UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISM AT THE DAWN OF A NEW MILLENNIUM A Brief Response to Its Cultured Despisers, and a Call to the Healing of Our Hearts and of the World

A Brief Response to Its Cultured Despisers, and a Call to the Healing of Our Hearts and of the World

James Ishmael Ford

2 December 2012

First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

Ranier Maria Rilke
Translated by Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy

Early in October, the Lutheran minister and emeritus professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Martin Marty, in his column “Sightings,” commented on the fact our Unitarian Universalist Association reported denominational membership has taken a modest uptick at a time when most “main-stream” Protestant churches are in decline. This increase in membership is something we’ve been experiencing here at First Unitarian, as well, as I suspect some of us may have noticed. The good professor is a gentle soul and a wise man, and his wide-ranging reflections have on occasion fed my own ruminations about religion in our times. So, I read his essay with interest.

Professor Marty correctly noted how church membership reporting is notoriously unreliable. For example, as I understand it, the Roman Catholic Church simply reports everyone ever baptized who, if they notice, has not since died. In contrast our various UU congregations are asked to pay dues for each of our members to the Association, and so if anything we’re inclined to under report our numbers. I know we here scrub our books with considerable diligence. So, the uptick is, most likely, quite real. And, of course, one instance a trend does not make. While we can enjoy the positive report we’ll have to keep an eye on what’s going on for some time before we’ll really know if our small corner of the spiritual scene is in fact on a growth trend.

After this observation Dr Marty went on to offer some opinions about us and the whys of this possible growth. He made a positive noise or two about our Enlightenment derived rationalism. Then he quickly moved 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.” A distinction, I admit, cutting sufficiently fine that I had some trouble discerning how one is not the other.

However. But. You know, the thing that follows the nice noises. Then he throws out the trope I’ve noticed favored by many Christian observers of Unitarian Universalism, at least those who I believe like to be thought of as tolerant of their religious cousins, us; suggesting perhaps more in sadness than in anger, how we UUs have a “thin theology.” This really is nothing new. Many years ago the renowned social justice activist and minister at Manhattan’s Riverside Church, William Sloane Coffin commented how we seem to have such a “thick ethic,” but such a “thin theology.”

Still, this really, really annoyed me. And, as I have a blog, I responded. In my posting I demurred, and at some length. Much of my argument I’ll repeat and take advantage of the moment to expand on here. But, also, once published, what surprised me, truly, surprised me; was first how many people chose to comment on my blog entry, some twenty-five at my last look. I’m used to no comments, or at most two or three. Truthfully, if the comments hit five I break out the non-alcoholic bubbly. What was most surprising, although perhaps it shouldn’t have been, was how several of the commentators were Unitarian Universalists who asserted, no, no, James. We do have a thin theology. Let me be clear, UUs asserting our theology is thin.

I’m totally up for self-criticism. Our shortcomings are numerous and we need to notice, and we need to be grateful for those who care about us who point those shortcomings out. But, those who do not see the depth of our message are missing something critical, missed, I think by those inside and outside who seem to think we need a creed to be “real.” Because we have a conscience clause, because we don’t demand subscription to a creed, and because we tolerate, in fact invite, people of every conceivable theological stripe into communion with us; that does not mean we are lacking in a very real theology, that we do not have some genuine and powerful and compelling spiritual perspectives that mark us out from other religious traditions.

Let me be frank. Apparently what our observers, usually Christian, mean when they say our theology is thin, is that 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 either that ever popular appeal to authority, or circular reasoning, both of which in some circles are considered, what is it? Oh, yes, logical fallacies. Okay. Absolutely, it is all too easy to trot out snide for snide. And, hopefully, before someone gets too offended on behalf of the orthodox, give me a moment or two, I promise I have kind words for Christianity, as well.

I believe the good professor was trying to be generous. As I said, I do admire him for his work over the many years. Dr Marty says with some emphasis how he likes our social activism. That’s the “thick ethic” of which Reverend Coffin spoke. Now, near as I can tell together with respect for our rationalism that pretty much rounds out the things he likes about us. 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. In fact he opines how as advocates for a light touch religion, this might, indeed, be our day.

And, here, I agree, at least this far. This is our day, but only in part because of our welcoming everyone without some creedal test. This is our day because we have something to say to this world that matters. While there is no compulsion within our liberal way, we offer the possibilities of genuine encounter and authentic depth. For many hungering and thirsting for a truer life, we offer a substantial meal, if a meal low on the fat content.

