I’m from Michigan, in what is still called the Midwest – located in the mid east section of our country. Odd. Once, it was in the far west, for few had ventured past the east coast. A similar misnomer applies to the so-called northern California, by which they mean central California, where San Francisco is. Redding and Shasta are in the real northern California. But old words have a way of sticking, be they about geography or religion. Our religion may have been defined in the Boston area, but it isn’t confined there, neither for our history or our future.
As I hope it is also true for you as an individual and us as a fellowship, my center is not in Boston. I center myself in my mind and heart. You are centered in yours. We center ourselves as a fellowship in Grants Pass. I have had faith that Unitarian Universalism honors my existential center as it would any person’s and our fellowship’s similarly. But this has not always been the case, as I will relate.
Unitarian Universalism might be summed up as having come to honor the seemingly paradoxical meaning of the word “one.” Like two sides of the same coin, we are each and all one in our individual, unique, and precious lives, and we are one in this world together – one with our loves, our families, our fellowship, our community, our nation, our humanity, and our planet. Neither side of that coin can be denied or avoided.
In this oneness we have the latitude to think freely for ourselves, to live our life our way, to do our religion the way we choose. This obvious ability is innate, for we are freeborn earthlings. But knowing it and cherishing it and practicing it is the result of long struggles, both as a country and as a religion. Living as we choose, rather than how the king or pope chose, is a hard-earned, recent, and vulnerable ability.
The UUA in Boston does not decide what religion is for you or our fellowship. The polity works like this. If you are a Member of this fellowship you can vote for a Board. The Board of Trustees is responsible for the program, assets, and liabilities of the fellowship. The UUA is not made up of individuals; it is made of fellowships and churches. It coordinates and offers guidance, but it does not own or rule.
Within the UUA is a wide variety of congregations, from formal Christian ones celebrating liturgies similar to a high Episcopal Church, to radical humanist groups who choose to eschew all supernatural ceremonies, prayers, and pretenses. The seven Principles preached across the country and published in our orders of worship are the recent agreement on common beliefs. They are not rules.
If we track such statements of belief back we find ample examples of an exception clause added to various stages of belief. By signing the book and becoming a Member you are not bound to any creed or dogma. This in itself is a sort of statement of belief – that we can and do differ – that we have the latitude to explore various new approaches. Thank God for that, or thank our forbearers, for otherwise we’d be stuck with beliefs like this one, offered by Judge Henry Pirtle of Louisville in 1853:
Whereas there is a misunderstanding of the views of Unitarians on important subjects, it is deemed proper to make some declaration in reference thereto:
Resolved that we regard Jesus Christ not as a mere inspired man but as the Son of God – the Messenger of the Father to men, miraculously sent – the Mediator between God and Man – the Redeemer of the world; and that we regard the miracles of the New Testament as facts on which the Gospel is built.
(pg. 79, Freedom Moves West, Charles Lyttle)
These words seem alien and out of place to us, but for most Unitarians of that era, they spoke of their shared beliefs and they were offered to squelch the more liberal, thoughtful, and ethical impulses of the Western Unitarian Conference. The WUC, born in the mid 19th century, actually had its roots in the seminal characters who founded Unitarianism in our country.
William Ellery Channing formalized what became orthodox Unitarian theology at the start of the century, accepting the insult that they were Unitarians (harkening back to European anti-trinitarianism, holding that God is one, not three-as-one). For Channing, Unitarians were Christians who believed they could read the Bible using reason, and not just take it all as God’s Word. An alternative title for this faith was Liberal Christian. Only later would the other branch of European Unitarianism, Socinianism, holding that Jesus was an ideal man, not God, emerge in Unitarian settings in the developments of Transcendentalism, ethical religion, and humanism.
This different strand had connections to Joseph Priestly, who held pro-French sentiments, a radical thinker and scientist who had been run out of England. His more thoughtful and free-thinking approach connects to Emerson’s Idealism (also known as Transcendentalism) and especially to Theodore Parker. Parker dared to state that the value of Christianity did not rest on preposterous miracles as exaggerated in the Bible, but on the teachings of the man Jesus, who showed us to the way to live freely and responsibly. Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” was lifted, almost word for word, from a Parker sermon.
