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Wednesday, March 2, 2005

It's so easy to be a UU without knowing it!

Phil Lund says we Unitarian Universalists may be turning away interested people precisely because we set such low expecations for what it means to become a Unitarian Universalist:

I've got a hunch that there are a lot of good people—thoughtful, liberal religious people—who are coming into our congregations with some high hopes for their faith development and running into something else. What they're running into (or tripping over), I believe, is a pretty low bar (in terms of faith development) for what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist, a bar that was set in the 1960s with the Layman's League ["Are You a Unitarian Without Knowing It?"] ad campaign.

Phil then asks whether the following jokes capture an uncomfortable truth about our movement:

  • You may be a Unitarian Universalist if you consider Charlie Brown & Dilbert to be spiritual leaders.
  • You may be a Unitarian Universalist if your Christmas tree has 7 symbols on its top.
  • You may be a Unitarian Universalist if unleavened bread is part of your Easter Brunch.
  • You may be a Unitarian Universalist if your idea of fish on Friday is dinner at a sushi bar.
  • You may be a Unitarian Universalist if on Halloween you explain to everyone the Pagan significance of your children's costumes.
  • You may be a Unitarian Universalist if e?mail fulfills a spiritual void in your life.
  • You may be a Unitarian Universalist if you take your day planner to church instead of the Bible.

Do read the rest.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 2 March 2005 at 5:11 PM

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Chris Tessone:

March 2, 2005 06:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

I have to say that the first time I visited a UU church, that was kind of my problem, too. I guess I feel like which "mountain" you try to scale (in your excellent analogy from one of your previous posts) doesn't matter if you're making progress to God, but I don't see much point in trying to scale ten or fifteen different spiritual mountains at once, for the sake of religious diversity.

I'd rather be in a community reading the Bhagavad Gita very deeply and letting it challenge them than one that preaches sermons on the Bible, the Koran, and E.B. White sermons, in other words.

James Field:

March 2, 2005 07:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

So how do we do something about zero-stakes membership in a non-creedal way. I have seen some congregations that have good new member classes that at least make a step in this direction.


March 2, 2005 09:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

Your question, James, is obviously difficult to answer or we'd all have done it by now. But there are a couple of things we could be doing.

For one thing, being non-credal only means the church doesn't develop a set of ultimate answers that it uses to sort out the worthy from unworthy members of the community. It doesn't mean that the church cannot develop a fairly focused set of fundamental questions. (By the church, I mean the congregation, and by extension a community of churches working together. I'm not proposing anything for the denomination to do.) Our questions, if they're developed with care, can provide not only a shape for the formation work we do — by implicitly setting boundaries in a broad contours sort of way around the concerns that matter most — but they can also allow people to engage the questions at the level that empowers their participation.

For example, back in my Salt Lake years, our UU young adult group adapted Barbara Hamilton-Holway's "Evensong" curriculum. We didn't follow all the rules the program sets out, but we found it extremely useful in the way it puts central religious questions on the table, gives people a way to understand how the dominant culture's religious metaphors relate to these central religious questions (so, yes, there's a week about "Christ"), and invites people to bring their own stories and ideas to a community in a context that sharply limits people's ability to judge each other. It's always seemed to me that there would need to be some other context where ideas could be evaluated and discussed, something "Evensong" really doesn't encourage, but the shaping the program gives to basic questions is quite good.

I understand that the UU church Barbara and her husband now serve outside Berkeley, Calif., uses the "Evensong" program model for its small-group ministries. The groups that form around the program develop real intimacy — which is also to say that the social dimensions of the group amplify the implicit contours the program defines for the kinds of religious questions that the UU church can address. Some forms of spirituality are effectively ruled out; others are very effectively lifted up.

