Some more thoughts on Unitarian Universalism

So I made a quick post the other night in response to a comment that Shawn at Lofi Tribe made and it got lots of comments going. Exciting in a way, but in another way not so exciting because it seems as if I inserted myself into a big discussion (Christianity in the UU faith/”new age” stuff in our faith, etc.) that I wasn’t really aware I was inserting myself into. I learned. Hopefully others did too. Yay for blogging.

Anyway, there were a few lines in the comments that I wanted to highlight as I think about our faith – where we are. (As as side note, I try to sort of not focus on this too much in my blog or sermons or work in general because it seems like Unitarian Universalists spend a lot of time “assessing” where we are and thinking about what should be our theology or our strategy or whatever, and sometimes it gets done so much I think we forget to just live our faith. Committee meetings or “discussions” or blog posts can only go so far – but I digress.) What I wanted to point out was this quote:

There are many paths to God. I just don’t want to tread every single one of them at the same time.

Which I think is brilliant and made me laugh. In the sense that I just picture people trying to do this – a little bit of Buddha, a pagan goddess here and there, some nice historical Jesus…. in religious studies talk this is sometimes called Shelia-ism – which refers to a study or article some time ago about a woman named Shelia who just picked the parts she liked from various traditions and knitted them together to make… Sheliaism. I think it is important to keep in mind that Unitarian Universalism is not – or, in my humble opinion, should not – be a salad bar of faith where you just pick what you like and throw it all together and do whatever you want.

Shawn Anthony pointed out a situation of “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…” I think that this is a perfect example of Unitarian Universalism at its worst – Shelia-ism gone haywire – thinking that we can somehow just squish together this and that and that somehow that will provide the spiritual grounding that is needed for the hard work of justice and love lived out through faith.

I think, at its best, Unitarian Universalism can be a religious identity and community that comes together to support each other in our diverse spiritual paths, honoring the wisdom that various traditions (that we were possibly not born into) can bring to our spiritual journeys and work of justice, while at the same time grounding ourselves in Unitarian Universalist history, principles and purposes (which I happen to like, although I know some don’t). I think a balance between being Unitarian Universalist while at the same time being _________ (fill in the blank – Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, Humanist, something in between, atheist, nothing else, etc.) AND at the same time being aware of the traditions which we draw from that our not ones we were born into and being aware of the complex histories that those traditions have is tough. It is a lot of balls to keep int the air. It is why some people feel excluded. Others perceive the denomination as weird. As pointed out, it is problematic we fail so miserably at speaking to poor communities and minority communities. But I HOPE that even in all this difficulty, that it continues to be a project that people are willing to take on because I think it is an important one. Important to honor our Unitarian and Universalist histories…important to welcome people who have not been able to find a spiritual home in a Christian church, or a sangha or a temple…central to provide a faith where people feel as though they can recover from past religious hurt…important to welcome Christians who want a place where Jesus and the God of the New Testament/Hebrew Bible isn’t the only/main context in which to think about the divine…key because people on different paths have a lot to learn from each other and, I believe, have a lot to offer the world as a united faith community. And so on.

This is getting too long, as usual. I’m not editing closely again. We’ll see how this blogging off the cuff goes. I’m not sure what I think about the slight conflictish nature of the comments on my last post. I’m not one for controversy, but I try to remind myself that it is also important not to avoid controversy just because you don’t like it…. A good place to learn, if not always totally fun. We shall see how it goes, I suppose.

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4 Responses to Some more thoughts on Unitarian Universalism

  1. Chalicechick says:

    FWIW, I read the Sean’s post the way you and UUpdater did.

    That said, it’s very hard to write about leaving your religion without sounding like you’re getting your parting shots in, and while Sean didn’t achieve that, I don’t know that I could have either in his place.

    For me the center of UUism is freedom of belief and refining belief through reason. The center is not belief, it his how you arrive at belief. This works for me, your milage may vary. When the refining bit is done properly, the freedom doesn’t really lead to to Shelia-ism and my perception of the Sheliaism I see is that most of it comes from lack of critical thinking. My faith doesn’t feel new agey to me, though I understand that it looks that way to some people. I don’t see that paths to God are necessarily linear.

