Thursday, October 12, 2006

Does UU have a center?

I’ve been neglecting the ole blog lately, (dontcha hate it when real life intrudes into your net time?), but I have been following my favorite blogs, and Shawn Anthony’s “My Adieu to the UU Path“ struck hard from two different directions. The first was his tipping point, which he explains in Elizabeth‘s Little Blog :”"The above" I was criticizing is the senseless act of recklessly smashing together three or four different traditions and naming it something else. I have no problem with a Pagan, Native American Flute Music, and/or Egyptian/Greek/ Christian Labyrinths. When they are all combined it is religiously ridiculous and screams of a lack of a personal center. The dissolution of a center is the tipping point I was point toward.”

This is something I have noticed before in some UU services. There is often an air of spiritual tourism to our acceptance of different paths, an “isn’t that precious” attitude rather than genuine respect. “Sampler” services such as Shawn described are common- but have you ever seen one in which people are invited to kneel to the East on prayer rugs, then offered the wafers and wine of Holy Communion, while a cantor sings? No- and you never will. UU’s take those faiths seriously, while the idea that a Pagan can actually believe what s/he says and is devout never sinks in to gut level. Speaking as a UU seeker and Pagan, we genuinely appreciate the welcome and acceptance, but respect would be nice as well.

His complaint of the lack of a center is something I have noticed as well. My congregation just finished it’s first six-month experiment in small groups, and is now organizing a new batch of small groups. In the first batch, there were many different interests; spirituality, social justice, politics, etc. Over the course of the first six months most of those groups failed to hold their members- except for the spirituality groups. Now there are twice as many, with waiting lists. Church members who had stopped coming to church have now come back- for the spirituality small groups, not for Sunday services. The hunger for this kind of discussion is palpable.

It has been said that there is a God shaped hole in the human heart that must be filled with something, and the longer I live the more I tend to believe it. Some feel that hole as a call to public service, not needing a God... but I believe that for most people the hole is indeed God shaped. I believe that the UUA’s highest purpose should be to help people fill that hole. A creedless faith is uniquely well suited to helping it’s members find their personal credo, and would do more good for mankind in that role than it ever could as just another political action committee. Showing the world that all different faiths can share the same pew is something the world desperately needs, and only we can provide.

Shawn is right; the UUA needs to find it’s center. It needs to reclaim it’s Christian roots, as well as welcoming other faiths- and honoring the atheist’s devotion to mankind. Render unto politics that which is political; let us discuss morality and ethics instead. Let there be an end to both Shawn’s complaint, and complaints such as this one from “Beliefnet“ “Its been a while since I posted here. Our congregation seems to have taken a turn for the worse. The sermons etc. now seem to be strictly political and the spirituality seems to have gone out the door.I am so disappointed as I firmly believe that we need to feed the spirit as well as the conscience.

Any tips?



Chalicechick said...

((( I have no problem with a Pagan, Native American Flute Music, and/or Egyptian/Greek/ Christian Labyrinths. When they are all combined it is religiously ridiculous and screams of a lack of a personal center. )))

I think for me to leave UUism, I would need a better tipping point.

The labyrinth is only Christian in the sense that the Christians themselves have copied it and are now claiming it. So we're left with some lady who may or may not be pagan leading kids around a labyrinth to music that is technically Native American but was probably chosen just because it sounds reverent.

So, what? They should have had Greek music and found a Greek woman whom we're sure isn't a pagan to lead the kids around?

I, a Humanist, am taking YRUU kids through a corn maze tomorrow night. Does the fact that I'm from a Red state make it ok, as long as I play country music?

I realize I'm going to be accused of nitpicking, and I do get that for Shawn the straw the breaks the camel's back isn't necessarily the heaviest straw, but I do think that we enjoy our masochism over how terrible it is that we mix traditions a little much if we're being this tough on ourselves.

I'm sure it is worse in RE for kids and I've only seen YRUU and adult RE, but I don't quite understand all the gnashing of teeth over the issue. Other faiths seem less troubled by it and indeed do it all the time. I didn't learn to sing "Amazing Grace" in Navajo from the UUs, after all.

Maybe the difference is that I do percieve a center, one of method rather than of belief, but a center just the same. Borrow the tradition if you must, but mostly seek to borrow the values and insights the tradition teaches.


Joel Monka said...

Actually, the Christians have a better claim to the labyrinth than any Western Pagan faith- the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral is nearly 800 years old, and has been in continuous use all that time. No European Pagan faith can stake a claim even 1/10th that old. I agree that it would take much more than the incident described to qualify as a tipping point for me.

Much more important is the question he raised about a center. You perceive one, he did not, and I perceive only what it could be, but isn't yet. (as far as I can see) For that matter, it's evident that the HQ in Boston can't perceive a center, or there never would have been the discussions about elevator speeches or language of reverence.

BTW, you don't want country music for that YRUU outing- the Children of the Corn music was by Jonathan Elias!

