The Grass is Always Greener: What Unitarianism is and what I wish it were

The Grass is Always Greener: What Unitarianism is and what I wish it were August 21, 2013

I think I may be suffering from a case of “The grass is always greener” syndrome — religiously speaking.

This all started a week ago Saturday.

No, actually, it’s been going on for years.  But last Saturday is a good starting point.  We went hiking as a family at the dunes on the southern shore of Lake Michigan.  The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is one of the most diverse bioregions in America.  The park is comprised of over 15,000 acres of dunes, oak savannas, swamps, bogs, marshes, prairies, rivers, and forests, plus 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.  I felt alive again.

And then I went to church on Sunday.  My family had gone to the Mormon church and I went to the Unitarian church, as is my custom.  I had planned on going to first session of the adult education program, “Building Your Own Theology“, before the main service.  But I couldn’t bring myself to go.  I’d had enough of theology.  I needed experience.  And when it came time to go to the main service, I found myself dragging my feet.  I shouldn’t have gone.  I should have gone back to the forest, or sat in my backyard, or found some new secret spot where I could hold that feeling again, where I could scoop the shining life right out of the air with my hands and hold it to my lips, drinking deep.  I should have followed the Unitarian minister, John Trevor, who wrote in 1897:

“One brilliant Sunday morning, my wife and boys went to the Unitarian Chapel in Macclesfield. I felt it impossible to accompany them—as though to leave the sunshine on the hills, and go down there to the chapel, would be for the time an act of spiritual suicide. And I felt such need for new inspiration and expansion in my life. So, very reluctantly and sadly, I left my wife and boys to go down into the town, while I went further up into the hills with my stick and my dog.”

And Trevor was rewarded for following his instinct with a spiritual experience which William James found moving enough to record in his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

I should have followed John Trevor into the woods.

Instead, I went to church.  The service, it turned out, consisted of a lecture — and I use that word deliberately — on centering prayer.  To be fair, I was already in a mood before I got there.  But the lecture did not help.  It was all intellectualization.  Sure, it was about a spiritual practice.  But rather than being evocative, it was purely informational.  Even the music, which often is the best part of the service, seemed discordant to me that day.  It was all I could do to keep from fleeing out the back door.  And that is just what I did as soon as the service was over.

It was clear to me when I got home that I needed a different kind of religious experience.  I thought about a friend of mine who attends the Unitarian church with me who described being moved to tears when she took communion at a Christian church she used to attend.  So, I got online and looked for a church.  I wanted to find a religious service with high ritual and minimum of preaching.  I didn’t particularly want a Christian service, but I’ve been reading about Jung’s appropriation of Christian symbolism, and I thought, if he can find “psyche” in God, “individuation” in Christ’s passion, and the “Great Mother Goddess” in Mary, then so can I.

I settled on a Greek Orthodox church.  I’ve been curious about Eastern Orthodoxy for a while, ever since hearing Krista Tippett’s interview of Vigen Guroian on NPR’s On Being, entitled “Restoring the Senses: Gardening and the Orthodox Easter”:

“Tippet: Eastern Orthodox theology is experiential, sacramental. Its liturgies engage all the senses with incense, icons, and lush hymnody. Ancient rituals are understood in themselves to convey biblical truths and transcendent realities. […]

“Guroian:  Human beings are not simply oriented by one sense or two senses. They’re, they’re oriented by several senses. And so in order for the human being to be wholly engaged, all of those senses ought to be at work. One of the jobs of a Christian is to, in point of fact, hone the senses, reform the senses, make them holy. And that process can take place within a church, certainly, where everything is focused on God.  So that the incense appeals to the sense of smell. The whole body is involved, the kneeling, the prostration on the ground, on the floor, the images that one sees, the songs that one hears. And that engages the whole human being. Well, that’s consistent with the Christian belief in the bodily resurrection, the whole self, not just some disincarnate soul.”

Fortunately, where I live, I have my pick of Orthodox churches.  I still planned on going to the Unitarian church regularly, but I wanted to supplement it with a different kind of experience.

