The baby is the bathwater: Why I haven’t joined the Unitarian church

The baby is the bathwater: Why I haven’t joined the Unitarian church March 25, 2014

“A church which raises itself in its message
And it’s devotion to the God above the god of theism
Without sacrificing it’s concrete symbols
Can mediate a courage which takes doubt and meaninglessness into itself.”

— Paul Tillich

A “long time friend” of the Unitarian chruch

This past Sunday, a member of my Unitarian church asked me if I was a member yet.  I’m not.  I’ve been going for 3 years I think.  Nearly every Sunday I attend the Unitarian church, I struggle with my ambiguous status as a “long-time friend” but not-yet member.  (Three years is really not so long, but that’s the term that is used.)  Why haven’t I joined?  I attend regularly.  I contribute financially.  I have friends there.  It’s been a positive experience for me and for my wife and children. I even call it “my” Unitarian church.  Why not join?

What holds me back, I think, is this: I don’t believe in it.  Perhaps it is a remnant of my being raised in the Mormon church, but it does not seem like enough to want to be a part of the local religious community; I feel like I need to believe in the mission of the UU.  And I just don’t.  I can’t help but look at the UU as a failure — not my local congregation, but the UU as a whole.  It’s a great place to go on Sunday.  It’s a refuge from religious intolerance and a necessary waystation for many on their way out of their religion of origin.  It does good work in promoting social justice.  But as John Trevor wrote in 1910:

“My respect for individual Unitarians is unbounded. And yet their religious position as a denomination is one which I have always deeply regretted. For want of something, I know not what, all their freedom, all their knowledge, all their generosity, all their high personal character— everything which seems to mark them out as the one denomination to lead the van of religious and social emancipation—never comes to the point of making them a great reforming power. People, with qualities in many respects far inferior to theirs, are moving the world to-day; while they, perplexed and pained as they are, and anxious to find the road by which they may march forward, are scarcely able to maintain the status of their own churches.”

This quote could have been written today, instead of 100 years ago.  It could have been written by me, or by many other people with whom I attend the First Unitarian church on Sundays.  I think there are a handful of people there who believe in Unitarian Universalism, for whom UUism is their religion.  But it seems that, for many more — Pagans, Buddhists, Christians, and others of various labels or none at all — Unitarianism is less an object of faith or a religious identity, and more of a convenient meeting place.  I have an idea why that is.

The search for “pure religion”

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about a PBS documentary, Beyond Our Differences, which we are watching in the Sunday morning discussion group. in my Unitarian church. The movie explores “the fundamental unity of the world’s religions”.  It features interviews with the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Karen Armstrong, Deepak Chopra and dozens of other religious leaders and authors.  It’s the kind of thing you would expect to find being shown in the Unitarian church.  And I think it goes to the heart of the problem with the UU.  

A search for a “fundamental unity” at the heart of the world’s religions is a favorite pastime of religious liberals.  But I can’t get over the feeling that, in these discussion, we are cherry picking.  Whatever we like about a religion, we call that the “core”; and whatever we don’t like, we call that mere “culture” or “politics”.  So, in the segment we watched this past Sunday, we listened to Shukria Barakzai, a member of Afghani National Assembly, a Muslim woman who had been subject to public beating by the Taliban for appearing in public (in full berka) without a male relative.  (She was on her way to the doctor.)  She has since become an advocate for women’s education in Afghanistan and was injured in a suicide bombing.  And in my discussion group, we readily identify Barakzai’s work for social justice as “real Islam” and the motivation of the man who beat her as a perversion of Islam.  Similarly, we condemn the Westboro Baptist Church as an aberration of “pure Christianity”.  But I’m not so sure that such bright lines can be drawn.

For one thing, the practice of rooting out “real religion” appears to me to be disturbingly similar to the practice of religious fundamentalists of all stripes.  Both religious liberals and fundamentalists focus on what they like about a religion, call that “pure” or “core” or “fundamental”, and dismiss the rest as unworthy.  We differ only in terms of what we choose to hold up as “fundamental”.  But I wonder whether there is such a thing as “pure religion”.  We don’t talk about “pure culture” or “pure politics”.  Why should religion be any different?  All of these — religion, culture, politics, etc. — are human activities, and so they are bound to be both good and bad, just as we humans are a mixture of good and bad.

I think the reason we religious liberals are so committed to this search for pure religion is that we feel the need to justify our religiosity.  In a world where so many liberals have given up on religion altogether, religious liberals feel the need to justify themselves to other liberals.  I think perhaps, though, rather than seeking to justify our choice rationally, we would be better off just acknowledging that we feel the need for religion in order to feel fully human (while other people do not).  And in doing so, we have to accept at least some of the bad that comes with the good.

One of the problems with the search for “pure religion” is that, by dismissing the negative side of religion as “not real religion”, we overlook how the positive and negative aspects of religion are intertwined.  Take for example my own religion of origin, Mormonism.  I have long wondered why it is not possible to “take the patriarchy out” of Mormonism and leave the parts that are healthy and life-affirming.  Is it not possible to have a Mormonism with strong family values and a commitment to healthy lifestyle without male domination and teetotaling?  I’m beginning to think not.  I wonder if it’s a liberal myth that we can throw the bathwater out and hold on to the baby.  And it is my experience with Unitarianism itself that has caused me to wonder this.

The bankruptcy of rational religion

Unitarianism represents the culmination of a thought experiment which began in the 19th century: Is it possible to have a rational religion? Can we rationally select the parts of Christianity (and other religions) that we approve of and discard the rest? It was a noble endeavor.  But almost before it had begun, its founders were questioning the possibility of success.

William Ellery Channing, the father of Unitarianism in America, wrote in 1820 that Unitarians had sacrificed “imagination and poetic enthusiasm” to “the rational and critical power”.  Emerson bemoaned the lack of enthusiasm in Unitarianism.  Theodore Parker decried the absence of a “deep internal feeling of piety”: “Most powerfully preaching to the Understanding, the Conscience, and the Will, the cry was ever, ‘Duty, Duty! Work, Work!’ They failed to address with equal power the Soul, and did not also shout, ‘Joy, Joy! Delight, Delight!’”  Orestes Brownson, a Transcendentalist who converted to Catholicism, wrote of Unitarians, that they “had pronounced the everlasting ‘No.’ Were they never to be able to pronounce the everlasting ‘Yes’?”  And Unitarian minister, John Trevor, a generation later, regretted the absence of “enthusiasm and personal abandonment” in Unitarianism: “It is the last word of the Old Gospel, sifted small through the riddle of the Intellect; not the first word of the New Gospel, bursting up irresistibly from the Spirit.”  These were all men who had great respect for Unitarianism and its ambition to advance social justice, but who found it lacking in something essential.

