear Rev. Weinstein,
    I am mystified by your statement UUs mostly failed to insist that there are “faith claims made by historical Unitarianism and Universalism to which we are beholden as congregations and as members”. The most characteristic historical claim of Unitarianism and Universalism is that we are a non-creedal church. So, I ask you, what historical claims are you talking about, Christian, Theistic, Transcendentalist, Humanist, Pagan or something else?
    You do not think that “religion is at its best and most appealing when you get to make it up yourself.” If the members of the congregation do not “make religion up themselves”, who will, UU ministers?. This would be a through back to Calvinism, something our church rejected centuries ago, and not somewhere we should return to in my opinion. [ It beyond the scope of this blog and my available time to begin to address the errors and false assumptions in this comment. I’m sorry. – PB]

  37. Pity that you are not willing to engage in dialogue with someone who does not agree with you.l [It’s not about “engaging in dialogue with someone who doesn’t agree with me,” Jim. It’s about taking the time and effort to correct your information, which is simply wrong. Part of the problem with our democratic movement is that we don’t feel it’s okay to say to someone else, “You’re wrong. Your information is wrong, your education is incomplete, and in order to have a meaningful conversation I would have to do hours of tutoring to catch you up to just the basics.” You don’t have the basics right, and I regret that I don’t have time to teach them to you. You’re obviously interested in this information and I would love to teach it to you if you were amenable and we both had time. Your statement that the great foundational truth claim of Unitarianism and Universalism is a commitment to non-creedalism would get an F on an exam. I’m not sure how you reached that conclusion but it saddens me that no one has brought the beauty of our theological tradition alive for you or steered you toward better resources for study. Your second “conversation” opener, which suggest that the two ways to do theology are (a) for lay people to “make it up” OR (b) for ministers to “make it up” is a false dichotomy. Again, I regret that we don’t have time to study together. Someone should be guiding your theological education and helping you think through these issues in an environment of scholarly accountability and critical thinking. – PB]

  38. Jim: For what it’s worth, I believe the point about being “beholden” was to say we should not turn our back on our roots just because we’ve evolved into something new; where we come from is equally important to where we are going. As JB has pointed out, much of the way we currently structure our congregations has grown out of our Unitarian-Christian roots, and remains much as it used to be. To deny this is to deny where we came from and who we are today; non-creedal doesn’t mean we have no roots and no past.

    Far as the Calvinism comment… I fail to see what predestination has to do with “mak[ing] religion up.”

  39. We have elevated the voicing of opinion to a sacrament, misinterpreting our first principle of affirming “the inherent worth and dignity of all people” to mean that we are obligated to take every idea seriously and consider every person — no matter how dysfunctional, abusive or destructive –of such value to our communities that we indulge their behaviors long past any other reasonable organization’s willingness to do so. As a result, our congregations are regularly hijacked by the pre-offended, those I call “perma-victims” and chronic critics who have been led to believe that Unitarian Universalism and the local church are more interested in serving their personal opinions and perpetual woundedness than teaching them how to engage in the mutual deepening and spiritual transformation that leads to love and service.

    You might be interested in this piece I wrote about a month ago on the question of church discipline in comparison to another blogger’s suggestions for discipline in the Occupy movement.

    Also, “voicing opinion as sacrament” is a compelling image that’ll stay with me for a while. Thanks.

  40. Thank you PB for your comments. I have been a UU for 40 years or so, and studied UU history a lot. So, I have to respectfully disagree with you. Non-creedalism has made us who we are. It’s not the only principle, of course. Reason, tolerance (acceptance or love), and freedom are also foundational. In fact, in my opinion the latter make non-creedalism inevitable. With regard to who “makes up religion”, I didn’t say that the laity and UU minsters were the only two possibilities. It was a question. I hoped that you would give me your opinion.
    SomewhatAnonymus, You are right, I overstated the Calvinism comment. There are more aspects to Calvinism than governance. My point was that our principles state that we are a democratic church. The congregation governs itself. This is important to me.

