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Diversity in the UU Pew
Possibility or Pipe Dream?
The Reverend Michael Schuler
First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin
Prairie Star District Annual Conference
Friday, April 8, 2005
St. Paul, Minnesota
Reaching out to Adam Smith
Last fall I delivered a sermon on “evil” from my pulpit in Madison, in which I offered a more nuanced and less dualistic definition of this controversial term than one typically encounters. Only a small percentage of those who perpetrate evil are “malicious” by design or intent, I suggested. Most of the evil human agents produce on our planet reflects either “the assertion of self interest without regard for the whole,” as Reinhold Niehbuhr put it, or “the excess application of a single, central principle,” to paraphrase Lord Acton. In either case, the individual or collective responsible for evil has been “deluded into thinking they are doing right.” The main point to this sermon was that one does not have to be a “bad” person, a morally depraved or reprehensible person, to commit evil. One only has to be, as Hinduism teaches, “deluded” or “willfully ignorant” (Avidya is the Sanskrit term).
Among the examples I used to support this argument was the behavior of certain large and powerful corporations. Because they too often blithely ignore the social and environmental well-being of the communities in which they operate, their behavior — because it disregards the interests of the whole — qualifies as “evil.” And because the first principle of the corporation — short-term profit — tends to negate all other values, communities suffer considerable collateral damage from their activities. In short, although the essence of corporate culture may not be evil, the outcomes produced by corporate tunnel vision might very well be. I then proceeded to offer further examples from the spheres of religion, politics, and outdoor recreation.
Most listeners understood where I was coming from, but a few took offense at my characterization of at least some corporate behavior as “Evil.” Even though I had allowed that the majority of businesses — in particular, locally-based, privately owned enterprises — operated in a conscientious manner, my detractors charged me with harboring a fundamental bias against business. Indeed, they went farther, saying that First Unitarian Society and Unitarian Universalism exhibit unwarranted hostility to business interests, and this is why so few of Adam Smith’s disciples can be found sitting in our pews on Sunday morning. If we are truly interested in promoting “diversity” within our congregations, they insisted, we ought to stop “bashing” the free enterprise system and begin exhibiting greater tolerance toward those who are wedded to and earn their livelihood in that system.
I was, quite honestly, taken aback by this critique, and wondered why, with everything we know about the social, political, and ecological harm corporations have caused, some people felt affronted. Corporations are indisputably the most influential entities in the world today and are granted tremendous latitude to “assert their own self-interest at the expense of the whole.” Is it not the responsibility of religious leaders to “speak truth” to this increasingly ungovernable power?
Be that as it may, the accusation that really caught my attention was that the business community — owners and employees from the for-profit, commercial sector — were seriously under-represented in our movement. Plenty of teachers, social workers, mental health professionals, civil servants, scientists, artists, musicians, and assorted professionals are proudly UU, but few who work in marketing, sales, production, or management. Why is that? According to my critics, it is because people in the business community don’t appreciate having their culture and their livelihood challenged when they come to church.
Well, to make a long story short, I decided to take the bull by the horns and test this thesis. In a newsletter article, I issued an open invitation to a discussion of the concern that had been raised. Two gatherings were held. About fifteen people showed up at the first and about six at the second. Only four or five expressed disaffection over the church’s supposed antipathy toward business interests and capitalism. Ironically, among those parishioners who were untroubled by my own critiques of corporate behavior were the presidents of two of Madison’s largest corporations!
The problem with pluralism
I have spent some time rehearsing this episode at the outset of my talk because it highlights one of the central problems confronting a movement that espouses indiscriminate acceptance, invites people to “come as you are,” and vigorously promotes the principle of pluralism. Initially, it all seems so clear-cut, magnanimous, and consistent with the message of radical hospitality enshrined in the Gospels. The problem is, though, that by striving for greater inclusion in one arena, a congregation may well compromise its ability to attract individuals from another population. If, for instance, I were to agree that a more “business-friendly” message ought to be communicated at First Unitarian Society in order to strengthen that constituency, others deeply concerned about corporate-caused environmental and social damage might feel betrayed or alienated.