The next Sunday, we all got ready to go to the Greek Orthodox church.  We dressed in our Sunday best and arrived 10 minutes early … or so I thought.  As we pulled into the parking lot, I noticed that no one was going in.  I checked the time, and realized we were 20 minutes late!  We could have still gone in, but I didn’t want to interrupt their most sacred service of the week.

So, we headed over to the Unitarian church, which we were early for.  I was frustrated.  I felt devastated in fact, all out of proportion to the circumstances, I suppose.  After all, we could just go back the next week.  But I had been looking forward to this visit to the Orthodox church, and I had thought the universe was leading me in that direction.  It felt like defeat to turn around and head to the Unitarian church.  It wasn’t fair to my Unitarian c0-congregants and all that they do to make the service there be all it can be.  Nevertheless, when I walked into the Unitarian meeting hall that morning, it was with a deep ambivalence.

But things took turn for the better in “Spirit Circle” discussion group which precedes the main service.  One of the members, whose opinions I have a lot of respect for, started talking about his own frustration that the church seems like a community of special interest groups and his desire to see the church become a real community, where the separate groups are more like different expressions of a shared vision.  Another member, whose comments also often resonate with me, described her frustration that the church service does not help us connect with a sense of mystery.  “Direct experience” of a “transcending mystery and wonder” is, after all, the first of Unitarianism’s “Six Sources”.  But while we talk about spirituality in the Unitarian church, but we don’t practice it — at least not together.  What ritual Unitarians have is good for horizontal communion, but not so much for vertical communion.  It binds us together as a community perhaps, but does not connect us to that which transcends us all.

It was a relief to be in the Spirit Circle.  I really needed to hear that others shared my frustration.  And I was grateful again for the community that Unitarianism has given me.  It is the home for those who cannot go elsewhere, but must go somewhere.  At the same time, I was frustrated by the comments of others in the group who, in response to my expressed desire for more feeling and ritual, raised fears of “snake handling” and “ceremonial fetishism”.  I understand that, from their perspective, the Unitarian church is the only place left to them where they can be free of God-talk and empty ceremony.  Their attitude is: If you want those things, there are thousands of other denominations you can go to.  And they are right.

Still I can’t help but think that Unitarianism can be more than it is.  I have written written about my frustrations with Unitarianism before in a post entitled “Why Unitarians Can’t Dance”.  There I wrote that what I hoped to find in UUism was an alternative, not only to fundamentalism, but also to secularism.  Unitarianism represents the promise of that alternative, but not its reality.   In another post, “‘One needful thing’: What’s missing from Unitarianism”, I wrote about 19th century Unitarians who felt the same way, including William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, Emerson, and John Trevor.  Channing, himself the unofficial founder of Unitarianism, expressed his wish “to see among Unitarians a development of imagination and poetic enthusiasm, as well as of the rational and critical power”, but he felt than Unitarianism suffered from “a heart-withering philosophy” and “a too partial culture of the mind”.   He concluded, “I fear that we must look to other schools for the thoughts which thrill us, which touch the most inward springs, and disclose to us the depths of our own souls.”  It seems to me that very little has changed for Unitarianism since the 19th century.  Unitarianism survives, I think, only because it functions as a refuge and way-station for the religiously uprooted — although I thank the universe for it.

But then, just a week after writing that post on what Unitarianism lacked, I was moved to reconsider my harsh judgment after participating in a beautiful infant dedication performed by our new liturgically-radical minister.

While I sat in the main service this past Sunday, I found myself thinking back to the that dedication.  I also thought about the times we gotten up out of the hard wooden pews which were built in the 19th century and swayed together to African spirituals.  I thought how I have been nearly moved to tears by the playing of our incredibly talented music director.  I thought about the beauty and simplicity of our chalice lighting and chalice extinguishing rituals.  Yes, we have brushed up against that sense of “transcending mystery and wonder” at times.

And I thought about the first time I attended the Unitarian church.  I remembered how it felt like a home-coming.  I thought about how it felt like a refuge from the supernaturalism and literalism of the Christianity I was escaping.  And I thought how ironic — and perhaps hypocritical — it was for me, who had left my religion of origin because I could not literally believe its doctrines, to now be insisting that religion should be about, not reason and critical judgment, but feeling and poetry.