"Building Your Own Theology" — which I thoroughly enjoyed, brainiac that I am — takes a more cerebral, discursive approach. I enjoyed the topics in BYOT I and II, but I never felt that they were organically related to each other, and the range of possible answers the curriculum suggested were often very unsatisfying to me. In the BYOT I unit on God, for example, I tended to agree with three of the five supposedly mutually incompatible definitions of God, which made me think the writer might not be able to help me name my own theology. This may just mean that I was a bit too stupid to figure out what I really think, but if it went over my head, it's way too cerebral. I will say, though, that the basic approach — introducing a variety of approaches (but not every conceivable approach) to a core religious concern is a great way to help seekers recognize that UUism honors the integrity of the answers they develop even as it suggests that a handful of core concerns are actually the heart of a vibrant liberal religion.

All Souls in Tulsa has been identifying a set of these themes — core concerns that drive the religious education dimensions of the entire congregation, from the sermon topics to the Sunday School classes. A version of their themes is captured in the painting that hangs in the church foyer. The themes are rooted in liberal religious traditions, but they're not backward-looking. It's a fascinating model.

Other congregations could do the discernment work of figuring out what their tradition and living community's experience suggest are the most enduring and central religious issues. That seems like a good starting place. People need to know which questions drive us. We'll never be in the We Have the Answers business, but we could be in the These Are the Most Important Questions business.

James, I'd love to hear about some of the new member classes you've heard about. I agree that this is a good place to start, but something has to follow them. I'd highly recommend Stumbling Toward God: A Prodigal's Return, a memoir which offers the best contemporary portrait of how a newcomer actually experiences the faith-deepening (and faith-frustrating) dimensions of UU outreach. My brief review of the book, which I don't think ever made it onto the UU World website, is online at

James Field:

March 3, 2005 12:41 AM | Permalink for this comment

I think the sermon "Eight Themes That Unite Us," by the Reverend Christine Brownlie that Rev. Phil linked to is a great starting point.

Talking about new member orientation classes and long term themes, I think the congregation in Davis, California and their minister, Beth Banks is a very promising model. They focus on a yearly congregational theme that orients worship and RE, and they have a 4-6 week class that prospective members take that seems to balance some of the BYOT and Evensong material. They do an intergenerational service in between the 9 and 11 services and once a month they do this Whole Community Workshop for the main service.


March 3, 2005 07:17 AM | Permalink for this comment

My feeling is that some UU congregations overemphasize the "acceptance" side of our liberal approach (which is fine, but not an end in itself) and neglect the "challenge" and "questioning" side that make you grow spiritually, and that are our distinctive mark in the world of religions.

My concern is mainly about our history and identity. We are Unitarians and Universalists today because there were Radicals who questioned the established truths of their time and dared to go beyond accepted truth. It is our opportunity and our religious duty to take heed of all that they wrote and did, and go on from that point on.

By overemphasizing unconditional acceptance, we dilute our religious identity, hide our message, present no spiritual challenge to newcomers, and therefore become rather uninteresting to people who actually want to be, not simply accepted, but also challenged to be integrated in a higher religious perspective that gives new meanings to their own ideas and concerns.

As Newton said, you can be great, but it is because you are standing on the shoulders of those giants who preceded you. Ignore them, and you are always standing on the ground and unable to look much farther than the place you're already in.

Jason Pitzl-Waters:

March 3, 2005 09:56 AM | Permalink for this comment

I attended my local UU church for the first time three weeks ago. Since I am going back to school in hopes of eventually earning a Masters in Divinity I was hoping the maybe the UUs would be a good institutional fit for this modern Pagan. After two weeks of attending I felt that going out to breakfast with my fiance the third week was a more spiritual/religious act.

There doesn't seem to be any "there" there. The minister made some nice ethical talks, and people seemed very nice, but it didn't feel like a religion. It felt more like a book discussion group with random organ music.

No praying, no praising, no evocative ritual, nothing that could offend anyone, and so, nothing to inspire me either. I wouldn't have minded some Jesus or Buddha or something.

Still, I'm not giving up. I am planning on going to their "UU 101" program and see if I find that more fulfilling.

Tom Cook:

August 27, 2005 01:27 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hi there,

Just wanted to mention that I am the author of the "You might be a UU if..." lines. I wrote them around 2000. I'm a member of the First Unitarian Church of Orlando, FL. I'm also Pagan, not that that matters, but one of the posters above mentioned his Pagan path.

I used to have the jokes on my own website but took it down several years ago.

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