Reps of God: Christian Triumphalism and the DIY Future of Unitarian Universalism

LITE

The future of Unitarian Universalism does not lie in Christianity Lite any more than the future of Anheuser-Busch lies in Bud Light.

Oh, wait: Anheuser-Busch doesn’t have a future: it was bought out . . . by a European corporation that makes tasty beer.

In our consumerist religious landscape, the mainstream Christian denominations are scrambling to survive. I don’t doubt that they will do a fine job of brewing the new Christianity. A much better job than can Unitarian Universalism, except in very specific locations and boutiques.

Yes, as in beer, so in religion: the future for a small movement such as Unitarian Universalism lies not with Lite but with Hevy. The Godzilla of brewers, InBev, and the Presbyterians and United Church of Christ, and United Methodists et alia will do a fine job with the Lite. I think the future of Unitarian Universalism lies in micro-breweries. Boutique congregations, each with a recipe of their own.
Hevy

Keeping the church doors open after the Boomers are dead is the question. I’m not trying to be a controversialist. Like many ministers, I’m betting millions of dollars of other people’s money on a way to keep the church doors open into the future.

How?

A new book by Thomas Moore points to a possible way. In A Religion of One’s Own: A guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, Moore makes a strong case for do-it-yourself (DIY) religion.

Aren’t Unitarian Universalist congregations uniquely suited to facilitate DIY?

We do well to draw a sharp line between the subjectivity of religious experience and the objectivity of a congregational, corporate life together. Where I get my personal religious jolt is up to me—Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, paganism, pantheism, atheism, all of the above . . . Up to me. DIY. Where I find my meaning is up to me.

Where I go for my religious, corporate, home is up to us.

For those who will be following Moore’s advice on DIY religion, one of the best homes is a Unitarian Universalist congregation . . . If . . . we can awaken to how big the tent must be.

This is the wisdom of the idea of covenant embedded so deeply in Unitarian tradition. “We need not think alike to live alike,” is the sentiment, even if no one famous ever actually said it.

Treating others as we would have them treat us—or, better, treating others as they would wish to be treated—isn’t so easy. The challenge is subjective: how the heck do we know how someone wishes to be treated?

Well, there is that thing called compassion.

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition we say that everyone has “inherent worth and dignity.” I would propose that this is how we treat our neighbor (and fellow congregants): as if that person has inherent worth and dignity. Then, we may go a step further and learn what that worthy and dignified person wants and needs.

But . . . What if I know better? I mean, really—what if I know darn well that I know better than my neighbor what my neighbor needs?

Party Foul! What you or me or anyone knows is always and only our subjectivity. Where you get your religious jolt. How you do your DIY religion.

You don’t know about your neighbor in the pew until you ask.

Furthermore, words matter. For example, for many people the word “family” does not have a warm and fuzzy feel to it. We do well to use care when we call a congregation a family.

And, no, “Amazing Grace” did not “save a wretch like me.” The apparatus that produced “Amazing Grace” enslaved my forebears for generations. And Jesus? His incarnation as “the body of Christ” in the church has been cruel to many of us. Not warm and fuzzy at all.

That’s two for instances. There are more . . . . More instances of oppression and exclusion.

Monarchy, Malarky

Unitarian minister John Dietrich, the founder of religious humanism, believed that a democratic society would create a democratic religion. After all, evidence suggests that religions reproduce in their structures and theologies the political and social structures in which they develop.

To see this, we only need go so far as a comparison of Judaism and Christianity. As anyone familiar with the Hebrew book of Judges or 1 Samuel knows, the ancient Hebrew tribes were highly suspicious of monarchy. Hebrew tradition reveals that mistrust, even though the Hebrews flirted with monarchy in the time of King David and the subsequent temple at Jerusalem. (Speaking of disasters!)

Christianity, the child of Judaism, early fell in thrall to the structures and attitudes of the Roman empire. The bowing and hierarchy that is so much a part of European monarchy and much of Christian worship is foreign to the Jewish tradition. And it feels less and less OK to many of us living in liberal democracies.

John Dietrich, and other humanists of the 1930s, thought that the monarchical model of the Christian tradition would disappear in the democratic age.

And it has, to a great extent. If it hadn’t, there wouldn’t be any DIY religion.

The only religion that will ever make sense to you—when you’re not going along to get along—is that one that you have arrived at by choice, in your own thoughts and your own integrity.

Religious experience is subjective. Personal. Forcing it on others is a party foul and a Golden Rule violation.

The Short Shelf Life of European Christianity

Big_Top_-_geograph.org.uk_-_612047Reflect on this: of the people in the United States today, how many had Christianity forced upon their forebears?

Answer: Nearly everyone who lived outside of the Mediterranean basin in the 300-500s CE.

Reflect on this: how many of those who became Christian outside of the Mediterranean basin had a choice in the matter?

Did the British? Did the Irish or Welsh? Did the Germans or Norwegians or Poles or Swedes or Swiss or . . . ?

