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Sunday, July 2, 2006

Scattered thoughts on a divided spiritual identity.

Jaume expressed some understandable concern about my comment that "I maintain a mildly bifurcated spiritual life in which certain deeply meaningful parts of my faith are almost never engaged by Unitarian Universalism." He wrote:

[I]f people have two religions, one that is the "authentic" one, the one that appeals to their innermost spiritual feelings, and then UUism as the liberal church that they attend because of some commitment to liberal values or because they like to visit an interfaith place for interesting conversation, or to hear intelligent sermons, then this is a death knell for one of those two places, and I think I know which one is the loser.

I have a response in two parts. First, I have never considered Unitarian Universalism "my religion." Unitarian Universalism is my faith community. As far as I'm concerned, the name is a term thrown over the broad variety of congregations, practices, and traditions affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association. It also describes a variety of traditions around the world that have identified themselves as Unitarian or Universalist or Unitarian-Universalist. Some people think of Unitarian Universalism as a religion on a par with, say, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. I don't think of it that way, but I can see that for many UUs their faith community is taking on characteristics of a new religious movement.

For me, Unitarian Universalism is more like a denomination than it is like a religion. And one of the peculiarities of American religious life these days is that many people are becoming post-denominational in their religious identification. One friend is a Mennonite who attends services at an Anglo-Catholic monastery; another is an Evangelical who attends an Episcopal church; another is a Lutheran who has been bopping around between UCC and UU churches; and I've been ever so slightly suspended between Episcopal and UU churches since I first visited a Unitarian church and an Episcopal church back in 1991. There are aspects of each tradition that I find very appealing — which is why I joke about the merits of the Unipalian Church ("creedless ritual"!). That's also why I think of my marriage as ecumenical rather than as interfaith: My wife and I share a religion, which we practice and understand in different ways.

The second thing I would say is that there will always be people for whom institutions and their traditions are not wholly satisfactory. I fully recognize that there are UUs who are convinced that Unitarian Universalism is the very best, most complete, most life-savingest, supercalifragilistic religion there ever will be. I respect and even admire that. Perhaps it's because I found myself at odds with the religion I inherited that I have never been utterly converted to the ism in Unitarian Universalism. I am quite devotedly a theological liberal; I have come to terms with the fact that I'm a weird sort of Christian; and I want Unitarian Universalist churches to thrive and I especially want liberal religion to get its mojo back; but I just don't expect to find my own values and deepest beliefs institutionalized completely in any one place.

Oh, one more thought: By acknowledging that there are parts of my personal religious life that take place outside of Unitarian Universalism, I'm not suggesting that Unitarian Universalist congregations and institutions can't serve or promote genuinely satisfying religious lives. I think they can. In fact, they do. But I am saying that UU congregations operate within an increasingly post-denominational world in which people bring a range of expectations and needs that a single institution may not be able to fulfill.

Part of what amazed me about my visit last summer to Taize in France is how that ecumenical community of monks reaches out to Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern-rite Catholic, and Orthodox Christians from all over the world. Taize provides a form of spirituality that doesn't belong to any one tradition but that enriches all of them. Those of us who feel drawn beyond our own denominational boundaries for spiritual direction, dialogue, prayer, or other forms of religious life aren't necessarily renegades — nor are we evidence that our own traditions are failing people. We may simply be finding ourselves drawn to the depths of multiple traditions.

The challenge for congregational leaders is to find and articulate a rich enough vision of the liberal religious life that many people will be drawn to it — including people like me, who are drawn to it despite the fact that it doesn't fully satisfy me.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 2 July 2006 at 9:54 AM

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h sofia:

July 2, 2006 12:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

This articulation really speaks to me, philocrites. I go back and forth between referring to UUism as my faith community and my religion, but more and more I'm beginning to think my religion is personal and my faith community is where I can develop it without succumbing to individualism.

I'd never thought about the practice of a person from one religion attending the services of another being a specifically US American phenonemon, but that's an interesting possibility. We are the land of Choices.


