Monday, August 31, 2015

What Do We Reveal?

This is the text of the sermon I preached on Sunday, August 31, 2015 to the congregation of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia.  You can listen to a podcast if you'd like.

"I tell passer-bys what I have eaten, how I feel, what I've done the night before, and what I will do for the rest of the day."  Sounds about right, doesn't it?  I know that there are a number of you all who have made a conscious decision not to join the Facebook society, but it's estimated that worldwide more than a billion of us are active at least monthly. Over 1 billion people. That's only a couple of hundred thousand less than the population of India, and roughly one-seventh of the population of the entire world!  Facebook reports that last year there were over 1 trillion "likes" and 219 billion photos uploaded to the site ... mostly of cats. (I made that last part up.) It's interesting to note that this phenomena seems to cross racial and ethnic categories. According to data from a Pew Research study, people who identify as Hispanic or Latina use Facebook at a rate of about 10% higher than those who identify as White, and they use it about 5% more than people who identify as African American or Black. (That'd be, respectively, 85%, 75%, and 70% of their total population in the U.S.)

We live in an age when it is routine, even expected, that people will, as we heard before, "[Share] their opinions on every subject that interests [them] ... whether it interests [the people around them] or not."  I’ve  heard this, what I’ll call “FaceBook phenomenon,” blamed on an inherent narcissism. I've heard it said that our obsession with the smallest details of celebrities' lives makes it only natural that we should come to think that such details of our own lives might be important to others. I've heard it suggested that as the number and depth of real-world relationships are declining-- which they demonstrably are, at least within the dominant culture and those most affected by it -- I've heard it suggested that as real-world relationships are in decline there is a growing hunger for a feeling of connection ... even if only with that kid from high school that you don't really remember but who will "like" your posts because they're hungry for connection, too.

Yet whether we  use social media a little, a lot, or none at all, things like Facebook and Twitter only amplify and exacerbate an issue that we humans have always had to face -- how much of ourselves is it good -- safe, wise -- to share with others and how much ought we to keep private?  Perhaps even more important for us to consider, what does what we reveal reveal?

Those who were here last week heard the Rev. Jamie McReynolds cover some of this same ground, although from a slightly different perspective and along a somewhat different trajectory.  You might say that this morning is "part two" of what Jamie began last week.  I even want to hold up one of the same illustrations he used.  He noted that perhaps the most common moment in which we are called on to decide what and how much to reveal is that moment when someone asks, "How are you?"  
I found a website for the Instituto Interglobal that has information about culturally appropriate greetings from around the world. (It's really kind of cool to see them all laid out there.)  Here's what it says about the United States:

"Americans typically greet one another with a handshake. It is common to ask, 'How are you?' or 'How's it going?’  But most people don't take the question seriously, or answer it with sincere honesty. It's basically a greeting that comes without expectation."  The entry concludes, "You should not answer the question 'How are you today?’ with a list of problems. The proper response is, 'I'm fine, how are you?’"

The "proper" response is, "I'm fine," with the clear implication that this is the "proper" response regardless of its veracity. There was a great guy who worked at the UUA when I did and with whom I almost always rode the elevator in the morning.  His response to that "typical" greeting?  He'd say, "I'm above ground."  My neighbor, a man in his 90s, simply says, "vertical."  These are both non-specific, yet totally true, answers, and neither of them reveal ... anything.

Or do they?  My neighbor’s answer of “vertical” tells me that he has a sense of humor, and also that he’s well aware of how, at his age, he might very well not be able to get out of bed in the morning.  Many of his friends can’t.    His seemingly non-revealing answer tells me that his physical functioning is important to him and that he knows it won’t last forever.  (He’s also said to me, “any day I’m upright is a good day.)

And the guy on the elevator?  The guy who’s “above ground”?  Maybe I’m reading too much into all of this, but I get a message from him too – a message of resignation.  An African American man in his mid-60s, working as a custodian in a predominantly white institution I can hear in his response, perhaps, an acknowledgement that he doesn’t greet each day as a plethora of new possibilities.

It is, of course, quite possible that I am entirely wrong and that these people don’t intend to be sending those message at all.   It could be total projection on my part.  Even so, though, it points out that even when we are trying to be neutral in our exchanges, even when we are trying to be non-committal, we do, nonetheless, communicate something.  Whether we choose to reveal ourselves or choose not to, that choice reveals something.

