My colleague the Rev. Anthony David, over at Thousand Voices has postulated an interesting question: what is the heart of UUism? He's not talking, exactly, about our voice, our values, those kinds of things; he's talking about our heart, the quality that wakes us up in the morning, gets us going, keeps us going. He includes a great story about a mouse and the fear endemic to a mouse---of the cat. And he challenges the candidates for our UUA presidency to offer their thoughts about the heart of Unitarian Universalism---and the hearts of Unitarian Universalists.
I'm not a candidate for UUA prez---my friends and colleagues Laurel and Peter are---but I do have thoughts about this, though I doubt my perspective would get me elected cat-catcher. It's not the kind of shiny, evangelistic, inspirational proclamation that makes people want to donate money or time. It's kind of low on the growth strategy continuum. It's definitely at odds with UUism's desire to get really big, really fast.
Now I don't really have a problem with the impulse to grow big and strong, quickly. I think we need that impulse, if for nothing else than to combat the inertia at the other end. If we were all indolent and inert, we'd die. But we'd die, too, if we overdid the frantic growth thing; we'd succumb to the high blood pressure and heart disease of the Type A personality.
As I look back over our history, what I see very clearly as the heart of Unitarian Universalism, from the very beginning, is a courage to buck the establishment, to be in the forefront of social movements, of theological discourse. We have always questioned authority, be it governmental or monarchical or ecclesiastical. We have always stepped aside from orthodoxy and taken a different path. Sometimes we've made mistakes, foolish ones, but mostly we've lived out Gandhi's famous quote: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
We can't claim God as the heart of our movement. We can't claim certain theological doctrines as the heart of our movement. We can't claim our heroes because we have too many to count, and they are all different in most ways. We can't claim the success of our congregations as the heart of our faith; we're often in conflict and often don't treat our clergy well.
I think what we are is a religious and social catalyst. I think the heart of our movement is the courage to be different, to challenge authority of all kinds, to stick our necks out for the underdog, to be willing to be the subject of jokes and suspicion.
We have been benevolent radicals, on the far edge of religious thought ever since we were born, in the earliest days of Western religion. We have carried the flag for causes hardly anyone thought were reasonable: religious freedom, reproductive freedom, abolition of slavery, humane treatment of the insane and prisoners and children, public education for all, abolishment of torture, civil rights, marriage equality, and the environment. And virtually every cause we have supported has been ridiculed, fought, and finally accepted.
We are the yeast in the religious loaf of bread. If there's too much yeast, the bread rises too quickly and has lots of holes in it. If there's not enough, the bread lacks bounce.
So what does it mean that we are a catalyst in Western religious thought? To me, it means that we keep on doing what we are good at---questioning orthodoxy, seeking new insights and information in a plethora of sources, championing the underdog, thinking critically, raising kids who think critically, being activists for healthy social causes, challenging unhealthy social trends, and welcoming those who are like us and willing to put their shoulders to the wheel with us.
Have you ever thought what the world would be like if everyone was a Unitarian Universalist? Utopia tends to be different from what we expect. If UUism were the dominant religious movement in the world, we'd run the danger of succumbing to the same thing that Christianity and Islam have succumbed to----too much power used to maintain a position of power.
That's a chilling vision. It would break our heart to be in that position. And our heart is what sustains us.