On Unitarian Univeralism: A Brief Response to Its Cultured Despisers and a Call to All Those Seeking Refuge in the Storm

Now don’t get me wrong. I admire the always erudite Lutheran minister and academic Martin Marty. Still, I have to admit I found his recent article about the apparent growth in membership in Unitarian Universalism annoying.

He correctly noted how church membership reporting is notoriously unreliable. For example, as I understand it, the Roman Catholic Church simply reports everyone baptized. Their numbers seem to be wildly inflated. But we UUs are asked to pay membership dues to our center and so if anything we’re inclined to under report our numbers. I also agree that one instance a trend does not make. While we can enjoy the uptick in our reporting we’ll have to keep an eye on what’s going on for some time before we’ll know what if anything is in fact happening.

After this observation Professor Marty went on to offer some opinions about us and the whys of our possible growth. He makes a positive noise or two about our Enlightenment derived rationalism. But he moves from there to cite his 1956 doctoral thesis where he suggested our apologists, particularly our Christian or theist UUs tend to try and place us as “Believers Who Are At The Edge But Not Extreme” rather than as “Infidels Mild.”

However. But. You know, the thing that follows the nice noises. Then he throws out the usual trope favored by Christian observers of Unitarian Universalists who I believe like to be thought of as tolerant of these religious cousins, suggesting perhaps more in sadness than in anger, how UUs have a “thin theology.”

Let me be frank. Apparently they mean we don’t offer enough baloney.

What we lack that they find “thin” is a set of assertions about reality from Holy Writ that have little or no support beyond that ever popular appeal to authority, which in some circles is considered, what is it? Oh, yes, a logical fallacy.

Okay. It’s easy to trot out snide for snide. And I want to be careful, because one part of the Universalism of contemporary Unitarian Universalism, a new Universalism that I hold dear, is the belief all (or close enough to all as to make no functional difference) religions contain everything necessary for salvation. That is Christians of all flavors, Jews in their variety, Muslims in their differences, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans, all of ‘em, have within their community and traditions what it takes to heal the wounds of life, to get people where they need to go.

(And, of course, I write as dually credentialed, a UU minister and a Soto Zen Buddhist priest. While each of these two traditions sometimes wonder why, I have found a home sharing them in ways that I’ve found pushing me to every greater depths. More anon…)

Really, I know the good professor is trying to be generous. (As I said, I do admire him for his work over the many years. And he led with some good advice to UUs that when we write of ourselves we shouldn’t be quite so self-deprecating as we frequently are, we really, he tells us, don’t need to lead with a joke about ourselves nearly every time.) He says he likes our social activism, which near as I can tell rounds out the things he likes about us, and I’m sure he is sincere in his admiration for our rationalism and our engagement. But beyond that the best he thinks of us is that we might be a home for those who want to take a vacation from orthodoxy, that we might indeed be a place for the “spiritual but not religious,” should they wish community. For a short or long stay.

Still, all that said, he opines how this might, indeed, be our day.

And, here, I agree.

While there is no compulsion within our liberal way, we offer the possibilities of depth without requiring a tip of the hat to the Highly Unlikely. For many hungering and thirsting for a truer life, this is critical. Our tribe counts Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Pagans and Humanists and atheists and many, many others. What unites us is a style, an approach to the great matter of life and death. It is at once critical and open hearted.

It has worked for me on my path. It has made me a better, certainly a more relentlessly honest Buddhist and I think a pretty good UU. (Others, of course, will have to decide on both counts for themselves…)

Certainly this liberal way in religion, this liberal spirituality has led to some interesting discoveries about what is what.

And that’s what I want to hold up for the spiritual seeker.

Here’s the way into depth that Unitarian Universalists have found.

Our way has three parts enshrined for the moment in our Statement of Principles and Purposes. While this statement has creed-like qualities, it is important to always note it is not a creed, it is not proscriptive, but rather descriptive, it shows what we as a religious (or maybe better considering this is for those who might be thinking about us, spiritual) community at this moment in time.It will change.

Most of the Statements are mom and apple pie, and people appropriately question how they’re different than what is held by most eeryone in our culture. But, then there are those three things, two theological statements and a method.

The first and the seventh Principles. Again, we always have an escape clause, no compulsion and therefore in practice there are a number of us who do not agree. Still, most do agree these two Principles are very important, perhaps the most important thing. The first speaks to the “worth and dignity” of each person. Many, maybe most of us would speak of the preciousness of everything that births into the world. But this observation, assertion can only be understood within the context of the seventh Principle, which is an observation or assertion of an interdependent web of which we in our precious individuality are all a part. So. Each and everyone one of us, and I would add, everything, is a most wondrous thing. But, and, this wonderful manifestation as you or me is a creation of the whole, we are woven out of the world itself. One way of saying this is that we are one family. And so together these two truths are worthy of a lifetime of exploration and unraveling and reweaving. We find personal spiritual exploration. We find ethics. We find a call to justice. And we find a call to the world, this world.

Which brings us to the fourth principle, which calls us to a free and responsible search for our own insight into these truths. The call, as I understand it, is that we have an obligation to understand what these things mean as there are consequences in our lives and for everyone’s life. As ideas, yes, well through through. But, more, as an invitation to a way of knowing, of being in the world.


Important stuff.

And, if you want to take it as thin, that’s your call.

But let me say there is plenty of nourishment for those willing, who want to follow a path of open and critical mind and open and loving heart.

And, so, if you’ve walked away from the orthodox, orthodox anything, and yet have a sense there is something more, a deep out there that you can know for yourself, well, consider yourself invited!

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