But mostly, I thought about how I wanted more — more ritual, more enthusiasm, more devotion, more poetry.  (And yes, I want it without the supernaturalism and literalism.)

Coincidentally, the service that Sunday was organized by the “Poetry, Prose, and Potluck” group and consisted of several poetry readings.  Two of them — the first and the last — stood out to me, since together they captured both my hope and my despair about Unitarianism.  The first came from the foreword to Robert Bly’s poetry anthology, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart:

“While our European-American tradition questions and argues, and has to teach poetry to sullen students in English classes, other cultures speaking Spanish, Russian, Arabic to say nothing of the many tongues of Africa and the Indian subcontinent, grow up inside poems – drenched through with poetic metaphors and rhythms. As we learn to criticize, to take a poem apart, to get its meaning, they learn to listen and to recite. By drawing this sharp contrast with other cultures, we are pointing to a defect in ours. We live in a poetically underdeveloped nation.”

How apropos for a Unitarian congregation, I thought.  It echoed a comment from John Beckett to one of my recent posts in which I asked if it was possible to find a transformative religious experience in a liberal religion like Unitarianism.  Beckett (himself a Unitarian Pagan) responded, “Sadly, no. It’s too rational, and too eager to cut open the goose of religious experience to see where it comes from, with the usual results. Individual Unitarians can find transformative religious experience – I’m one of them. But we find it in spite of our liberal religion, not because of it.”  And yet, on this Sunday at least we were having a poetic service, and someone  — a scientist no less — had found Bly’s words relevant enough to share them with the congregation.

Then at the end of the service, a friend of mine got up to read “The Calf-Path” by Sam Walter Foss.  She explained she had been inspired to read this poem after having read about federal Judge Edward Korman’s attitude toward legal precedent.  “The law depends on precedent,” Judge Korman said, “but I think judges don’t stop often enough to think about whether the path should be followed. I try and straighten the calf’s path.”  The “calf’s path” is a reference to Foss’s poem about how a crooked path is made by a wayward calf and ends up becoming a major thoroughfare followed by thousands over centuries.

The poem begins:

One day, through the primeval wood,
A calf walked home, as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail as all calves do.
Since then three hundred years have fled,
And, I infer, the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.

The poem continues to tell how generations of people followed that path until it became a major street in a metropolis.  The poem ends:

For thus such reverence is lent,
To well established precedent.
A moral lesson this might teach,
Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind,
Along the calf-paths of the mind;
And work away from sun to sun,
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.
They keep the path a sacred groove,
Along which all their lives they move.
But how the wise old wood gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf!

This is a perfect poem for iconoclastic Unitarians.  But I also found it tragic.  I know that the intent of the poem is to make us question the justice and efficacy of tradition, which is a good thing.  But I think Unitarians are too ready to straighten all the calf paths of the world.  Though I usually find myself in sympathy with my friend’s sentiments, on this occasion I regretted her reading selection.  I think that something is often lost when we straighten all the crooked lines.  What vistas, what experiences, do we miss out on?  Pagans, I think, understand this.  Sometimes the straightest path between us and the divine is a crooked line.  It seems to me that it is the Unitarians and other path-straighteners of the world who Foss’s “wise old wood gods” mock!  I, for one, would like to unstraighten the path that Unitarianism has been following since the days of William Ellery Channing.  “There is one thing needful to Unitarians,” wrote John Trevor in in 1897, “God alone knows what it is, but he does not tell them. Is it for want of their asking?”  Perhaps we might find it along the calf path.

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  • I always find more of the divine in the woods than in a building of people. This keeps me the hermit, and it keeps me searching in the shadow of great trees.

  • Crafter Yearly

    As a Pagan member of a UU congregation, I want to tell you how much I loved this piece. I find that UU congregations work well for me politically and intellectually, but there is a deeper, mystical, experiential component of my spirituality that is not fulfilled at our weekly society meetings. I often have to remind myself that no institution can be all things for me, in the same way that my husband (wonderful though he is) cannot fulfill all my social/relationship needs.

