The issue I wish to address today involves the inevitable tensions that can grow between the good souls of a church or fellowship. My concern is twofold: how do we maintain and improve a dynamic, satisfying fellowship for all of us, and how do we model the dynamic mutuality possible in a pluralistic democracy? These issues go to the heart of our congregational and societal relations.
I’m glad I don’t have any particular complaint or crisis in mind. This really has to do with an ongoing possibility. Over the years I’ve seen various trends, dynamics, and personalities come and go in our fold. My attention here isn’t on any one person or group; my wish is that you and your group feel at home here while you let others do that too.
We don’t have or want a dogmatic religion where we all wear the same uniform and hold uniform beliefs. To do that, we’d all have to agree on both. Good luck. I’d rather try to get a group of cats to march lock-step.
Some make the metaphor of a UU congregation being like soup: each member supplies some vegetable, meat (or tofu), spice, or salt. That’s OK, except when you cook a soup too long it gets blended and blanded down into overcooked slurry. Perhaps a salad works: nice and crisp and lively. Or, go to the source: a garden. Or even better, how about weaving that garden of vegetables into a colorful quilt? We could have our quilt and eat it too.
But then, we’d be the ones eaten! Obviously, we need to beware of preachers with mixed metaphors. Yet, how do I launch into our topic? At least, as a garden we’re all producing something tasty and useful. In having our season of life, we are put to good use. So, if we were a garden of berries, vegetables, fruits and nuts, what would be our roots?
The dynamic of allowing people to be and think for themselves goes way back to before our earliest theologies. It is human to question and explore. It is also human to resent and resist those who do. Having seen the detrimental consequences of stifled thought and begrudging conformity, we have long opted for thoughtfulness, freedom, and diversity.
These underlie the classic theologies that differentiate us from our orthodox brethren. Unitarians saw no trinity in the Bible, nor did they accede to demands that they worship Jesus as the same as God. While the Calvinists and Lutherans of the early Reformation sought to control their congregations with force and even execution, much as the Catholics had also done, the early Unitarian King Sigismund declared each congregation in his domain could choose its own religion. Liberal tolerance transcended scriptural theologies even then.
The Universalists bucked the popular widespread belief in hell. Hell is judgmental exclusion writ into cosmic divine sanction. As God oversees the torture of the damned so can the self-righteous enjoy excluding and punishing non-believers and other-believers. The Universalists were simple farmers and teachers. They worshipped a loving God who includes all. Similarly, they sought to include marginalized people into our country and their churches.
Tensions always existed between us and the orthodox that saw us as heretics, but there were also tensions within our folds, especially whether and how we were “Christian.” Early on we were only that; later, other elements emerged. The roots had formed stalks.
The very term Unitarian was not our original name. We were once known as Liberal Christian until an opponent accused us of being this shameful European heresy. We liked it; the name stuck. Early on in our movement the notorious Ralph Waldo Emerson was shunned for his radical theology. Almost all Unitarian pulpits were closed to him. He lasted only a few years in the Unitarian ministry and found a wider audience on Wednesday evenings than Sunday mornings. Now we boast he’s one of us, which I like, for I like him. Should we get to boast now even though “we” snubbed him then? Yes, for we have chosen him since. I choose him.
Boston once tried to reel in the Free Religious Movement of the western states. In the mid to late 19th century, it was embarrassing to have free thought emerging in our churches. Even today, there is a bit of difference between our eastern and western UU groups.
In the 20th century humanism found home in our UU churches, from atheism to Ken Patton’s cosmic humanism. The rational aspect of our faith came full force, so much so some early fellowships in the 50’s wouldn’t involve themselves with the magical rituals of lighting candles or singing hymns.
We did some admirable things (despite some resistance) regarding civil rights in the 60’s, but the Vietnam War tore apart many a congregation in the 70’s. The Counterculture was more tolerated than celebrated (in my experience), most of that religious trend occurring outside of our churches and most all churches.
Feminists and gays find welcome in our congregations, while those irritated or uneasy about this either stay to learn or quietly drift away. UU’s have often championed initially unpopular causes, often with some upset between people, ultimately to settle into more whole forms of community.
Our current president, Bill Sinkford, wants us to revive a “language of reverence.” Others see the need to portray ourselves as the home of humanistic naturalism. The current UU World has an article calling for us to center on gratitude and the resultant duty as the center of our faith.
Just off the top of my head, I came up with three of the strands I see in our congregations: theistic Christian, atheistic Humanist, and mystic Earthling. There are more. Politically, we are largely Democratic, but always with some savvy Republicans, and rousing Socialists too. We’ve got the women and the men, the older people and younger, those who like these hymns and those who like those.
Where is all this diversity taking us?
Differences can divide us, but we fail each other when that happens. Our relations are more sacred, challenging, and rewarding than that. Our workings with pluralism are more bold and interesting than that.
I like Edwin Markham’s little poem, not just for the orthodox who don’t like us, but for tensions between us too:
He drew a circle that drew me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout
But wit and I had the will to win
We drew a circle that took him in.
Being in the circle is far more than being tolerant or tolerated. Passive tolerance merely puts up with or puts off the others. We grow when we engage in dynamic mutuality, being and letting be, being and meeting.