And little has changed in the almost two centuries since Channing and the rest. Unitarianism, and later Unitarian Universalism, has limped along ever since.  For all the reasons religious “nones” are fleeing traditional religion in droves, one would expect the UUA would be seeing corresponding growth.  But instead, the “nones” are staying home.  And I can’t help but think that reason lies at least as much with Unitarianism as with the “nones” themselves.  In 1979, the then-president of the UUA, Gene Pickett, observed in his inaugural address:

“The deeper malaise lies in our confusion as to what word we have to spread. The old watchwords of liberalism–freedom, reason, and tolerance–worthy though they may be, are simply not catching the imagination of the contemporary world.  They describe a process for approaching the religious depths but they testify to no intimate acquaintance with the depths themselves. If we are ever to speak to a new age, we must supplement our seeking with some profound religious finds.”

That was written in 1979, and I’m sorry to say that I see no profound religious finds in Unitarianism in the last three decades.  Of course, individual Unitarian must be making these finds, but they are not made a part the communal life of the Church.

Why should that be?  I think the answer is that the project of which Unitarian Universalism is the culmination, religious humanism, was doomed from the start.  We can try to rationally choose what parts of religion to keep and discard the rest, but it seems inevitable that in the process we discard something essential.  I wonder if it is a coincidence that those religions that religious humanists most readily condemn, those that seem intolerant and narrow-minded, are often also the religions which seem to have the most transformative power in people’s lives.  Religious liberals take aim at the evangelicals and the mega-churches, but clearly the latter are on to something.  And it’s too simple of an answer to dismiss it all as human stupidity, as liberals are fond of doing.  As Jeff Daniels’ character says on the first episode of The Newsroom, “You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so f***ing smart, how come they lose so g**damn always?” No, I think that the evangelicals and the fundamentalists have something that Unitarians and other religious humanists and other religious liberals are blind to.

What if the baby is the bathwater?

It seems to me that, in religious matters, we just can’t throw out the proverbial bathwater without throwing out the baby too.  Perhaps, in some sense, the baby is the bathwater.  Because religion is a human endeavor, and we humans are mixed bag, it seems there is no separating the good and the bad in religion — at least not entirely.  I don’t think it’s really possible to have the enthusiasm, the self-transcendence, and the transforming power without at least risking superstition, literalism, and intolerance.

Take Paganism for example.  I have many of the same issues with Naturalistic or Humanistic Paganism that I have with UUism.  And I write this self-consciously as the managing editor of the community blog.  I am grateful and proud of the role that the site plays for many Naturalistic and Humanistic Pagans, but the community resembles Unitarianism is many ways: we’d rather talk about experience than have an experience.  On the other hand, when I look at devotional polytheism, I see instances of what I would call superstition, literalism, and intolerance.  But I also see the enthusiasm, self-transcendence, and transformative power that are lacking in Naturalistic and Humanistic Paganism.  And I also see real potential for community, that is wanting among religious humanists.  Is this a coincidence?  I don’t think so.

I’ve written about this issue before, many times before.  It seems I cycle around to this issue once a year or so.  The truth is I just can’t seem to let go of the UU, because it seems to be the only place I can find liberal religious community, even though it leaves me spiritually wanting.  But I want to have it all, and I want it in one place.  The UU has community and structure, but lacks spirit and transcendence.  Paganism has the spirit and transcendence, but not the community or structure.  I don’t really want Pagan congregationalism, either.  Nor do I want to turn my Unitarian church into a CUUPS chapter.  So where does that leave me?  For the time being, that makes me a Pagan friend, but not-yet-member, of the Unitarian church.

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  • yewtree

    This gets at the nub of the problem… but I still don’t know what the answer is.

    Part of the problem for me personally is, I have no idea what Unitarians / UUs are worshipping. Some of them are very clear about it, but collectively, they all seem to be worshipping something different. Does it matter? Yes, it matters to me.

    If I had written this article, I would have written something very similar, but entitled, “Why I left…”

    To be fair, there are lots of Unitarians who are trying to turn things around, with engagement groups, and events like FUSE in the UK. I am sure similar initiatives are happening in North America too.

    • Perhaps UUism would fare better if it understood itself explicitly as a container for religion(s) and interfaith community rather than a religion in and of itself.

      • yewtree

        That might work, but you would need affinity groups for those who are actually Unitarian and/or Universalist, those who are Christian, those who are Pagan, and those who are just undecided and like hearing about other spiritualities.

        It is all very complicated!

        • I think some congregations are already going that way — in other words, it’s all about the small groups, and the Sunday services are secondary. The challenge, then, is to figure out what kind of community-wide gathering will best serve the majority of the people in the small groups — so that the congregation is meaningfully a congregation, not just a convenient building owner and fiscal sponsor.

          • yewtree

            Agreed! Easier to do in the US where congregations are much larger.

            Maybe the purpose of Sunday service should be for all the different affinity groups to learn about each others’ spirituality.

      • Like Paganism?

        • Mmmmmmaybe. UUism actually has more to lend than Paganism in terms of cohesive structure — that’s its strength. I have started to think of Paganism more in terms of coalition (an idea I hope to write on soon).

    • >”I have no idea what Unitarians / UUs are worshipping. …”

      Yes! Or even *whether* they are worshiping.

      • Jennifer Jfb Kelley

        As the Worship Chair for a UU Congregation I have given much thought to that very question. I want to be able to provide meaningful worship for a group of 40 that includes Druids, Wiccans, Humanists, Atheists, and theists of more than one variety My conclusion is that looking at the roots, worship means to give worth to something. In this case it is our common values. And I believe the meaning is when we connect with each other and the Divine (no matter the word an individual may use) and touch that place where we are one. I may not believe in the same dieties as my Druid friend but we both value the inherant worth and dignity of people and we can connect over that.

