What do Unitarian Universalists need to go deeper?
I was in my early thirties when I wandered into one of those historic New England churches-on-the-town-green and attended my first UU Sunday service. The first reading was from Bertrand Russell, and I was sold right there. I had grown up in a church where readings had to come from the Bible, and sermons almost never quoted anyone who wasn’t from our Lutheran sect. I liked the idea of a church where you could read anybody, a church that didn’t wall itself off from any of the world’s wisdom.
For a long time, that was enough. I came back Sunday after Sunday. I liked the sermons, and I heard more readings—from Rumi and Lao Tzu and the Bhagavad Gita, with just enough Hosea and Amos and Matthew mixed in that I didn’t feel like my upbringing had been completely wasted.
I went to discussions and met people. I liked them—not every single one, of course, but what church can offer that? For the most part, they were people who took their consciences seriously and tried not to fall for the easy, self-serving answer. They could listen to ideas they didn’t agree with, think about them, and occasionally even change their minds. Sometimes, they changed my mind.
And when my mind did change in one way or another, I didn’t have to find another church. That was the part I liked best. My church-of-origin had taken its creed seriously, and didn’t wink at creative interpretations. If you couldn’t say the creed honestly, and mean the same things by it that everyone else meant, then it was time to think about moving on. The people you knew and liked, and all the things you had all been through together—that wasn’t what the church was about. The doctrine defined the church. Questioning the doctrine, even in the privacy of your own mind, was irresponsibly risky, because if your questions led to the wrong answers, you might lose your community.
But I didn’t worry about losing my UU community because we didn’t seem to have any doctrine. We said we were covenantal rather than creedal, which to me meant that we were loyal to each other, rather than to a set of beliefs. We had the Seven Principles, of course, but they were broad and flexible enough that I found it hard to imagine winding up on the wrong side of them. And even if I did, nobody was going to throw me out. That’s what kept them from being a creed. The Principles described a consensus we had freely come to; they didn’t define a boundary we couldn’t cross.
I loved my UU freedom, and I used it. I meditated like a Buddhist, philosophized like a Stoic, speculated like a Qabbalist, cast circles like a Pagan, and called myself a Unitarian Universalist. Asking what it “meant” to be a UU was, at least for me, the wrong question. It meant being one of the people I saw every Sunday at my church. It meant trying to be a good person, trying to make sense of the world, and being willing to challenge any assumption or precondition that might get in the way of the search for truth.
And for a long time, that was enough.
But then, so gradually that I can’t point to any specific events, it stopped being enough. I started wanting my Unitarian Universalism to mean something, wanting it to be more than the people I liked to hang around with, more than the umbrella under which I gathered my religious smorgasbord.
This was the point where my non-UU friends began to feel vindicated. My problem, they were certain, was that Unitarian Universalism doesn’t mean anything, because it’s not a real religion. Real religions have doctrines and teachings and boundaries you can’t cross. If I wanted meaning, I would have to be a Buddhist, a Stoic, a Qabbalist, or a Pagan—not just borrow the parts of them that suited my purposes. I couldn’t have both meaning and freedom, they believed, because meaning comes from commitment. Meaning rises out of the sacrifice of freedom.
And there was (to jump ahead of my story a little) a piece of the truth there. But not the whole truth. That’s not the direction I went.
Instead, I plunged backwards into the Unitarian and Universalist traditions. I read William Ellery Channing and Hosea Ballou, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker. I traced their roots back to Michael Servetus and the Protestant Reformation. I followed their descendants to John Dietrich, Clarence Skinner, James Luther Adams, and Sophia Lyon Fahs. I read the works of present-day UU theologians like Rebecca Parker, Paul Rasor, and Forrest Church.
I think I was looking for somebody who had gotten it right, somebody into whose discipleship I could commit myself. I didn’t find that, but I found much to admire and treasure and take pride in: Ballou’s vision of God’s all-encompassing love, Emerson’s marriage of reason and mysticism, the lifelong activism of Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone—and the much shorter life of James Reeb.
What I found, in short, was the import of that deceptively simple phrase living tradition. I had always understood the living part: Individuals and generations have to confront the challenges of their own eras, and need to be free to learn and grow and adapt. That’s why Unitarian Universalism can never be cut and dried, never boiled down to a formula, a creed, or a catechism. The past can never be allowed to rule over the present and close off the possibilities of the future.
What I hadn’t understood was the tradition, or even why it’s important to have one. To a certain extent, we do make up Unitarian Universalism as we go along, but we don’t make it up out of nothing. If we try to make it up out of nothing, we impoverish ourselves, because there is so much to work with, if we only knew about it. Others have faced the challenges of their eras just as we face the challenges of ours, and what they learned and created and discovered still resonates down the decades and centuries, if we listen for it.
Eventually, I came to see Unitarian Universalism as somewhat like jazz or poetry or impressionistic painting. The jazz musician studies the performances of past greats not with the idea of reproducing them note for note, but to pick up an idea or two and be inspired by the achievement they represent. Music and poetry and art are also living traditions. The living is always in tension with the tradition, but not in contradiction.
What I found, eventually, was a meaning for my Unitarian Universalism that lives in tension with my freedom but doesn’t demand its sacrifice. I found an identity as a Unitarian Universalist that doesn’t force me to draw boundaries, build walls, or look around my congregation and separate the real UUs from the people who don’t get it.
The next thing I began to wonder was: Why was that so difficult? To a certain extent, finding your religious identity—whatever it turns out to be—is always going to be a challenge. But did it have to be as hard as all that? Was there anything that my church, or the UUA, or some other institution could have done to help me along? Is there anything they or we or I could be doing now to help people in a similar position?
And what about the UUs who need something different to complete and deepen their religion? I needed to make contact with the tradition. Others may need to learn the kind of spiritual practices I had picked up on my prior religious journey—or maybe something I haven’t figured out yet, but haven’t felt the need for. Whatever it might be, where should they look for it, if they aren’t finding it in Sunday sermons or in an occasional discussion group?
Apparently, I’m not the only one asking these questions. Half of this year’s Association Sunday offering—approximately $150,000—is earmarked for projects related to lay theological education.
In September I joined the UUA task force that is figuring out what to do with that money. Over the next few months we’re going to be soliciting proposals from churches and districts and seminaries, looking for programs that could be easily replicated around the country, programs to help UUs find that elusive “more” that they need in order to go deeper.
But we’re soliciting something else as well: testimony. Rather than assume that our own stories and our own needs are typical, we’d like to hear from as many other people as we can. We’ve set up a blog at uulte.blogspot.com and an email account at uulaytheology [at] gmail [dot] com. Give us a comment or an email describing what has helped you go deeper into Unitarian Universalism, what hasn’t helped, or what you still feel the need for.
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Doug Muder is a contributing editor and columnist for UU World. His articles have also appeared in Religious Humanism, The Humanist, and Public Eye. He blogs at The Weekly Sift and Free and Responsible Search, and is a member of First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts.
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