While we celebrate Emerson and Parker today, they were an embarrassment to Unitarians in their time. Almost all Unitarian pulpits were closed to Emerson after his notorious “Divinity School Address” of 1838, and while Parker is touted as not just smart (he spoke five languages), popular (he attracted thousands in Boston), and principled (he kept a pistol by his desk because he was a target for being an abolitionist), in his day, Unitarians were defensive about him, shrinking from charges of our Deism and infidelity.
While Emerson and Parker roused defensiveness at the Harvard Divinity School, a new school in northwestern Pennsylvania, Meadville, began exploring Parkerite ideas, again to the consternation of eastern Unitarians. The American Unitarian Association didn’t like the upstart preachers and did almost nothing to help them expand the faith in the Midwest. More than that, when such enterprising liberal evangelists organized their own Western Unitarian Conference, Boston tried to discredit and undermine it.
At issue was whether such preachers were really Christian, confessing their faith in Jesus as God or at least the son of God, and for that matter, in God Himself. It was abhorrent to orthodox easterners to support by dollar or title any of these freethinkers. This led to the formation of the Free Religious Association, celebrating Transcendentalist and other worldly progressive ideas, which in turn evolved into the anti-war and humanist positions in the early twentieth century. Higher biblical criticism, Darwinism, and socialism all found some footing in these western churches, much to the loud criticism of their local fundamentalist neighbors and to the embarrassment back in Boston. Orthodox Unitarians resented western free-thinking ones for opening the faith to non belief and unbelief.
Some lamented that our spiritual growth had “ceased to be an object of fear” and criticized the “dead negations, its everlasting platitudes against forms and creeds, its insufferable cant and conceit, its senseless screams for liberty.” (pg. 165-166, Freedom Moves West)
Conservatism often ruled. Funds were withheld. Bossy dogmatists were dispatched to reign in the unruly freethinkers. For half a century, orthodoxy attempted to contain the independent thinkers. By 1918, during what we now call World War One, the AUA board voted that any Society which employs a minister who is not a willing, earnest and outspoken supporter of the United States in the vigorous and resolute prosecution of the war cannot be considered eligible for aid from the Association. (pg. 227, Freedom Moves West)
Coercing conscience and violating congregational autonomy can emerge from Boston. It wasn’t until 1936 that this sad resolution was regretted as contrary to the fundamental Unitarian principle of freedom of thought and conscience [and pledging] never in the future shall the economic power of the organization be used to influence the opinion or conduct of any minister or society. (pg 227)
I must emphasize that these disturbing incidents are the exception, not the rule. Mostly, gradually, freedom of thought has supplanted the mostly Christian creed of early Unitarianism. Both it and the sister religion, Universalism, have moved to an inclusive eclectic stance that accommodates Christians, humanists, and others.
Within our churches and between them, there was and is a tension between those inspired by the sentiments and ideas of Christianity and Free Thought. Tensions over slavery, economics, and other social issues distressed congregations. The economic downturns of 1857 and 1929 pressured congregations to agree to disagree rather than part into two expensive sites. Progressive thought is precarious, but it is also passionate and persistent. Orthodox thought is prevalent, but it is also passionate and persistent. Such are the characters of our churches and fellowships, and indeed, the human community. How to get along – one and one within the larger one?
As a liberal minister, it is my job to remember that my perspective is not necessarily known or accepted by others and that other’s perspectives are what they sincerely hold, however difficult that can become in the dynamic diversity of community. In other words, if you are basically Christian, that’s OK and I believe you are informed, comforted, and guided by it. Similarly, if you are an atheist, that’s OK and I believe you are right to hold what you deem to be true and right. Beyond respect and tolerance, creative synergy can emerge in both from respectful engagement, while estranged trouble follows fractious factions.
I’ve been estranged from the UUA for over fifteen years. I had been bothered by their growth strategy involving forsaking the fellowships that support it and investing mainly in new start-ups in large metropolitan areas, and then by seeking injured souls rather than cultural creatives. Instead of attracting the movers and shakers we once were known for, they went for numbers in cities. Instead of supporting the over half of the congregations that make up the UUA, the fellowships, they invested in a few minister-led settings of their own choice and design, using your money for their agenda.
