Sunday, April 13, 2008

Some thoughts inspired by Ms. Kitty

Back on April 2nd, Ms. Kitty (Ms. Kitty's Saloon and Road Show) announced that she was writing a sermon about the wisdom of earth-centered traditions as a source of UUism, and asked for personal insights to share. Being both a fan of hers and a Neopagan, I immediately sat down to jot off a few things for her... and found I couldn't even begin. Much to my surprise, more than a week of introspection resulted instead. If the following thoughts seem a bit disjointed, well, that's just the way they occured to me.

I am a Pagan who fellowships at a UU congregation, not a UU who happened to find new insights in some Pagan writings. ("Looky what I found- a new metaphor!") While most Pagans are flattered that UUs are so interested in their beliefs, and were genuinely dismayed when CUUPS was disaffiliated, we nonetheless share the misgivings of the Native Americans Ms. Kitty mentioned in her resultant sermon ... the feeling that your faith and way of life has been reduced to "a source" in someone else's religious menu. In the Pagan comic strip "Oh My Gods!", the Unitarian character is named UU of 8 - a reference to Star Trek's "Borg", the alien race that has no native culture, assimilating the new cultures they run across instead.

I was surprised at the strength of these sudden emotions, as I've considered myself a good UU for a dozen years. I found myself thinking of the people I know- including a number of bloggers that those reading these words will probably also know- who have either left the UUA or added a second church into their lives to satisfy a spiritual need Uu just couldn't fill. In fact, one of the Pagans who answered Ms. Kitty's call for personal insights, Jamie Goodwin, is one of those. I fully understood Jamie's dilemma when he had announced his decision some months back- I, too, get very little spiritual satisfaction from UU services.

So why do I still attend, I asked myself. Truth is, nostalgia and inertia account for a lot of it. During coffee hour, I can close my eyes and feel Phil, my late and much missed father in law at my side, ready to discuss the sermon. The aisle I walk down to our favorite pew is the same one I walked to get married. We have friends there. Rev. Clear's sermons are still as intriguing as the day I joined a dozen years ago. But the truth is that if we moved to a new town, it's even money I wouldn't find enough at the local UU congregation to bring me back for a second visit, much less join it. UUism simply isn't a stand-alone religion for people like me or Jamie; we need more.

Back in January, I took exception to the following words by Patrick Murfin: "Inclusion of some pagan rites, whether historically accurate or cooked up in some Victorian eccentric’s garden, does not alarm me if the practitioners do not believe that they are literally invoking specific gods, goddesses or spirits who will perform specific tasks or expect the congregation to do so. While there are Wiccans out there—and other organized and semi-organized pagans and neo-pagans—who really, really do believe that every incantation uttered is both real and true, those are not the folks who are comfortable being part of a UU community any more than a Christian who literally believes he/she is consuming the body and blood of Christ in communion will be comfortable." He may have been right for the wrong reasons. The issue is not, as he would have it, that anyone who actually believes in anything is a dangerous fundamentalist.

The real issue is that despite everything else they may have in common that would make them seem natural fellows, one who has felt the presence of the immanent Divine has very little in common with someone who can find genuine spiritual satisfaction and renewal in a mere discussion of nature- especially if the former's path to God is regarded as a mere metaphor for the latter's discussion. These two do not speak the same language; indeed, they just barely share the same reality. Of course they will never be totally comfortable with each other's form of spirituality. They're bound to grate on one another occassionally, even when (especially when?) they're trying to be "tolerant".

And yet both are good UUs- there being no "Pope" of UU to say otherwise. This begs for Ms. Kitty's question to be reversed- what is UU, that studying Earth Centered religions would enhance it? Is there an "it" to be enhanced? Is UU greater than the sum of its sources, or is merely the collective that "UUof8" will assimilate Neopaganism into?


Lilylou said...

Joel, thank you for your thoughts. I appreciate what you've added to my understanding, though the sermon is now behind me. I will be thinking about what you've said.

Chalicechick said...

Ye Gods, I'm sick of hearing about that damn comic strip. I think I first heard about it from Gail on b-net and UU masochism insures that it gets re-discovered and re-discussed on the blogosphere at least once a year. (FWIW, the "ichthys on a hook" t-shirts that comic sells are nasty, too. Making fun of genocide is not cool. Also, your description of the Borg does not at all match what Guinan said about them on TNG.)

Given that Katy-the-Wise and I heard from two totally different pagan sources hundreds of miles from one another that the Pagans couldn't maintain an organization on their own, so they hoped to bring lots of Pagans to UUism so that under our polity, the UUA would become their national organization, I find the Borg comparison plenty ironic.