        • yewtree

          That is lovely and inclusive and laudable, and I wish you all success. However, as a polytheist, I think that the deities have distinct personalities, and whilst they may stem from a common underlying energy, they are different. The Spirit of Life is different from Yahweh, and different from the Great Goddess Isis, etc.

          I also note the influence of the Abraxan essay in your concept of worship (this is a good thing).

        • Jennifer, I don’t envy you your task. I would love to join the worship committee, but I’m not sure whether I would be a help or a hinderance.

          Focusing on the principles is laudable, but I just don’t think it will be very satisfying to anyone but the humanists and atheists. I don’t think whittling away at other spiritual traditions until they are acceptable to humanists is the answer. What ends up happening is that the humanists act as the lowest common denominator so the worship services are spiritually dry for fear of offending that group. I’m coming to believe that it’s not possible (or at least very difficult) to raise the spiritual energy with a generic principles-focused service. My brief experience with the Sunday Assembly (http://sundayassembly.comhas) has convinced me of this as well.

          In order to get the spiritual juices flowing, the congregation needs to embrace — provisionally, just for the purposes of the service — other traditions in all their complexity. And worship committees need to be willing to risk offending some. If we’re not taking those risks with the service, then I don’t think we’re growing spiritually.

          • Jennifer Jfb Kelley

            I have heard about other UU congregations and the “problem” of having to make things generic as to not offend the humanists, atheists, or some other group. And a few years ago at a leadership training a couple humanists got mad and left because of the use of the word hallelujah. But have never experienced that in my home congregation. I have never made service generic by trying to find a word that is acceptable to everyone. I prefer divine spirit because that is what works with where I am. But my favorite hymn is We’ll Build A Land which uses the word God. And I do what I suspect many people in my congregation do. In my head I translate that word to a word that works.
            And our other worship coordinators do the same. I love it when different people lead service. One brings a Wiccan flavor to the service, another a more Christian view.
            The principles are not a way to make things dry and generic but rather a way to finding a starting point on what we do believe.
            I have found that there are plenty of moments in service when we as a whole can emprice the spiritual side whether that is when our UU Sufi minister is leadingusing the traditional language in Arabic and translated English, or closing my eyes and feeling the power as we sing a well known and loved hymn, or one of our Druid congregants telling us a story of how Spring comes. I am sorry that is long but I HATE the idea that inclusive service means generic using only a list of approved words. Truly inclusive is a church where one is free to feel the power of God, or Allah, or Hekate while connecting with the greater whole of the congrgation. I can use the words that can have power and meaning for me and so can everyone else. Is this lovely? Yes. But is also a challange that makes me have to grow spiritually. And it is worth every step of the journey.

            • >”… I HATE the idea that inclusive service means generic using only a list of approved words. Truly inclusive is a church where one is free to feel the power of God, or Allah, or Hekate while connecting with the greater whole of the congrgation. I can use the words that can have power and meaning for me and so can everyone else. Is this lovely? Yes. But is also a challenge that makes me have to grow spiritually. And it is worth every step of the journey.”

              Yes! That’s just what I would love to see more of. Been to 5 UU churches in the area and it’s hit or miss. Mostly miss.

              >”… a way to finding a starting point on what we do believe.”

              I agree, but I think sometimes it’s the *ending point* too.

      • yewtree

        Have you read the very excellent Abraxan essay on worship, available from the UUA website? It has been very influential on UU & Unitarian ideas about worship, beyond even those who have actually read it.

  • Erik

    Based on my experience of UU, I’d say the question of what we *collectively* worship will never be answered, because there is no one thing… using John Beckett’s “four centers” model, UU is the quintessential exemplar of the Community-centered religion. Its true and deepest purpose, IMO, is to be the place to go for people who have nowhere else TO go.

    • I think that’s an accurate observation.

    • Jennifer Jfb Kelley

      Part of the mission statement of my UU church is to “inspire spiritual growth”. And for me it really is that. It is the place that gave me a supportive community that would give me the space and compassion needed to figure spiritual matters out but also the push I needed to grow and expand my faith. I have been a UU for two and a half years and I have constantly been challenged and inspired to new heights.

      • It’s good to hear from someone who’s experience has been more unambiguously positive. Courtney, who commented above, said she “would like to hear a happy and fulfilled UU member’s side of the story.” And I think that’s necessary to complete the picture here.

  • Henry Buchy

    “No, I think that the evangelicals and the fundamentalists have something that Unitarians and other religious humanists and other religious liberals are blind to.”
    it’s that they ‘know’ the nature of deity in an actualized and experiential way. Epistemological debates aside, other can say it is only their belief, but for them it is true knowledge, and it is faith in that that shared knowledge is true which binds them together.

    • As you know, I’m uncomfortable with “knowledge” claims, but I think I agree about the experience. I would say that it is “shared experience” which binds them together. But, we’re probably saying the same thing. I tend to think of knowledge in a very cerebral way, but there are other ways of knowing, of course.

  • Interestingly, I totally think of myself as UU even though I only manage to go the local church a couple of times a year now. For me, when I “discovered” UUism, I realized I’d actually been a UU forever, I just didn’t know what it was called. My graduate degree is in social work, a field that is essentially UUism in practice, in my experience. It is the purposes and principles of the UU church that I connect with and do, in fact, believe in. However, the reason I don’t make space to attend the local church often is because of the lack of spirit and transcendence that you mention.

    • Oh, but I was raised in a nonreligious household and came to the UU church from no childhood religious background, therefore the “umbrella” that I feel the UU church offers isn’t in comparison to a faith of my youth, but serves as an “organizing” influence from having come to it from some of the “nones.”

      • That’s a good point. It probably makes a difference in how one views the UU, whether a person is coming from an authoritarian religion or a liberal one or none at all.

    • I could embrace the principles and sources more if (1) the seventh principle (“Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part)” were given at least as much emphasis as the fourth (“A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”), and (2) I saw more evidence of the first source (“Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life”).

      I wonder how many UUs there are who don’t attend frequently.

