Liberal religions thrive from partnerships with non-traditional groups, faith leaders agree
From left: the Rev. John Dorhauer, president and general minister of the United Church of Christ; Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; the Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. © 2016 Nancy Pierce/UUA
We are living in “a crisis of isolation” today, yet many innovative groups are springing up to form communities. These innovators, and liberal faiths including Unitarian Universalism, have much to learn from and to offer each other, panelists discussed in a workshop, “Spiritual Community Innovations Across Faiths,” on Thursday afternoon.
In an era where so many people describe themselves as non-religious, other groups are offering things people traditionally found in church such as community and an experience of meaning, said two Harvard Divinity School (HDS) researchers, Casper ter Kulie and Angie Thurston, who are focusing their work in this area. These alternative groups include everything from Crossfit, a fitness program where people hold each other accountable and which operates “with evangelical zeal,” said Thurston, to the Dinner Group, a monthly dinner groups that creates small communities and has taken off like wildfire throughout the world.
In another expression of the interfaith theme of GA 2016, speakers at the standing-room-only workshop also included UUA President Peter Morales, the Rev John Dorhauer, president of the United Church of Christ, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. The speakers all agreed that innovative places for community have much to offer liberal religions, which are struggling to survive. In return, the older institutiosn have experience and resources to share. These partnerships are the hope for the future, they said.
“To the extent we say we share values,” Morales said, turning to his colleagues on the panel, “to try to solve them in isolation is contradictory if we are sharing the same problems.”
“Collaborations with innovators like the ones Caspar and Angie are talking about are essential” for religions that want to thrive, Dorhauer said. Instead of emphasizing autonomy, he hopes the UCC will embrace interdependence, he said. “That commitment to interdependence is a gamer-changer for us.”
“‘Nones’ are kind of disgusted with religious bureaucracy and the stuff of religious tradition. Rather than berate them or cast them out, what if we listened?” asked Jacobs. “If we’re going to try and shape a more just and compassionate and whole and joyful world—which is the purpose we got dropped on earth to do … we have to re-imagine and re-structure the whole thing.”
As the team’s research, “How We Gather,” continues at Harvard—including convening innovators and traditional religious leaders to share ideas and vision—ter Kulie said, “We’re excited about combining the gifts that established organizations have to give … that match the needs of these innovators. The question of how we will do that is a continuing one.”
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.