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Stop the elevator; I'm not done

If someone on an elevator asked you what Unitarian Universalism is, could you answer before one of you reached your destination?
By Doug Muder
12.27.10

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Getting on an elevator (© Ola Dusegård/iStockphoto)

(© Ola Dusegård, iStockphoto)

The teens in my Unitarian Universalist church’s Coming of Age program are working on their elevator speeches this month. “If you were on an elevator and someone asked you what Unitarian Universalism is, what could you tell them before one or the other of you had to get off?”

In these kinds of teaching situations, I always fantasize that I’ll be like the golf pro who illustrates all his good advice by picking up a club and sending a drive soaring down the fairway. “See?” he says. And the students (their heads tilted upward to follow the tiny ball as it vanishes into the distance) reply: “Ooooohhhh.”

I’m still waiting for that experience, and I’m not optimistic it will happen this month, either. I’ve written a bunch of elevator speeches over the years. None of them were ooooohhhh-worthy, and none of them has aged well. Any time I think I’m going to escape the assignment by pulling some previous speech out of my files, I retrieve one, read it, sigh, and return to my blank sheet of paper.

Why is this so hard? I’d like to just get angry at whoever came up with the whole elevator-speech idea. It’s unreasonable. You can’t sum up a religion in a few lines.

Except that, in other religions, people seem to do it. Those guys who buy tickets behind home plate and wave signs that say “John 3:16”—they think they’ve really captured something. And sure, getting Christianity down to nine keystrokes requires code, but even if you open your Bible and decrypt it, it’s still a pretty good elevator-length summary: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

The whole elevator-speech idea is actually much older than power-driven elevators and the short discussions they enable. (In earlier rope-and-pulley elevators, conversation was more limited: “Keep pulling. We’re almost there.”) It goes back at least as far as the Jewish teacher Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus. A gentile had asked Hillel’s rival Shammai to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai took offense and chased the young man away with a ruler (a reaction I sympathize with). But Hillel was more easy-going and accepted the challenge. “What is hateful to you,” he said, “do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

Put Hillel on one of today’s elevators and his speech would be finished before everybody got done pushing their buttons. It’s simple, meaningful, and leaves room for expansion: The rest may be “commentary,” but it’s important—you should go and learn it.

If any of Hillel’s students had been eavesdropping and wondering how the master would answer, I’ll bet they said, “Ooooohhhh.”

Why is it so hard to do that for Unitarian Universalism?

It’s so hard that I can’t even find a speech I want to steal. In 2003, when UUA President William Sinkford promoted the elevator-speech exercise in a UU World column, he came up with this: “The Unitarian side tells us that there is only one God, one spirit of life, one power of love. The Universalist side tells us that God is a loving God, condemning none of us, valuing the spark of divinity that is in every human being. So my version of what Unitarian Universalism stands for is: One God, no one left behind.”

I find that to be an admirable completion of the assignment, but I’m not tempted to adopt it as my own. I worry that anyone in Sinkford’s elevator who got intrigued enough to show up at a UU church would be disappointed. How much time do we spend talking about the One God who leaves no one behind? I could imagine a religion that focused on such a God, and it might be a fine religion indeed. But I don’t think it’s us.


So I wind up back at John 3:16. Why don’t we have something like that? Is Unitarian Universalism inherently more vague than Christianity? Is the problem that we lack a core to describe?

The longer I work on my speech, the more I think our disadvantage originates elsewhere. What you can get across quickly depends a lot on what your listener is expecting to hear. Anybody who asks, “What is your religion about?” is already pulling the Religion box off his or her mental shelf and getting ready to rummage through it.

John 3:16 works because American culture preps the listener to understand it. Christianity is sitting right at the top of most Americans’ Religion boxes, so all a Baptist or a Methodist has to do is point into the box and say, “That one.” Even Christians from obscure denominations just have to say, “Grab the first three pieces you see and connect them together like so.”

