Unitarian Universalism

Do UU Congregations Support Us?

Such is this digital age that there are people whom I've never met in real life of whom I'm nonetheless fond.  They are people I've interacted with in online forums and such on a regular enough basis that I think I know just a little about them and they about me.  And I want for them to be happy as much as I want that for anyone.

It's also the case that one of my motivations for going onto these forums is to evangelize Unitarian Universalism.  That doesn't mean preaching at people that UU is the right faith and that everyone should come.  Of course not.  But I am mindful of being "out there" openly as a Unitarian Universalist, to (hopefully) make a good impression, and to answer any questions that might arise.  Every now and then someone tells me that they are going to check out their local UU congregation and I say, great!  (If it turns out that it's not for them, that's fine too.)

But this week I had a pang of conscience.  An online "friend" of mine, after relating several substantial stresses that are going on in his life, said:

"I've decided I need to go to church. I need a support group."

And my initial reaction was not "Great!"  What I actually thought to myself was, "Huh, I'm not sure you're going to find what you need in a UU congregation."

I do think that UU is wonderful and worth sharing; otherwise I wouldn't be a part of it.  But when I'm "evangelizing" about how great UU is, I'm more thinking about our "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" and our commitment to social justice work.  If you come to us, you will be met (for the most part) with respect and acceptance of differences.  If you are part of a marginalized group, you will find understanding and encouragement.

But what if you just want comfort and support when you're going through a rough spot in your life?  I searched my brain for the experiences I'd had at church and most of what I could come up with was people engaging me in interesting conversations and giving me opportunities to engage in social justice issues.  I could not picture - and I love my UU church very much - fellow congregants giving me support when I was stressed or down.  I've sought and received it from my ministers, yes.  There is a caring table where people sign cards, yes.  And we share joys and concerns during the service, yes.  And there are always those few people who seem to know and care about everyone...  maybe it's just me that's making too big a deal out of this.

I of course didn't talk him out of going to visit his local UU church this Sunday.  For all I know he'll find exactly what he needs there and I worried for nothing.  But knowing that we are not always the friendliest bunch when it comes to welcoming strangers, I asked him to let me know how it goes.  And in the meantime, I am disturbed by the fact that a friend told me that he wants to join a UU church and I experienced reservations on his behalf.

Not a Believer

My father said something today that hurt deeply, despite the fact that it was meant to be a compliment. He said "Katharine is a religion researcher, not a believer."

I know this was meant to be reassuring, both to my mother and himself.  Ever since I got involved in Unitarian Universalism they've been worried that their daughter has joined a cult. They've waited patiently for me to get over this phase, like my vegetarianism in college and a brief flirtation with evangelical Christianity in high school. (They don't know about the even briefer look into Satanism that followed.) As I did not simply get over it and have gotten even more deeply involved, they started asking questions about what Unitarian Universalism is. This is hard enough to explain under the best of circumstances. It is all the more difficult through the barrier of language. After trying quite a while to reassure my father that UU members are allowed, even encouraged, to think for ourselves and that there was in fact a great deal of theological diversity within UU, my father's face lit up in relief. "Oh, I see," he said. "You're not really a religion; you're more like a social club." "No, no!" I protested.  But ultimately it was easier to let him believe we are a social club than to have him worry about my being brain-washed.

That was over two years ago. Since then it's been an uneasy truce, where every "strange" thing I do, like giving up pork and beef, is met with concern. This time around, my announcement that I was going to church on Sunday renewed their fears. I could hear them thinking, "Are you so deeply involved that you can't skip this thing for a week?" The truth is that I can easily skip church for a week, or weeks.  I just didn't want to. So another round of probing questions ensued.  "What do you really believe?"  "What do UUs think of non-Unitarian Universalists?" "Do you talk with people of other faiths?" After asking several questions along these lines my father proclaimed, to reassure himself and my mother, that "Katharine is a religion researcher, not a believer."

I indignantly wanted to protest. But then I thought, once again, it would just be easier to let this be the diagnosis.

The truth is, the reason why my father's statement bothers me so is because part of me is afraid that it's true. And unlike my parents, I don't want it to be true. I want to be a believer. I think I am a believer. And yet I know there is almost always some part of me that holds back, analyzing the situation instead of simply living it. There is always some part of me that is skeptical instead of faithful.

