Question and Answer: Unitarian Universalism

So Fausto asked me a bunch of very good questions about Unitarian Universalism in the comment of another post. Thought I would respond. I’d love to hear other thoughts as well.

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

I have to admit, and promise that this will obviously improve with time, that Unitarian Universalist history is not my strong point. I know the basics, but not the details. However, I guess my only comment on this question would be that if there is a history of something does that make it (more) legitimate?

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

Well, not to be all President Clinton (it depends on what you mean by “it”), but it depends on what you mean by valid. I think I might struggle with calling someone’s spiritual practice/belief is invalid. I suppose I do feel a concern with drawing from multiple traditions with which you have no historical or communal connection, and particularly the idea that you can pick and choose the parts you like and put them all together without regard to their original context and claim them as your own. Somehow that feels like it is demeaning to those traditions – that there is a lack of acknowledgment that these traditions developed in particular contexts and with particular histories in particular communities. So I guess I feel as though contextualization is important, and being careful when/if we claim a tradition as our own.

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

I agree that it is something to keep an eye on – the main concern that I have is not the multitude of practices or beliefs, but the lack of context of those beliefs and practices. As if you can just pick out what you like best from a salad bar of religious practices and beliefs with no knowledge about how those faiths were grown, or where they come from. As a future minister, one concern I don’t believe that can give you a grounded, centering religious life. Also, to me, it reminds me of some form of colonization – that we can just take what we want and toss out the rest.

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

I would like to see this addressed both in minister training, and at the denominational level and in congregations. Classes on the history of religions (for instance, Introduction to _______ (fill in the blank: Judaism, early Christianity, Hinduism)). I feel particularly concerned with the appropriation of Native American practices, histories, beliefs, given the particularly brutal history of colonization. Sort of like, hey, we took your land, killed pretty much all of your people, but hey we like some of your spiritual ideas and so we’d like to take those parts that we like and sort of change them around a little bit to fit our needs, and get meaning from them. Kay? Again, I guess for me the main point is respect and the acknowledgment that most religious and spiritual traditions come out of a particular context and from a particular community that are also parts of those traditions. Religious traditions are not a collection of practices stored up in a database of cool ideas that we can go pick out like from a store. I think this somehow relates to the commodification of everything including religion.

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

This is an example of how naive I am about religion sometimes. I’ve said here before that I was truly SHOCKED in high school when I joined a Methodist church and one of my fellow youth was, gasp, complaining about the work we were doing to build a house for a family. What sort of Christian was she? Hadn’t she heard that you were supposed to work JOYFULLY? Of course, there were some hard lessons to learn there and the same has happened as I came to Unitarian Universalism and I found out that some people were prejudiced against Christians. Did they miss the fact that we were supposed to be welcoming to all? Loving? And, yeah, what about our long history as Christians? Remember that whole prior-to-1961 time? Anyway, so I am personally very appreciative of our history, and disappointed that some folks aren’t as appreciative of it. I not always in love with studying early U.S. religious history, but would hope that a basic knowledge for most members and a deeper knowledge for ministers would be important. I really don’t know what is being done at the congregational level or denominational level to preserve or promote this history. I know I need to read a lot of books about it before I go before the MFC and need to take more classes about it, so that is at least something we are doing to make sure ministers are grounded in our history. I would like to see churches who are uncomfortable with Christian “stuff” go through a process of learning to appreciate that tradition along with all the others. But at a practical level, I’m not sure how all this would work.

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? (Fausto says: I hope so, but Shawn evidently has concluded otherwise.) Should there be? (Fausto says: I think so.) If there should be, are we doing enough to preserve that room? (Fausto says: Shawn’s example suggests not.) If not, why not?

I would question anyone (and I know they exist) who would suggest that, in theory, there is no more room for U and U Christian legacies to flourish within present-day Unitarian Universalist syncretism. How in the world does it make sense to say we are accepting X, Y, and Z but no no no, not Christians. I find this to be amazingly hypocritical and narrow-minded. I do understand that some individual congregations are more humanist or Buddhist-learning and would not feel comfortable with a strong presence of Christian liturgy or theology. Just as, I believe some of the more Christian congregations would not love a strong influence of humanist or pagan (for instance) I don’t think I have a good enough overview of the world of Unitarian Universalist congregational life to know if, in practice, on a whole, if Christian Unitarian Universalist are feeling as though they have room to flourish. Of course, I would hope it would be clear by now that I think that this should be the case. I can’t really say if we are doing enough to preserve or create that room to flourish. I envision a faith where, within the context of our principles and purposes and healthy congregational life, a multitude of spiritual paths would be able to flourish, including Christianity.

I’d love to write more but this is a blog, not a paper for school so that will have to do for now.

Watch out for: more info on An Inconvenient Truth (which we showed at church today) and my experience sitting next to the Cambridge, MA missionaries while trying to do school work….

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3 Responses to Question and Answer: Unitarian Universalism

  1. fausto says:

    I didn’t mean to direct those questions at you personally. I was only trying to restate some of the problems and issues that I thought Shawn’s post about his departure raised, without getting caught up in opprobrious terminology.

    However, I like your answers. Thanks for responding.

    I wonder if you aren’t drawing a clear enough line between the normative and the empirical, though. Too often we make the mistake of seeing ourselves as what we should be rather than as what we actually are. Shawn’s rhetoric may have stung, but his actions hold up a mirror to ourselves with an unflattering image that we ignore at our peril.

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