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Saturday, February 22, 2020

Unitarian Universalism: Making Room

First Unitarian Congregational Society, Brooklyn
An article I read a number of years ago counseled patience for Humanists at Unitarian Universalist congregations. The writer said that although you'd occasionally encounter a visitor at coffee hour breathlessly regaling you with the benefits of crystals and astrology, such people don't tend to hang around long. Such snobbery is more than a little off-putting, in my opinion. Another story I read in the 1990s involved a young woman wondering out loud if she could believe in the virgin birth at a UU church, and someone piped up that of course, she could believe in any damn nonsense she wanted. The story then suggests that the young woman's time there was short-lived. It doesn't have to be this way.

There is a certain anxiety felt among the more skeptically-minded within the Unitarian Universalist Association that a more humanistic outlook is being lost. The dread appears to be that the UUA will either become just another liberal mainline denomination, or collapse into an ooey-gooey mess of New Age nonsense. Personally, I see some grounds for concern, but not quite the horror that some seem to be forecasting.

It would be bad for the UUA to become essentially indistinguishable from our cousins in the United Church of Christ. When hell became nearly absent in mainline teaching, the Universalist Church of America lost a key distinctive, contributing to its decline prior to the merger with the American Unitarian Association. If the UUA were to embrace a more Christian outlook, it would not only alienate people of all other faiths, spiritualities, and lifestances within the association, but also eliminate the distinctive identity we have as a place welcoming people from all walks of life and perspectives (that don't deny the full humanity of others).

A decline into a shapeless post-modern spirituality would be noxious to those embracing a more scientific outlook, and again offer little different than what can be found in parts of mainline denominations as well as in organizations geared towards providing those sorts of experiences.

Unitarian Universalism is at its best, in my opinion, when it has a warm humanism as its baseline. As a faith it is agnostic, while it also encourages individuals to pursue what speaks to them and helps them find meaning. That means that atheists and theists will sit next to one another in church, march together for justice, and volunteer side-by-side at the local food pantry. Rev. Marlin Lavanhar in Tulsa has spoken about having an atheist and a Pentecostal in his congregation who work well together on things that matter to them. It's like the lions and lambs frolicking together.

Such is not always the case. In the 1990s I read about a UU congregation that experienced some controversy because a coven had formed within the fellowship and wanted to hold services on the grounds. It had been a joke for so long that "unitarians believe in, at most, one god" that the arrival of pagans threw people for a loop. Another congregation around the same time voted not to give formal recognition to a pagan group in the church, on the grounds that they never endorsed such interest groups. Even as a conservative Christian I found perturbing the hypocrisy of Unitarian Universalists excluding people who otherwise aligned with their values.

At no point has the UUA nor either of its predecessor bodies been a Humanist organization. There was certainly a time when the Unitarians were heavily under the sway of this perspective, but through it all there have remained congregations that identified as Christian or simply took a more middle way. In merging, the Universalists feared being overrun by Humanism, while the Unitarians were anxious to avoid being 'dragged down' into the unscientific mindset they felt was present among many of their counterparts. Although its true that Spiritualism had its heyday in Universalist circles, this was largely in the past by the time of the merger in 1961.

My children are pretty much grown, and while the oldest has never been involved with UUism, the younger has been participating since 8th grade, and is about to graduate high school. Both dabble in earth-centered spirituality and some New Age ideas, and while I see no objective validity to these practices, I wouldn't think of attempting to impose my Humanist perspective on them. Although I insist on a respect for science, and full use of medical science, I don't interfere in their incense burning and crystal collecting ways. I'd hate for either of my children to feel unwelcome among UUs because of these ideas, and I feel the same in general about anyone darkening our doors.

A few weeks ago I spoke with a visitor after services who shared with me the joy she felt that morning in attending, and went on to explain some of her religious perspective. I heard her out, and advised that others in our congregation certainly thought as she did, and that in any case we're more concerned with living well with one another in this life than debating what might come next, or who (if anyone) we'll encounter then. We have a few soreheads among us at Beacon who might be a bit unkind about views that differ from theirs, but in my experience, not many. I've heard someone share a rather outlandish theory about life after death and watched people I knew to be atheists not bat an eye at what she was saying. Why argue?

What I'm getting at hear is simply that while we need to remain anchored in evidence-based understandings of the world as a while, individual UUs are free to hold to concepts that truly require faith, and that they should also be welcome to form groups among us of those who share their beliefs. Christians, Pagans, Buddhists, and so forth should not just have a place at the UU table, but also in our kitchen, making the future of Unitarian Universalism along with the rest of us.