Not that I think faith and reason are incompatible. Certainly not. But there is a difference between faith and reason. Thinking about God is not the same as having faith in God. Researching religion is not the same as believing. The delicate balance that I want to maintain is to be a believer, a person of faith, but not so much so that one eschews reason and doubt.  The delicate balance between heart and mind.  Faith based only on the heart and not mind is either maudlin or zealous, or both. And yet faith based only on the mind and not the heart is... not faith.

Sometimes, when a UU sermon sounds more like a college lecture than a sermon, or when our rituals don't ring true, I think we are maybe just playing at this religion thing, that we are going through the motions of faith for whatever reason but don't feel it. Certainly in some UU congregations, my father's description would be fine with them. I want more than that. I don't want to just study religion; I want to live faith. I want to feel every day that same feeling I've briefly had at moments - of being in relationship with God and with existence, and feeling immense gratitude and love.  I want to be a believer.

Living Spirituality

For our interfaith dialogue discussion topic last night, the question was "How does your spirituality affect your life?"

That immediately begs the question, what is spirituality?  Is it the beliefs of our religions?  Is it the ritual/spiritual practice?  Is it simply that mystical feeling of connectedness with the divine?  Often times, I hear people use "spirituality" to refer to the stuff they like and "religion" to mean the stuff they don't like.  But even if we reject that simplistic dichotomy, which I do, it seems there is a real difference between "religion" and "spirituality."

How does your spirituality affect your life?

As a Unitarian Universalist, the most obvious way that spirituality affects my life is in the commitment to social justice.  Believing in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, or to put it in Christian terms as did William Ellery Channing, believing that we are made in the likeness or image of God, it means that every person must be respected.  But more than just freedom from oppression, our theology calls for society to provide a nurturing environment for everyone. If we, like God, have the capacity to discern the good, the right, the just, then every person has potential to blossom to his or her full capacity if given the right environment. To withhold that nurturance would be to limit Godliness.

Another way in which spirituality affects my life is in the practice of reflection upon our actions. Spirituality for me means the practice of reflection, action, reflection, action. Praxis. And this is particularly important for those of us who work for justice because we are so often interacting with people who are opposed to us.  It would be easy to slip into an "us versus them" mentality, to forget what you are for and be merely about what you are against. Spiritual reflection helps keep us in the "for."  It reminds us that whatever we choose to do, how we get to the goal is as important as getting there - maintaining right relations.

I've heard some people say that they really like the openness of Unitarian Universalism, but do not see the need to join any type of (semi)organized religion. For me, being part of a community is an integral part of spirituality, as is the spiritual practice of praxis that communal UU encourages.  Spirituality is not the beliefs or rituals, or even the "feeling of connectedness;" it is living compassion, purpose and meaning.   One doesn't have to be a UU to live spiritually, of course, but being part of the UU community does affect my life, every day.

Counter-culture Revisited

The confluence of an email from the A/PIC listserve and a conversation with Taquiena have me thinking about this topic again.

Someone on the A/PIC listserve writes to ask "Why are UUs so white?" (especially given that we promote racial equality) and invites our responses.

I started off with my standard response: Read Rosemary Bray McNatt's essay in Soul Work, where she points out the difference between saying that we are welcoming and actually being welcoming, which includes the willingness to be changed by those whom you invite in. She talks about how UU culture is for the most part white culture, and people of color are invited to join as long as they can deal with that.

But then I thought I needed to let this sit and marinate for a while. Other thoughts were in the back of my mind that had yet to gel. Something Taquiena said this evening reminded me of one of those thoughts, which I've touched on before. Speaking in very general terms of course, I have the impression that a lot of white UUs join UU in order to "be different" whereas that's not the case with UUs of color, I don't think. And I think it might explain several trends.

For one, I think this might be part of the reason why PoC UUs seem to be more "evangelical" than white UUs (not to say that there aren't exceptions on all sides). I suspect that for a lot of white UUs (certainly not all), they would be perfectly happy to believe that "UU isn't for everyone." Translation: it's a religion for the elite - for those who are cool enough to be "counter-culture." Whereas for PoCs, it's like "Hey look at this wonderful thing I've found. It helps me; maybe it can help you too.

