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Sunday, May 6, 2007

What's the Unitarian Universalist/Esalen connection?

Reading Diane Johnson's review of Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion reminded me just how big the gap is in my understanding of Unitarian Universalism in the 1970s and early 1980s. Sure, I've heard people speak about "hot tub Unitarianism," and I've always had the impression that when some UUs complain about their religious community's tendency to embrace spiritual fads, they're often talking about the '70s. But I confess that I don't know very much about how UU adults actually lived during that period. Isn't that strange?

I know more about how the denominational structures managed to stay afloat through a tumultuous period. (UUA President Bob West, who was president from 1969 through 1977, has a new memoir out about those years.) And, from Mark Oppenheimer's excellent book on countercultural influences on American religion in the late '60s and early '70s, I learned how the black power movement, early feminism, and the gay liberation movement came to speak a similar language in UU circles. But the whole period — good, bad, and ugly — is still almost wholly foreign to me as an adult convert whose childhood (Mormon in Orem, Utah!) was almost completely impervious to the sixties counterculture. My essential squarehood is revealed.

So this is actually a sincere request for input from UUs of a certain age who may have taken part in "encounter groups" in their congregations, dabbled in the human potential movement, headed off to Esalen or Taos or wherever else things were in alignment, or took part in any other aspect of the period's general sense of religious trippiness. What was it like? What did you learn? How did it affect congregational life at the time?

P.S. My family's closest connection to countercultural religion came in the mid-1980s, when the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers abandoned the Oregon town they had renamed Rajneeshpuram. My mom's large Idaho family, which holds a camping reunion each summer, bought a bunch of the orange tents from the Rajneeshis to house our Mormon throng. From free love to family togetherness!

("Sex, Drugs and Hot Tubs," Diane Johnson, New York Times Book Review 5.6.07, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 6 May 2007 at 10:30 PM

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May 8, 2007 05:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

Esalen may be a thing of the past (the good old times for many, Fritz Perls was there after all and that forgives almost anything), but this kind of passion for New Age fads is very present nowadays. Did you notice how many UU churches and groups showed and debated about that movie, "What the Bleep Do We Know?". And are you aware that this movie was financed, written, directed and distributed by a New Age group, the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, which claims that a 35,000-year old warrior from Lemuria is channeling their leader with a message for humankind? Well, this is now well documented in the Internet, even in the Wikipedia. How many UUs are aware that the famous movie is just a propaganda article for a NA sect?


May 17, 2007 05:26 PM | Permalink for this comment

I can give you 2 memories of the Honolulu Unitarian Church in the late 60's/early 70's that speak to what the church was like at that time. My aunt (and future uncle) belonged to this church and occasionally brought me there.

The first memory is of being a young teen, attending the program/service, and having the middle age male minister announce in the middle of the service that he and his wife were getting divorced. His wife was sitting near by. This was a shocking event to me- having attended Church of Christ and Baptist churches growing up. The congregation then had a congregational dialogue with him about it.

The second memory is a different Sunday where I visited the high school or jr high school class. Apparently they were doing sex education as the topic- I remember feeling very uncomfortable about the curriculum. It seems to me that it was a "no holds barred" time.

What an impression to give a visitor. It took a lot of research on denominations to get me to even visit another one as an adult.


May 18, 2007 03:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

This is not necessarily germane to the topic, but I got to take a class with Jeffrey Kripal when he was a visiting professor at HDS. He is a first-rate scholar with research interests in the intersection of mysticism, gender, and sexuality. Kripal rocks!!!


May 20, 2007 02:28 AM | Permalink for this comment

As they say, if you remember the 60s, you weren't really there. I have some recollections of The Summer of Love -- Like running into my mother and the next-door neighbor lady at the Human Be-In in the park. (I grew up in San Francisco and Marin.)
I was a teen in the 60s, and I have a few memories of LRY meetings, and some sex ed with the minister. I recall making a movie with LRYers for Youth Sunday -- about the non-conformist being rejected. I remember a "Silence Conference" where a bunch of us lived at the church for a whole weekend without speaking.
I remember Malvina Reynolds singing services once or twice a year.
I remember talking to an older guy in the church (older than me) about what to do about his sexual reaction to a non-sexual massage.
I remember members of the congregation going off to Selma Alabama to march for civil rights-- I was too young then to understand much, but I knew they were doing something selfless and good.
In the seventies, I was off to various schools, etc., and didn't go to church much. They didn't have a UU church in Rangely, Colorado. In the late seventies I thought of starting one in Willets, California, but only got two responses to my newspaper ad, and lost momentum.


May 20, 2007 02:29 AM | Permalink for this comment

By the way, as far as i know, Esalen is still there, and still operating.

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