  41. And yet, despite your 40 years of osmosis, Jim, you’re still walking in darkness. (40 years is not such a long time when our oldest member church recently marked its 400th anniversary. Even youngsters like PeaceBang and me each have more years in this denomination than you do.) Non-creedalism is not a fundamental UU principle, and never was; it is not itself a shared creed that we all must profess and believe, and never was. It is only a very recent, dogmatic, inauthentic, revisionist, and I would say disingenuous reinterpretation of our actual religious heritage. Traditionally, Unitarians and Universalists like all other Protestants humbly tried to discern religious truth for themselves with the guiding of the Holy Spirit, and claimed the personal right to do so, but they did not claim the right to make anything up for themselves just because it seemed appealing, nor claim that the truth of their discernings rested upon the inerrancy of their own personal authority.

    Neither of our predecessor traditions were creedless — except in the narrow sense of not requiring prospective church members to affirm a formal creedal statement as a condition of membership. Rather, buth had distinctive creeds that they strongly upheld as collective religious bodies, even while allowing dissenters within the ranks room to dissent. The creed of Universalism was that Jesus’s atonement on the cross was a complete, comprehensive work that lifted the entire human race out of bondage to sin, not only those who repented of their sins and affirmed his divinity. The creed of Unitarianism was that we are saved in this life by Jesus’s teaching and example calling us into ever-greater perfection of character and ever-nobler actions, not saved from an afterlife of eternal torment by the cruelty of a blood sacrifice because we have no inherent worth of our own with which to earn such a pardon.

    In the old hymnals from the 1940’s of the children’s chapel in my Unitarian church (which was gathered in 1678 and has stood in its present spot since 1836), there is a creed that the children memorized and recited every week:

    I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
    And in Jesus Christ, His Son,
    Who was born of Mary and Joseph,
    Who lived in a Carpenter’s Shop in Nazareth,
    Who taught the Sermon on the Mount,
    Who died in Jerusalem upon a Cross.

    I believe that I, too, am a Child of God
    And a Citizen of Heaven.

    I believe that I must never, by thought, word, or deed,
    be a traitor to my Heavenly Country;
    for by so being I should open the gates to those enemies of the Soul–
    falsehood, ugliness and fear.

    I believe that I must live my life in my Earthly Country
    by the secret knowledge I have of my Heavenly Country
    where Truth and Beauty and Love abide.

    Now unto the King Eternal, Immortal, Invisible,
    the only Wise God,
    be honor and glory, for ever. Amen.

    Those exact words and phrases would not be widely affirmed today, including by me, I’ll grant you that. Nevertheless, if our much more recently adopted paradoxical insistence on using “creedlessness” itself as a creedal test of membership, and as an excuse to censor any particular doctrinal teaching or affirmation of any sort, has opened the gates to falsehood, ugliness and fear — and I think a good case can be made that it has — then I say, it is well past time to revive and promote some of our historic creeds again.

  42. Maybe we’re getting into semantics here, a little. It seems to me if members are not expected to make a declaration of belief in a creed, formal or otherwise, this is the definition of creedless. Even if we go back to our spiritual ancestors in Poland, the Racovian Cathechism of 1659 states in the preface “…that which was published in the year 1609…is in some respects the same; but now in many places enlarged, corrected and altered by the chief luminaries of our Church….For we do not think that we ought to be ashamed, if in some respects our Church improves. We ought not in every case to cry out, “I stand in my rank; here I fix my foot, and will not suffer myself to be in the least measure removed from hence.” The Cethechism was written because the unitarians were under pressure by other churches to write a profession of faith. And of course, in Transylvania, Francis David, was not rejected by his church when he took the ultimate unitarian position, that Jesus was only a man and should not be worshiped (adored) in church. He was, however, sent to prison, where he died, by the civil authorities under the influence of orthodox Christian Churches. It seems to me, that from the very beginning Unitarianism was open to, and expected change-again I equate this with being non-creedal.

  43. I have taken the liberty of passing this blog post on to both my Facebook and Google+ pages, to elicit reactions to the various premises expressed in this blog post.

    My reaction? – Let me preface with background.

    I am now 67 years old, and can say that growing up Christian and coming to terms with being gay were incredibly painful experiences for me. When I lived in Houston, back in 1978 and before I became Unitarian Universalist, I was bashed by three (self-identified) Christian teenagers who had gone out that evening with pipes and bats in order to do what they were told was the work of their “god.” (I purposely leave the capitalization off.)