Then, when I raised what I thought were thoughtful ideas in the touchy area of homosexuality, my ideas were not engaged, but shunned. Among other issues, in the face of group pressure for unanimity, I was the only minister in the Pacific Northwest chapter to say I would go a congregation the UUA had deemed to have denied settlement to a gay minister. I did this because I believe it is the congregation’s business to decide who they call to their community more than it is Boston’s. The accusation of homophobia can be appropriate, but it can also be a power play. Honoring the “inherent worth and dignity” of gays, laudable though that is, doesn’t mean forsaking it for all others, and it doesn’t empower Boston’s overruling “the right of conscience” and the “democratic process” of the congregations.
This all got portrayed on the front page of the district’s newspaper as if I were in dialog with a colleague on it, when in fact no one asked me why I had voted as I had. The ministerial wagons circled tight and I was out. At the last district meeting I attended during that era, a prominent and popular gay minister vaguely railed against “those who violate our principles” and wondered if it is time to run such people and positions out. Ironically, I was running a video camera on him. Disappointingly for our movement and me, I was not standing with him in a dynamic engagement of ideas.
Since the early days in Boston, Unitarians can exhibit, as Charles Lyttle relates, “Calvanistic legalism and Puritan authoritarianism.” Self-righteous judgmentalism is endemic in western religion. It’s what some love to do. Some love to judge just who is in and who is out. I helped move me out by crossing the forbidden line and twice necked with a young woman barely related to my Ashland congregation. Unlike President Clinton, I said what I did, but wild accusations took hold. This resulted in much upheaval, a letter of reprimand from Boston, my resignation, and my being treated like a hideous criminal. I’ll spare you the insulting broadside I inherited. Fourteen minutes of kissing meant more than eight years of successful service and led to fourteen years of shunning by colleagues. I reached out to all the ministers who came to Ashland since, but none have reached out to me, nor have any colleagues other than Rick Davis of Salem.
During this self-created exile I could have re-entered ministry elsewhere, but I had lost the spirit for it. This congregation, which I had helped establish in 1987, the UUGP, helped put me back on my feet and stand me in the pulpit again. That led to serving a few others on an intermittent basis, but mostly, I made my way via non-ministerial labors. When Ashland came open again last fall, fourteen years and four ministers later, and I stumbled around below the poverty line doing work that doesn’t actualize my talents and calling, I applied. A month later, what I thought was before their search committee turned out to be stalled in Boston, held up by someone who determined I wouldn’t even be allowed to try to relate to where I had had trouble. What I had helped build, tripling the congregation and buying a lovely building, just down the street from where I’ve lived for over twenty years, was denied me in Boston. I was chagrinned.
I was also very broke and worried about it. I couldn’t help but compare what I do for this UU congregation and what I make in return and what the UUA does and how much they make. I serve and scrape by; they take and manipulate from afar. My gripe isn’t with you. I have mostly good relations with my congregations, but Boston doesn’t seem to see or appreciate that.
Reluctantly, I applied to another west coast fellowship. I have something to give and some UU fellowships can afford to pay me for it. This brings up my ambivalence about those aspects of UUism that don’t enthuse me, but it beckons forth my enthusiasm, hoping a mutually beneficial relationship can ensue. If not, I’ve other things to do in life.
I am centered in me, not Boston. You should be centered here, not there. I don’t fully trust the trends and power plays that take over Boston. Recently, we’re expected to deliberately reach out to blacks, despite the lack of them locally and the presence of Latinos and less-affluent people perhaps more needing our religious ways. We’re encouraged to use “a language of reverence,” and look, I suppose, more Christian-like. An embarrassment about humanists and atheists persists. All this is OK if we remember that our religion is our business, to be enjoyed in our way. The ways of religion are many and varied. I don’t expect you to accede to any particular creed or deed, mine or theirs. I want you to fulfill your UU and American inheritances by being fully yourselves in the ways you deem best.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the UU’s of Grants Pass
October 4, 2008
October 5 “You and the UU” with Rev. Brad Carrier
Being a Unitarian Universalist is living out two extremes of the word one. We are one in that we are each and all unique centers of this universe, and we are one in that we are in this universe together. We are both individualists and collectivists. This also applies to our involvement in the UUA, for our denomination is made up of fellowships and churches, which are in turn made up of members. You live more in your center than Boston’s.