So the real question we all need to wrestle with – dance with, if you prefer – is not so much whether to reveal ourselves but, rather, what we are going to reveal.  And I’ll repeat something I said earlier:  “whether we use social media a little, a lot, or none at all, things like Facebook and Twitter only amplify and exacerbate an issue that we humans have always had to face.”  I think discussion and debate about the “FaceBook phenomenon” really obscures the thing that’s harder for us to deal with.

You may not know that our Worship Weavers actively collaborate with me in shaping these sermons.  Our work together is kind of like a sermonic writers’ workshop.  And in looking at an earlier draft of this sermon one suggested that we focus so much on whether or not FaceBook or Twitter are good or bad things because they are still relatively young tools, and not always used well. Specifically, he said, we dwell way too much on the "media," and not enough on how we want to use it to be "social."

And that’s really it:  our desire – actually, our need – to connect with others.  We human beings are social creatures by nature.  (Yes, even us introverts!)  We need connections, we need relationships, as much as we need air, food, and water.  These modern media are really just new tools to facilitate this connection.  In one age you could really only connect with the people you could physically interact with.  Then it became possible to have relationships over great distances through mail (if you had patience).  Then came telegraphs.  Phones wired into our homes.  Mobil phones.  Facebook and FaceTime.  As one Weaver put it, “Social media has us connecting with people from across the decades and across the country, and around the world.”  Whether those connections are superficial or are deep is not dependent on the media – it’s dependent on how we use it.

Something Christine said is so good I want to quote it at length:

While there are real life in-person support groups, and while there are professional networking groups both online and in person, there can be something really special about disclosing something about yourself and learning that someone you have already developed a relationship with "gets" this aspect of your life.  If you use Facebook, etc., to sometimes share authentic – and not so perfect – aspects of your life, you can go way beyond the superficial “highlight reel” experience. [You know, that sense the lives we see our friends living on their Facebook pages are so much more fun and interesting than the day-to-day, minute-by-minute lives we live.  That’s because, it’s been said, Facebook often functions as a kind of “highlight reel” of a person’s life.]  You may find that the connecting that you do on social media can actually be quite rich and rewarding. Of course, to do that requires the risk taking of exposing the NON-highlight reel. Real, rather than reel. 

And that’s the thing, isn’t it?  Really exposing ourselves is a risk.  I know that other people have a certain perception of me, and I absolutely know that there’s a perception I want people to have of me.  And I know that if I reveal too much of those parts of me that don’t reinforce these views … well … that that can be dangerous.

Here’s a personal example.  Over the years I have been intentionally very open about the fact that I have a mental illness, that I live with depression.  Many people in the congregations I've served have been tremendously grateful to me for doing so -- especially those who have mental illnesses of their own and know the stigma and isolation that often come with it.  I even heard recently about a group of Unitarian Universalist seminarians in California who were talking among themselves about their worries that their mental illness might affect their careers.  At one point, I’m told, someone lifted up my name as an example of someone who has modeled open, honest, and appropriate self-revelation.  As Jamie reminded us last week – you never know how what you do here might have impacts unimagined over there.

I am also aware, however, that in each of the congregations I've served there’ve been people who treated me differently than they would have if I hadn’t been so open: people who hesitated to reach out to me when in need of some pastoral or spiritual support because they didn't want to "burden" me; people who’ve tried to shield me from negative things for fear that my depression might get triggered and even push me to suicide.

But here’s the thing:  my Unitarian Universalist faith tells me that I have inherent worth and dignity just as I am.  Just as I am.  All of me.  Not just the “acceptable” parts.  My Unitarian Universalist faith tells me that I don’t need to earn it; that I don’t need to conform to some image or other to deserve it; that I don’t lose it if I struggle, or fear, or fall down, or fail.  In fact, our faith says just the opposite – that it’s in sharing our whole selves with one another that Beloved Community can be formed, and only in sharing our whole selves.  Anything else is pretense, and the pretense of sharing is not really sharing; the pretense of connection is not real connection.  Just like, I suppose, junk food isn’t real food – it tastes good, and it’s awfully well packaged, but it doesn’t really nourish.  Same here.

Now … am I saying that we should share everything with everybody?  Absolutely not.  Let me be clear – there are people in our lives with whom it could be particularly unsafe to share much of anything beyond, "fine, and how are you?"  What I am saying, however, is that each of us have things we are currently keeping to ourselves which it might be good both for ourselves and for the people around us if we shared them.  I am saying that when we only share our “highlight reels,” we aren’t really sharing our true selves.  Don’t forget:  even our choice to avoid revealing ourselves does, in fact, reveal things about us.  Wouldn’t it be nice to know that what we are revealing to others is the truth?  The truth about who we are?  Wouldn’t it be nice to know that when we feel someone else’s acceptance of us we can be confident that they are accepting us – as we are – and not just the pretense of who we think we should be?