I have seen this paradox play out any number of times and in any number of ways. By taking concrete steps to include children in worship, certain adults whose preference is for a quieter and more decorous Sunday morning experience are discomfited. By incorporating more traditional liturgical elements and employing what Bill Sinkford describes as the “language of reverence” in worship, old-line humanists (like my father) feel excluded. By forthrightly confronting homophobia and creating safe and welcoming sanctuaries for members of the LGBT community, we limit our appeal to Latinos and African Americans for whom the issue of sexual orientation is still problematic. By practicing pagan rituals, or insisting that atheism is a viable option for UU’s, we may close the door to seekers who still are swayed by prevailing cultural stereotypes. Regrettably, fear and suspicion of the “Godless” and of people who practice “nature religion” remain widespread in this country.
In my nearly thirty years of practicing ministry I’ve participated in struggles over each of these issues, and each of them highlights the problems that attend the promotion of diversity.
Obviously, this is a priority for most UU’s. We see inherent value in diversity and would prefer that our faith communities reflect the pluralism of the culture at large. The fact that we are not as diverse as we think we ought to be is, for many, a cause of considerable consternation. It is often pointed out that ours is, in point of fact, a rather homogenous movement: overwhelmingly white, middle class, largely late middle-age, politically liberal knowledge workers — a latte-sipping, NPR-listening religious enclave. “What’s wrong with us,” UU’s seem to suggest, “that we can’t attract folks who don’t share these characteristics into the fold?”
Birds of a feather
One answer to that question is pretty obvious: Americans tend to cluster and commune with people with whom they identify, with whom they feel genuine kinship. And in no department of life is this more true than in religion.
The fact that UU churches attract and are largely composed of one racial and socio-economic type is hardly exceptional. Diversity is not now, nor has it ever been a prominent feature of the American religious landscape. Although we live in an increasingly pluralistic society — one in which people of northern European ancestry are predicted to be in the minority by the year 2020-churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist sanghas remain largely insular, each constituency having created its own ethnic, economic, and racial niche. Forty or more years ago, Martin Luther King observed that Sunday morning at 10:00 was the most segregated hour of the week in America, and that reality hasn’t changed much since then.
Among mainline denominations today, it is highly unusual to see more than a smattering of blacks, Latinos or other people of color in the pews on Sunday morning. The vast majority of non-whites in this country worship with people who physically resemble themselves, and who live in circumstances similar to their own. Most traditionally Anglo denominations — Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, United Church of Christ — remain 97-98% white. The Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Seventh Day Adventists claim somewhat more minorities, but even in these denominations, people of color tend to gravitate toward parishes that reflect their own language and culture.
This is equally true for Buddhists. White Americans who espouse and practice Buddhism seldom belong to the same communities as ethnic Buddhists from Korea, China, or Tibet. And most African American Buddhists belong to one particular sect — the Nichiren Shoshu.
There are exceptions to this trend. Conservative protestant and Pentecostal churches proselytize aggressively in African American, Latino, and Southeast Asian enclaves and thus have made significant strides in diversity. Minority representation in my brother’s church, the fundamentalist Assemblies of God, for instance, has increased 48% in the last few decades, and the figure for non-white Southern Baptists is even higher.
The picture is similar with respect to social status. American church-goers have traditionally “self-selected” on the basis of class, as well as race. When I was growing up, everyone knew which denominations catered to the “elite” — the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, and, yes, the Unitarians. “Upward mobility” in America has often been accompanied by “upward switching” in religion. As a family’s income rose, the shift was made to a more prestigious church. Truly “working class” Episcopal churches are rare, and I know of only a couple of Unitarian Universalist congregations that would fit that description. Socio-economic homogeneity is the congregational rule, rather than the exception.
UU’s are, too often, their own worst enemies in this regard. Although we often pay lip-service to the principle of inclusion, the fact is that many of us kind of relish being part of an “exceptional” movement. For instance, I’m sure many of you recall the report that came out about a year ago analyzing the SAT scores of incoming students at some of America’s more notable institutions of higher learning. These scores had been sorted according to religious identity, and among those who indicated a religious preference, Jewish students were especially high achieving. Their scores were surpassed by only one group — Unitarian Universalists.