July 2, 2006 12:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

I agree. UU churches seem to me to be as you say a faith community. UUism is simply a philosophy, which rather than a religion, allows people to think for themselves.

Although I'm not officially a UU, we've yet to have UU fellowship here in Dubai, I understand how it could be to belong to 2 religions/or whatever you may call them. Being a Muslim, and somewhat also tending to a liberal religion philosophy, I guess my religious identity could be considered somewhat split into unusual halves.


July 2, 2006 02:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

As I said, I was not referring to your particular case (or to anyone else in particular), but rather as a broader reflection on the current state of affairs and likely evolutions. The "postdenominational" situation you depict, which sounds pretty Postmodern to me, may be followed by new developments based more upon identity, vindication of tradition, and commitment to one's own particularity in increasing competition with other particularities. Taizé, for example, is not about post-denominationalism, but rather about "pre-denominationalism", i.e. it does not pretend to overcome differences through a new synthesis, but it's rather about going back to the core of the Christian experience before sects started to appear and to split Christendom. Because it is uncompromising, because it is self-affirming in its peculiarity but still welcoming to anyone, it is appealing. It has a unique personality. Ambiguity will stop being a plus in a world torn by the challenges of globalization and preservation of intimate signs of identity and close reference points for self-definition. Perhaps Postmodernism is not at its beginnings but at its end. Just a thought.

Doug Muder:

July 2, 2006 04:00 PM | Permalink for this comment

When I start listening for the "death knell" of UUism, somehow Philocrites never comes to mind. Being divided about your religion at least means you're serious about it. I'll take divided people over the "yeah, whatever" types any day.

Liberalism recognizes religion as a human endeavor. God didn't make our religion and give it to us. Humans make religions, and they are correspondingly imperfect. The idea that somebody somewhere does some things better than we do shouldn't come as a shock.

One of my good friends sees Zen Buddhism as his spiritual path. Another belongs to a Golden-Dawn-style magical lodge. I would be happy to have either of them in my UU church -- as they are. When I talk religion with them, we aren't shouting over a wall. We are comparing notes on a common set of problems.

Personally, I think of myself as a Stoic; if there were an association of Stoics nearby, I'd spend some of my Sundays with them. I don't feel like less of a UU on that account.

UU is a covenantal religion, not a credal religion. Our commitments are to one another, not to a doctrine.


July 2, 2006 10:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks, Philo, and all of you. This is wonderful stuff. I guess I have to discern whether or not I feel called to promote the idea of Unitarian Universalism as a RELIGION (as I have generally felt it was my obligation to do, for the well-being of our movement) or if I can relax and agree that it is a faith community where people practice various religions. I share with Philo his sense of dual citizenship as a Christian and a UU, but I also resonate with Jaume's concern for the "death knell" that may be sounded if too many UUs identify in this manner, with UUism simply a faith community rather than a religion.

In other words, if nobody's home, per se, who will keep the home fires burning?

Doug Muder:

July 3, 2006 10:35 AM | Permalink for this comment

Bill McKinnon talked about post-denominationalism at GA. One of his main points was that denominational organizations will have to focus more on defining identity and less on providing local congregations with services they may be able to get elsewhere.

For his examples he chose a denomination even smaller than UU -- Swedenborgians. He recommended that they put their resources into funding some Swedenborgian scholars rather than into the usual denominational services. His reasoning was that Swedenborgianism only reason for existing is to perpetuate and build on the work of Swedenborg. If that goes by the boards, it won't matter that they have a good RE curriculum.

Responding to Jaume in this light, I'd ask what the identity of UUism is or should be. And I keep coming back to the covenantal vs. credal thing. We don't stand for a set of beliefs, we stand for a relationship among people. I think the selling point of UU is that you can continue to learn and grow and develop, and no matter where your journey takes you, you'll still be one of us and have our support.

If Philocrites or Peacebang got blasted tomorrow by a vision of Isis, a Christian church would have trouble dealing with it. A lot of UU's would too, I suppose, but a good UU community would still have a place for them. And somebody (like me) would have the reaction, "Whoa! Cool!"