The Sharing of Joys and Sorrows is coming up.  What would it be like to open up a part of yourself you’ve been afraid to show?  In the Social Hall after service there are sign-up sheets for a new year of our Covenant Groups – our small group ministry in which people gather twice-monthly with just a few others to share about their lives.  If you haven’t experienced the magic of a Covenant Group yet, why not sign up?  (And if you have and are returning this year, why not commit to going into it even more deeply than you have before?)  The Social Hour stands before us … could you dare open up a real conversation with someone?  Maybe even someone you don’t know well?  Don’t know well … yet?

The questions comes back to you, to me – What do we reveal?  What should we reveal?  Do we dare reveal who we really are?  I can promise you that if you do you’ll still, as we say, “have a place here.  [Because we all] belong here.”

Pax tecum,


Friday, August 28, 2015

We Need to Talk

I was recently part of a particularly long thread on the Facebook page Are UU Awake, a group that is intended to function as "a Racial Justice PAC (Political Action Committee) within the Unitarian Universalist faith. We were formed for the purpose of addressing issues related to racial injustice and privilege within the Unitarian Universalist faith. "  It's a closed group, but one which it is not hard to join.  For Unitarian Universalists reading this blog, I encourage you to join ... if only to listen to the conversations.

This particular thread followed on a video that had been posted.  Here it is:

The gist of the poster's comment was, "White parents of Black children -- do your kids a favor and teach them about they way(s) that the racism in our culture will impact their lives."  Sound advice, it seems to me.  I found a great many of the comments that followed, however, so disheartening.  White respondents were often attacking Black respondents who responded in kind.  Unkind, and downright nasty, things were said back and forth.  And it seemed to me that there was very little listening going on and a whole lot of generalizations being drawn from particulars.  (In other words, someone would make a comment about a particular thing and someone else would respond as if there'd been a sweeping generalization.)  I was, eventually unable to read any more.  That didn't stop me, however, from offering my own observations.  Slightly edited, here they are:
As the white father of two adopted kids of color I find this thread so sad. So much personalized animosity. Personalized yet then generalized as well.  So little person-to-person connection; such knee-jerk judgement.  
I'm also surprised at how focused this has been on "individual acts of meanness."  There are absolutely consciously, intentionally racist people whose actions come out of that racist worldview. Yet there are countless more examples of racist behavior being perpetrated by people who truly do not have a single consciously racist thought.  That's because racism is systemic as well as personal. I know many of you know this, but few here are naming it. Racism is in the air we all breathe, and the water we drink, and the land we stand on. Even if we were able to get rid of all the people who consciously act out of racial animus, racism would still exist as long as the fundamentals of our society remain unchanged. 
One of the hurdles is this ideal of "color blindness."  The intent is beautiful -- "judge not by the color of the skin but by the content of the character."  Yet because the dominant culture here takes white experience as normative, as the model of what it means to be "just a person," this vision devolves into an unspoken, even unconscious, "let's not focus on differences but, instead, pretend that everyone is white,"  Or, in practice, the demand that non-white folks "act white" in order to be deemed "acceptable" by the self-appointed arbiters of what is and is not acceptable -- white folks. 
All of this, though, goes far beyond "individual acts of racial animus," no matter how heinous those might be. We must stop those, of course, yet should never delude ourselves that that's all it'll take.

Let me expand on this for a moment.  One of the ways meaningful and productive conversations on race get derailed is the ease with which the folks in the conversation can be talking about two different things while believing they're talking about the same thing.  As an example, one person can be talking about how systems of oppression operate, creating an unlevel playing field from the begining.  The other is talking about individual acts of oppression directed toward specific people.  Both, however, think that they're talking about "racism," so it is confusing to them that they seem to be talking past one another.  In fact, they are ... that's what they feel that way.  That's why neither one of them feels that the other one is really listening, because they are actually talking about two different things.

Another has to do with what's being called, "White Fragility."  This stems from a multitude of roots, and manifests in myriad ways, but I'll lift up just one of each.  Whites, by virtue of the culture we live in, are trained to see the world through White eyes.  That doesn't seem to be too radical of an observation -- we all see things through the lens of our own experience.  The problem comes in when it is taken for granted that one way of looking at the world, one lens, one perspective is the way to see things.  In the dominant culture in the United States -- and, perhaps, the Western world -- it is the experience of Whites that is taken as normative.  It's been noted again and again that the history books that have been used, and which still are to a great extent, overwhelming tell the history of the country and the history of the world from the perspective of White experiences.  This has the, for Whites at least, subliminal effect of telling us that our story is the story.  To be a little more specific (and accurate) -- the history of straight, white, heterosexual, cis-gender, relatively well-educated and affluent people has been presented, and is largely accepted and internalized, as the history of the world.  And that leads to the assumption that other expereinces, other ways of looking at and living in the world, are merely somehow less effective version of this norm.  So the experiences of women, or people of color, or undocumented immigrants are seen as variations of this presumed norm rather than fully and completely their own realities. 