Now, I did not come across this piece of data on my own. I received the information via e-mail from a member of the congregation. No ... I take that back. I received it at least six separate times from members of the congregation. People were intrigued by this curious factoid, and they were also a little prideful.
I, for one, wished the news would simply go away. What this movement doesn’t need is further evidence that generally speaking Unitarian Universalists have more education and more money than any other religious group in America. Yes, the latter is also true. Although few genuinely “wealthy” persons belong to our movement, surveys reveal higher average incomes and educational levels for UU’s than for Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Jews — denominations routinely identified with the rich and successful. UU’s are pretty well off — just look out at our parking lot on any given Sunday morning — although this is seldom reflected in the support we give our churches, where among all denominations, UU’s have for decades ranked dead last.
Identity as a barrier
There is, of course, absolutely nothing shameful about high SAT scores and household incomes, and the fact that there are people in our midst who fit this profile is hardly objectionable. Problems arise, however, when Unitarian Universalism becomes so closely identified with such educational and economic markers that they become a barrier to greater diversity. And quite frankly, too often that is precisely what happens.
You know, when I first landed in Madison over 16 years ago, First Unitarian Society was so tight with the University community that when visitors to the Society were welcomed on Sunday morning, one of the questions often asked was, “And in which department are you an instructor?” Though not intentional, the message to visitors was nevertheless a rather obvious one: if you don’t belong to the academic set, you probably won’t find FUS very congenial.
I have to admit that at times even I suffer feelings of inferiority in my own parish. Although my parents were reasonably well educated, I grew up on a farm in Northern Illinois, and sometimes when I went to school my boots still bore traces of manure from morning chores in the barnyard. The public schools and colleges I attended were not especially prestigious, and I am neither a world traveler nor a sophisticated patron of the arts. Like a colleague of mine — Gary Smith, who serves New England’s largest UU church in Concord, Massachusetts — I sometimes have to pinch myself to recognize and accept my own privilege. In an essay he wrote a couple of years ago, Gary admitted:
My roots are blue-collar. I served a decidedly blue-collar UU congregation in Bangor, Maine, before applying for a job with the UUA in Boston, where my job title gave me access to the white wine and Brie crowd. It’s been a ride ever since then ... But you know, sometimes I feel like a fraud. If I weren’t now the senior minister of the First Parish in Concord, MA, would these people even talk to me?
I harbor some of the same doubts, and wonder whether at heart I am still a farmboy, a rube aspiring to acceptance among the academicians and politically correct social elite that populate our movement.
Truth be told, the First Unitarian Society of Madison is far more socio-economically and vocationally diverse now than it was sixteen years ago. The neighboring University of Wisconsin is still well-represented, but farmers, cab drivers, carpenters, clerks, small business owners, pharmacists, medical technicians are increasingly part of the mix. I attribute this newfound diversity to the fact that we’ve become more conscious of classism and made an effort to shift the culture from one that felt oppressively “academic” to one that is refreshingly “thoughtful.” There is a big difference between the two.
We’ve been far less successful in achieving racial and ethnic diversity, despite active, visible congregational involvement in local multi-racial, multi-cultural initiatives such as the Institutes for the Healing of Racism, Dane County United, Madison Urban Ministry, the Latino Worker’s Project, the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice. This has been disappointing enough that I think some of our members are about ready to do what a Louisiana preacher did three years ago to increase diversity in his African American congregation: he offered to pay $5.00 to every white person who showed up on Sunday morning.
The barriers to achieving greater ethnic and racial diversity in Unitarian Universalism are several and they are rather formidable. Most notable is Unitarianism’s historic espousal of a distinctly “middle class ideology.” According to my colleague Victor Carpenter, as UU’s we attribute our own success to hard work, good judgment, and native talent; and we tend to believe that equality of opportunity is a given in this country. Human life, as Carpenter notes, “is perceived in highly individualistic terms,” and if one does not succeed or prosper, it is most likely due to some individual oversight or failing.
