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Tuesday, June 7, 2005

'Stand by this faith' or just standing by?

Phil Lund gets off to a bracing start in "What Price UUism?"

For some time now—several years, at least—I've had two distinct notions elbowing one another in my mind. One is Olympia Brown's call to "stand by this faith"; the other is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's concept of "cheap grace." And to be honest, when these two start tussling in my head, I begin to feel it in my body—my heart gets heavy and my stomach begins to flutter. Usually when I feel this way, I'm getting close to something of major importance in my life. And I'm pretty sure that is, indeed, important. I'm looking for an answer to this question: Is Unitarian Universalist truly a faith worth working for and sacrificing for (as Brown put's it [sic]), or is it merely a liberal religious panacea, one that lets us be comforted and rest assured in our worldliness (to use Bonhoeffer's words)?

He frames the question provocatively in his post — and I'm sure there will be more to follow as he broods on the question and as you add your own responses. I'll say this much about Phil's quarrel with the popular conception that Unitarian Universalism is an "easy" religion: Usually we UUs settle for easy because it makes a nice antithesis to a thesis many people take for granted — that religion is a boring, grueling, guilt-making grind. We take a bad Christian thesis and provide a liberating antithesis. Problem is, of course, that we eventually have to provide some synthesis — and I don't think that's been our strong suit.

In practice, I know there are UU congregations that push past easy rejectionism, but I think it's also true that we find it harder to talk about and cultivate real commitment. Why, just today I marvelled at the news that Kim B. Clark, the dean of the Harvard Business School, has resigned in order to become president of the Mormon Church's lowly Brigham Young University-Idaho:

Clark's surprise decision to leave an institution often regarded as the pinnacle of American business education for a little-known Mormon school in Rexburg, Idaho, was driven by personal and religious considerations, the 56-year-old dean said at a news conference yesterday before flying west to meet with BYU students and faculty. . . .

Clark, who is a Mormon, said he received a phone call on May 25 from Gordon B. Hinckley, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who offered him the job at church-run BYU-Idaho. The former two-year junior college was known as Ricks College until 2001, when it was renamed and accredited as a four-year institution.

After talking with Hinckley for only a few minutes, Clark said, he accepted the job. Then he called Summers, a friend for nearly 30 years, and told him he was departing.

Can you imagine a comparable scenario for a Unitarian Universalist? Or is that an unfair question? ("Harvard Business Dean to Step Down," Robert Weisman, Boston Globe 6.7.05, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 7 June 2005 at 6:19 PM

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June 8, 2005 03:56 AM | Permalink for this comment

When temptation comes to tell us that Unitarian Universalism is (or rather, is practiced and taught as) easy faith, a "no questions asked" faith, let's remember that our forebears were marginalized from respectable society, exiled, tortured, and killed for "standing by" their faith so that the torch of a radical, critical religion, was passed from generation to generation. A religion that is not "politically correct" because it wants the essence of faith and accepts no bogus truth presented under the disguise of dogmas or empty ritualism.

Parker said that we wanted the "permanent", not the "transient" aspects of religion. My fear is that now we may be more concerned about transient stuff and ignore the permanent side, or more precisely the deep side, of religious experience that can only be found when you go beyond form and appearance.


June 8, 2005 11:10 AM | Permalink for this comment

I love Olympia! I was at a Parish Committee (Church Board) meeting last night when the subject of Olympia Brown came up and I proceeded to start in on my (rather gushy)description of her, her works, etc. Until, that is, I was politely interrupted and reminded that I actually talk about her all the time...

I am not sure that the faith Olympia Brown was telling us to stand by was Unitarian Universalism. She was part of the Universalist movement (Scott Wells can tell us its exact name at that time). Also, she was talking about (in fact, assuming)Universalist Christianity.

What I think I am trying to get at is that she isn't, really, calling us to stand by UUism (It didn't exist!). Instead she was calling us to the costly grace of (to riff of an earlier Philocrates post) Christian Humanism.

Does this mean that we should all become "UU Christians" or something like that? Not necessarily (although we always have pew-space at the Eliot Church if you would like to drop by...). It just may be helpful to consider that when she says "this faith" she is probably thinking of something slightly different from what we are thinking of when we crack open the Grey (Gray?) Hymnal.

Finally, I agree with Jaume. There is a "permanence" to our faith. We just need to find it and lift it above the fluff that surrounds it...


June 8, 2005 10:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

What a great invitation!!
Thank you for articulating something that I'm too stupid to have "gotten" before now: in many places, UUism IS an easy religious affiliation (not even "faith") of negations and easy superiority. I suppose my loathing of that way of being UU blinded me to its ubiquity.

I hope I will have time to pick up this thread at PeaceBang. Thanks again.

Barbara W. Klaser:

June 9, 2005 12:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm not a UUer (though I sometimes think I might as well be), but I'd like to know what is easy about thinking for yourself and being at once both confident and humble enough to sometimes change your mind about what you believe? Having a religion spoon-fed to you with ready-made rules is easy. Thinking, learning and feeling your way toward the right path is not. It seems to me that Unitarianism is one of the *least* easy religions. Hardline dogmatics may look on UU as the religion of anarchy, but I look on it as a religion suitable for responsible clear thinkers.