    They did not succeed in “not suffering the homosexual to live” but I remain hearing impaired to this day as a result of their attack.

    It took me many years of my twice daily Buddhist practice (now in its 42nd year) to come to the realization that it’s not what someone says s/he believes ( or what s/he writes in a blog or elsewhere) that truly indicates what that person’s philosophy or religion is, in other words what is in his or her heart. It’s how s/he treats fellow human beings (and other less sentient creatures) that ultimately tells me what that person’s core beliefs are and how I might expect to be treated.

    I indicated on my Facebook/Google+ pages that I found some disturbing statements in this blog. I don’t know the minister who wrote this, so I can only go by what is on the “printed” page to understand the author.

    Let’s start with the expletive “BOOYA,” which for me has always carried a military ambiance. Not a good start to my reading, since it carried with it the idea of “it’s about time someone said the Emperor was naked! So there!”

    I came to UU-ism a bit skeptical. Invited by my partner to hear a sermon on Buddhism, I was, first of all amazed that the minister “got it right’ but more so because the congregation was composed primarily of men and women the age of my parents and yet treated me and my partner like any other couple. I found myself welcomed not in spite of my gayness but accepted because I brought passion, talent and sincerity into the congregation.

    It is these very qualities that have made me see the true uniqueness of UU-ism within the western religious paradigm. I see us as something new, something beyond what was, something so much more than historical Unitarianism or Universalism.

    I remember a guest UU minister who is quite well known within the denomination for being a UU “Christian.” Thanks to our “freedom of the Pulpit” I sat through his sermon hoping that someone in the congregation was being spiritually nourished, because I was being excluded. Something I never felt in our of our churches before.

    I remember him telling a, to me demeaning, atheist joke and pausing for laughter. Laughter, I might point out, that did not come. And the reception line was unusually long after the service.

    I am struck by the current political climate in this country and am amazed at the number of Fundamentalist / Conservative Christians who loudly lament the “persecuted” status of Christians in this society. My impression from this blog post, in that the sense of being persecuted because one is christian is somehow all to pervasive within UU-ism. Really?!?!

    I will make no argument that UU-ism is a child of the Protestant Reformation, but I also feel, and thankfully so, that we have moved beyond that. If we are to became a worldwide movement, bringing people together, I don’t believe that this will happen unless we are ready to embrace our very uniqueness as a faith that draws from many, many sources, Christianity being but one of those sources.

    I certainly don’t identify as a “Christian” but a feel very comfortable considering myself a “Jesusian,” if you will, just as I consider myself a Buddhist, a Humanist and Non-Theist, &c.

    The vision I read in this blog post seems to use some language that is dismissive and downright condescending. “anti-religious Unitarian Universalists now sound like so many Rip Van Winkels, having fallen asleep around 1971 and stomping around in 2012 insisting that they have an informed opinion,” “refusing to be budged from their irrational prejudices and insistently clinging to their right to insult a wide variety of theological positions and faith communities based on shallow scholarship and total lack of experience with the people they denigrate,” “The open disgust and mockery that so many Unitarian Universalists express regarding religious beliefs held by the majority of ordinary Americans is the black mold in our association. If it is not eradicated soon, I will be only too happy to see Unitarian Universalism die in my lifetime.”

    I don’t know what churches the author is visiting, but I invite her to come to San Francisco and experience a loving, diverse community. We are Buddhists, Atheist, Agnostics, Pagans, Gay and Straight, old and young – in other words everything that makes our religion unique and welcoming to all who enter our doors and it’s not about our Principles and Purposes. Again they are just words on a piece of paper. It’s about how we try to be in Right Relationship with each other.

    I don’t want to end with the idea that everything I read was disturbing. That truly is not the case and I absolutely agree that we must change and adapt to the society in which we live. Those of us in big cities have challenges far different from the rural New England churches of our past history. And each congregation much stretch itself to meet the future challenges.

    My minister in Sacramento once told me that the role of ministering is to: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This is something I see being played out constantly in my own beloved congregation, because we each of us is a minister to someone in need.

    No, I don’t believe we are a religion where one can “believe whatever one wants.” That is not the UU-ism I encountered 20+ years ago and it is certainly not the UU-ism I “practice” today.