      • I meet a lot of people who I think are UU’s and just don’t know it. 😉 I embrace the principles on my own, which is why I would still check the UU box on a form, even if I haven’t been since November!

  • Elizabeth Dale

    I agree with your assessment with what the UU is lacking, however I don’t see how this keeps you from joining, especially when you already contribute financially. If you contribute, wouldn’t you want to have the right to vote in elections and on church issues? I learned a long time ago that no religious community will ever please me or fulfill my needs 100% of the time and I don’t expect it to. Have you been to the General Assembly? My first one was last year, and I experienced the most moving and intense worship experiences there, that perhaps your local congregation is not able to achieve. I know my local congregation can not muster what 3000 UUs in one place can. I highly recommend it.

    • Thanks Elizabeth. As I wrote this, I kept thinking that I need to go to GA. I think I will.

      And you are right, no religious community will can ever fulfill all of our spiritual needs. I think my desire for that is left over from being a member of the Mormon church, which claimed to be the “one and only” etc.

      • Elizabeth Dale

        If you do, look me up. I’ll be volunteering in the exhibit hall somewhere…. Last year was my last chance to get the Young Adult scholarship… This year I volunteer. If you need any financial aid, you should fill it out now! The application process closes March 31st. It’s in Providence RI this year. Dormitory housing is available.

        • Elizabeth Dale

          Also, I did a very controversial thing at last year’s GA. I took Christian Communion. Real Communion, with UUs from around the world, and some Unitarians from Transylvania. Now I was Wiccan for 15 years until I got kicked out of a coven, and divorced…and this was kind of healing for me to say, I’m ok with Jesus enough to take communion. I did it because it was a challenge. I’m still very much a pantheist and nature lover, but it’s nice to not have to feel so darn adversarial with Jesus and Christianity. To some extent every faith is what you make of it.

          • >”To some extent every faith is what you make of it.”

            I need someone to remind me of that periodically. Thanks!

        • Thanks! I will.

  • showkween

    This is why with deep sadness and pain in m y heart I can no longer consider myself a U.U

  • Courtney

    With much respect and love – and with the understanding that you ARE speaking about your own experiences of UUism’s shortcomings for your needs, on your own blog – it seems to me like you’re pining for something that UUism not only isn’t, but never was. Obviously your complaints are valid, as they have echoes throughout history and in the current comments section, but I would like to hear a happy and fulfilled UU member’s side of the story. You would call yourself a Pagan before you’d call yourself a UU, and I think you’re probably preaching to a choir of those who have similar feelings here on the Pagan channel of Patheos. But clearly the church isn’t totally a failure or there would be no one left in it. I have to wonder if the beneficial functions that you described – a sense of community, a place to learn about other faiths, accomplishment of social work, a transitional safe harbor, etc. – would be compromised if the church started to focus more on spiritual experience which not everyone necessarily shared or agreed upon. Granted, I myself am still working up the courage to go to my local UU church, so I don’t have much of a right to an opinion. But it kind of rubs me the wrong way that you would harp so much on the church if you’re not going to join and try to bring about some of the change you feel is needed.

    Again, with much respect and love (and I consider you a spiritual mentor), I just don’t want you to fall into the trap of talking about “things I wish other spiritualities were, or think they are” that got you into trouble with devotional polytheists. I like it best when you talk about what *does* provide meaning for you!

    • yewtree

      Hi there, as someone who tried to be both Unitarian and Wiccan for five years (in the UK, where it isn’t called UU), and found that it just didn’t work for me, I can assure that many Unitarians and UUs themselves are saying the same things as what John has said here. There is a movement for renewal and change within the Unitarian and UU movements, but there is also a lot of inertia.

      • That’s true — on both ends. I suspect some of the energy for change is coming from a new generation of clergy, while some of the inertia is from an older generation of humanists.

        • yewtree

          Bang on the money!

    • You are so right. I was hoping in the back of my mind that someone would call me on it. The UU never was this and probably never will be. And you’re also right that other things might be sacrificed if it started to focus more on spiritual experience. As Erik wrote below, the UU is the place where for people who have nowhere else to go. And that is an important function that I wouldn’t want to see sacrificed.

      I guess what I am struggling with is whether I should join and try to effect change. But if this is something cultural that goes back 150 years, well I think I’d rather focus my energies elsewhere.

      Speaking of which, you’re right that I’ve been too focused on the deficiencies of other’s spiritualities. I guess I’ve been looking for something more than what I have, and so I’ve been looking in different places for it, including devotional polytheism and the UU. But rather than “pining” (you nailed it!) about what I perceive as their deficiencies, I need to just move on until I find what I need. Which brings to me to my next post …

      • yewtree

        I think the CUUPs [1] chapter idea is great, and wish that UK Unitarian churches had UESN [2] chapters, but they don’t. Mostly because there aren’t enough UESN members in any single church.

        [1] Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans
        [2] Unitarian Earth Spirit Network

      • Courtney

        Yeah, it seems like there’s no ready-made spirituality for you. Which makes things difficult, but… perhaps more rewarding? Or at least more interesting…?
        Have you ever read Bless Me, Ultima? Much like Life of Pi, it’s about a boy who takes religion very seriously. But this time it’s a New Mexican and he’s caught between the currents of Catholicism and the traditional lore of his land. I enjoyed it when I read it in high school, but found the ending unsatisfying when he didn’t choose and instead decided he must find or create his own religion. I was like “you can’t just make up a religion! Not in today’s day and age, anyway.” But I think it would mean a lot more to me now. After all, as time goes on I’m coming to see that EVERYONE has a slightly different view on (or view OF?) divinity.

      • PatrickMcLaughlin

        It may go back 150 years, but it was never really true, and only partially so — on the Unitarian side. The critiques miss a lot. Whining about how Unitarians and Unitarianism didn’t meet someone’s vision of what it could or should be ignores how small a tradition it is and has been. Looked at in that context,mit’s been wildly more effective and influential than it ought to have been. Four presidents (or five, if you count Jefferson). Rafts of senators and governors. Huge names in science, the arts, and public service. This from a group who have been a fraction of one percent of the population.