Sometimes we have a hard time even being tolerant, and passive tolerance itself is not enough. Consider the report from a woman in the UU Poly community. UU Poly people want to be accepted in our UU congregations much like the gays have been. It’s just who they are and don’t want to have to hide, lie, or apologize for it. They want to be honest and accepted.
(Polyamorous people admit they love many in life and don’t want to have to declare that with one person only. Some have formed long-term relationships with two or more lovers, honestly sharing that and dealing with the issues that can arise. Others are more libertine, honestly admitting their sexual interests and activities. They tend to support each other but often feel judged and excluded.)
One woman answers the question of whether her people have experienced non-acceptance in UU congregations:
There is also the “middle ground” of not-so-benign neglect – changing subject and ignoring or avoiding the issue. It is neither acceptance nor non-acceptance . . . and certainly not awareness. Is it done out of a hope that the issue (be it poly or kink) will quietly go away? Or perhaps it is the person’s mistaken idea of tolerance? Whatever the motivation, it’s as unproductive as rejection, but without the clear stand that rejection provides.
If you like or don’t like some sort of person or type of thought, say so in clear tones. Sincere civility is the refreshing water and engaging honesty the fertilizer of our garden.
I’d like to think our colorful garden of unique characters is good for us and a model of democracy in general. Let’s look at both.
You’re no doubt still thrilled at my incisive updating of our Unitarian Universalism. I’ve shared this before. Our religion acknowledges a universal existential inescapable truth: we are each and every one — a unique and lone one — even as we are also one with each other, life, the cosmos, and the All. These two meanings of the word one are like the two sides of a coin: you can’t have one without the other. How we relate these two is our religion.
How you integrate your body/mind/self is one thing; how you integrate that into our fellowship, your family, this community and world is the other.
This is almost built into our inherited religious name. We have a long and cumbersome name, Unitarian Universalist, but let’s work with it. I notice Unitarian is the adjective modifying the noun Universalist. We’re each a whole unit doing the way of Universalism. Were we to switch the two around we’d be Universal Unitarians, units everywhere.
Stay with me as I grope for meaning. Because the whole name was just too long (any name that’s too long to fit on the “pay to the order of” line of a check is too long) I suggested we name the building in Ashland the Unitarian Center. We chose Center because “church” offended some, “fellowship” others, and “temple” others too. Center has a nice ambiguous meaning: it can be a center of Unitarian Universalism, a town center for important events, or a place to center. I figured most people already know the name Unitarian, so Universalist was implied. I like the name OK. It’s short, unique, and doesn’t ward people off or imply obligatory elements as the others did.
But lately I’ve come on an idea to make it better. Unitarian is an old anti-Trinitarian label and it implies individualism. Universal Center would both refer to our longer name and it would carry a more powerful meaning. Not only is that place one of our UU buildings, it implies the center is there without restricting it from being elsewhere. It also implies we each are the universal center.
This is akin to my center of the world flag idea. One side would celebrate where we live as the center of the natural, non-political world; the other side would center on the exact opposite side of the earth, implying every community has the right to say it is the center of the world even as it grants that to the farthest reaches. We claim the center for ourselves because this is where we live and our lives do center here. But in doing so, we grant this same centeredness to all others.
This toying with names now starts to help model and achieve democracy, the fruit of our garden. Here’s how.
You know I like Huston Smith’s re-definition of the meaning of humility. It is a failure that can easily be used against us to think of humility as “I am not worthy; only Thou art great; please don’t notice me.” Rather, Smith defines humility as “being one’s self fully in such a way as to allow others to be themselves fully.” You can be proud as you like in this form of humility — as long as you don’t become arrogant.
What a radically different feeling this is, with totally different implications for how to be together in a democracy. We are not all the same, but we have an equality of opportunity to flower and flourish in our own special ways. Mere tolerance of our being that way socially seems grudging. Moving into self and mutual celebration makes this mutually enhancing. How much more dynamic and fulfilling would our fellowship and democracy be were we to affirm, practice, and promote this new humility.
Can you know you are the center of your life and know all others you see are also that for theirs? If so, you are a Unitarian Universalist. Can you identify with YHWH’s identity: “I am that I am,” not just that you exist, but that all others exist as importantly as you? As you discover the Thou that you are, can you practice “tat twam assi”: thou art that? Both are divine, or at least, endued with “inherent worth and dignity.” Can you be part of a “live-and-let-live” culture, where both parts of that are fully celebrated?
Francis Moore Lappe complains our society currently suffers from “thin democracy” where power is inordinately taken by the few at the expense of the many. She favors “living democracy” where individuals, groups, and communities seize the opportunity and obligation to live well in such a way as to allow others to live well. This aspiration is not utopian; it is how many, maybe most, of us really want to live.
Our UU congregations can be the learning and testing grounds for our living well in our selves and with each other. They can then be models for democracy in our country and larger world. You have to be your selves, much as Emerson encouraged, and you have to treat each other respectfully, allowing others to be themselves fully, also as Emerson knew. Can you be a Unitarian Universalist, fully you in the ways that allow others to be fully themselves?
It is the relation between the individual one and the one with all that makes up our Unitarian Universalism. How well we each and all flourish and relate makes us who we each and together are.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
© March 4, 2007