    Perhaps it is because we are Pagan, because we are attached to a world view that values diversity and change and personal connection with the divine, no institution could satisfy our needs. Perhaps one thing I can work on (and that you might consider) is figuring out what it is in me (and maybe also you) that wants all the things we love to be in one place–both as a UU who wants all goodness and truth to hang together is some kind of coherent way, and as a Pagan, who wants all of the meaning systems that give shape to my worldview (e.g., politically, intellectually, spiritually) to be present in the same place or active at the same time. Perhaps one downside of our great pluralistic Pagan community is that we are never able to feel fully at home in any institution, as each practice is so unique that an institution that felt right in every respect could only be filled with clones of ourselves.

    Finally, I should note that at UU meetings, I feel a lack of the experiential component of my spirituality. I don’t feel that deep connection with the universe. But at Pagan events, I feel a lack of rationalism. I feel like my academic side is neglected. That’s a thought that’s just tacked on at the end, there. But I do think it’s worth noting that in each community I feel like my whole needs are not being addressed. Perhaps you feel that way, too?

    • Thanks Crafter. Yes, I think you’ve hit on it. Why do I need/want to find it all in one place? Personally, I suspect that it is a vestige of my former monotheism with its “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5). That may not be true of everyone though. Of course, I have the same issue with my marriage — wanting my wife to fulfill all my relationship needs. (Great analogy by the way.)

      I have had similar complaints about Paganism — the lack of rationalism — but fortunately through the internet I have found many intellectual Pagans. The editor of this portal, Christine Hoff Kraemer, is a great example, as are many of my fellow bloggers. The community is great for that too. Still, I think it’s telling that the Pagans at my UU have “game night” where people bring board games, while the humanists put on a “science cafe” and invite local scientists to talk. Guess which one I prefer.

      • Crafter Yearly

        I have been reading Kraemer’s blog and purchased her book. I also follow Humanistic Paganism’s Blog. I’m glad for the internet presence of intellectually minded Pagans.
        But I also spend a good deal of my time listening to hard polytheist pagans on podcasts and find that rewarding, too. I’m grateful that our community is so diverse and inclusive that I have both options. And I’m glad that Unitarian Societies help me expand my pluralistic spiritual community even further.
        Anyway, thanks for your post. I love your blog. I read it regularly. And thanks for taking the time out to respond to me.

        • I’m glad you brought up the hard polytheists. I have long wanted to find a way to integrate their kind of devotion and passion within a humanistic Pagan framework. It’s a work in progress obviously.

        • Thanks for reading us! 🙂

  • Kenneth Apple

    In “Living the Martial Way” Forrest Morgan says that no one martial art does everything, can be everything to every one. It will have blind spots it does not addres, the individual will have needs that need to be met somewhere else. That does not mean you abandon you primary art, the one you have labored so long to master. But it does mea you must think of yourself not as a kareteka, or an MMA fighter or a kung fu man, but as a warrior. A warrior never stops learning, never becomes complacent.
    I get things from my UU congregation that I could get nowhere else. It is not all I have and some of my practice must by needs be solitary. But I don’t think I can go anywhere else and get more than what I have there, which is a community. But in a sense I do agree with your sense of it’s limitations. UU seems very much defined by what it isn’t, rather than by what it is, by negatives rather than positives. On the other hand a bunch of people gave me their children the other weekend for an hour and I told the story of the Binding of the Fenris Wolf. Last Sunday I told the kids the story of Bhodidharma falling asleep during meditation and tearing off his eyelids and throwing them down and the first tea plants sprouted in their place. I put together a group of twenty people to take a trip to a nearby Shinto temple to have a cleansing ritual done. Where else would I find that?

    • I like that analogy. And you’re totally right. There are things I get from my UU church that I could not find anywhere else.