A fruit of this is that, generally speaking, Whites feel challenged -- even attacked -- when people with other perspectives assert their right to have their own histories and experiences recognized as being as fully "real" as the White norm.  This White-as-normative perspective has saturated the consciousness of Whites, as well as the dominant culture in which we all live, so fully that recognizing and giving credence to anything else is, quite literally, world-shaking.  It doesn't help that for White liberals, in particular, our conscious attitude is one of respecting and appreciating diversity, so it is painful to see that even our good intentions are riddled with the cancer of White priviledge and White oppression.  It is, as I wrote on Facebook, "in the air we all breathe, and the water we drink, and the land we stand on," and that can be an incredibly painful thing to realize.  The natural response -- at least a natural response -- to realizing something painful is to not realize it, to defend one's earlier views.  And, so, often when issues of racism are raised Whites become almost blindly defensive.

That's why so much anti-racism work is focused on helping Whites recognize the subliminal and subversive ways systemic racism infects ... well ... everything.  It aims to open our eyes to the truth that, as Wade Davis so succintly put it, "The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”  Realizing this can be difficult, it is very often painful, yet it is absolutely essential if any real progress is to be made in undoing, or dismantling, racism.  The reason for this is simple.  People of color cannot dismantle the systems of oppression which systematically disempower them.  Only those who are priviledged by the system can effect lasting change in that system.

I recently read an interesting piece titled, "White Priviledge Weariness."  The author, Austin Channing, reflects on the many anti-racism workshops she has led and participated in.  She wonders this aloud:

Is it possible for us to talk about race, even white privilege, without making white people the center?  I wonder if it's possible to bring the narratives of people of color to the center, to hold them for their own sake.  I'm trying to recall if I've ever experienced a worskshop/training that sought healing for people of color rather than education for white people.  Isn't it weird that white people would expreience such privilege even when trying to make them aware of that same privilege?

Weird, possibly, but really not too surprising.  That's the insidious thing about racism -- it permates everything.  Even our attempts at erasing it.

Pax tecum,


PS -- When I finished writing the post I checked out the preview and saw that quite a number of lines had a white background.  More than a little distracting, so I had to go into the code and find all of the places where for some reason the background had been set to "white" and delete them.  As I did so I started to laugh.  Even in this blog post about the perniciousness of the structures built on and supporting white supremacy, I still had to go through and take out all the unrecognized instances of white presence.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Across the Great Divide (epilogue)

I will be honest: this is not the essay series I’d intended to write.  My original intent, which you can no doubt see evidenced in the first part, was to present an argument for the use of “the language of reverence,” as Rev. Bill Sinkford called it.  I was inspired in part by an incident that occurred at the church I serve as Lead Minister.  The setting was a Sunday worship service celebrating the decision that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

I’d placed on the altar two placards I’d had made previously to bring with me to the courthouse to join other clergy performing the first legally recognized same-sex marriages in our state.  (I was not, unfortunately, ultimately able to be there that day.)  One sign, referencing our Universalist ancestors, and countering the religious opponents of marriage equality, said, “God is love; God is here.”  The other, recognizing that theistic language is not the only language of religion, said, “All love is equal.”  Both had images of joined wedding rings as well as a rainbow flag.  These two placards were on the altar together, next to each other, reflecting the diversity of religious expression in our congregations.

After the service was over I was told by some that the sign with the word “God” on it was deeply offensive and that, in fact, at least one member walked out of the sanctuary before the service began because simply seeing the word “God” on our altar was so disturbing.  The fact that there was an equivalent statement in support of marriage equality that did not include “God-talk” was, apparently, of no comfort.

I do not, for a moment, doubt that the discomfort and distress these people felt was real.  I do wonder, however, what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist and not be able to at least tolerate the appearance of the word “God.”   Along with the statement of Principles that our Association affirms there is also a list of six “sources” which are said to nourish our “living tradition.” There is an affirmation of Humanism:  “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”  Yet there are also these two: “Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life; and, “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”  It seems quite valid to ask how one can affirm these later two sources while refusing to allow even the word “God” into our sanctuaries.

