My UU church must change

I stumbled over a post by WordPress blogger Wondertwisted yesterday.
I thought of adding this comment to her post, “Dear John letter to UUism” but it began to run so long I figured I’d just use it as a post here for my readers as well.  Her post describes her painful decision to leave UUism and why. I think she is spot on.


You know, Cindy I thought of your post all day and much of this morning. And like I said in an earlier comment, I agree with what you say but what I’ve thought most of is the bigger question, that is: where has Unitarian Universalism failed you and others who feel like you do.

Full disclosure: I am a lay leader in my congregation and have been one of those who have side-stepped so many issues for fear of upsetting someone’s delicate sensitivities that I have not stood up against what I believe is a wrong direction for UUism in my congregation and as a whole.

I think there is a systemic problem with UUism.  Its current incarnation is flawed.  In my opinion, it comes down to at least these three things.

1) We have no dogma.  We have nothing that we all collectively say, “we believe  (this)  . And to be part of this religion you must believe    (this)   .”  Sure we have the seven principles but it is not the same as what the Abrahamic religions have in this regard.
Our lack of dogma is what we embrace and vocalize to the mountains, yet just as much as it is a medicine; it is also a poison.  We MUST change our mindset about not having a shared, common belief that we find so sacred that we would die for it, were it trampled or defamed.  If we do not, we are not bound. I believe there will eventually be a schism or at least a significant drop in membership and this faith will fade into nothingness.

2), We have placed social justice / political liberal activism above religion, worship and salvation. The tail is wagging the dog!
Because a person believes gay people should marry doesn’t mean they should be a UU. Because you believe people should earn a fair wage doesn’t mean you should be a UU.  The list could go on.
It should be the other way around. It should be I am a UU and because of that I believe   (this)   about   (this)   social/political issue.

3) We have no identity.  We don’t know what UUism or being a UU is. We have drifted so far from our roots and painted with such a broad stroke the idea of inclusiveness that we have muddied our identity to the point we can’t see who we should or used to be.
Calling the goddess, Buddhist singing bowls, washing of feet.
Really?  [insert eye roll here]
If that’s a personal practice and you feel it is important… that’s awesome. That’s great if it makes you a better person. Leave it at home though.
Spinning dradles or painting ourselves for Diwali is not a UU thing.  Fasting during Ramadan… not a UU thing.  Pick your favorite other-religion-ritual and place it here → [  ___  ]  It isn’t a UU thing.
Let’s be UUs in our sanctuary and leave the snake handling for home practice.

14 responses to “My UU church must change

  1. Jules,

    Thank you for this thoughtful response. Your three points are issues I’ve picked over with lay leaders and with UU ministers. I think the best way I can encapsulate what I’ve learned is to relay a question a Dwight Brown Leadership alumni asked to the district executive (Southwest UU Conference):

    A student explained that in her congregation in Texas seemed to be willing to deepen their faith, but couldn’t get past “UUism 101” either personally or as a congregation. “When we get to the point where we want to learn more about our faith, a lot of us are told that we should go to seminary,” the alum said. “But a lot of us don’t want to be ministers. We want to be lay leaders. Why can’t we learn more about UUism without going to seminary?”

    Several UU ministers have told me that UUism, while not dogmatic, is a spiritual discipline that is Unitarian and Universalist. That discipline needs to be taught from the pulpit and in group ministry. I’ve been a UU since 1995. It was only last year that a minister recommended I work with a spiritual director. Why did it take so long to learn about that, I wonder?

  2. I’m so glad you saw this post. I was hoping it would show up as a pingback so others who have commented on your post would see it as well. Your post is gaining traction in the facebook world and I suspect your stats are showing a huge spike in views. I wouldn’t be surprised if it finds it’s way into UU World. Hopefully some people at the top will be stirred to consider some of it and take some action.

    Anyway, your story about the DBL student being told she should go to seminary is coincidental. I’ve had a friend of mine “encouraging” me to do the same. Unfortunately as she put it, “it’s expensive, there are few jobs afterward and when you do find one… little pay.”

