Sunday, January 29, 2012


To most Euro-assimilated, media-guided people, “religion” is a matter of institutions. This idea is encouraged and supported by the institutions themselves, each trying to establish that they are the pivotal, central, “true” religious believers while the others are mistaken, heretical, uninformed, or insufficiently evolved. Therefore dogma is crucial. But every institution tries to maintain itself and in the interest of keeping water flowing into the pond will make compromises in order to stay timely and appealing. This leads to “mission drift” in denominations just as it does in political parties.

Recently the current head of the UUA, Rev. Peter Morales, sent a message noting that the latest survey (like political surveys) had noted that not a lot of people are naturally suited to the UU point of view, but many more of them exist outside the denomination than are signed up in congregations. The idea was to ask us why that was and what should be done about it. Morales already knows what he wants: a mission statement that will attract and unite more people. Like publishers, he wants to find out what sells. He hopes to organize the UU diaspora, all the people who sympathize and even donate but who do not want to join a congregation or worship in a group. They WILL go to an annual regional conference for a week with great enthusiasm.

Looking back a few hundred years, the American Unitarians formed around the idea that the Trinity was illogical. In their emphasis on theism as an issue, they became quite intellectual and then were open to the new ideas coming in by ship from the far East: Hinduism and Buddhism. But the Transcendentalists, who explored those most, were technically a heresy. (It was one of those Apollo/Dionysis splits.) The American Universalists formed around a different heresy: the idea that a good and all-powerful God (who would have any other kind?) would save everyone: universal salvation. This latter turned out to be such an appealing idea that it escaped the denomination into the general population and most of the other mainstream Christian churches.

Both denominations had a sociological dimension as all institutions must. The Unitarians tended to be urban, educated, and prosperous. Bankers, insurance companies, resource developers, educators. The Universalists tended to be rural, more accepting of Jesus as at least a remarkable person, and farmers. In 1961 the American Universalists, their lifestyle diminishing, were more or less forced to join the Unitarians or die.

Since that time some sociological issues (the Vietnam War, black power) have cracked the institution open and new sociological issues (GLBT, hispanic, feminism) have tried to mend and grow it. In the process the UUA has become identified with political liberalism, populism of the elite (yup, contradictory), and has actively sought racial inclusion. More people, right? They have been aided by right wing Christians who try to say that only Christians like them are dependably moral, which means that atheists need to somehow prove they are moral and “religious.” UU’s have always benefitted from enemy attacks and scorn, which drive the denomination together.

The catchwords (literally meant to catch new UU’s) Morales uses are “compassion” and “justice.” These are meant to attract, include and protect outliers whether because of sexuality, nationality, heredity or thinking. Very nice. Not much fire, not much depth. The usual do-gooders. How do you make outliers form any organization or pay any dues, even if they are not compelled to come sit in pews on Sunday? If they are vulnerable, they are needy; if they are defiant, they won’t sit down anywhere.

Worldly issues of power, success, and control overtake everything else. Don’t tell the Emerson Avenger (Google him only if you must) but the sexual revolution has never really been addressed by the UUA except in terms of teenagers -- NOT the ministers, much less the congregation. (My rule of thumb: If the minister thinks he or she should sleep with any members of the congregation, then they are obligated to sleep with EVERY member of the congregation. It’s not the sex, it’s the favoritism.) Money is still a secret topic among us, let alone major fortunes some of our people own. Concentrating on urban issues, domination by some regions, the withering of our seminaries, the arbitrary separation of the US and Canadian congregations -- all practical, troublesome stuff. Everyone fighting for their own private charity or issue. The remedy is often reverting to traditional Christianity, or so it seems from the outside where I am now.

The principles that supposedly ARE our uniting document are fine but they don’t open up the hot issues. They’re about as stirring as the Golden Rule and hardly distinguish us from Bahai. I much prefer the non-anthropic ideas of the Bioneers: everything is connected, everything is “alive,” everything changes. We must find the courage to face a world that may not include human beings and the possibility that all our ideas about “meaning” are situational, not eternal. Which is NOT unreligious unless you are anthropocentric.

One of the diasporic elements the UUA has in abundance is ministers who have left for one reason or another, often institutionally related. They can’t get along with others, or they are bullied by authorities in or out of the congregations, or they just lose interest. We don’t really KNOW what the causes are because we act as though they were former spouses in the Victorian Era, shutting them out. There is no mailing list of them: I asked. Yet it would seem as though they know better than anyone else why people don’t come into the institution. Some of them are highly charismatic people.

I do not say this because I had trouble with authority figures. (Though I always have.) I left because I loved this geographical place (high prairie east slope of the Rockies) more than any institution and there was no way to form a UU congregation here (a village of 350 next to the Blackfeet reservation) that could support a minister. In retirement I don’t have much to boast about, but I have freedom. Even more so now that publishing has collapsed so I don’t even have to conform to them.

UU’s privilege wealth, power, and allegiance, the same as any political institution. Probably UU’s admire and will unite behind education more than anything else, but the trouble with education -- I speak next to a reservation -- is that education is the same as assimilation. Education usually means persuasion to a point of view, a way of thinking and living, and -- ultimately -- a faith conclusion. Probably what the media calls a “lifestyle.” If it doesn’t, then we don’t have a unified movement, do we? If there’s no advantage in terms of wealth, power, allegiance and education, why join up? Pot lucks?


Karen Scott said...

UU drives people away because it still
holds some truths to be self-evident, when
it should appeal to people who know that
all ideas are up for grabs today. If it could
be more free-wheeling it might attract more people. Find those disaffected clergy
and ask them! I suspect it has to cease
being a church-like fellowship altogether
and provide a soap box forum with nothing sacred.

Art Durkee said...

Having been a heretical Dionysian most of my life by natural inclination, my contacts with groups like UU have often made me feel like most of the people I met spent all their time in their heads, and not much in their bodies, or their hearts. A very intellectual form of religion. Where's the mystery, the mysticism, the direct experience of God? I talked once to some UUs who actually thought that mystical experiences were pathological—they were THAT rationally-oriented. Since the foundation and basis of religion is revelation, and mystical experience, I sort of felt like, those folks at least were more philosophers of religion than practitioners.

mscriver said...

So . . . here you have it in the comments! These two people are friends of mine, both unchurched, one Apollonian (all reason) and one Dionysian (mystical), both exceptional in good ways, and I know they would agree on many issues.