    I usually know better than to make statements about religious history in a thread Fausto might read, but I’m going to chance it this time and say my understanding is that the Christians were the original masters of Sheliaism, borrowing whatever rituals or beliefs they liked from Judaism and Paganism.
    (And mainstream Christians swiped “Lord of the Dance” from the shakers. And I’m not sure how labyrinths are Christian, other than Christians have decided they are. And… And… And…)

    Anyhow, I do agree that Sheliaism sucks and comes from UUism badly done.

    I don’t think it is as much of who we are as I sometimes hear it is, though.

    CC

  2. Anonymous says:

    With reference to the previous thread, on which this comment is based….Fausto, as to your comment “Why do you feel so free to express your criticism, but no corresponding duty of responsibility to do so with respect and careful reflection?” It seems to me that you are, in fact, doing just what you criticize; that you are the one jumping to conclusions, misreading, and reading-into Elizabeth’s comments. I think that regular readers of this blog would agree you’re directing frustrations in the wrong direction.

  3. fausto says:

    Well, anonymous, you’re entitled to your anonymous opinion. But if you re-read Elizabeth’s original post, I think it is difficult to escape the conclusions that (1) her vigorous defense of the right of religious innovators not to be evicted was a false straw-man argument, because Shawn never suggested kicking them out, and (2) she fully acknowledged right in her initial post that she was expressing immediate reactions in haste rather than more thoughtful reactions after careful deliberation, and that her ideas were not carefully thought through or articulated.

    Elizabeth was right to recognize in her later posts that in reacting so impulsively she may have inadvertently stepped on a third rail that runs through our beloved community, but it seems to me that careful, deliberate steps are especially appropriate, and impulsivity is especially dangerous, when treading around third rails.

    CC, I generally agree. It’s my impression that Christianity is a wildly syncretic religion, drawing from radically disparate cultural sources, including not only Judaism but also Greek philosophy, Mithraic mysticism, Northern European seasonal spirituality, and other sources. (I regularly offend self-described “Bible-believing Christians” over on Beliefnet.com when I say so, as well as when I defend syncretism as a valid religious exercise.) However, I think there is a line to be drawn between valid syncretism and invalid “Sheila-ism”. The early Christians were not just making it up as they went along, drawing whatever appealed to them from an eclectic Chinese menu of spirituality, but rather were only drawing truths from other cultural sources that they perceived to be consistent with and supportive of the truths they had learned from their own experience of Jesus of Nazareth (and/or his disciples).

    BTW, on the question of labyrinths, I think they’re probably considered Christian because there happens to be one inlaid into the floor of Chartres cathedral, but I don’t know why it was put there in the first place.

    Elizabeth, I very much like the constructive direction in which you’re trying to move this conversation, in spite of a bumpy start. I do think that Shawn raised legitimate questions about what we have become that were obscured to some degree by his choice of scornful words like “new age smorgasbord”. I realize that you were probably reacting at first more to the scornful tone of the words than the deeper issues behind them. If I could try to restate a few of the more substantive questions that come to mind, they would be:

    Is there a legitmate tradition of UU syncretism? (I think so. I think James Freeman Clarke and Jenkin Lloyd Jones were excellent, if perhaps contrasting, exemplars of the tradition.)

    Is “Sheila-ism” a valid spiritual discipline? (I think not; apparently neither do you or Shawn.)

    Is Shawn right that UUism has come to be, or is in the process of becoming, dominated by Sheila-ism? (I don’t think we’re all the way there yet, but it’s a real threat.)

    Should we, either congregationally or denominationally, be doing more either to encourage or discourage Sheila-ism? (I think we should be doing more to discourage it.) If so, what could we do?

    Do our legacy denominations of Unitarianism and Universalism, as expressed within a generally Christian orientation, still offer anything of lasting value to us today? (I think so.) If so, what are we doing, and are we doing enough, to preserve and promote them? (I think not enough.)

    In theory, is there still enough room for our U and U Christian legacies to flourish within present-day UU syncretism (or Sheila-ism)? In practice, is there? (I hope so, but Shawn evidently has concluded otherwise.) Should there be? (I think so.) If there should be, are we doing enough to preserve that room? (Shawn’s example suggests not.) If not, why not?

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I will respond. Just a little too busy right now :) E

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