    Sorry but I can’t do that right now. Word on the streets is there is a second, harder recession coming.

    Really glad to have seen your post Wondertwist! I look forward to more posts.

  3. Julian,

    Sure there’s nothing new in my post? I mean, surely the folks at the top have heard this all before? I’m a little surprised, yes, that there’s been this kind of interest in the post because I thought these lamentations were sort of, I dunno, old.

    I have had so many people tell me I need to go to seminary. I usually take it as a compliment, but sometimes wonder if it’s a polite way of telling me to go get disabused of my arrogance – or take my thoughts to the rarefied air of seminary. I can be insufferable more often than I’d like to admit.

  4. Jules, you’re expressing a view that’s fairly widespread, but far from universal. I agree with some of your criticisms of how things are now, but not with your conclusions. Perhaps you (and Cindy) would be interested in how some of these ideas appear to a UU with a very different perspective. I’d like to start where you ended.
    “We have no identity.” I know many people who have a strong identity as UUs and members of a UU community. You may not have experienced this, but I assure you that both exist. One of the reasons for confusion about UU identity, I think, is that successful UU communities are often based on shared actions, practices, and attitudes rather than shared beliefs. I know from years of observation that this can be difficult to understand or even perceive for people whose experience with religious community has been only with religions like Christianity which have shared belief as their foundation. I’ve also observed that this spiritual approach doesn’t suit everyone.
    “We have no dogma.” I understand dogma as a compulsory creed or set of beliefs. These are my questions.
    1. Who would define this dogma?
    2. Once established, could it be changed?
    3. What would be the authority for this dogma?
    4. What would happen to all the UUs who would refuse to be told what to believe? Would they be asked politely to leave? Would the new UU Authority develop an excommunication procedure?
    Bryan D

  5. Pingback: Experiments of the heart, UU Christians, and more « : The Interdependent Web

  6. Hey Bryan. Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment.
    Well I’m sorry brother, but I gotta tell ya… you are wrong.
    I’ve been a UU almost 10 years and I have finally accepted that we do NOT have an identity. I mean when people think of Christians it is undoubtedly coupled with “sacrificial Love”; for Muslims it is coupled with “submission to Allah” for Jews it is “Obedience of the Law”. We don’t have that. We don’t have a religious identity. At best, IF anyone knows about UUism, they think of us as that small, off-the-radar group of liberals that gets involved with saving whales, gay marriage and other leftist political issues de jour.

    I can’t give you a certain answer to your questions. I’m sure there are people in our Association of Congregations who are theologically, a lot smarter than me who could figure that out. The devil is in the details but garnering success towards the endeavor is figuring out those details.

    Anywhooo… to at least give my answers to your questions… here goes.

    Who would define it? I don’t know. I would suspect the Association (that is, all the member congregations and the ministers) as a whole could define the dogma at General Assembly.

    Could it be changed?… perhaps, but my gut reaction is no. It shouldn’t.

    what would be the authority? The covenant signed and agreed to by the Association of congregations.

    What would happen to all the UUs who would refuse to be told what to believe?
    They could stay or go. As for excommunication… I think you’re over thinking this. If a member says, “i can’t believe in this. It goes against my convictions.” Then fine… you’re off the roles. Leave.If you like coming here great but don’t expect to be on the same footing as everyone else.

    I mean shit… I don’t believe the things Jews do but if I began attending a Temple and liked the people and just enjoyed it, I don’t think they would kick me out. But I’m sure they wouldn’t include me to participate in their most sacred of rituals, knowing I was an unbeliever do you?

    Why should our religion be watered down to the point that it is confused with the Rotary Club or the Elks?

  7. What makes our identity is that we have no dogma. I certainly get my politics from the values I learned growing up in my UU church, and not the other way around. And we have a shared set of principles, within which we have tremendous freedom. That, to me is the beauty of UU.