In my case, I heard that from a pagan minister who mentioned it from the pulpit, FWIW. Y'all should really try to convince that guy to pipe down. He created more pagan-humanist-christian bad feeling in that church than I would have thought any one person possibly could.

That said, I'm not a great believer in conspiracy theories, and even if I were, I wouldn't think that one would work.

So I will move on to your questions:

1. This begs for Ms. Kitty's question to be reversed- what is UU, that studying Earth Centered religions would enhance it?

UUism is a religion with lots of people who believe in looking for spiritual wisdom wherever it presents itself. We believe in learning from other faiths and from each other and that even a faith you don't have much in common with might well have something to teach you.

I'm pretty sure that most UUs could learn something from earth-centered religion. Probably most people could.

This question confuses me. Don't you think most people could get something out of studying earth-centered religions?

Aren't neo-Pagans pretty syncretic, too?

2. Is there an "it" to be enhanced?

Of course. The "it" is individual UUs and their own spiritual journeys.

3. Is UU greater than the sum of its sources, or is merely the collective that "UUof8" will assimilate Neopaganism into?

It would be crazy arrogance to claim that UUism is "greater than the sum of its sources." After all, UUism's sources are very impressive indeed. That said, no individual one of them works for me.

The theology I've figured out, going on what I've learned from them and my own experience, refined through reason, does. There are still things I'm trying to figure out, but I'm pleased to be working on them with other people who are working on them, too.

Anyway, that's a truly bizarre false dichotomy you've set up.


Joel Monka said...

I'll grant you the "ichthys on a hook" is pretty nasty, but not as nasty as the "Jesus Christ Superstar Dress-Up magnet" where you can dress up Christ crucified as Elvis or Michael Jackson- a product of, who frequently advertises in the UU World. And yes, I have written letters asking that they stop accepting the ads.

Yes, I agree that the Pagan minister of whom you speak should shut up- not least because the basic premise is wrong. Pagans are demonstrably better at organising than UUs are. At it's present rate of growth, the Covenant of the Goddess alone will outnumber the UUA in ten more years. Another example of this is the scouting alternatives reported on in this article from UU World. The Pagans: "SpiralScouts, begun in 2001, was organized as a youth program of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, a Wiccan group in the state of Washington... Callahan says there are currently more than 80 chartered SpiralScouts circles or “hearths” in 20 states." The UUs: "Another Scouting alternative is Navigators USA. It is in development, but “not ready for prime time,” says Robin Bossert, a member of All Souls Church Unitarian in New York City." 80/not-quite-one is a pretty favorable ratio.

And yes, Neopagans are quite syncretic. But normally, the syncretic process assumes a central core of some nature that the new concepts are attached to and reconciled with. That core is the "it" I was asking about. When I asked about UU being greater than the sum of it's parts, I hadn't meant to imply that it was better than another religion- I was trying to see if there was anything holding those parts together. It's darned difficult to build something from a pile of parts without some idea of what you want to construct- and I think that lack of concept is where we fail many of our members.

This is why I don't think our advertising campaign is a long term solution to our lack of growth. In my own congregation, we have no problem getting new people to attend; our members are good about bringing friends- every Sunday there are guests welcomed during the opening announcements/etc. And we don't have a lot of problem getting them to join, either- you may not believe it from my example, but we can be a charming bunch. We welcome a half dozen new members a month

The problem is retention. Most new members stay for only a year or two, unless they have children in RE. They came as spiritual seekers, and if "it" is the individual spiritual journey, we are failing to help people in that journey, or they wouldn't be leaving. And it can't be only my congregation having this problem, or the whole denomination wouldn't be worried enough to be advertising in Time.

So yes, the Borg wasn't the right analogy, or the right dichotomy. Perhaps trying to create a melting pot without the pot to melt in would be better. No matter what you put into it, you're just going to have a mess until you get that pot.

Chalicechick said...

I have no idea about that magnet, but I will write a letter too.

It will be interesting to see if the Church of the Goddess is bigger than the UUA in ten years. I'm doubting it, but we will see.

I've never heard about the small UU scouting organization, but it certianly sounds like the pagan organization has had a lot of support from UUs. It seems very strange to claim it as an example of solely Pagan organization. Even if the pagans could have done it without help and support from the UUs, they certainly didn't choose to. The UUs at my church are girl scouts (girl scouts are way more liberal than boy scouts) or spiral scouts.

As I've mentioned before, my central core is the idea of "God-as-Gravity," the idea of God as an impersonal but beneficent force whose presence can best be dectected by its effect on other things. I have a friend who carries a small mirror in her pocket and thinks a lot about how her spiritual mission is "shining light into dark places." (Both of those are way oversimplified, but I'm sure you've read about my "gravitarian" idea on the Chaliceblog and I can't explain her ideas as well as she can.)