Nope. Most of the population in Europe had no choice. The choice was made for them by the ruling elites.

How about the Africans brought forcibly into the Western Hemisphere?

Nope.

The native peoples of the Western Hemisphere?

Nope. No choice.

For millions upon millions of people, Christianity was not a choice. Should we wonder then that so many of their children abandon an imposed religion as soon as secular governments and social expectations allow?

For most of us living in the Western Hemisphere, Christianity is an overlay, not a deep tradition. A Mediterranean imposition, not a value system that matches the flora and fauna and mores that most of us were born into.

Malcolm X taught this, but his words have not been heeded.

Pagans in the UU movement have been pointing this out for some time. In my congregation, the Jews, Hindus, pagans, and Muslims and atheists and others and more cry out . . . when will we be free?

When will we build that land, that inclusive place that is actually inclusive, the includes not just Christians but others?

Despite Liberation Theology, the Social Gospel, and the Emergent Church, Christian ritual and theology is the theology and ritual of oppression for many of us.

Yes, those lively spirituals subvert the dominant paradigm and reveal the ugly truth of oppression. But isn’t it time we sing a new freedom song? Isn’t it time we subvert the most dominant of paradigms—Christianity itself?

And then there is the inclusion of Christians too.

Think hevy. Think micro-brew. And DIY.

What if Unitarian Universalist congregations were actually, truly, a big tent where all are welcome, not just the Christians? Not just the humanists?

Can I have an “ameen”?

Some of us will not worship any prophet or any god, no matter what the cost. Where might we find a home?

How about a really big tent for the future?

 

Photo credit: The copyright on this image is owned by Simon Johnston and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

  • http://whatsmyage.wordpress.com Justin Almeida

    Ha! Love the allusion to craft brewing! And it’s very much true… UU craft brewers will complete, but they will also collaborate, and they share at least one thing in common: nobody wants to make a lite beer. lol Excellent!

  • Paul Beedle

    Have a look at Susan Ritchie’s new book, “Children of the Same God.” It dovetails nicely with what you’re suggesting here.

  • Arthur Kenneth Thexton

    we need to stop calling our congregations “churches”!

  • Kris Hughes

    You are overlooking something here. Many of the European countries whose populations have the least interest in Christianity (beyond – maybe – a nominal tick-box on a census form) are still monarchies. The UK comes to mind. Or the Netherlands….These societies are vastly more secular at the community level, or the family level than much of the US. Church attendance is much lower, discussions of morality rarely venture into religious territory for a reference point, etc.

    Have you forgotten? The Christian fanatics all fled TO the US, and they are still here and largely unable to separate church and state, and dragging the rest of us in their wake. Give me the free and easy vibe of the UK, where, in spite of the fact that the queen is head of the Church of England, it’s relatively comfortable to be a Pagan or a Muslim, and when you make new friends, they don’t ask you whether you’d like to go to church with them.

    • David Breeden

      I agree. I should have mentioned that reversal through time. It is paradoxical (but perhaps not) that those nations with state religions are now secular and the US is, at best, a relatively benign theocracy.

  • Theresa

    I like your idea, but doesn’t it reinforce the cliche that UUs can believe in anything?

    • David Breeden

      I wasn’t thinking about that when I wrote this. That’s a cliche that follows UUs around. My feeling is that congregations need to be a place of education concerning religions. Education goes a long way to clarifying ideas and taking them seriously.

  • Brett Hudson Matthews

    I agree David — up to a point (and love the Anheuser-Busch example). But I work in the developing world. Christianity as you may know is very strong in most of the places where it has been ‘imposed’ more recently, such as much of Africa and the Pacific. Western missionaries of the ‘hevy’ school are everywhere, distributing great flavours and emphasizing that the Christian God is the God of the firesticks, and magical medicines and the internet (for years I wondered why the slaves of America embraced Christianity so passionately — they appear to have wanted a God who could make them equal to their ‘owners’; ironically they embraced Christianity in search of freedom). It will be generations before much of the developing world shakes off social authoritarianism or the ‘hevy’ religions that fit it like a glove. In the meantime I believe one service that Unitarianism is called to is to answer the lies of the Christian missionaries by pointing out that it is not Jesus you should thank for the fact that you have a mobile phone and running water in your house. We need to be the living embodiment of what democratic civilization really means — and we need to be it just as passionately (more passionately if possible) than the nutcases trolling Africa today looking for their next converts.

  • TapestryGarden

    But isn’t what you suggest simply relativism? I can cobble together my own creed and worldview? Without any underpinning how do you know your theory has any intrinsic value? Do you believe in Natural Law? Do you believe in magic…to paraphrase a classic rock tune. I grew up UU and found it totally empty. A group of lovely, smart and earnest people who believed in breaded air. They had nothing holding them together other than a seeming sense of self congratulation that they’d found each other.

    I’m now a devout Catholic. To paraphrase my last UU minister…I found some “there” there.


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