    I dont mean to come off as angry, but I get very frustrated with people claiming that my religion isnt spiritual or that we are the Elks. I can understand how UU isn’t for everyone, but I dont feel the need for us to radically change who we are – which a dogma would certainly do- in a misguided attempt to be all things to all people.

  8. I’ve been a UU for 18 years. I don’t go to a local congregation-and there are several for me to choose from-for several reasons. 1) Sunday-morning worship with a minister or lay leader speaking from the pulpit, no matter how inspiring that person can be, isn’t enough to drag me out of bed. 2) I love music and dance as worshipful acts, and many congregations I’ve attended have poor excuses for ‘choirs’ or ‘bands’, and joyful expressions are often discouraged. 3) Shopping for a congregation is very exhausting. I just don’t want to do it anymore.

    As a young adult (I joined the church at 13, am now 31), I feel displaced, or like some people in the congregations think I’m a youth. Some of those people are unintentionally ageist. They often ask when I joined UUism-because they assume I couldn’t have been raised that way-and that assumption really gets to me.

    Also, the worship services I’ve attended at young adult conferences feed me spiritually in a way a congregation just….doesn’t. I want to worship and exalt in the joy of being on this earth, together, with other people who are loving and compassionate and vibrant with energy.

    So am I not a UU? I have developed personal spiritual practices that work for me, and I seek out an intentional community of people who share similar values and beliefs (which for me, generally align around the seven principles). I WANT to be in a UU congregation. I WANT to worship together. I want to have hope in our humanity of blessed souls who are in this world together, who can work to create a better world. I want to be with people who encourage not only questions, but deep, meaningful conversation that helps form and re-form my thoughts about who I am and how I can relate to others in this world.

    I’ve attended worship at other faith traditions. I marvel at their ritual-sometimes I feel envy. But I think the ritual is often used instead of providing avenues for deeper insight and conversation about beliefs. (that’s a whole separate blog post for me, I think!)

    I guess I could choose another faith, but I would hate to leave. However, if we were given a dogma to follow-or else!-I would walk way and never look back.

    • Erin, just curious, do you have children? I was a “lapsed” UU for may years until it was time to take my son to RE six years ago when he was 5. I do notice a gap in my congregation between the campus outreach groups – which typically don’t come to Sunday AM services – and the people with kids in their 30s-50s. I used think that if we had an early evening service, like my Catholic husband who goes to Mass at 4PM on Saturdays, I probably would have gone back a lot sooner.

      Not having good music would be hard – we have a great music program with everything from classical to bluegrass/folk. I would have a hard time getting around that. I value the aesthetics of church.

  9. Hi Maria. Hi Erin. thanks for stopping by. i’ve been a little preoccupied with some things and unable to get to at least saying hi.

    Anyway, Maria you said, “I dont feel the need for us to radically change who we are – which a dogma would certainly do- in a misguided attempt to be all things to all people.
    In a misguided attempt? To be all things to all people? No. I don’t think it would be misguided. In fact, i think it would be quite focused, deliberate and concerted attempt to radically guide our current incarnation into something different.
    And it would NOT be all things to all people. That is what we’re trying to do now. It would be one thing (spiritual… full of awe and gratitude) to one people. No more hyphenated spiritual paths. Simply UUs.

    Erin, there is so much you wrote that it’s somewhat difficult to respond. I will say this though. You say you WANT to be in a UU congregation, etc. but that even the most eloquent and uplifting of speakers isn’t enough to [quote]“drag you out of bed.” I think, on a number of things, you need to change your mindset. If you want something… i mean really want something you’ll do whatever it takes to get it.

  10. II disagree with you that UUism is “anything goes”. I know a lot of people think that, but I believe it is because UUism is poorly presented and misunderstood.

    UUism has more of a “process” set of agreed-upon beliefs and principles, that are summarized in a very bureaucratic committee-speak by the 7 principles. We do NOT have an agreed upon set of metaphysical beliefs, so in that sense, we do not have a shared dogma.