But if you picture an English-speaking Martian on the elevator instead of a typical American, John 3:16 falls apart: “Who is this God character?” he, she, or it might wonder. “How does God have sons? Why only one? And what’s the connection between believing in him—or believing anything, for that matter—and living forever?”

Probably the John-quoting Methodist would face the Martian equivalent of an empty stare—the same expression my elevator speeches usually evoke.

The UU-elevator-speech problem, it seems to me, comes down to this: If the components of Unitarian Universalism are in my listener’s mental Religion box at all, they’re probably somewhere near the bottom. So I can’t just point; I’ve got to help unpack the box, flinging away irrelevant concepts until the elevator floor is littered with them: “Unitarian Universalism isn’t about getting to Heaven. It’s not about a creed. There’s no UU pope. No founding prophet. No Golden Age. No scripture that it’s all based on . . . ”

Ding.

The doors open and my listener leaves with the impression that Unitarian Universalism is some kind of nihilistic worldview that doesn’t believe in anything. Damn. I should have told her it isn’t that, either. So “not this, not that” also doesn’t work. Maybe the best I can do is a series of this-not-that statements, so that I manage to mention some positive attributes while I’m tossing away the ones that don’t fit. These are the best ones I’ve found so far:

Unitarian Universalism is an evolving religion, not a revealed religion. In my experience, most elevator-riders are expecting to hear about a revealed religion. A revealed religion claims to come from God, who stepped into history at some point and gave a revelation to a chosen messenger. The religion, then, is the community of people who are dedicated to preserving that revelation and passing it down unaltered to future generations.

But the ideas and practices of Unitarian Universalism come from people, and we don’t claim otherwise. Like all human constructions, our religion is imperfect. So each generation of UUs works on it, changes it somewhat, and tries to leave something better for the next generation.

That gives us a different relationship to our history. We celebrate and honor the leaders and thinkers from our past, but we’re not bound by them. If something they taught turns out to be wrong, we change it. And we expect no less out of future generations: We want our descendants to find our mistakes and fix them, not paper them over or (worst of all) live by them.

Unitarian Universalism is about this life, not an afterlife. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that UUs don’t believe in an afterlife, but that’s inaccurate. Individual UUs believe all sorts of things about what happens after death, and we’re content to disagree because that’s not what our religion is about.

There is only one kind of afterlife UUs actively don’t believe in: one whose rewards and punishments justify living in some way that wouldn’t make sense otherwise. For us, this life stands on its own. The consequences we worry about are worldly consequences.

Unitarian Universalism focuses on actions and experiences, not beliefs. The important thing about this life is not what you believe, but what you do and how you feel about doing it.

That’s how we can tolerate a range of beliefs that would splinter most other religions. In a UU church atheists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and people who defy all labels can not only worship together, but also teach each other’s children.

Unitarian Universalism is democratic, not hierarchical. It isn’t just that our congregations govern themselves—it’s that the evolution of Unitarian Universalism is determined by what catches on among the rank-and-file. Ministers and writers and UUA officials may try to influence the direction of our movement, but ultimately it’s the people in the pews who decide what Unitarian Universalism is going to be.

Unitarian Universalism envisions a harmony between goodness and happiness, not the sacrifice of one to the other. In our vision of the good life, individuals passionately and enthusiastically work to make the world more just, more loving, and more beautiful. None of us perfectly achieves that ideal, but if you come to a UU church, that’s what you’ll hear us talking about. It may sound like psychology or sociology or politics, and often it sounds like the Golden Rule or some other idea you might hear in countless other religions, but it’s really about how to harmonize goodness and happiness in your life.

That’s already way too much to say on an elevator in any building shorter than the Empire State. So unless my listener wants to get a cup of coffee at the observatory, I guess I’d boil it down to this: Evolving, not revealed. This life, not the afterlife. Actions and experiences, not beliefs. Democracy, not hierarchy. And don’t choose between goodness and happiness, insist on both.

There’s a lot more to understand, but I guess it will have to be commentary.


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