June 9, 2005 09:26 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hello Barbara,

Good question and one that requires some thought! Here is my just-got-to-work-and-it-is-too-hot attempt at an answer:

Obviously, at our best we have a religion as hard as they come. However, like any other faith (and substantially fewer religions than most folks believe actually "spoon-feed" their members) there is the temptation to take the easy path. A temptation whose size and power, I think, is increased by our freedom!

The very fact that it is hard makes people choose, consciously or unconsciously, to opt out. When they (we) do, they (we) don't necessarily atop going to church and particiapting in the life of the church. Not all UUs are striving for the ideal you described all the time!

I would like to think that I think and feel my way to the right path but, to paraphrase many a soap opera, "something that can feel so right can be so wrong". I know that I have taken the easy way many times.

Basically, what I am trying to say is that UUism, just like any other faith, has an authentic path but its adherents, just like those in other religions, are quite more likely than not to congratulate themselves without truly having accepted the challenge.

PS, Yes, you should be a UU, too!

Phil on the Prairie:

June 9, 2005 04:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

I like the way this conversation is going. If there is such a thing as cheap grace vs. costly grace in the Christian tradition, there's no reason to believe we wouldn't have a similar dichotomy in UUism. The difficulty for us, I think, is that Christians can talk about discipleship, as in Bonhoefer's book "The Cost of Discipleship" (where he discusses cheap and costly grace). We really don't have that notion any more since discipleship means discipline and discipline means submitting to someone or something and that's definitely not what our tradition's about (we'd rather talk about spiritual "practice" than spiritual "discipline"). But we do have the word stewardship in our lexicon. Here's how the Lifespan Faith Development Vision Statement puts it: "we envision children, youth, and adults who...accept that they are responsible for the stewardship and creative transformation of their religious heritage and community of faith." Of course we can accept responsibility for the stewardship and creative transformation of things beyond our heritage and congregations, too, like our government or the interdependent web of existence. Perhaps we could start talking about "The Cost of Stewardship," including the demands of sacrifice and ethical consistency. I could see that as part of an authentic (and ultimately more fulfilling) path.


June 12, 2005 03:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

Barbara, what a great question:

I'd like to know what is easy about thinking for yourself and being at once both confident and humble enough to sometimes change your mind about what you believe?

Thinking for oneself -- especially if you're self-critical and distrust your own partial conclusions -- is very hard to do on your own. Surprisingly, it remains just as hard within a Unitarian Universalist context.

Congregations are social institutions with their own patterns and peer pressure and groupthink. Even liberal congregations -- where everyone claims to be thinking for himself or herself -- can make a person wonder how so many independent thinkers have managed to agree on such an extraordinary range of things and hardly ever question their own assumptions.

To put it another way, even in a liberal congregation, it can be difficult to find people who will keep you on your toes. Does the church live out an exemplary moral vision? Do its members? Would a person feel that committing herself to its vision is both intellectually compelling and worth the investment of time, energy, and money? Does it challenge her even more effectively than a purely self-directed quest for truth and meaning? And is commitment to its way of life deeper or more integral to her identity than any number of other good causes with which she feels some sympathy?

Those are the kinds of questions I ask when liberal religion strikes me as too easy. Does liberal religion offer a vision of the world and a discipline that can transform lives? If not, it falls back into accommodating a status quo -- usually, in America, the status quo of the highy-educated, secularized upper-middle class.

What it comes down to, I think, is this: What would make a liberal congregation a truly liberating and transforming part of your life, Barbara? How would you know or come to trust that it would continue to support you and sustain you as you embrace the difficulty of being responsible for your own intellectual and spiritual life? Because the unfortunate truth is that, although UU congregations do often help people tap into this transformative power -- at least for important stretches of their lives -- we're also often just nice. Nice places, nice people, nice music, nice message, a nice worldview. It comes easily to us. Easy is not enough.

Dan Harper:

June 13, 2005 07:59 PM | Permalink for this comment

Barbara Klaser writes:

>I'd like to know what is easy about thinking for yourself and being at once both confident and humble enough to sometimes change your mind about what you believe?

What blows *my* mind is how conventional Christians hold on to the same basic beliefs year after year after year. How do they *do* that? Where do they get the confidence to hold on to those beliefs as they change and grow? And the Zen Buddhists who reach satori and that's the end of it -- how do *they* manage that kind of certainty? Etc.

As a lifelong UU, I grew up with the notion that the universe is full of wonder and awe and change, so that now if the universe doesn't slap me upside the head at least once a year with wonder and awe, and change the way I think and feel, I think there's something wrong with me.

Maybe religion is all a matter of habit. Me, I'm in the habit of wonder and awe and that good old liberal religious concept of "experience." Add the habit of being in a community of inquirers gathered in a voluntary association, subtract any notion of anything that is ontologically "permanent," then hope the universe whaps me upside the head enough times to keep me thoroughly grounded in experience and reality -- and that's UUism for me, in large part. It strikes me that trying to call UUism "easy" or "hard" may be a category error. Like life, like lived experience, it is what you make out of it.

Speaking of which, it's a beautiful day out. The hell with blogging, I'm going outdoors to pick mulberries.

Joseph Santos Lyons:

June 15, 2005 11:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

Such an excellent post, and something I think about as a life long UU regularly.

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