    The principles of respecting others — of human equality — of learning and progress through dialogue and the use of reason — a commitment to democracy — a commitment to community — a commitment to compassion — are a set of philosophical beliefs that have been minority beliefs throughout most of human history, and are minority beliefs even today. They never gained much popularity in human societies until the Enlightenment.

    I think our skepticism and commitment to reason and inquiry and the human heart should be coupled with some TENTATIVE commitments that we all agree to, such as the Golden Rule. But the Golden Rule is in and of itself really a process guide to behavior. It doesn’t tell you exactly what to do, but rather gives you a process for figuring out what is best.

    One of our biggest needs is for a way of explaining in plainer and more inspiring language what our shared beliefs already are. We need a 7 principles written in more inspiring poetry. And then we need services that use both the head and heart to communicate that poetry.

    I personally do not care what metaphysical beliefs about the nature of God and the universe leads someone to embrace inquiry, dialogue, community, compassion, and the Golden Rule. I also doubt whether UUs will ever agree on a specific set of metaphysical beliefs, if that is what you are looking for. What we can agree on is a set of process beliefs about how to live together in this world and find meaning.

    Some may want to be part of a church that DOES have a specific set of metaphysical beliefs that match their own. But this usually necessitates abandoning dialogue and inquiry about whether those metaphysical beliefs still make sense. You have to decide what you value most: dialogue with others who have quite different metaphysical beliefs, or a sharing with others of your own beliefs about the universe.

  11. As a recent addition to the faith, I have been educating myself about Unitarian Universalism since I joined my congregation a couple of months ago. When a member of my congregation posted a link to WT’s blog on Facebook, I was immediately intrigued… I saw the title, and wondered, was she (the member of my congregation) not happy with our church? When I read the blog, however, I realized that I did in fact have some concerns of my own nagging at the edge of my consciousness. I feel at home with open-minded folks who enjoy a metaphysical discussion, but I do feel that politics have too large a place in my congregation as well. I was dismayed to read in my new member RE that our congregation was active in the Gay Pride parade, and even had a Bring Your Gay Teen to Church day. Personally, I find all of this a bit embarrassing. I am pretty open-minded, but I dislike having gay marriage and other liberal social issues dominating conversation when I would rather be talking about salvation, sin, reincarnation, or whether Jesus died in Kashmir or Jerusalem. I wouldn’t say that I am conservative per se, but I would say that I am not looking for a Sunday ACLU meeting either. Having said all that, I don’t believe I would find anything better in a different denomination! My wife is a longtime yogi who loves the tolerance the church has for her decidedly Hindu bent (I have the same tolerance, it’s one of the reasons we married, and one of the reasons I am a U.U.). I am a new member, but I had been wanting to join a UU church for a long time: I fall into the category of those who value “dialogue with others who have quite different metaphysical beliefs”. I love discussion about spiritual matters… I suppose some might say that I just haven’t found the right path yet, but in truth, I cannot believe that other religious practices don’t have something positive to offer. Why does there have to be “one path”? Can’t I go jogging on a different route every morning? I find our shared set of principles quite enough: Julian, do they not “bind” us enough? I like to think of our faith as a large, beautiful, park, with many trails throughout: All paths lead to the same place; they just take different turns to get there. No other faith is so encompassing, yet so simple (the rituals can be all over the place, but that’s what being active in your church is about, right?). As a product of western society, I have a certain predilection for Christianity, but, like many UUs, am uncomfortable with the concept of hellfire and damnation.. Unitarian Universalism can seem shallow compared to more ancient or fervent religious traditions. But join another denomination? I think not. Our inclusiveness is a double edged sword, to be sure: Our church services can seem like they were cut and pasted from other religions. We may have to listen to someone rant about social injustice. But we also get to puzzle it all out for ourselves: Some folks prefer to be told what to believe, but UU’s, like St. Thomas, are doubters. We want to see it for ourselves, to make sense of it all on our own terms.

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