This essay series, then, was originally intended to be a defense of the appropriateness of “God-talk” in our communities.  As I wrote, though, I began to see that such a defense – while arguably still worth raising – really fundamentally misses the point.  There is an even bigger demand – both a challenge and an opportunity – to which we are called by our Unitarian Universalist faith. 

In his book Many MansionsA Christian's Encounters With Other Faiths, the Protestant theologian Harvey Cox wrote about the conversion, in the late 1700s, of Boston’s King’s Chapel from Anglicanism to Unitarianism, saying, “They teach us something important about the future of religion not by what they did but by the courage and initiative they showed in daring to do it.  We now have the chance to do the same thing,” he wrote, “— not to wait and see what religious forms will emerge in the next century, but to use our imaginations to shape them.”  Universalist preacher and teacher Clinton Lee Scott said, “We may set our hands to the task of building a new kind of church adapted to the new age, thus creating a demonstration center that will prove what can be done by a radical reconstruction.” 

We are called, through this grand experiment of Unitarian Universalism, to demonstrate to the world a new way of being religious.  We are called on to use our imaginations to shape the religious forms needed in this new age.  If we are to fulfill this calling, we must actively and creatively find ways to avoid being too tied to either the acceptance or the rejection of any particular religious identity or expression.  We must find ways to transcend – as individuals, as congregations, and as a movement – the more parochial perspectives of the previous paradigm and both discover and develop new means of discourse. 

I have come to realize that it is not a question of whether or not to use the "language of reverence," whether or not "God-talk" is to be acceptable in our communal discourse.  The question that really needs to be explore is how to find and make real the both/and that is essential to any real diverse inclusion.  This a question to which I will freely admit having no answers.  Yet I know that it's a good question. It's one  we can chew on and in the exploration of which we will find much benefit.  Through the writing of this essay series, attempting to answer one of the most long-standing and irksome questions with which our movement has wrestled, I believe I have discovered what E. E. Cummings described as, "the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question."

Pax tecum,


Monday, August 24, 2015

Across the Great Divie (part four)

I will admit that in the little over 4,500 words of the previous three posts I have not really offered an answer to this seemingly perennial theist – atheist debate.  It has been danced with, and wrestled with, and stewed over again, and again, and again, for at least the last half century.  Greater minds and hearts than mine have tried to address this perennial problem.  Some have suggested that the way to bring an end to the debate is to acknowledge that this theist - atheist tension is not a "problem" but simply a "cost of doing business" in a diverse, liberal, non-creedal religious community.  In other words, it's only a problem because it's framed as a problem. Change the frame and the problem disappears.

This is no doubt an extremely wise solution, yet frame-changing is not easy work.  That’s especially true when there are strong emotions tied up in the framing.  Making this yet more difficult still are the numerous ways the experiences, hopes, and dreams of the two "sides" -- perhaps more accurately the two ends of the spectrum -- are alike.  Each is looking for a religious home in which their questions, probing, and perspectives are welcomed and embraced.  Each is seeking an alternative to religion-as-it-is-most-commonly-expressed in our culture.  With each group seeking something so essentially similar, yet doing so in such seemingly different ways, projection is nearly unavoidable.  It is so very hard to grant to someone else who seems to be our opposite the things we find beautiful and powerful in ourselves, just as it is hard to accept for ourselves those things we see in them that we find distasteful and disturbing.  This makes the other group into The Other, and it makes frame-changing even more difficult than normal.  It makes coming together extremely unlikely.

On May 23rd, 1960, the Reverend Donald Harrington – then the ordained Minister serving the Community Church of New York – preached a sermon “on the occasion of the celebration of the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America.”  His sermon was titled, “Unitarian Universalism – yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”  Even then this theist – atheist debate was well known, although then it most often took the form of the question “Are we, or are we not, a Christian tradition?”  Then, as now, there were those who quite vehemently said, “yes,” and those who equally unequivocally said, “no.”

In speaking to this seeming divide, Rev. Harrington said this:
This is the story, in brief, of how historic Unitarianism and Universalism, fired and reformed by Emerson’s vision of universal religion and Ballou’s spirit of universal goodwill, have come to the place where they have finally joined forces in a kind of organizational consummation and new spiritual commencement.  In so doing, I believe they have resolved at least one of the conflicts which have been troubling us, the question of whether we are Christian.  History’s answer is clear.  We are the children of the Judeo-Christian heritage.  We affirm with gratitude and joy the universal truths taught by Jesus and embraced by Christianity.  We affirm equally the universal truths taught by the great Jewish prophets and embraced by Judaism, plus the universal truths taught by all of the other faiths and philosophies, Oriental, African, or Occidental, and by modern science as well.  We do not reject Christian truth!  We gladly embrace it!  We bow to none in our reverence and respect for Jesus’ life and thought!  We are not less than Christian, but more!
What we have seen emerging in Unitarian Universalism in this 20th century is nothing less than a new synthesis, the coalescence of a new consensus, a new world faith, formulated by and fitted for this great, new world-age that is coming to birth in our time.