        And you’re speaking of Unitarianism, only. But 50 years ago, that ceased to be a distinct thing, merging with Universalism and both taking in the bulk (in some senses, generating the bulk) of religious humanism. The resulting mix has taken that long to work through the consequences of the era, and merger. Only now are we seeing what UUism is, or are starting to. The evidence I see, from visiting several congregations (as well as the one I was a member of and now the one I serve, is that a form of post- or extra- Christian Universalism is arising. Not stuck on the old notion that it was god’s love that is key (but not tossing it), but rather grasping the idea that love itself is critically important. Not the fuzzy, feel good sort (not that there is anything wrong with that), but rather the kind that calls on people to stop talking about doing good and saving lives, but to get out and do it. Love as a verb.

        All things are imperfect. Humans operate human systems. Anyone who thinks they will find perfect, enlightened people with a perfect religion, living it perfectly… is going to be disappointed.

    • Phillip Anderson

      I was president of my UU board last year. the system is not quite giving people what they really need. I go to the church to find people who think like me, which is to say that there are not really answers, only questions. That doesn’t mean you don’t look for answers, quite the opposite. So the people are great, but the UUA is a controlling system which includes a hierarchy and group decisions. It is the preacher’s union and cannot be dynamic or flexible. I would like to see a more anarchistic approach to the system. Call it organized freedom. Instead, your hands are tied in the changes you can make within the system. It can be very intellectual, which I enjoy, but I can take a college course for that. It needs more of the spiritual connections. For me, spiritual means unseen. Knowledge has to do with the material world. The human soul is not of the material world.> You can’t see it to understand it. How can you find ways to fulfill it? Our group has really gotten behind many different causes, the latest being gay marriage. But, there is always one or two very dedicated people who are making things happen. Being at the church gives them a team to help them on their mission. I think it is a great place to go and recommend it to free thinkers. However, it is a human system, so what can you expect besides imperfection? This article is very important to addressing the challenges we face to stay relevant in this modern age and to bring in the hordes of free thinkers who do not appreciate the spiritual uplifting that is the purpose of religions.

  • Courtney

    As for the whole thing about “nones” staying home… honestly, I think there’s a huge element of religious ignorance and distrust/disillusionment in people around my age (20-somethings) and younger. It’s not like, after totally abandoning the faiths I was exposed to as a child, I considered UUism and said “nah, this doesn’t really do it for me.” I didn’t even know what it *was* until roughly a year ago. As for Paganism, I had some vague idea of it as a nature-worshiping, magic-using something-or-other that was pieced together from glimpses of Wicca filtered through pop culture. I had no idea how diverse it was, or that there was anyone left in the world who still worshipped the Greek or Egyptian or Celtic gods, etc. There are just so many more choices than I was ever aware of.

    Granted, I grew up in a small Texas town where it was pretty much assumed you were devoutly Christian or… just a Christian who didn’t go to church much. Our school system wasn’t that great, and exposure to world cultures and religions was limited if not purposefully stunted. But I went to a really diverse college and still didn’t know much about how wide the world of religion is until fairly recently. It seems to me that a lot of people my age turned away from the religions we were raised in, because they didn’t satisfy us spiritually, morally or intellectually, or perhaps because they directly hurt us or someone we love. And then we just don’t want to hear any more about religion, really, because sensationalist news + pop culture reinforce our ideas of religion (at least in the U.S.) equalling Christianity: the bible-thumping, gay-bashing, you’re-going-to-hell types at worst, or at least the somewhat ingratiating holier-than-thou Ned Flanders types. Even if we seek a greater spiritual satisfaction, seeking it out in a community can be so… scary. I’m living proof of the fact that once you “stay home” on Sunday, it’s hard to get back to a place of worship. Even if you really want to.

  • LaurelhurstLiberal

    This is where the joke about the Unitarians burning a question mark on your lawn comes from, I guess. I personally like the enthusiasm and even belligerence of my fellow Heathens, but I don’t see them every Sunday (or Thursday!) for worship services. It might get old.

    • yewtree

      The Unitarians have a joke that they pray “To whom it may concern”. UU and Unitarian jokes are very funny – I like a religion that can laugh at itself.

      • I love Unitarian jokes!

      • Courtney

        I need to get me to the UU church after all. Recently I’ve been praying “to any god who wants to listen.”

        • yewtree

          My two favourites are right next to each other on this page:

          Q: How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?
          A: We choose not to make a statement either in favour of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is wonderful. You are invited to write a
          poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb. Present it next month at our annual Light Bulb Sunday Service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

          Q: Why can’t UUs sing very well in choirs?
          A: Because they’re always reading ahead to see if they agree with the next verse.

          ^ I always do exactly that with hymns 🙂

  • Kamlyn AndScot

    Sounds like this is the type of guy that goes to the gym and never breaks a sweat. You create your own experiences!

    • Really? I guess you can have an equally spiritual time at a Catholic mass, a Neo-Nazi march, and an atheist discussion group?

      No, I think it is a combination of what you bring and what you find there.

  • guest

    Just wondering: can you think of any way to improve the UU churches? Anything they could do to get closer to what you are seeking?
    I’m an atheist. I have occasionally thought about going to a UU church, because I’ve never joined a church before and it might be interesting, but the main thing stopping me is I don’t really know if I want to give any kind of support to any religious organisation.

    • Courtney

      UU churches do a lot of social work, and at the very least could help you understand where people of different religions are coming from, even if you don’t agree with them. My humble opinion is that you should check it out for a few services. If you find out it’s not for you, you don’t have to go back.

    • We need to collectively let go of the side of the pool. This was the advice of D.T. Strain in the comments to an earlier post:

      “Many of we rationalists, humanists, etc. sit against the wall at the dance, talking with one another about the dancers out on the floor – analyzing their movements, critiquing their techniques. Then we speculate about the biological underpinnings of their enjoyment of the dance, imagining that this discussion and knowledge somehow gets us closer to being good dancers or to sharing in that enjoyment. The lights come on, the party is over, and we go home completely failing to have ever danced or even understood what it was like.”

      • Zachary Laughrey

        How would you do this? Can you give actual, real, and tangible examples? What does “let go of the side of the pool” mean? How would you accomplish this? I read a lot of problems about UU but very little in the way of solutions.

