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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Losing my religion?

Matthew Gatheringwater is leading a fine discussion over at Coffee Hour about the experience some Unitarian Universalists feel when they think their religion is somehow being taken away from them by the emergence in their congregations of unfamiliar — or perhaps too familiar — perspectives and practices. I call it the losing-my-religion phenomenon. (Uncharitably, it's the "we were here first" syndrome. See also mimetic rivalry.) Matthew puts it in a different context and asks, "What are the circumstances in which you'd feel you no longer belong in your own religious home?" Hmm.

Some disconnected responses:

False histories and the myth of home.

I'm more inclined to ask why people believed that they were at home in the first place. The stories some people tell about the good old days when their point of view held hegemonic sway in their congregations or in the denomination as a whole are almost always historically false or at least deceptive. One false history: Unitarianism was "always a religion of doubters and free-thinkers," a bastion of humanism only recently infested with "churchy Christians." Another false history: Until the neopagans came along and ruined things, Unitarians had always been rational and scientific. Another: If only the Humanists hadn't staged a coup and harried Unitarian and Universalist Christians out of the denomination, we'd be able to counter the absurdities of the Christian Right with a 200-year-old tradition of liberal, rational Christianity. These myths give us clues to what groups of us wish and fear — but they're grossly inadequate accounts of Unitarian Universalist history. (Closely related to all these false histories is the tendency to cook up conspiracy theories to explain them, but that's another story.)

What if we played musical chairs?

I suspect that few UUs would feel quite "at home" if they were taken out of their own congregation and dropped randomly into another; there's simply too wide a range of congregational cultures for a person to feel anything but some surprise about the varieties of liberal religion these days. (More UUs are members of a small number of larger churches, so the chances are very good that an uprooted person would be from a mid- to large-size congregation and that they would land in one of the many small congregations where the range of variation may be most extreme.) Maybe this makes me a really bad UU, but I know there are Unitarian Universalist congregations I wouldn't dream of joining and where I wouldn't feel like belonging, no matter how welcome I was. I feel no guilt about that acknowledgment — nor does it trouble me that some varieties of Unitarian Universalism are profoundly incongruent with my own liberal religious perspective. Strangely, though, this hasn't left me feeling spiritually homeless — perhaps because I've always felt slightly odd even in the Unitarian Universalist congregations I love the most.

The trap of innovation.

The feeling of belonging — of recognizing one's place in a community and its story — is perhaps best described as a conservative feature of a community, irrespective of ideology. This conservative dimension often involves the transmutation of a set of particular values, relationships, behaviors, and stories about ourselves into something like eternal verities: "true" Unitarian Universalism. I don't dismiss the importance of this essentially conservative dimension of liberal religious communities; in fact, it's one of the least understood and least talked about features of our congregational life. But that communitarian dimension is countered by our explicit celebration of innovation, deviation, reformation, exploration — all those values, relationships, behaviors, and stories that challenge the sense that the way we do things and have "always" done things is the way they must be done. We often identify only these qualities of our religious life as truly "liberal," which is a disservice to the full reality of people's experience of liberal religion. It also sets a trap:

We don't think adequately about the need for the "conservative" dimensions of our life together even as we explicitly celebrate our diversity, our pluralism, and our interest in novelty — and then we relapse suddenly into a kind of reactionary fear of strangers when our life together seems to be changing because somebody took us up on our offer of hospitality. It's kind of funny to watch, except that the people experiencing the discomfort about change are really and truly in pain.

Anyway, those are a few thoughts in response to Matthew's question and the string of comments he's garnered. Check it out.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 21 July 2005 at 7:23 PM

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2 comments:

Jaume:

July 22, 2005 11:02 AM | Permalink for this comment

Talking about false myths, what about these?: "Unitarianism has always been about freedom in religion, not about the Oneness of God", or "There has always been religious diversity and tolerance among Unitarians", or "Universalism is the religion of the heart whereas Unitarianism is the religion of the head(ache)".

Jeff Wilson:

July 22, 2005 12:26 PM | Permalink for this comment

If only those three were the only myths kicking around amongst UUs. I've been talking a bit about that last one on my blog this week, it seems to be a growing phenomenon. Alot of the myths and problems, including the first two you mention, seem to come down to confusion between whether Unitarianism has been a religion of content (ex. The Oneness of God) or a religion of method (ex. the use of reason).



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