Although as religious “liberals” we try not to be judgmental, an aura of success and individual self-sufficiency permeates the UU atmosphere. To be sure, we talk about interdependence and the Buddhist principles of “inter-being” and compassion are often invoked. Yet when it comes right down to it, most of us are so caught up in and concerned with our own burdens — meeting the obligations of our own work and family calendar — that we are incapable of creating communities of meaningful support. Whatever our expectations, when it comes to actual behavior, UU’s remain fundamentally and stubbornly atomistic.
Why is this a problem? What bearing does it have on diversity? Well, for African Americans the church has stood, and in many communities still stands, at the center of community and family life: an island of security and mutual support amidst a tempest of change, dislocation, persecution, and hardship. It is a stubborn and intractable fact that many if not most non-whites — and especially African Americans — are extraordinarily committed to those churches that supported, sustained, and succored their forebears for two hundred years. As sociologists Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney point out, after the Civil War,
the black church emerged as a crucial center of social and religious activity. It was the one institution over which blacks maintained control.
And in his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam adds:
(Historically), the church has played a special role in the black community (and) has housed a diversity of programs including schools, lending libraries, concerts, vocational training, insurance companies, all catering to a much broader population than the membership of an individual church.
The church has served a similar function for other ethnic, racial, and immigrant groups, providing opportunities for networking, mutual support, and a sense of “belonging” in an alien, and often hostile Anglo culture. So we need honestly to ask ourselves: what would induce religiously motivated persons of color to leave such a protective environment and consort with a community of strangers committed to an ideology of individualism and personal achievement?
I’m not sure Unitarian Universalism could compete with such a legacy even if we wanted to. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, or that our own common life as UU’s wouldn’t be noticeably improved if we attempted to moderate our middle class ethos and create communities of greater inter-dependence — a change that is already occurring, incidentally, by virtue of Covenant and other small-group ministries.
Too soft a sell
Our aversion as UU’s to activities that smack of proselytizing, public relations, or missionary activity also helps to maintain our homogeneity. We don’t yet seem to understand that one can proudly promote their religion without being pretentious or imperious about it. The fact is, if we are not as eager to “win souls” as the religious conservatives — and they are the ones whose congregations are truly multi-cultural and multi-racial — our demographics won’t shift an iota.
For the most part, we UU’s have been content to sit on our little franchises and wait for the world to beat a path to our putatively open door. Consequently, even if there are people of color to whom our non-creedal, free-thought, progressive tradition might appeal, chances are they wouldn’t recognize us as an option. We aren’t a visible presence in most minority communities, because we don’t advertise in media that reach those communities. This “benign neglect” suggests that we have no interest in communicating the UU “good news” beyond our own circle of white, middle class privilege. Now, this may not be the message we intend, but I’ll bet it is the one that minorities and working-class folk receive.
Fortunately, our own history teaches that there are alternatives. While it is true that Unitarianism has historically been associated with the educated and affluent elite — with the “Boston Brahmins” and their frontier counterparts — Universalism emerged as a distinctly working class church. For much of the 19th century, flourishing Universalist congregations attracted farmers, small businessmen, artisans — folk who often lacked formal education and high status but who were nevertheless literate, inquisitive, and progressive. Regrettably, today’s UU movement seldom reflects the broad “populism” that was such a prominent feature of early Universalism. We could stand to learn about, and learn from that legacy.
Missing the men
Our Unitarian Universalist culture suffers from lack of diversity in other respects as well. Men, for instance, are under-represented in our ranks by a ratio of about 1 to 2, and boys drop out of our church school and youth programs at a much higher rate than girls. At First Unitarian Society, I have noted with some sadness that our Covenant Groups, Adult RE classes, Lay ministry program, and spiritual practice sessions are all disproportionately female — even when the instructors and facilitators are men. First Unitarian Society is fortunate that many good men do teach in the church school, serve as mentors to our youth, and accept leadership assignments. But a large segment, from about age 15 to 40, often seems to be missing.