        • Yes, I can. My suggestions mostly have to do with embracing ritual and overtly religious language. Letting go of the way we use words to control, rather than facilitate, the experience.

          1) Our last minister seemed to do this well. On his first Sunday he led the service, he led us in calling the Neo-Pagan quarters. And on almost every subsequent Sunday, he invoked pagan gods from historical and contemporary world religions and abstract principles (like Justice, etc.) in a prayer that followed a silent meditation. He chose gods that corresponded to his message. He just did it. I thought the humanists in the congregation would revolt, but to their credit they went with it. That’s letting go of the side of the pool.

          2) At our Christmas Vesper’s service, we sing Christmas hymns, most of them with the Christian language intact. That’s letting go of the side of the pool. But many of the regular hymns during the year are altered, and I think we could play with reinserting some of the more overtly religious language, at least on special occasions.

          3) Speaking of hymns, I love the new hymnal and some of the songs in the old one, but a lot of the hymns in the old hymnal are 19th century dirges that seem to kill the Spirit for me. I love the African American spirituals especially. We need more of that.

          4) When the previous minister, who was atheist, decided to have a full on Christian communion at Easter. People could participate at the level they were comfortable with. But some people got upset. (This was before my time, so I only heard about it.) I think the communion was an example of letting go, but some of the negative responses were an example of not letting go.

          5) Twice a year, at the Water Communion and at the Flower Communion, we participate in a group ritual, and no one feels the need to explain or apologize for having a ritual. That’s letting go of the side of the pool.

          6) In contrast, in my Spirit Circle discussion group, some of the regulars feel the need to explain (justify) to newcomers why we light a candle and incense before the discussion, explaining that it is a ritual and that the candle symbolizes whatever they want, etc. The fact that we’re doing it, that’s letting go, but the fact that we still need to explain/justify it, that’s not letting go.

          7) There is one Christian member who has been calling for a liturgical year for years, and I would love to see that. I don’t think it would be difficult to create 12 stations on a Unitarian liturgical year, one a month, and have a communal ritual at those times. We already have a Vesper’s service, a Flower Communion, and a Water Communion every year. But the fact that I’m surprised when it comes time for these services every year shows that they are not integrated into a grand annual program.

          8) One of the UU churches in Chicago that I’ve been to does a thing where people come up to light a candle for loved one’s in need etc. It’s beautiful and, I think, would be a good complement to the “Joys and Sorrows” part of our service where we verbally share.

          Some people might respond that I could just go to a Christian church and get all this. But not really. I want to do these things with humanists and Pagans and Christians who are comfortable with humanists and Pagans. I want to have the ritual and spirit, but not the dogma and fear mongering. And I don’t want it to be exclusively Christian. Is that possible?

          9) On a different note, I could get over myself and start attending the LDS (Mormon) service with my wife and kids once a month. Sing the hymns, go to Sunday School, and all the rest. It would be important to my wife and demonstrate the same kind of respect and love she has shown me and my spirituality. I could look for the good instead of focusing on the negative. That would be letting go of the side of the pool for me personally.

          • Christine Smith

            My congregation does all of the above. We were Universalist before the merger. I have noticed that the congregations that were Universalist seem more spiritual to me. As a Pagan I respond to the ritual as well. We even have our Universalist cross and display it on holy days. While I still think we have room for improvement, we are getting a lot right.

          • jflcroft

            James Croft here, blogger over at the atheist channel. I loved your piece – it expressed many of the difficulties I found with UU myself. At the same time, I cannot embrace the vision you outline in this comment. It seems to me that you want not a non-creedal religion (as UU tries to offer), but a “religion of many creeds” – a space in which people of many faiths and none unapologetically and without framing express their vision of religious truth. OK.

            But I, as a Humanist, want a creedal space which represents Humanism. I do *not* want to pray with the Christians, dance with the Pagans, and meditate with the Buddhists. I want to think and learn and love and grow and hope with the Humanists – because that is the worldview to which my life is committed.

            • There is definitely a tension in the UU between those wanting creedless religion and those wanting a creed-ful religion. I wonder if we may see those who don’t want to dance with the Pagans etc. leaving the UUA for something else — maybe the Sunday Assembly? I attended a Sunday Assembly service recently and they distinguished themselves from the UUs in precisely this way.

            • jflcroft

              I think this will happen, yes. As Humanists find better ways to package our values, I believe we will begin to create congregational communities which will start to replace religious spaces. The great weakness of Humanism as a movement, so far, has been its inability to inspire beyond an academic audience. With the Sunday Assembly, Houston Oasis, Humanist Hub in Cambridge, and other innovations now showing that Humanist communities can be vibrant, inspiring, and welcoming, I think we’ll take over more of the religious landscape.

    • Nancy Groh

      Because UU churches are independent, each one is different, and I have no idea what one in your area might be like. But if you haven’t tried it, you really should. I’m an atheist who’s been a UU for 19 years, after waiting nearly that long to try it, because of that word “church.” It was a long strange road that led me there, but when I finally walked in, I realized I’d found a home, and my life has been so much richer because of it. It would be worth a little of your time to find out.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    This is very interesting, John. I agree with your critiques of the UU very much (and also of any and every religion that claims “universalism” as a constitutive element–it never really is, it’s always very selective in its universalism; cf. the Baha’i faith).

    I’m also rather amused at your use of the baby/bathwater metaphor, because that’s exactly the one I used about 15 years ago when I was writing about queer theology in a Christian context (even though I was long past my break with Christianity, but I was at a Christian institution). The bathwater has dissolved the baby, in that case; and, I think in the context you’re describing here, the baby has become so wishy-washy that it’s impossible to tell the difference between it and the bathwater. Alas, won’t someone think of the dirty babies? 😉

  • Gordon Cooper

    I think that the Universalists got the short end of the stick in the merger. As a druid, fellowshipped member of a Unity Church and a Spiritualist, I find it interesting that Universalism has contributed to these movements. It was also the link between the last of the alchemists and Magnetic Heali

  • “None of the Fun, None of the Fury.”

    I’ve often thought of going to the UU church in my city. It is quite large and a number of Pagans go to it. There seems that it might be a good thing to go to.