Now, we are universalists. What I understand that term has come to mean in our times and for us, is a belief that all religions contain what is necessary for healing the human heart. Not that everything in every religion is true. In fact, often they lead with assertions about reality I find at best absurd. But, the great insight into the interrelatedness of all things, of our profound intimacy with each other and this world is spoken of, is sung to, is celebrated somewhere within all the great faiths of the world. And if you proclaim that, you are offering the real healing message.

And because of our UU openness, we get to encounter those many different takes on this great intimacy. Our tribe counts Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Pagans and Humanists and atheists and many, many others. And each offers a slightly different window into that profound and life transforming truth. We speak to the how of this and our gratitude for the richness of the human spirit that informs our way through the “sources” part of our Statement of Principles and Purposes. You might go back and read those sources sometime. A very interesting list.

And we’ve found our own unique perspectives on the great matter of interrelatedness and that’s what I want to hold up for all those hurt and seeking healing, what I want to share here, to proclaim here. I consider our unique Unitarian Universalist take on the great secret of connections an astonishing discovery, similar to, but not quite the same as we see in three Eastern religions, Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism. It is an insight that has power to it, power to heal, power to create, power to transform our own lives and the world.

So, please, for the healing of hurt, for the sake of joy, for that moral compass that points to true north, I ask that you listen carefully to the way into depth that Unitarian Universalists have found. And which informs us whatever other perspectives into the great matter of life and death we bring into the conversation from our various and unique views, each informing the other, and together creating the great rose window at the heart of the cathedral of the world.

Our particular way has three parts enshrined for the moment in that Statement of Principles and Purposes I just alluded to. While this statement has creed-like qualities, and because of that really annoys a considerable subset of our notoriously anti-authoritarian crowd, and with that it is important to always note it is not a creed, it is not proscriptive. No one must sign on. But, and this is so important, it is descriptive. That is our Principles and Purposes show what we as a religious, or, using language more appropriate to our times, this shows who we are as a spiritual community at this moment in time. Another insight for us, everything changes. And so, yes, our attempts at describing our tradition, our way of life, our spirituality, will in time change, as well.

And, I know, the Principles and Purposes is far from a perfect document. Too much of the statement is mom and apple pie, and people appropriately question how much they’re different than what is held by most everyone within our culture. Well, I can tell you. Those three things, two theological statements and a method.

Together with John Crestwell, who I think coined the term, and with a constantly increasing number of UU clergy, I am a “first and seventh principle preacher.” We can’t look at one of our children without understanding that assertion about the precious individual. Whoever that infant might become, it is a rare heart that can look at her or him and not feel some hint of preciousness, of possibility, of hope. And, there is, within my experience, no way to avoid the fact we are all related, every blessed one of us, made of the same stuff, blood of each others blood, woven out of each other in language and culture, and something more, something even more intimate. How can we not sense how this is an even deeper assertion than even a claim of common human family, as justifiable as that image is. It is an even more radical statement, one that should haunt our dreams. We’re all related, every thing in this cosmos. Everything.

And what is critical, what we Unitarian Universalists bring to the table is how we need insight into both these truths, and how they correct and expand each other. An individual by himself, by herself, becomes a narcissist. And can become a sociopath. To only see the connections is to create a sense of equality where no decision is better than another. The world becomes flat. And a lot of ugliness can follow that one sided view. But together we find the great dynamic, the living energy that sees preciousness and equality like two eyes creating depth and nuance and possibility.

So, not just the first principle. And not just the seventh. But both. Taken 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. We find a call to the world, this world, our home, our mother.

Which brings us to the method, enshrined right now as the fourth principle, which calls us to a free and responsible search for our own insight into these truths, like taking a sip of water and knowing for ourselves whether it is warm or cool. And here is the why of our invitation to each as we are, as Christians or Jews or Hindus or pagans or humanists, however our hearts call us to see into the great matter. And how we need each other for correction and expansion of that heart vision.

The call, as I understand it, is that we have an obligation to understand what these things mean, as there are consequences. Everything is connected, and what happens to one of us, touches all of us. These insights are incredibly valuable ideas. It is important to have a philosophy of life. And here we present one. But, there’s more here, much more. There is that taking a sip for ourselves, and knowing for ourselves, you and me. We are also being given an invitation to a way of knowing, of being in the world.

This is our way, our Unitarian Universalist way.

We’re called to wholeness, and to that movement, to that dance.

And, dear ones, let me tell you: not only is this enough.

But, this is everything.


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