Again, this lack of gender and age balance is a problem that affects more than UU’s. According to a recent study, the “representative” member of an American faith community is female, fifty years old, married, living in a home without children. And it is not a recent development. In her noteworthy book, The Feminization of American Culture, Ann Douglas argues that a drift in this direction began around the time of the Civil War and has continued — the “Promise Keepers” notwithstanding — ever since.
Faith communities have tried to address the problem of gender balance with a number of strategies: establishing men’s Bible study or ritual practice groups; putting basketball hoops in the parking lot or ping-pong tables in the basement; providing a large-screen TV for men to watch Sunday afternoon sporting events together; recruiting men for church-sponsored community service projects like Habitat for Humanity. Evangelical churches have often used such “gimmicks” to considerable effect. Are they appropriate for a movement as “high brow” as ours to consider?
In former times, there were “Laymen’s leagues” in many Unitarian churches, tailored to meet the social needs and intellectual interests of the male folk. Today, not a few men claim that church is just “not their thing” and that it “doesn’t address their sensibilities.” We need to understand what that means, and what it implies for our future.
Missing the young
Which is also true with respect to generational representation. In this department, the First Unitarian Society of Madison is somewhat exceptional among UU Churches. Thanks to our campus ministry program, we enjoy a healthy young adult presence. Youth, children, young couples, and mid-lifers are all active and visible. Indeed, the generational diversity we enjoy is more typical of a conservative evangelical church than ones that share our liberal theology.
Unfortunately, this is not true for the denomination as a whole. The typical Unitarian Universalist is not 50, but closer to 60 years of age. And while our movement as a whole is experiencing incremental growth, registration of children and youth in our church school programs has leveled off in recent years.
Now, one of the primary reasons I’ve pursued parish ministry rather than a career in University teaching or some other field, is because I believe so strongly in the importance of cultivating intergenerational community. And that is why, demanding as my role in the UUA’s largest church has become, I still devote time to teaching in the church school and helping with teacher training. I will again accompany our youth on their Coming of Age trip to Boston this June, and routinely meet with new parents to discuss what infant dedication means to them and to the larger community. I enjoy occasional Sunday lunches with groups of older members who live in retirement facilities. To give and receive from each of these age groups is a very special privilege.
We have a tremendous opportunity for both growth and delight here. There are few places in our increasingly “ageist” society to build meaningful bridges between children, youth, adults, and elders. Much of the time the media teaches young and old to scorn one other, and advertisers promote the fiction that little is to be gained from being in each other’s company, little we can do and enjoy together. Feelings of alienation, even between children and their parents, are common and quite palpable.
A faith community cannot by itself cure this cultural sickness, but it can meliorate it. But that can only happen, the UUA’s Director of Curriculum Development Judith Frediani points out, if we correct the tendency to serve mid-lifers — persons between 40 and 60. We need to be much more deliberate, she suggests, about providing age- and gender- appropriate programming. Each age cohort — adults as well as children — has distinct spiritual issues and needs. The spiritual yearnings and questions of an “empty nester” are not going to be the same as those of someone who has just launched their career, or is coping with a recalcitrant teenager. As Frediani points out, if the opportunities we provide are unconsciously tailored for baby-boomers, that’s the demographic we’ll retain.
But important as it is to provide age-appropriate programs, it is equally critical that we create opportunities for inter-generational contact. A church that suffers from the “upstairs-downstairs” syndrome is not truly a community and it is doing little to reduce the widening rift between American young people and their elders. We are not fulfilling our mission as a movement when each age cohort is assigned its own space and time slot, and is given no opportunity to actively engage with others. If, like “ships in the night,” we are passing but not connecting, the rich benefits of being an intergenerational community will forever elude us.
Theological diversity — the promise
Lastly, I’d like to dwell for a few moments on the theological diversity for which Unitarian Universalism is especially well-known. The Bond of Union for the First Unitarian Society of Madison, composed by the Founders in 1878 and prominently displayed in our Sanctuary, states that the congregation “accepts into membership those of whatever theological opinion, who wish to unite in the promotion of truth, righteousness, reverence, and charity for all.” The Bond contains no qualifications: those of whatever theological opinion are welcome, it promises.