UUpdater said...

i think different people could answer the question different ways. One person would say it is the principles and purposes, to which someone would respond that was just made by a committee in 1985. Another would then chime in that it's the entity formerly known as God, and others would disagree and say our focus needs to be more wordly, more political. Someone would say it is the political and our transforming presence in the world, to which people would point out our small numbers would dictate little political power and as a religious movement we do need something more. And someone might chime in we have something more, the principles and purposes....

Sometimes I have a hard time with tipping points in general. UUism sometimes seems so nebulous, so vague. You either make into something that works for you, or you don't. Your tipping point might be someone elses sole reason for being there.

We talk about rituals in services, but what are the uniquely identifying UU rituals? The chalice lighting? Anything else? Perhaps if we had a rich enough tradition of our own we might not need to serve a pu pu platter of traditions.

But could we agree on what the rituals would be...

Chalicechick said...

To me, the core sacrament of UUism is refining belief through reason.

I never intended to suggest that the labyrinth was pagan. AFAIK, it's Greek and they came up with it a long time before the birth of Christ. And I'm a humanist and I find it useful for contemplation as one walks and walks and never turns a sharp corner one has to think about. I don't walk a labyrinth as a ritual thing, but when I happen to be around one I walk it and think.

It works for me. And I don't understand why I shouldn't use it. And if Native American flute music helps me think too, why wouldn't I play that too? What if the source of something isn't all that interesting to me as long as what I'm using is useful and good? If I'm using it out of context, OK, I am. And I understand that. But why should the original context be the only significant one?

Again, maybe it's that I was raised liberal christian, where meditation and yoga and music from other spiritual traditions were all adapted to suit Jesus' purpose, but I have trouble seeing the big deal.
Maybe it is annoying to peek in on the UUs and see them doing your particular tradition "incorrectly,"
but these lines are pretty difficult to draw. I recall getting crap from my Catholic firends as a kid because my church used Welch's Grape Juice for the blood of christ. We were doing the tradition wrong. Our way was cheaper and didn't tempt recovering alcoholics (CC's parents' church has a huge AA contingent and for a while at least was hosting the largest AA meeting in Washington DC, though I don't know if that's still true,) but it was "wrong."
Why? Because the Catholics said so. Shrug.

Now I'm not one for adapting a bunch of rituals myself, but again, I think we enjoy our masochism over that matter a little too much. I think UUs are actually on the whole MORE respectful of the traditions of other faiths than what I grew up with in that we're not adapting their tradition to suit our creed.


powderblue said...

In my opinion, implied in the title of a core teaching of Unitarian Universalist adult education – Building Your Own Theology – is that the *individual* is responsible for defining and maintaining a “center.”

I maintain my center by modifying it, and I appreciate being around others with different takes on the meaning of life – and what it means to live morally and ethically. Unitarian Universalism deserves to be dismissed by people who have their minds made up. For whatever reason, I think I’ll never be there.

Chalicechick said...


Naturally things can be done to an unreasonable and insensitive extreme.

Steve Caldwell said...

I've written this before but I think it needs saying again.

The problem isn't a lack of a theological core in Unitarian Universalism. Instead, our problem is our theology as it's practiced in our UU communities and congregations is mostly implicit and not explicit.

Rev. Rebecca Parker (President of Starr King School for the Ministry) has used a "house" metaphor as a starting point for explicitly describing our mostly implicit theological core. This description is the first step in critically analysis of who we are.

In a lighter vein, another indication that we do have some sort of theological core is lots of UU jokes online. Jokes may be exaggerated descriptions of us but they do indicate that there may be a "there" there:

UU Jokes

UU Jokes (Wikipedia Discussion)

Now ... if we don't like how jokes describe us, perhaps we should ask if there is any kernel of truth to the jokes. If there is some truth, then we should ask ourselves how we would go about changing our culture so the joke is no longer accurately portraying us.

Finally, if we want to avoid mixing religion and politics, then we should avoid the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus' teachings are chock full of political criticism of the government in his day. All the "Kingdom of God" language in the Gospels is really a verbal way of poking the Kingdom of Augustus with a sharp stick. Jesus' teachings were intensely political ... the commentary of an agrarian Jewish peasant cynic philosopher on the excesses of the Roman occupation.

So ... if we want to avoid politics in our UU pulpits, we probably should avoid Jesus.

The "j word" that so many seem to be afraid of in UU congregations isn't "Jesus" ... it's "justice" that we're afraid of.

Joel Monka said...

Steve, the problem isn't with "justice"- the problem is that we endorse certain methods of acheiving it. For example, the UUA supports the "Living Wage" movement... a movement that in my opinion makes no economic sense whatsoever, and will result only in the poor being worse off than before while simultaneously damageing the inner cities and the economy in general. By endorsing this one plan, the UUA has changed from saying "we want to eliminate poverty" to saying "you must agree with this plan, or you are evil." The UUA does not ask a politician for HIS plan to fight poverty... the UUA says "follow OUR plan, or we'll know you don't care about justice." I don't remember Jesus ever doing that.

The Emerson Avenger said...

Steve Caldwell said - "The "j word" that so many seem to be afraid of in UU congregations isn't "Jesus" ... it's "justice" that we're afraid of."

Actually it's both. . .