Thursday, February 05, 2009


In January the Reverend David Bumbaugh, who is retiring from being the professor of preaching at Meadville/Lombard in Chicago, my seminary of origin, gave a convocation address in January that I find quite powerful. I know my environmental friends will like it, too, though it’s about Unitarian Universalism and that’s the point of the speech. Two denominations, Unitarian and Universalist (Bumbaugh’s original affiliation as a minister -- he was raised Salvation Army), merged in 1961 but the result has been a denomination as unwieldy as the name. Bumbaugh’s position is that this is because the Universalists had gathered around the idea of finding a new theology (universal salvation), while the Unitarians were interested in organizational growth (and the rural but frugal Univeralist’s assets).

The Montana circuit-riding ministry that I did was financed in part by Universalist money that was hidden to keep it from being merged. Russ Lockwood and Emil Gudmundson knew where it was and thought that the comparatively rural ministry to Montana fellowships was in line with Universalist values.

Bumbaugh’s tone is divided between the elegiac and the prophetic. His respondents scold him, diagnose him, and simply don’t “get” him. I won’t put the whole speech and response in this blog (go to -- you might notice that Lombard got gobbled up in the address.) His message is that there is an essential contraction between commodifying religion to market it for the sake of growth and the actual pursuit of meaning and community that the denomination is supposed to support. The means overtake the ends. I strongly suspect that this is the essential human contradiction in many realms: politics, the arts, settlements, and so on. The tribe eats the Indian. The nation eats the citizen.

Many of the people who rail against religion are totally unaware of the huge Liberal Religion body of thought. Far from knowing what it might include, they don’t know it exists today, much less historically. But Bumbaugh has not forgotten. Below is his beautiful, true, and moral list of beliefs in the age of cosmic physics, evolution, fMRI’s and the genetic basis of life itself.

We believe that the universe in which we live and move and have our being is the expression of an inexorable process that began in eons past, ages beyond our comprehension and has evolved from singularity to multiplicity, from simplicity to complexity, from disorder to order.

We believe that the earth and all who live upon the earth are products of the same process that swirled the galaxies into being, that ignited the stars and orbited the planets through the night sky, that we are expressions of that universal process which has created and formed us out of recycled star dust.

We believe that all living things are members of a single community, all expressions of a planetary process that produced life and sustains it in intricate ways beyond our knowing. We hold the life process itself to be sacred.

We believe that the health of the human venture is inextricably dependent upon the integrity of the rest of the community of living things and upon the integrity of those processes by which life is bodied forth and sustained. Therefore we affirm that we are called to serve the planetary process upon which life depends.

We believe that in this interconnected existence the well-being of one cannot be separated from the well-being of the whole, that ultimately we all spring from the same source and all journey to the same ultimate destiny.

We believe that the universe outside of us and the universe within us is one universe. Because that is so, our efforts, our dreams, our hopes, our ambitions are the dreams, hopes and ambitions of the universe itself. In us, and perhaps elsewhere, the Universe is reaching toward self-awareness, toward self consciousness. We believe that our efforts to understand the world and our place within it are an expression of the UniverseĆ¢€™s deep drive toward meaning. In us, and perhaps elsewhere, the Universe dreams dreams and reaches toward unknown possibilities. We hold as sacred the unquenchable drive to know and to understand.

We believe that the moral impulse that weaves its way through our lives, luring us to practices of justice and mercy and compassion, is threaded through the universe itself and it is this universal longing that finds outlet in our best moments.

We believe that our location within the community of living things places upon us inescapable responsibilities. Life is more than our understanding of it, but the level of our comprehension demands that we act out of conscious concern for the broadest vision of community we can command and that we seek not our welfare alone, but the welfare of the whole. We are commanded to serve life and serve it to the seven times seventieth generation.

We believe that those least like us, those located on the margins have important contributions to make to the rest of the community of life and that in some curious way, we are all located on some margin. We believe that all that functions to divide us from each other and from the community of living things is to be resisted in the name of that larger vision of a world everywhere alive, everywhere seeking to incarnate a deep, implicate process that called us into being, that sustains us in being, that transforms us as we cannot transform ourselves, that receives us back to itself when life has used us up. Not knowing the end of that process, nonetheless we trust it, we rest in it, and we serve it.

Both Unitarianism and Universalism were reactions to the harshness and illogic of Calvinism (Puritans, Taliban, Fundamentalists) but the Universalists took on the harshness while the Unitarians took on the illogic. Both were reform movements. Now the harshness and illogic are back but ineffectively opposed by religion because we’ve gone to “therapy” and commodification.

I remind you of my own exo-UU (not former, but outside) credo: “Everything is connected, everything changes, every change you make in yourself changes everything else, the God you get is the God you make.” I’m not inedible, but I hope I’m gristley. (Not grisly -- just indigestible.)


Anonymous said...

I do not like doing this, but as an alum of Meadville, I feel someone should speak out. It is such a shame to hear that David Bumbaugh's retirement is now official. I had a feeling he would be going after he made a comment about President Barker's pushed-through educational model as a "train wreck". Mr Barker probably initiated a campaign against Professor Bumbaugh with the aim of getting him out. Just counting now how many Professors have "left" the very small school since Mr Barker took CONTROL: Dr Carol Hepokowski, Dr Dean Grodzins, Dr Thandeka, Dr Susan Harlow. Not to mention the enormous number of staff turnover and the unfilled role of Development VP that has been vacant for many months. I would not give a penny of my money to that school while the current President and the corporate-laden board are guiding the (very lost) ship.

prairie mary said...

I should be able to say it in French since I passed the French exam! But anyway, "the more things change, the more they stay the same." M/L has been like this from the very beginning and shows no signs of changing. There are probably more disaffected alumns out there than there are happy grads. I once toyed with the idea of starting an organization of them.

I think it is structural -- you know, all that stuff from Leadership School, if you were lucky enough to go. Person after person starts out to be a reformer and person after person is corrupted.

Maybe we ought to try to revive the old Universalist denomination! There are still congregations in Canada that refused to merge.

Prairie Mary