Given the Western world’s long history of bitter and often violent religious conflict, this is an amazing proposition. Of more than 2,000 American sects, we are almost unique in maintaining that it is possible to enjoy religious community without dogmatic consensus, to create an environment of mutual respect, support, and hospitality without papering over our differences. To the extent that Unitarian Universalism can succeed in this remarkable endeavor, we will have provided a fragmented, suspicious, and combative religious culture with a remarkable example.
The late Adlai Stevenson, a member of the Unitarian Church of Bloomington, Illinois, put it well in a quote that appeared in last summer’s issue of the UU World:
I think that one of our most important tasks as Unitarians is to convince ourselves and others that there is nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating of human characteristics, without which life would become lifeless. Here lies the power of the liberal way — not in making the whole world Unitarian; but in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one’s own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of critical self-examination. Thus we can learn to grow together, to unite in our common search for the truth beneath a better and a happier world.
This has been, of course, the dream not only of religious liberals, but of the revolutionary founders of our nation who chose the Latin aphorism “E Pluribus Unum” as the motto for a republic jerry-rigged out of thirteen radically diverse, independent-minded colonies. Unity-in-diversity has long been a cornerstone of American civic culture — at least until that great motto was replaced with “In God We Trust” a half century ago.
Theological diversity — the reality
And yet, our own denominational history — like that of the Republic — is replete with instances where, despite the progressive rhetoric, acceptance of theological difference has not been the norm. While it is undoubtedly true that Unitarians and Universalists have consistently rejected “creeds” and emphasized the primacy of individual conscience, restraints have typically been placed on that freedom. We have always had boundaries — embracing at times more, and at other times fewer theological perspectives. A hundred and thirty years ago, it was darned difficult to be a Unitarian or a Universalist and also a transcendentalist — witness the heresy charges that were brought against the Universalist preacher Herman Bisbee right here in the Twin Cities in 1872. A bit later, the more conventionally Christian leaders of the American Unitarian Association in Boston were scandalized by the radically inclusive “Unity Men” of the upper Midwest, led by that redoubtable old Welshman, Jenkin Lloyd Jones.
Nor have such controversies abated in recent decades. Right through the 20th century, UU’s continued seriously to question the virtue and the necessity of so much theological latitude. I can vividly recall the last time I attended a Prairie Star District Conference, in about 1978. The keynote speaker on that occasion was a sociologist of UU persuasion who argued quite strenuously that our movement wouldn’t be around in 2000 unless we eschewed theological diversity and embraced an explicitly humanist doctrine. This speaker’s advice was to clearly demarcate our theological territory, firm up our identity, create our own philosophical niche and stop trying to be “all things to all people.” Unitarian Universalism, he insisted, should point in one direction only: straight toward religious humanism.
Although he spoke to an audience comprised largely of professed humanists, this man’s sociological advice went more or less unheeded. Well that it did, for soon the humanist presence within the movement began to decline as Eastern and Earth-centered alternatives began to emerge and liberal Christianity staged a comeback. Now humanists throughout the movement — and in my own congregation as well — are complaining that they have “lost” their spiritual home and that Unitarian Universalism has veered off into irrational, airy realms of incense, candle-light, and metaphysics. What a difference a quarter of a century makes!
Such complaints are hardly new. During the hey-day of humanism, UU Christians felt marginalized. When interest in paganism began to pick up steam and Covens were formed, both Christian and Humanist UU’s wrung their hands over what one of our ministers described as “sociopaths” who would be drawn into our movement. At this moment in history, however, it seems to be the humanists turn to feel excluded.