    But I know I would not be accepted.

    You hit it on the head, when you said the baby is the bath water. By condemning that which doesn’t fit the “liberal” or “pure” religion they in fact destroy the religious meaning of anything they gain. In a UU church, they would look at Heathenism (my religion) and see that the use of Honor is good, but they would reject the violence and the glorification of violence in Heathenism, not realizing that you cannot have Honor without Violence. The violence enforces the honor, and the honor rewards the violence. After all, without consequences what is to make someone act with honor? If dishonor is met with violence (of one kind or another) then there is reason to be honorable. If you enact violence to protect people, you should be honored for it.

    By removing an element from a religion, you change that religion and lose the reason and sacredness of that religion. You cannot remove “patriarchy” from Mormanism, because the Father is the foundation of that faith, and if you remove the power of the Father, you remove the very thing that entire faith is based on, which means it is on a foundation of sand and will collapse. So it is with every religion. Remove any element from a religion and it will become a different religion, but it may lose the fervor and fun that made it special.

  • Louise Daileigh

    Not much mention of Universalism. I consider myself to be on a path that springs from that tradition, more than “Unitarian”. I sometimes wonder if a potentially fatal mistake was made trying to unite the two, especially since the humanist/Unitarian identity seems to have overshadowed the Universalist aspects.

    • Yes. I belong to a Unitarian church, which is part of the UUA. We had a Universalist minister speak to us once, and it seemed like a different religion.

      • Christine Smith

        It is a different religion, says this Univetsalist! We get overlooked a lot.

  • Frank Willey

    Excellent critique, John. Thank you. As I see it, one of the problems is that we are programmed to think of religion as “belief” in something, and not even we UUs have sufficiently unlearned this. The Transcendentalists understood the limitations of this approach–religion represents an intellectual and collective commitment to certain beliefs and values– which predominates in the Western and Middle Eastern world. This way of approaching religion reduces it to little more than just another ideological platform that gets reiterated philosophically and politically in particular communities of interpretation. I think this is part of the same old tired pattern Emerson et al. rebelled against. My life, and my work as a UU minister, is grounded in the Transcendentalist type of gnosis and spiritual practice. The Transcendentalists were proponents of the immediate gnosis revealed in and through nature in all its forms,.as well as a much more pragmatic notion: religion is what you do, and the truth of what you do is found in the consequences of the individual’s and community’s ways of being in the world. For me, a UU congregation’s value is in that it can be a laboratory and proving ground for a new and essential kind of institution–one that is successful in supporting and encouraging the development of “free and positive human souls.” If we humans don’t succeed in creating communities that can do this well, starting with ourselves, we’ll keep consuming ourselves and one another into oblivion.

    • Frank, I really like how you describe the function of UU congregation. I think that’s what I expected from the UU, a Transcendentalist’s religion, and while the two are related, they are not the same. I would like to see more of the influence of the Transcendentalists like what you are describing.

      • Frank Willey

        The Transcendentalists’ way of knowing is an important, and often misunderstood and forgotten part of what UUs call “the Living Tradition” (in part, because it evolves). At the same time, it is also honored as one way of knowng among others that have their own pragmatic and salutary value…This is why I think UU’s also aspire to be open to sources of inspiration and wisdom from every part of human history and experience. As you seem to think, philosophically we are in the right place, but how we live often falls far short of the Principles and Purposes we covenant to practice together. For me, it all comes down to this: It is up to each of us, and all of us in covenant together, to do our best keep the different tributaries of spiritual praxis and vision alive and increasingly integrated within our communities. From this standpoint, a member is someone who steps up to do this, even though it represents hard work based upon what some might call an impossible dream. It is through the self-culture done within the context of such community process that provides us with an opportunity to realize the world you and I want to see.

  • John – thank you for this post. In my opinion, a large part of the reason why this debate/discussion is never-ending is that UU intellectuals mostly use theological concepts and language while ignoring psychological and scientific insight. Theology is pre-scientific intellectual thinking. People have been studying the psychology of religion from many perspectives for well over 100 years. We’re all aware of the difference between the mystical/religious worldview and the scientific/humanist worldview. I think it’s now obvious that these contrasting responses to spiritual ideas and experiences are rooted in biology and then strengthened or weakened by personal experience and cultural context (e.g. if heresy is punishable by death, you’re going to work very hard to fit your real beliefs into acceptable religious language). I don’t think we “choose” our spiritual orientation any more than we “choose” our sexual orientation or our right/left handedness. I know from long experience that people who incline to mysticism don’t agree with my understanding, but I can’t bridge that distance intellectually, only by living and working together – sharing a common space and common goals when possible.

    A religious community doesn’t need to have a religion at its center in order to function. That’s the truly radical idea that UUs discovered and are in the process of forgetting while they search for the pure universal religion. The search for “true” or “pure” religion has been a dead end, in my view. There are many religious traditions teaching many different messages and truths because there are many types of people and many cultures which express our social nature. There’s overlap among the religious traditions because we all share a large degree of common humanity, even though there’s also a high degree of individual and social variation. Some people find deep meaning in religious tradition, ritual, and practice; others don’t. My personal view is: let’s accept these psychological realities and get on with building viable religious (or spiritual or ethical) communities for people who need them. When they succeed, they’re brilliant. I’m a very pragmatic and existential type of UU coming from the Unitarian tradition. UU theology bores me. UU community excites me.

  • sacredblasphemies

    In thinking about UU, I’m reminded of the time that I went to the local chapter of the Vedanta Society. We all sat in pews and chairs, meditated silently briefly, chanted Om. We sung some boring dirge-y hymns with slightly mystical themes. The swami there gave a sermon. And that was about it. My first thought was that they’d taken a beautiful vibrant religion like Hinduism and wrapped it in the stodgiest trappings of Western church worship to make it acceptable to 19th and early 20th century Anglican Christians.

    UUism is kind of along the same lines. The pews, the dichotomy between clergy and congregation, the very Caucasian-sounding hymns. The standing and sitting, a sermon. It’s so very white and so boring. There’s no feeling in it. No passion.