  • This is why I’ve really enjoyed working for UU groups and being casually involved with UU churches, but don’t regularly attend. This may change once I have children — the religious education programs are excellent — but most UU churches are too intellectual to support spiritual formation in the congregation (at least with their services). The small fellowship groups who are united by a secondary faith tradition but gather under the UU umbrella are sometimes better equipped for that work — unless, of course, the larger UU umbrella is afraid of what they do, as in the “snake handling” comment you mention.

    I’m not sure what’s happening in the UU seminaries now, but I know 10-15 years ago, there was a fairly strong “evangelical” movement within Starr King, at least, to emphasize spirituality and God-talk of various kinds and move the denomination away from secular humanism. My former partner, who was considering seminary, attended a service at Starr King where there was drumming and attendees entered the worship space through a curtain decorated as the opening to the Goddess’ womb.

    Of course, this movement in UUism was part of the ongoing culture war between the old school UUs (who are humanists preferring Protestant forms of practice) and newer, younger UUs who are looking for the services a church can provide paired with liberal, creative theology and worship. Unfortunately, I think what’s happened is that younger UUs have failed to affiliate formally with UU churches in any great numbers, and the older generation that has been willing to finance the whole thing (in a way people who did not grow up in church are largely unwilling to do) are now starting to die off. UU churches will have to deal with the ensuing financial crisis in the next 10-20 years. I hope they find some way to establish sustainability, as I greatly admire their philosophy and politics and value them as a resource.

  • Dan Brill

    I really enjoyed this. It echoes many of my experiences with Paganism and UUism. And it’s great to see comments from people who have wrestled with the same things. It feels a little less lonely.

    • I’m glad Dan. And thanks for commenting. It makes *me* feel a little less lonely.

  • Living The Wheel

    Community has often been the reason I back out. It seems like a “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” proposition. You either have no real cohesion in the community, OR, you get a community that settles on something that doesn’t really speak to you. I think there are two reasons I feel this way.

    1. I’m in a rural town in the south. Here, I have two choices. I can go to the LDS church (I’m also an ex-mo) which results in stalking by the missionaries and home teachers, or I can go to one of the fire and brimstone churches that line the streets. There isn’t a UU congregation within 70 miles of me. So, I can go be psychologically beat down every Sunday in two places.

    2. Every single eclectic pagan group I’ve ever been a part of has been full of people who really don’t get where my spirituality is. While it’s nice to hear what they have to say, it’s tiring from my perspective because it makes me feel alone. Truly.

    The above being said, I have felt this “grass is greener” thing, too. I just don’t really know how to overcome in with the limitations I have. I’d like to experience the Catholic church services. They have a lot of that high ritual that makes me go “wow!”. And, also, another part of me would really like to experience Wicca the only way I never have, in a BTW coven. I have no chance of the latter where I live.

    • I should count myself fortunate to have the options that I do.

      If you’re willing to share, I’d like to know in what way the Pagans you’ve interacted with did not get your spirituality?

      Perhaps there are non-Pagans in your area who, while not having an interest in Paganism, might share an interest in other sources of your spirituality.

      • Living The Wheel

        Well, I was raised an atheist, but converted to Mormonism at age 12 because all my friends were Mormons. Mormonism being the closest I ever got to religion until I was in my early 20’s, I couldn’t get over being an atheist. This presented quite a lot of issues when I met the person who introduced me to wicca. She introduced me to a large pagan community who informed me rather vehemently that wicca was a polytheist religion and there wasn’t really any room in it for people who didn’t think the Gods were actual sentient beings.

        So, I tried to get through it and even fake it for a time. But, no one wanted to see the deities as I saw them, or even discuss how I saw them, which was as personifications of natural forces. I took that for about 6-ish years and then dropped paganism entirely for about 2 years. When I finally decided to renew my search, I found that most pagan communities were exactly the same. Even the soft polytheist types were very hostile to an atheist pagan. I still tried to reach out to Gods, thinking that I was just missing something. I never have been able to see whatever it is they see, and I guess that’s the way they see me.

        But, like most atheist pagans, I get a the sideways glances from 3 groups because most refuse to believe that there can be atheism alongside paganism. The ones that do believe it are largely chaos magicians if they’re not fellow naturalists.