So where does this leave us? Personally, I am a Unitarian Universalist largely because it does so enthusiastically embrace the principle of diversity. As someone whose religious outlook has been decisively influenced by Buddhism but who has no interest in taking Buddhist vows, I find UU culture extraordinarily congenial to, and for the most part, complementary of my perspective. In my own congregation at least, the poly-logue between humanists, Christians, pagans, Buddhists, Taoists, and Jews is typically rich, cordial, mutually supportive, and motivating. Theologically, I am a minority within UUism; there aren’t all that many Buddhists in our ranks. That doesn’t bother me because I don’t feel the need to be predominant in order to feel fully accepted. I sincerely wish more UU’s felt that way.
So much for diversity. But where, in the end, do we discover unity? Edward Frost, my colleague in Atlanta, asks a question that surely is on many of our minds: “While pluralism and diversity must remain as highly valued principles of liberal religion,” Frost writes, “our commitment to pluralism and diversity does hold a danger.”
The danger is that unless we can also commit ourselves as a people, in unity of purpose and of mission, to something of ultimate importance, diversity will be all we have, and diversity is not enough.
Is Hosea Ballou’s famous dictum that it is sufficient for Universalists (and Unitarians) merely to “agree in love” not enough? Is something more required for “unity” than to respect one another’s integrity as free thinkers and to show compassion for them as fellow sufferers? What is that something more of “ultimate” importance to which Edward Frost alludes and that he feels all UU’s should embrace?
Personally, I prefer to keep it simple. For me, it is wholly sufficient to honor one another as unique and irreplaceable individuals, to participate in a movement which marshals people’s special gifts and talents to serve the greater good, and to be regularly stimulated in my own pursuit of deeper insight and abiding happiness.
And truth be told, despite everything our principles and pronouncements of “openness” might suggest, Unitarian Universalism will always have limited appeal in a culture such as ours. We never have been, nor will we ever be “all things to all people.” The values of sustainability and equity are given too much prominence for many who belong to the corporate world to feel comfortable in most of our congregations. Our skepticism about the federal government’s foreign and domestic policy will be perceived as disloyal by many Americans. The overwhelming majority of our countrymen believe in a Six Day creation, a literal Hell, and that Mary was the virginal mother of God. These are not hot prospects for a UU faith community. There are, then, obvious ideological limits that we tacitly accept, and our “identity” as religious liberals is abundantly clear even if we can’t come up with some “ultimate” principle or categorical imperative concise enough to be printed on a bumper-sticker.
Moreover, in terms of temperament, relatively few people are really suited for a UU faith community. How many Americans are comfortable with theological ambiguity, willing to use critical reason routinely to assess religious and ethical propositions, believe that religion is an evolutionary rather than static phenomenon, accept that “revelation is not sealed” and that spirituality is, at last, an open-ended affair? Not many, I guarantee you.
When it comes right down to it, Unitarian Universalism embraces relational rather than propositional truth, as Hosea Ballou suggested. If we agree in love, no disagreement can do us any harm. That, in a nutshell, is the operative principle that makes unity-in-diversity possible. Its validity is underscored by an incident that took place recently at the North Hatley UU Church in Quebec, Canada, and with it I will end.
Clyde Grubbs, a self-described UU Christian, serves that congregation, and he recalls his first day on the job in a predominantly humanist community.
“I had just walked into my office when the phone rang,” (Grubb writes). A woman asks, “Can I speak to the pastor?”
“Speaking,” I reply.
“Are you the one who has come here to marry those queers?” she asks.
I am shocked, but having been around the block with gossips, I ask her, “Are you asking for yourself, or for a friend?”
Now she is taken aback, but persists. “Do you call yourself a man of God?” I answer, “I am a man of God.”
She says, “How can you marry them when the Bible condemns their lifestyle?” I told her about my Bible, and my Jesus, and conclude by saying, “You can’t take Jesus from me. Jesus wasn’t a bigot.” At which point she hung up.
As I was taking this call, the parish committee was standing outside, hearing my end of the conversation. After I had hung up and related the full conversation to this group of rock-ribbed humanists, they looked at each other and said, “We can’t let them take Jesus away from us!”
At that point, I knew I had found the right home.
What more good news do we need — what more could we wish for?
(Copyright © 2005 Rev. Michael A. Schuler)