So I don't think the "faith community" view of UU is a second-best thing. I think that's our core identity. We are a community of seekers rather than a colony of settlers.

Here's a metaphor: The Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem descends from the collection of a club of seafaring captains. You'd make your voyages to the far corners of the Earth, and when you came back you'd add something to the collection. The point wasn't to find the ideal South Sea island so that everybody could move there. The point was to keep alive the spirit of exploration and celebrate the wonders of the Earth. I'll tell my story about Borneo, and then you can tell yours about the Ivory Coast.

I don't want to go to the we-should-all-move-to-Borneo church or the we-should-all-move-to-the-Ivory-Coast church. I want to have a relationship with explorers.


July 3, 2006 10:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

I appreciate these thoughts. Just want to add something of my own. I am somewhat eclectic--though my UU church is primary faith community, like Philo I also feel drawn to atttend an Episcopalian Church on a regular basis. A former regular Quaker attender, I still find myself identifying with that movement as well, particularly when I peruse Quaker websites. And having graduated from Calvin College back in '88, I still have a place in my heart for the Christian Reformed denomination and the Reformed theological enterprise, which is rigorous and honest in its commitment to making sense out of the supposed paradox of faith and reason (and allows for quite a bit of theological diversity and even more political diversity). The older I get the more I believe the diversity of religious practice and belief is a good and healthy thing, and I hope that more and more people will become willing to learn from traditions and theologies other than their own.


July 3, 2006 10:09 PM | Permalink for this comment

Reflecting on your statement that UUism feels more like a denomination than a religion, you point to an area of UUism that I have been thinking about for a while - that of the lack of a central figure or message with weight comparable to Buddha or Jesus. I felt this most distinctly when I was the lone non-Christian among an interfaith clergy group in Maine. I am UU to the core - by choice as well as by family history. And at the same time, I yearn for something with the depth of such great and transcendent figures that is uniquely Unitarian Universalist. I appreciate your point about how the unitarians and universalists of previous centuries did not separate themselves from their Christian faith - I make such a point to parishioners, but hearing it outside my own musings was a helpful reminder. But the Christian vision is just a little removed from where my spiritual focus seems to reside for me to embrace it front and center. The flaming chalice is useful as a point of meditation and a wealth of meaning, but it does not invoke the power of the cross or of a statue of the Buddha. The stories of people such as Servetus, Murray, and Ballou are excellent, but are too earthbound (this from a person who grew up in a very strongly humanist congregation) to have enough depth. At the same time, the essential value of freedom of belief, that which inspired so many Unitarians, is too abstract. More and more, I tend toward the creative power of love combined with the idea that with great freedom comes great responsibility (with a nod to Stan Lee and Spiderman.) This combination begins to get at what I seem to be looking for. And more tangible representations of this line of thinking are easier to find - in justice work, in the image of taking care of our neighbor, in the Buddhist image of Kwan Yin representing compassion. And in directing that creative love toward oneself (humbly, of course.)

Well - that was about as long as I have ever gone on a blog - outside of Beauty Tips for Ministers. Thanks for the forum.

Dan Harper:

July 5, 2006 11:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

My mother used to say she was brought up to go to the nearest Unitarian church whether she liked it or not -- and there were times when she didn't like the nearest Unitarian Universalist church, but she stuck with it anyway, and waited out the bad times, and maybe tried to improve things. --But things were different in her generation, when duty was maybe more important than freedom of choice. These days, we cherish our freedom of choice, and if we disagree with a religious group or institution, we're encouraged to find another group that's more compatible. That's just the way it is. Maybe it's a shallow kind of freedom -- a freedom to resist being shaped by institutions and communities, which may well mean not understanding the depths of those institutions and communities -- but it happens to be the freedom we have. Although I admit I would be sad if it turned out to be the freedom to let our peculiar heritage of liberal theology and institutions wither away, until nothing was left except a footnote in the histories of North American religion.

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