In reading Rev. Harrington's assessment it seems to me that the answer to the question of whether we are a theistic (perhaps specifically Christian) or a humanistic (perhaps specifically atheist) religion is that we are neither.  Or, to put it another way, we are both.  

I think Rev. Harrington was correct – ours is a religion which is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian traditions, yet without rejecting any of their gifts and strengths we have evolved into something else. And it is true to say that we are also deeply rooted in the humanist movements which have fed us deeply since at least the 1930s.  Yet it is equally correct to say that, without rejecting any of the gifts and strengths of those movements, we have here also evolved into something else.  We are, I’d contend, no longer either of these religious and philosophic traditions.  We are something else, even as a child is in many ways an extension of, yet utterly distinct from, their parents.  (Please don't think that I'm advocating a supersessionist view, that we are a more evolved, more enlightened tradition than those others.  I am not.  I'm not using the term "evolution" to suggest superiority but, instead, simply differentiation.)

We are indeed a diverse, liberal, non-creedal religious community.  Unlike nearly every other religion that we humans have ever developed, we do not ask one another about our beliefs as a litmus test for our belonging.  This is something that to many seems impossible at least, and truly inconceivable at most.  I have written at length that I think it’s fair to say that at this point we are still figuring out how to live into this reality.  Unitarian Universalism, in this sense, is an experiment in religious community.

I believe we are an experiment in another way as well – we are a religious tradition that is neither theist nor atheist.  Or, as I said earlier, we are one that is both.  This may well be an extension, or a specific example, of our eschewing of creeds as determinative.  Just as we have, may I say, transcended the divisive distinctions religious dogma invariable creates, so too we have moved beyond the theist – atheist debate.  Unitarian Universalism is not an extension of Christianity, nor is it an extension of the American Humanist Association.  We are something different; we are our own thing.  Here too, though, we are still figuring out how to live into own unique identity.

We have finally reached the "so what?" of all of this.  Why does it even matter?  As we look around at the religious landscape around us we see both the rise of a kind of religion that seems dangerous to our species and our planet, and a decline in people identifying with any of humanity's religious alternatives.  Much is being made of the recent Pew Research study that reported, in part, 
“Religious “nones” – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population. This is a stark increase from 2007, the last time a similar Pew Research study was conducted, when 16% of Americans were “nones.” (During this same time period, Christians have fallen from 78% to 71%.)
Many Unitarian Universalists see in these results a potential for our movement’s future.  When these “nones” describe what it is that has led them to identify with no particular religious tradition they often describe a longing for precisely what our tradition strives to be.  These, then, might well be potential Unitarian Universalists or, as a long-ago ad campaign put it, “Unitarian Universalists without knowing it.”  Hopefully it need not be said that any interest we have for numerical growth and an increase of involvement isn’t about “growth for growth’s sake.”  Rather, it comes from an assertion that we have something the world desperately needs at this moment in time.  Re-read the so-called Seven Principles of our faith and, then, ask yourself if the world wouldn’t be better off if there were more religious communities built around these principles, and more such-principled people working to make the world a better place.  Unitarian Universalism offers an alternative to the other religions of our day, and one for which it certainly seems there is a growing hunger.

And yet … And yet we spend so much of our energy on these internal squabbles that it is hard to look beyond ourselves.  We fight over what kind of language we can use, what kind of rituals are appropriate in our communities (if any are), what sorts of symbols (visual or otherwise) we should lift up.  We are, in far too many of our congregations, far too sensitive to possible offense.  Many of us enter our sanctuaries and our small groups, and engage any other activity of our communities, “pre-offended.”  (Isn't that a wonderfully descriptive phrase?)  Too many of us are constantly vigilant for things said and done that we deem problematic, rather than seeking to discover how many of these same things are for others in our community deeply powerful.