As I said in the previous post:

I come to UU to be part of something greater, to have the power to make the world better, not just to be "different." I can be different all on my own.

And this speaks to another difference I've noticed. It seems to me that there are two different populations within UU (only two you ask?) - true liberals, who are attracted to our social justice work within the prophetic tradition, and libertarians, who are attracted to the non-conformist aspect of UU and are upset by our social witness. I'll bet money that you won't find many "libertarian" UUs of color.

For UUs of color and for our white allies, the social justice component of UU is essential, not just a hobby or a nice idea. If UUs in their mostly white congregations really want more racial/ethnic diversity, they also have to show that their commitment to racial/cultural equality is real.

i thank You God for most this amazing day

i thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes (i who have died am alive again today, and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth day of life and love and wings:and of the gay great happening illimitably earth) how should tasting touching hearing seeing breathing any--lifted from the no of all nothing--human merely being doubt unimaginable You? (now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

- e e cummings

Who are UU?

I mentioned a few weeks ago that the Pew Forum released the results of a comprehensive survey they had done on religious faith in the U.S. Lots of people have been talking about it - at work, online... In particular, atheists seemed (understandably) pleased because their numbers had gone up substantially.

For my part, the report just gave hard numbers to back up what I already knew - lots of diversity and fluidity. Perhaps too much so. And then I moved on.

But Rev. David Gillespie did the hard work of actually wading through the numbers on the demographics of UUs (or thereabouts), and posted it on his blog. So who are UUs?

Assuming the numbers are accurate, here are some of the more surprising results:

51% of us are under the age of 50 and 16% of us are over 65.

I think the reason why the former stat surprises me is because that's not what I see when I go to General Assembly or district meetings.

almost 1/2 of us are not college graduates; while 30% have post-graduate degrees

Shocking. The former stat makes me wonder whether the numbers accurately reflect us.

Unfortunately, some things were not at all surprising:

without doubt, we are one of the whitest groups around (beat out I think by the Greek Orthodox) with a whopping 88% identifying as caucasian and only 2% as black (interestingly, 4% as Latino and 5% as mixed racial background).

I found it hard to believe there are twice as many Latino UUs as black UUs, so I went to the report. Yup, there it was. David forgot to mention, 2% Asian.

In terms of whiteness, we are beat out by Greek Orthodox at 95%, Jews at 95%, and Mainline Protestants at 91%. We are on par with the Mormons, who come in at 86%. Given that when I think Mormon, I think "white," that's not saying much for us.

People Are Strange

Steven Waldman, editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, made a stir in UU circles by mentioning our name in public. (Are your ears burning?) Our collective chests are just a little bit bigger since he called the Founding Fathers "militant Unitarians."

Here's the quote:

But if I had to pick a religion, I’d say they were sort of militant Unitarians. In other words, they had rejected or become uncomfortable with key parts of Christian doctrine and institutional behavior but they did believe in an active God, who intervened in their lives and the lives of the nation.

Which got me to thinking: I understand the Unitarian part pretty easily. Many of our Founding Fathers, products of the Enlightenment, had issues with things that didn't seem to be rational, like the trinity. Like the idea that a human being can be GOD. So no trinity. A unity, instead. Perhaps God, the Father.

But what did Mr. Waldman mean by "militant"? The first thing that comes to mind is soldiers, fighting, war military aggression. The second thought is still a kind of aggression - strident, unyielding, in-your-face - a lot of political activists come to mind.

Our Founding Fathers were certainly militant about some things, like the revolution, and equality (for all land-owning white men). But the context in which Mr. Waldman said it makes it sound like they were militant about their Unitarianism.

Militant about the use of reason in religion?

Militant about freedom of conscience?

Militant about the inherent worth of humanity?

vMilitant about a God who intervenes on the side of justice?