    I would hate to think that anyone who identifies as Christian could feel less than cherished in my congregation and, by the same token, I would hate to feel that any Christian UU would feel that I was less worthy because my chosen path is based on the teachings of the Buddha rather than Jesus.

    Namaste, _()_

    Stephen Schwichow,
    First UU Society of San Francisco
    [Thank you for writing, Stephen. You come to UUism from a place of hurt and woundedness. I came as a child with no such history. I sense that you are reading my piece from a place of woundedness, and I’m truly sorry for that. But there’s not much I can say to someone who manages to find offense in my use of the term “Booya,” which is basically the sort of exclamation a drunk frat boy makes when his football team scores. P.S. I cringe when I hear stories about ministers telling mean jokes against any group of people and I’m sorry to hear about the minister who insulted atheists. I have spent a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to shift the UU Christian culture away from “cranky curmudgeon” to the fun, supportive, eclectic, inter-generational group we are now. We’re all a work in progress. – PB]

  44. Dear Rev. Weinstein,

    I am disturbed by your response to Mr. Barnett. “Jim. It’s about taking the time and effort to correct your information, which is simply wrong.” I see absolutely nothing “wrong” with telling someone (in this instance Mr. Barnett) that he is simply wrong. However, your blog post has made a number of assertions with which some of us disagree. To respond to someone who disagrees with you by saying that s/he doesn’t have the basics right, and then following that declaration with the fact that you “don’t have time to teach them to” the individual seems a real cop-out. You seemed to have essentially told Mr. Barnett: “You’re wrong. Your information is wrong, your education is incomplete, and in order to have a meaningful conversation I would have to do hours of tutoring to catch you up to just the basics.”

    I’m sorry to say that your response really seems to smack of condescension. You were willing to make some pretty strong statements about your perception of our religious movement and willing to tell those with whom you disagree that they are “wrong.” To not be willing to then address what you feel in incorrect or lacking is, in my opinion, a job half done. Almost as if what you are saying is: “I said, I believe it and that settles it.”

    I’m wondering now just how welcome I might be at First Parrish Norwell.

  45. Stephen says: “I consider myself a Buddhist, a Humanist and Non-Theist, &c.”
    Ok, that is not a Unitarian (one God) or Universalist (all are eventually redeemed / saved), hence the problem with UUism today.

  46. Dear Rev. Weinstein:

    I think this discussion would benefit if you made a future post that set out some more specifics about exactly what faith claims you believe should unite the UU movement. I did not find this post or your two follow-up posts to be as specific as I would like. I cannot tell the extent to which I agree or disagree with you, because the devil’s in the details.

    Most of this blog post, and the two follow-up posts, seems to focus on the negative within the UU movement. You state many things you do not like about what some people do within the UU movement. In the churches I have been involved in, I do not find these negative factors to be anywhere near as prominent as you describe. But obviously you have different experiences. But the broader point is that focusing on what we don’t like about UUsm doesn’t get us very far in developing a positive vision.

    I agree that UUism should stand for some positive set of unifying beliefs. What specifically are you advocating for?

    Even if you say that you are advocating for reviving our historic faith claims, I don’t think that is a sufficient answer. Our historic faith claims have varied over our history and are contradictory. Our history includes not only historical Unitarianism and historical Universalism, but also the humanist movement as well as the longstanding interest of many UUs in Eastern religious traditions. Any attempt to reclaim our historic legacy would inevitably be quite selective in what it chose. In addition, if we are to be a faith for the future, we would also have to add new elements to be consistent with our current culture and knowledge.

    I personally believe that we already do have a significant positive message that is experienced, lived out, and developed in many of our congregations. I have experienced it. I could go into more details, but this is your blog. What do you think our “good news” should be?


    Tim Bartik

  47. Tim, I think represents for me the problem:

    “Our history includes not only historical Unitarianism and historical Universalism, but also the humanist movement as well as the longstanding interest of many UUs in Eastern religious traditions. ” The humanist movement and Eastern traditions are not Unitarian or Universalist. They are, IMHO, why UUism can only orient around social / political issues but dares not address any basic common theological positions as echoed in the terms Unitarian and Universalist. Maybe the historic name should be given up as it seems to mean so little.

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