The newsletter deadline is coming up and one of my monthly duties is to write a column "from the Minister". Here is my column for January, whose topic emerged from last night's Conversation on Source #4, "Wisdom of Jewish and Christian teachings".
Recently, as we considered the Fourth Source of Unitarian Universalism (the wisdom of Jewish and Christian teachings), the topic of language came up. I had asked those attending the conversation about that Source to think of one religious word that they liked and another religious word that they didn’t like----and why.
Among the words that folks liked were “spirituality”, “soul”, “grace”, “tolerance”, largely because they were words that felt big, inclusive, open to everyone. The words folks were uncomfortable with included “faith”, “church”, “cross”, and “salvation”, because they were words that felt limiting, excluding of some. Some evoked images that were foreboding.
A lively discussion grew out of this exercise and it became clear that those of us who had been UUs for a long time had less trouble with some words than others who were fairly new to the congregation. But there were other factors as well; a couple of people knew of someone who had chosen not to seek out a UU congregation because it felt “churchy”, i.e., Christian.
This has been a conversation in Unitarian Universalist circles for as long as I can remember---over thirty years of membership in a UU congregation! As new people join us and begin to experience the pluralism that is the essence of our universalist theology, there is a growing desire to open the circle as far as possible with our language. Naturally, there is also a resistance to changing old and comfortable language. Both sides have reasons and feelings to bolster their convictions.
So what can we do to live with this paradox, this tension between the historical language and the present reality? We don’t want people to be turned off by who we are, but we also want to be true to our roots.
My thirty-plus years of Unitarian Universalist membership also make me very aware that we can’t make rules about words. We can only listen to one another’s concerns and thoughts and try to understand how people’s experience has shaped their thinking. We can only be sensitive to one another’s positions.
At the conversation that evening, it was also clear that it hurts to hear that the historic word “church”, which comes from our Christian roots, is painful for others who do not share Christian roots or feel uncomfortable with present-day Christianity. And it occurs to me that there is a need for understanding and a democratic spirit on both sides of this coin.
As we get closer to completion of our new building, I think it would make sense to consider naming it something big, not to avoid using the word “church” but to point us toward the larger mission of Unitarian Universalism, which is an invitation to the Whidbey community to experience what it means to have differing beliefs but a common concern for one another, for the larger community around us and for our planet Earth. Is there a way to do that? It would be exciting to explore that idea, I believe.