Rest assured – these internal quarrels do not go unnoticed by others.  Although our rhetoric lifts up the values of openness and welcome, our “family squabbles” belie those claims.  These disagreements which we may think are only among ourselves are, in fact, quite public.  Can anything be truly private today in the age of blogs, and tweets, and FaceBook face-offs?  Others looking in at us see that we espouse one way of being in the world yet often treat one another in an entirely different way.  “Hypocrisy,” is what that’s called, and hypocrisies of one kind or another experienced in other religious traditions is frequently what brought people to look at our faith tradition in the first place.

As a movement we are neither Christian nor Humanist.  We are Unitarian Universalist.  Individuals within our communities may, in fact, identify themselves with one of these or a myriad of other religious, spiritual, or philosophical traditions.  That’s part of our gift and our uniqueness – we not only don’t require you to check your brain nor your heart at the door, we also don’t demand that you leave your identity behind.  The only way that we, as a movement, are able to create the space for people to do that is for our movement to stop identifying as anything other than the unique creature Unitarian Universalism is in and of itself.  We need to stop getting our identity through either embracing or rejecting the identity of other religious traditions.  We need to develop, deeply live into, and then live out of, our own.

This will not be easy.  What we are trying to do --- what we are in the process of doing – is creating a new paradigm for religion.  As with any paradigm shift, one of the most challenging hurdles to overcome is the pull of the old paradigms.  We are, as I’ve said, still in the experimental stage.  If we’re honest we should probably acknowledge that we don’t even really know if what we’re trying to do can be done.  Yet many of us have seen a vision of what is possible.  We’ve seen a vision and we’ve heard the cries of hunger for what that vision offers.  To borrow from Rev. Harrington’s sermon title, let’s free ourselves from who we were yesterday so that today might be a base camp for our journey into the future.

Pax tecum,


Friday, August 21, 2015

Across the Great Divide (part three)

Let's pick up our exploration of the so-called "theist/atheist split" and look at the expressed experience of UU theists.  (The first and second parts of this series are just a click away if you missed them.)

Unitarian Universalism is the child, if you will, of Unitarianism and Universalism.  Both of these forebears were Christian traditions, albeit heretical ones.  It has been argued that the theological positions that gave each tradition its name can be traced back to the earliest days of Christianity.  What cannot be argued is that history shows them being systematically -- and sometimes quite brutally -- rejected by the mainstream.  Yet no matter how much of a trickle they sometimes became, the streams of Unitarianism and Universalism continued to flow alongside the river of orthodox Christianity.

In more modern times, Unitarianism and Universalism each found ways to evolve beyond the theological notions that had given them birth.  Universalism, for instance, began to champion what was called by some, "univerlistic Universalism."  This grew out of the notion that this world is one world and that we are one human family.  Fueled largely by the experiences of, and responses to, World Wars I and II, Universalists were passionate supporters of the United Nations, The International Declaration of Human Rights, and other manifestations of the assertion that we could no longer live so divided.

Unitarianism, on the other hand, expanded its historic emphasis on reason and the valuing of the individual and the rights of conscience.  This is, in large part, what made it such a hospitable environment for secular humanism.  If you acknowledge the right of individuals to think for themselves in issues of religion, there is virtually no end to the roads that might be trod.  Question the divinity of Jesus, you begin to question the teachings of the church and, then, even the authority of the Bible. Question the authority of the Bible and it isn't long until you're questioning the existence of God, and the need for such a concept. 

And all along and through all of this, the main streams (plural now) of Christianity continued to flow.  And always within those waterways there were people who were not convinced by all they saw and heard, people who could not comfortably simply go with the flow.  Sometimes -- often -- such people remained quiet because their questions and ideas were clearly unwelcome, if not downright dangerous.  In many cases these folks had not rejected everything about the tradition, yet their understandings and interpretations differed from the more orthodox around them.

One thing that has been changing across the entire religious landscape in recent decades is that a life-long commitment to one particular faith tradition has increasingly become less common. Choosing to be "unchurched" now has considerably less stigma attached to it.  The Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong refers to some of these people as "believers in exile."  In many cases they still see themselves as religious, perhaps even still Christian, yet they more and more have come to see themselves as people without a religious home.

