Tuesday, June 27, 2006

How I see Unitarian Universalism after 40 years of being UU

I think I may have a different view of Unitarian Universalism than many other people. My sense is that many people see UUism as a hodgepodge of beliefs, practices, and quasi-religious rituals that has little coherence or relevance; many other people see UUism as a radically liberal Christian faith which now welcomes non-Christians as well. Still others see UUism as a nontheistic, social justice movement.

I think UUism has been all of these things in the past, but that it has evolved (or is evolving) into something different. The "salad bar" image of view #1 (hodgepodge) is fairly negative, because it implies that we are flailing about uselessly, pretending to be religious. View #2 (radical liberal Christian) is accurate for some congregations but not for all and it too implies something negative----that Christianity is our rootstock and we will tolerate non-Christians but not change for them. View #3 (the humanistic outlook) implies that humanity is all that matters and that referring to a Power beyond human power is unnecessary.

Let me define who I am, to establish some credibility for taking the position I'm about to take:

I am Christian bred and born, a Baptist preacher's kid who has spent nearly all of my life in church work. I am a theist with a mystical understanding of God and I use mystical language to refer to the Power beyond human power (PBHP) because "God" as a word is too small. For me, the Divine requires poetry, not prose. I found UUism in the 60's, when it was primarily a humanistic movement. I felt comfortable at that time because I was rethinking my Christianity and content to let the issue ride for the time being. I felt pulled in and energized by the civil rights struggles and my opposition to the war in Vietnam.

I have been an active member of a UU congregation for nearly 40 years and have had many conversations with people about why they chose to become UU. I am an observer of human behavior and I noticed that some of these folks came for view #1 and some came for view #3. Then many started coming for View #2, acknowledging their deep commitment to a Christian theology and hoping that UUism would acknowledge its own deep Christian roots. I watched the "theist vs. atheist" controversy heat up and boil over. I watched folks on both sides of this issue be hurt and excluded on the basis of their deeply held convictions.

I am not particularly a student of Hegel, but it was clear to me that we had something of a Thesis/Antithesis/Synthesis motif going on. Having been a teacher and counselor of early adolescents for 25 years, I saw something of that generational rebellion occuring as well in UUism. Non-theistic humanism was the dominant view, with theistic views taking a back seat. Then the UU Christian movement began to flourish as Christians and other theists insisted that their views be taken seriously.


dball said...

Most impressive. This took some time to put down. Thanks for sharing. I read it all. Keep it up.

fausto said...

I agree that we are a dialectical movement, going back well before Channing and Morse at least to Winthrop and Hutchinson, Arminius and Beza, if not all the way to Arius and Athanasius. Certainly our progress over the last 200 years has shown dialecticism in spades.

However, within any dialectical synthesis is absorbed not only the immediately preceding antithesis but also the original thesis. Seems to me that when we say (as many of us do) that we have "moved beyond" a particular stage in our outlook and understanding, they mean we have rejected it and left it behind -- or at least that they think the time has come that we should. I think that is an inappropriately antithetical, rather than appropriately synthetical, way to see ourselves.

With regard to UU Christianity, I don't think it's an antithesis as you seem to be suggesting, but rather the original thesis, struggling with a more recent humanist antithesis in an effort to forge a new synthesis.