No, we aren't building the same things, but that doesn't mean we don't know what we're building. And if we can work together, sharing ideas and parts and tools, then both of our creations will be better.

Honestly, pagans seem to want mutually contradictory things. If we celebrate Beltane, we're stealing your tradition. If we don't, we're denying UU pagans the chance to practice their faith. At my church, the pagan group often has rituals and ceremonies in the evenings. Those who want to participate can come, those who don't want to don't have to, local pagans who don't want to attend the Sunday service and be exposed to UUism can just come to the evening service. Is this acceptable?

And FWIW, in Ms. Kitty's sermon, it sure sounds like the Native Americans are more concerned about the culture at large, pagans included, borrowing their rituals, than the UUs specifically doing it:

"As Wicca and other nature-based religious groups grew, so did an interest in indigenous religions, primarily Native American spirituality. The ceremonies and rituals of the First Nations were widely used by white seekers who wanted to find alternatives to traditional religious worship."

Honestly, most of the UUs I've known who were interested in performing Native American rituals were pagans, mostly because I think paganism tends to attract UUs who find ritual spiritually useful.


Joel Monka said...

Yes, I've read your "gravitation" concept, and found it fascinating- and similar to that of some of my friends. You and your friend have your cores; I have mine, Jamie found his in Druidism. It just seems that we aren't helping enough of the seekers who come to us find theirs and stay.

There is another congregation here in town that does exactly what yours does about holding public circles, and I've gone to them a number of times. My own congregation has no interest in such, and that doesn't bother me.

ogre said...

Borging Neo-paganism?

That strikes me as an absurdity. There's so little structure and continuity, it'd be like grabbing the ocean. Ha-ha! I have you now!... Er, now. Now....

UUism will attract some who UUism would attract anyway. But it won't appeal to those who feel the deep need to be Witch Queen or to address each other as Lord or Lady [preciousmetal][somethingnatural].

I've yet to see a lot more than curiosity about Paganism among most UUs. They might attend a UU-Pagan ceremony and find it interesting and evocative and go along out of general amiability. But they go right back to being Humanists or Christians or Buddhists and are pretty darned clear that they don't want to be taken for -Pagans... not that there's anything wrong with it but it doesn't float their boats.

"We" share the feel the misgivings...? Say what?

Just what profound Neo-pagan practices are being adopted and practiced by UUs within the context of UUism? The truth is that as someone who is Pagan, I've yet to see anything that had the "juice" of the Pagan practice I was an active part of for a quarter of a century in the "Pagan" practice that's been offered for UUs. Of course, I can't recall seeing a hint of that in any of the public practice offered by Neo-pagans, either, who usually manage something that feels like a relatively tepid bit of theater.

But you're missing the entire point of UUism (no, I'm not claiming to be Pope). We acknowledge more or less any source and all sources, because we're not exclusionary. We don't expect everyone to be inspired by the same sources of wisdom and inspiration. We don't let you choose to believe anything you want to. We rather encourage you to find what it is that you, personally, find that you do believe, that you must believe. And then we expect you to try--hard--live by it and to live up to it. We accommodate each other, we tolerate, we accept and acknowledge each other as fellow practitioners of that hardest of all faith traditions, the one that doesn't define what you must believe, that expects you to keep testing and challenging and refining the truth... for yourself, in company.

Borging Neo-paganism is a silly idea. So is the idea that UUs and UUism seek to borg it. Most UUs I've met are merely pleasantly accepting of it and curious.

You write:
"These two do not speak the same language; indeed, they just barely share the same reality. Of course they will never be totally comfortable with each other's form of spirituality."

Indeed. Only it's not that they don't share the same reality. It's that they don't share the same perception of it. One of the members of my congregation, a friend, is an Atheist who has had experience of the immanent... what you (and I, probably) would call the divine. But awesome and powerful and important as the experience was and is for him, it didn't dilute his disbelief in what people label "god." We include a range of experiences, perceptions and beliefs that are greater than you (or I) imagine. We share the same reality, nevertheless.

UUism is fundamentally devoted to that intensely free diversity in community, in covenanted community (which doesn't mean that it's been done well...). My experience of Neo-paganism is that it's currently so unbound that "community" is almost a misnomer. Groups that are stable and functional larger than a coven are a rarity. Somewhere someone's observed that CoG is growing and will surpass UUism in size--as if CoG is a faith, rather than a loosely linked assortment of tiny groups bands and individuals who share less theology and practice than those who are part of ICUU.

UUism offers something that Neo-paganism fails to (a substantive larger community) and something it can't (a truly diverse community). And yes, UUism has had a patch of trying to offend no one within its bounds, resulting in a lot of weak tea. That's not because it has to be.