    I’m lucky enough to live in the UU capital, Boston. There are dozens of UU churches here. There’s a decent service here called Sanctuary, run by UUs, on some weekday evenings that’s focused more on worship. It’s intimate, it’s worshipful, it’s actually fairly enjoyable. It’s almost all people in their 20s It’s.. meaningful.

    A friend of mine is a part-time minister in a historic UU church here in Boston. One of his frustrations is that they cannot take the pews out to allow for movement or dance or just anything but this passive sitting in rows.

    If UU is going to continue to be relevant, this is the direction it’s going to have to go in. Even Christian churches (such as the Emerging movement) have discarded the old stodgy hymns and sermons. Yet the UUs cling to it.

    More and more people are leaving churches. If the UU doesn’t evolve, it will die out.

    Personally, I’d like to see UUs take some tips from Paganism in creating meaningful ritual. Chanting, passion, laughter/humor. But first, they’d have to be able to all agree on something…which is damned near impossible for UUs.

    • We took the pews out a few years ago, put in a hardwood floor, and bought enough comfortable chairs to fill the room (not the narrow banquet chairs with almost no padding in the seat). Now the hall/sanctuary space is used for meetings, workshops, dances, banquets, pagan circles, youth worship, concerts, weddings, and more. The Sunday Services leaders have also used the flexible space creatively sometimes, although there’s still a tendency to line up the chairs in rows on Sunday mornings (old habits change slowly). It took about 3 years of meetings and discussions to get everyone (almost) to agree and then to actually do it. We also had a financial plan going into the project. I think that taking the time was worth it in the end, even if frustrating to those of us who could see the potential from the start.

      • sacredblasphemies


    • Well said. I’m not sure we need agreement though. It just takes a small group of people with the energy and will to drag everyone else along kicking.

      I would love to check out the Sanctuary service. Do they have a web page?

      • sacredblasphemies
        • Amy

          This group led a worship service at GA in Providence this year (June 2014). It was evangelical, uplifting and full of passion! I heard several comments around indicating that people were uncomfortable with this format, but my 16 year old niece’s comment? “This was the highlight of GA for me! I loved it!

          • Another reason I should have gone to GA. I’ve been wanting to check out The Sanctuary ever since I looked them up.

  • Heather

    I have been attending my UU church for three years too and my experience has been quite different from yours. I had been searching for a religion I could believe in and found it in UU. I could never go to a Christian church because they have always seemed like places of hypocrisy to me, where people go and pretend to share common beliefs. If you surveyed individuals at any random Christian church on Sunday morning, do you think any of them would profess the same positions on their church doctrine? The Bible itself is conflicting, so how could they? But I’m not trying to bash Christians here. My point is that UU offers something totally different. To believe in UU is simply to believe and have faith in the 7 principles, our covenant. How can you NOT believe in that? I think you DO believe in it, which is why you keep coming back – to commune with others who believe.

    • I do believe in those things. But it just doesn’t seem like enough. I want something more. I want just a bit of transcendence through collective worship. Not talk about it, the actual experience of it. It happens, but more often than not, I think we UUs are getting in our own way.

      • Heather

        You sound like someone who has cold feet about commitment. It’s like you are cohabiting with UU’s but don’t want to get married. That’s ok. We’ll wait for you. 🙂

        • That’s true! I had a bad first “marriage” — Mormonism.

  • mmyotis

    My understanding of Unitarian Universalism as a religion is that it is not about beliefs but a way of being in the world. Yes there are religious liberals who seek “a fundamental unity at the heart of the world’s religions”, but that is not what Unitarian Universalism is about. Unitarian Universalism has a set of principles that serve as the foundation for a way of being in the world. A set of principles, I should add, that is open to change as more is revealed. All the rest is just what we can become as a community under the guidance of those principles.

    • I could be wrong, but from my perspective those principles are the product of a search for fundamental unity at the heart of the world’s religions. The UU principles are what you’re left with after you whittle away everything that religious humanists object to in Christianity.

      • mmyotis

        That’s one way to look at it, and many do. Another is to see the principles as the product of a search for a better way of being in the world. I believe the latter perspective offers a greater sense of freedom because it acknowledges that we are human beings with all the flaws and frailties inherant in that. It shows that we are not a belief based religion but a covenantal one. It says it’s okay to be human. That’s what makes Unitarian Universalism a religion that I can be a member of.

      • disqus_JB6D5rpT1p

        I think that you have it wrong and the other has it right. Unitarian Universalism is a Non-credal religion. it does not have beliefs that you must accept, so creating a unified set of beliefs to live by just does not make sense. That is why the principles and sources are more like a covenant to and between us – a way of treating each other and the world. Being UU is about a way of being in the world, especially about existing in a world that is not certain – where doubt is allowed and a progressive achievement. However, it is not an easy path because humans instinctively seek certainty – it is safer. I think to be fully UU, you have to take that courageous step of embracing an uncertain world, just as you do with real love.

  • Farrell Brody

    Ah, John. I wish you could just relax a bit and enjoy the music!

    • Sometimes I manage to. (We have an absolute phenomenal music director!)

      But then, what would I have to write about? 🙂

  • Dear John – Have you ever considered the Episcopal church? Methinks (at least the progressive version of it) strikes the balance between rational sensibility and mystical experience. Just sayin’… Peace.

    • Thanks Steve! I have considered it and I keep coming round to it. It came up again in a conversation with Fritz Muntean today. I think I’ll check it out. Thanks, John

      • Sure thing, John – some of my favorite teachers are Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, Brian McLaren, Father Thomas Keating and Matthew Fox. Each in their way speak beautifully about a changing Christian paradigm, where our direct experience of the Presence of God is valued and the ancient traditions in the Church (mainly the contemplative tradition) help us get there.

  • Janette Sean Ballard

    I went to UU for a short time. I did like it. They are a “welcoming” congregation which means you are welcomed regardless of gender, gender preference, race or religion, etc. Unfortunately the 1 or 2 scary weirdos ruined it for me:( But you’ll have those in any religion I guess lol

    • I suspect the “ruining” would depend on one’s subjective definitions, if any, of “scary” and “weirdo”.

      • Janette Sean Ballard


    • I was able to accept/tolerate the weirdos at my little church, but that was exactly what put my husband off of continuing to go. 🙁