        I have no idea if there even are any pagans where I live today. My husband has a job working with the public so I don’t really dare come out and ask around. He has to live down what I do here and we’re right in the thick of the Bible belt.

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          I somewhat agree. My experience is that personal gnosis is valued up to the point where gods unmask themselves as empty. But what is experienced cannot be easily unexperienced.

  • Wow – so powerful, John! You have aptly described the UU congregation in which I was deeply involved for a decade – served on the board, chaired RE, etc., etc. But the majority intelligentsia always trumped the rest of us. (As it happens, I have felt much loneliness among Pagans for reasons similar-but-different to those expressed by commenters here since I have often found myself surrounded by people who are subtly dismissive of my beliefs as “transcendent.” ) Like you, I’m very, very grateful the UUs were/are there for me, but I have not found that they have my back in any spiritual sense. I agree that it is a way-station for “come-outers” in large part, at least in parts of the country outside New England.

  • This totally resonates in our household! We are members of one of the local UU congregations, but we take “time out” in the summer to DO things, not just talk about them. Mostly we started going because of the RE programs for the kids (which there is no good Pagan alternative to, unfortunately) and because we are really down with the 7 principles, they have a Pagan group and a group for military families, and it doesn’t hurt that when the hubby has to bring up religion with his family, we can say we go to church. But the main complaint that we have about UU is the main reason we love it (which you’ve covered quite well)–its “smart church” (as m 6 yo calls it).

    Every once in a while, we do something beautifully experiential and soul tingling or fabulously integrating of the whole congregation and deeply inspiring–but a lot of the time we just get talked at (the kind of talking where you nod your head and agree, to be sure….but still). I think part of the problem is that many people just don’t know how to do that sort of programming, and that that sort of programming takes a helluva lot of work and runs a greater risk of not working than the standard format. When we have those programs, they are often run by someone other than the minister who has the time to develop them–folks from the congregation’s Pagan group, or the teen group even have done some great programming–and are in a position to do something more risky. While our minister isn’t afraid to do stuff that is different, there’s a good enough portion of the congregation that sort of suffers through it til next week when it goes back to normal…so. I don’t know. Sometimes I’d rather go for a swim in the ocean or go hiking with the family…

    • Yes, as you say, that kind of programming is risky, and it also requires real talent to pull it off. Not everyone has it. I know I don’t.

  • I love it when you write about UUism. So familiar. The transcending mystery and wonder is what brought me there and what keeps me (minimally) involved. I was just thinking yesterday that I should try to go back to my tiny local congregation more often (20 mile drive though and staying home more often “wins” the toss-up). I think I’ll head to the water communion in Sept. when meetings resume (we break for the summer).

    • I love the water communion. We collect water over the year from family vacations and walks in the woods and bring it to the communion.

      • I do enjoy the water communion. Sundays to follow at my local congregation are about topics such as Banned Books Week, National Coming Out Day, Bees, and Veteran’s Day. I find it so, so difficult to stir my enthusiasm and energy to make a 20 mile (one way) drive for this variety of “spiritual” experience 🙁

  • Maine CoonMax

    a Unitarian Universalist experience is not defined by Sundays or a comparison “shop” with Greek Orthodoxy which is brutal & beautiful at the same time, hardly “sacred” as liberal religious people RE-CONNECTIING with people place and our song hungry hearts… UU’s are not a collective UU’sm either… we define ourselves as we work together in all our committees for “worship” and “music” and “adult ed” and Religious Education for our children…..there is nothing stopping “pagans” from setting up a tent to keep rain or hot sun off those not ready to fully experience “nature” and the rest of us create a sharing of place WHICH SHOULD ALWAYS BE SACRED @AtheistVet 843-926-1750 Max was my Maine Coon cat

  • Gregory

    Thank you for another solid post. Several of your posts have reflected on Neopaganism as an emerging set of traditions and its similarities with Mormonism, etc.

    I’ve been reflecting on a similar theme – Neopaganism and Judaism. I’d appreciate it if you took a look and let me know what you think.

    By the way, I’m in West Michigan, too.