The modern progressive Christian movement is one place these seekers have been able to settle.  Unitarian Universalism has been another.  For these "exiled believers" the promise of the "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" is precisely what they did not feel encouraged to pursue previously.  Here, at long last, was a place where they could practice their faith without giving up their questions and doubts.  Here was an answer to the conundrum Bishop Spong posed in the preface to his 1998 book, Why Christianity MustChange or Die:  a bishop speaks to believers in exile:
Many of us can continue to be believers only if we are able to be honest believers.  We want to be people of faith, not people drugged on the narcotic of religion.  We are not able to endure the mental lobotomy that one suspects is the fate of those who project themselves as the unquestioning religious citizens of our age.  We do not want to be among those who fear that if we think about what we say about God, either our minds will close down or our faith will explode.  We are not drawn to those increasingly defensive religious answers of our generation.  Nor are we willing to pretend that these ancient words still have power and meaning for us if they do not.  We wonder if it is still possible to be a believer and a citizen of our century at the same time.
I think it is important to note that these words were written by someone who identifies as Christian.  He was, in fact, when he wrote this, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey.  Somehow he was able  -- and even desired -- to remain within the Christian fold even while holding such seemingly heretical views.  He has apparently been asked repeatedly why he hadn't simply walked away from the Christian faith for all of the reasons he describes above.  His response has been that he believes Christianity can change and that therefore it is important that those who see the need for change remain within the tradition to help birth that change.

Others, though, have felt as he does and have decided that the "mental lobotomy" looms all too ominously over the Christian religion, so they set forth for a path that seems open to the kind of questioning they long for -- Unitarian Universalism.  Imagine, then, the consternation felt as they discovered what seemed to be an openness to their questions and doubts but at the same time a rejection of their faith.  These people often experienced our movement as saying to them, essentially, that it was okay for them to question and challenge Christianity while not okay for them to take it seriously. More than once someone who professed a Christian identity has been encouraged to explore the United Church of Christ (sometimes their acronym, UCC, has been referred to as Unitarians Considering Christ), or told directly that it’s simply not possible for one to be both a Unitarian Universalist and a Christian.

It should be noted that not all of Unitarian Universalists theists identify themselves as some kind of Christian.  Many, in fact, do not or, at least, struggle mightily with the question of whether or not they should.  To make all of this more confusing, many Unitarian Universalist theists also see themselves as humanists.  As with secular humanists, these religious humanists see our own lives, and the lives of all with whom we share this tiny home as, what really matters -- what do we make of the lives we have right here and right now, and what do we do for others?  

Looking back over this and the two previous posts some points seem to stand out:
  • Many Unitarian Universaist atheists express feelings of being betrayed by a movement which promised them a safe place in which to explore and express their spiritual questing without the need to reference any kind of god or gods to do so.
  • Many UU theists feel that same sense of betrayal.  Here, where they had been promised an end to their exile they once again feel themselves to be marginalized.
  • UU atheists often express, more or less explicitly, the sense that Unitarian Universalism was theirs.  From the 1920s and 30s and on into the early 70s or 80s there is no doubt that the prevailing view of Unitarian Universalism -- both from within and without -- was that we were humanist to the core.  To have to struggle to hold on to "their" religious home is galling.
  • UU theists often express, more or less explicitly, the sense that Unitarian Universalism was theirs.  Prior to, and even continuing into, the late 40s both Unitarianism and Universalism largely maintained their identity as Christian traditions.  This was done even in the face of many other Christian traditions denying them that identity.  In some ways, perhaps, it was this denial that gave extra encouragement to continuing insisting on it.  To have to struggle, now, to reclaim "their" religious home is galling.
  • Many Unitarian Universalist atheist humanists do not see themselves in the same light as the "strident, brittle, angry, old-school, sterile, ultra-rational atheist humanists" -- all words that have been used to describe (and, honestly, caricature) a specific and particularly fundamentalist strand of modern day humanism, yet which have also been used as a broad brush to paint all humanists homogeneously.  There is a great diversity of understanding among Unitarian Universalist atheist humanists.  Our interfaith -- intrafaith -- conversations, however, rarely try to illuminate these subtleties and nuances.
  • Unitarian Universalist theists -- and perhaps especially those who identify as Unitarian Universalist Christians -- do not see themselves in the same light as the "bullying, irrational, needy, superstitious, intolerant, bigoted theists and Christians."  Again, these are all words that have been used to describe a particularly fundamentalist strand of modern-day Christianity, yet which have also been used as a broad brush to paint all theists homogeneously.  There is a great diversity of understanding among Unitarian Universalist Christians and theists.  Our interfaith -- intrafaith -- conversations, however, rarely try to illuminate these subtleties and nuances.

More than a few parallels, aren't there?  One final point of comparison: both the theists and the atheists are trying to make sense out of this world, this lifetime we share.  Both are grappling, or dancing, with the twin realities the Rev. Forrest Church lifted up -- being alive and having to die.  Whether either would acknowledge it about the other, the fact is that both are, in their own ways, “seeking truth with reason as their guide.”

So ... what are we to do now?  To the extent that any of this is at all true, where do we go from here?  The last installment of this series will offer some suggestions.

Pax tecum,