The Sources are not there to provide a menu from which people take something each week. They're there to acknowledge that those are all roots and sources of the faith that various UUs are rooted in. The Sources are an expression of respect for those materials and traditions... that individuals find meaningful, valuable and adhere to.

My standard response to any UU unsatisfied with what they find in a UU congregation's life; So What Are You Doing To Make That Happen?

Joel Monka said...

To answer your last point first, "So What Are You Doing To Make That Happen?", this year I'm down to only one committee, but I also belong to a service club, and run a small group. I've arranged for summer speakers and run those services myself (with my wife) I've attended one GA, and had plans for this year's as well unti the necessity to schedule another surgery interfered. I've written a number of letters to the UU World that generated considerable response, and my blog has been quoted in the UU World. Before I started the blog, I was a regular poster in most UU forums, including some run by the official UUA website.

I did admit in response to CC above that Borg was the wrong metaphor, but not for the reasons you mentioned. As to having misgivings, as a Pagan yourself, don't you feel any misgivings when someone says it's OK to study your faith as long as you don't actually believe any of it? Do you enjoy being treated as just a colorful metaphor to be quoted on Earth Day, and otherwise dismissed out of hand?

And I am NOT missing the entire point of UUism- in fact everything you say in the rest of that paragrapgh I myself have said, nearly word for word, in postings to other forums over the years. But we're NOT DOING IT. We're not giving adequate assistance for people to discover what it is they truly believe. I have members of my Small Group on spirituality that had actually stopped attending on Sundays for that very reason.

"Groups that are stable and functional larger than a coven are a rarity." This is unstable ground for a UU to take. My own congregation schismed twenty years ago, half the congregation walking out and forming a new church after losing a vote- and we are by no means the only congregation this has ever happened to. The denomination as a whole had nearly all its African American members walk out forty years ago after a vote that was seen as breaking a promise.

"UUism offers something that Neo-paganism fails to (a substantive larger community)..." Well, duh- the constituent churches were centuries older than Neopaganism, and as Christian churches, were mainstream the whole time. "...and something it can't (a truly diverse community)" About the only point of diversity UU can offer that Neopagans can't is atheism- I don't personally know a single atheist Pagan, but I do know Christopagans, and Buddhist Pagans.

I said at the top of my post that my thoughts were disjointed, and I probably should have taken a few more days and gotten off meds before posting.

ogre said...


First, my apologies and sympathies. Surgery and meds... explain something of perceived (?) tone and crankiness.... I'll ask the same tolerance (now--not then; just being clear), since I fell down some stairs and am in not-broken, but feels like it and vicodin plus other prescribed pain killers should do more, shouldn't they discomfort myself, now.

You wrote:
"don't you feel any misgivings when someone says it's OK to study your faith as long as you don't actually believe any of it?"
No, not really. I have a pretty well developed sense of possession of my own path. For really hard cases, I apply devious uses of mirroring and gentle mockery. But beyond that, even... to me, one of the great gifts of Paganism was that it isn't obsessed with orthodoxy, with belief. Rather, it's focused on do and be--orthopraxy. Neopaganism isn't even all that obsessed with ortho-.

So when someone gets all caught up in their concern about UUs actually believing that patently foo-foo sounding, airy-fairy, woo-woo stuff... I smirk my inner smirk. Gotcha. The mouth-foamer is overly caught up in their own belief AND the not-very-UU-at-all "you oughta believe like me" thing. The idea that ritual can be/is a way of telling ourself a profoundly true but not perhaps literal truth... that you need to get your rational mind out of the way to experience (and then it can come back and play with the experience...) simply baffles some folks. Theater was originally a sacred thing--literally worship. Still is.

I practiced with people who thought the gods were literal, physical beings, and with people who thought they were archetypes, and people who thought they were just representations, and... and... -- and it didn't matter. Doesn't.

Back to your question. Bother me? Only in a Miss Manners sort of way. I'd want to counsel that person about their need to be respectful and accepting -- as a good UU -- of the odd and quirky thins others believe... just as they're respectful and tolerant of the odd and quirky things that the speaker believes.

Answering the final question... I think UUism is our best effort so far at mapping what the greater beloved community will have to be like. More or less. Sort of like racing to be first to get to the Pole.

Jaume de Marcos Andreu said...

I wrote elsewhere that UUs usually take the 7 Principles as a whole, but we are picky about the Sources. So you don't choose to affirm the interdependent web but ignore the democratic process, for example. But we can choose to be a Christian but not a Pagan, or vice versa. What if we took the Sources just as we take the Principles? Then perhaps there would be less "hyphenated-UU" but more of the pot where the melting should take place. And I am increasingly more interested in the pot and less and less in the individual components of the melt.