Or maybe Walden meant something like the Unitarian Jihad. :p

O you whose spirit bears witness

O you, whose spirit bears witness, we gather in all stages of life, and all manner of life to face our highest ideals, and to be comforted. May the least among us be able to become empowered, ultimately drink from the wellsprings of prosperity, and hope. May those who have been rejected be embraced with wide open arms. May we be reminded that we are co-creators with you in establishing the realm of heaven, of peace, joy, and liberation so that others may have life. In the name of the still speaking, still evolving one. Amen by Shawn Koester (as Kwana Rosca) given on December 13th, 2007 at the UU Church of Second Life

Why We Are Non-Creedal

Another thing that came up at the "Now is the Time" conference, surprisingly, was creedalism. One of the participants, in his desire to spread the good news of Unitarian Universalism to people of color, argued that we should do away with our wishy-washy "noncreedalism" - that this type of moral relativism would turn off PoCs who's realities tell them that not all views are equally valid. He argued that it was time we UUs took up a creed and suggested our Seven Principles.

I went up to him and adamantly defended our non-creedalism. (We parted on good terms.) Actually, I agreed with him whole-heartedly about being against moral relativism, which is, I think, a superficial, "feel-good" stance reserved only for those who have never experienced oppression. But creedalism is not the answer. There is a world of difference between saying that all views are equally valid and saying that there is only one right one, which is what creedalism does. I want to be somewhere in between those two extremes.

Not all views are equally valid. Some are in fact quite harmful. Unitarian Universalism does NOT say that you can believe whatever you want. NO. But UU does explicitly affirm "acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth" (our third principle), "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning" (our fourth principle), and "the right of conscience" (our fifth principle). All of these assert that there is no single correct Truth - something that people must agree upon before they can be in community with us.

And that is what a creed is; it's an assertion of "Truth" that others must accept in order to be part of the religious community." The Nicene Creed. The Apostles' Creed. They are a test about "correct beliefs" to see who gets into the club and who doesn't. For us to say we are creedal would be to say that we don't accept people for who they are, we don't encourage them to grow and search for truth (because, after all, we already have it), and we deny the right of conscience. Right of conscience is like one of the cornerstones of UU, imo.

If we are to take our Seven Principles seriously, we cannot have a creed. Our universalism is quite clear and demanding on this subject. If for some reason a skinhead or a Nazi came through our doors wanting to be in relationship with us, then we are in relationship with him or her. We can unequivocally reject his/her racist beliefs and forbid their expression within our walls, for the sake of our other members. But we cannot reject the person.

Unitarian Universalism has no creed.

Majority Minority

While visiting Pasadena, I'm staying with my friend Phoebe in her house in Temple City.  The towns south of Pasadena - Alhambra, Monterey Park, and San Gabriel - are notable for their high concentration of Asians.  (Monterey Park is over 55% Chinese.)  If you want good Chinese food in L.A., you don't go to Chinatown; you go to Alhambra and Monterey Park.  To the east in San Gabriel and Temple City, I noticed that there is more of a mixture of Asians and Latino/Hispanics.  Neighbors with straight dark hair and varying shades of tan skin living side by side.  

Driving northward towards Pasadena, I saw a blonde woman in sportswear walking her terrier and was surprised.  "What's she doing here?" I wondered.  The wonder lasted less than a second before I remembered that this is after all the U.S. and it was she who was the norm here, not me.  Still, however silly, the experience of surprise was something that I wanted to record and share.

Before heading over to the start of the A/PIC conference at Throop Memorial Church, I spent the day hanging out with old friends and visiting the Norton Simon Museum of Art.  What I remember about the Norton Simon is its fabulous collection of 19th and 20th century Western art - sculptures by Rodin and Moore, paintings by Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee and Degas.  What I did not remember about the museum was the even more impressive collection of Asian art - room after room of stunning bodhisattvas showcased beautifully.  How could I not remember this?  Guess I was not in the right frame of mind to appreciate it before.

As the A/PIC conference started, I met new friends, and as old friends started to trickle in I was struck by how moved I was to see them.  I call them "old friends" but really, some I've only known since last year and only for the few days of the conference.  But I was just so happy to be there.  So grateful.

And grateful for the generosity of Throop Memorial Church for opening it's doors to us.  As Rev. Clyde Grubbs explained the history of Throop Memorial and how Amos Throop was also responsible for founding Caltech, I let out an audible gasp.  For over six years I had studied at Caltech, much of that time searching for a more spiritual life, never knowing its connection to Unitarian Universalism.  It was as if the Spirit were telling me: see, this is where you were meant to be all along.


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