TofUUism 1: Some objections to the non-hypenates

Because I try (not always successfully) to keep one idea per post, my excursus on TofUUism is going to spun out over a span.

Previously, I addressed those Unitarian Universalists who understand themselves as “non-hypenated”. For the unfamiliar, this is in contrast with those Unitarian Universalists who identify with a particular theology, like Christianity, Humanism, Buddhism, Paganism and so forth.

A couple of observations. The “I’m not hypenated” claim seems very haughty and a bit self-deluding, whatever its intent. Why? Because it presumes that we know and agree to a common basis of Unitarian Universalism, which (1) is not in evidence and (2) goes counter to the general drift of the movement for decades. Everyone starts from somewhere. The claim of “non-hypenation” is tantamount to saying “We are the core of Unitarian Universalism — the definitive — and the hypenates are derivative.” And that seems like self-exhaltation.

Let me be clear: I think quite a number — perhaps and probably most — of the non-hypenates have sincere faiths. But what unifies them besides a name? At least for the UU Christians or Jews or what have you, one can guess with some certainty what the bond is.

Y’all might be shocked to hear that I’m not opposed to definitive Unitarian Universalism provided there is a clearly articulated proclamation of what Unitarian Universalism is and isn’t. After all, I’ve had my bags packed for years, and could easily end up on either side of the door. I think a lot of us intuit that a common proclamation would divide Unitarian Universalism and so it has been overtly avoided to save us the pain of divorce. Avoided overtly, but not altogether. What makes a “real Unitarian Universalist” has been hinted at. Sometimes history is brought in — suggesting that the congregations that have already “made it in” are really Unitarian Universalist, and anything new is suspect. Rather clannish, but looking at our attempts to grow churches, not unrealistic. Sometimes the hidden bond is politics, and this has been well rehearsed. Class, too.

In any case, the more we don’t really talk about what Unitarian Universalism is — and resort to cliches and slogans — the fewer people are going to find us at all interesting. Pop culture knows we’re a mess: how many of us pretend the jokes are funny because we can’t resolve the truth that undergirds it?

15 Replies to “TofUUism 1: Some objections to the non-hypenates”

  1. Unitarian Universalism, as I see it, is not a system of belief, but a system of arriving at belief held by those who as a group place freedom and integrity of the mind and spirit as our highest values and believe in the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. If your search takes you to most Buddhist truths or Christian truths, you can hyphenate if you really feel like it, but I think most people’s truths come from more sources than they want to put in the title of their religion. I don’t hyphenate, thought I do tend to say “I’m a UU, but not the flaky kind, more the rational kind” which is probably even worse.

    For a few things that UUism isn’t:

    IMHO, real UUism isn’t about seeking diversity, it’s about seeking what is good. Diversity is a natural byproduct of looking for what’s good, though.

    Real UUism isn’t about being the religious wing of the Democratic party, nor is it a group therapy session to help people get over whatever their last religion did to them.

    People who use the 7ps may think they are real UUs, but they are wrong.

    who never thinks the jokes are funny.

  2. I’ve never perceived any real conflict between hyphenated and non-hyphenated UUs, but perhaps I’m just not invited to the right parties.

  3. There are definately non-hyphenates out there, people who are simply Unitarian-Universalists. I was one for years, though I happen to have become a UU Buddhist at this point. How did I achieve this mythical state of basic Unitarian-Universalism? Easy: I was born into it. I was raised Unitarian-Universalist by parents who are not any particular non-UU flavor (they were raised Christian once upon a time, but neither took to it and it was well and truly in the past by the time I came along). Not counting the occasional Catholic wedding, Presbyterian christening, or Jewish bar mitzvah, I exclusively attended Unitarian-Universalist churches as the only houses of worship I had ever set foot in until I was into my adult years. I was not raised to be a Humanist UU or Christian UU or Pagan UU, but just a UU, and it worked just fine. I’d never even heard of the idea of hyphenation until I was already out of the nest. After spending my childhood in UU Sunday School, at age 16 I officially signed the book.

    I did become hyphenated myself, around age 20, when Buddhism began to make a major impact on me. But this isn’t because I thought there was anything wrong or lacking with UUism. The reason was very simple: I was in college and there was no contact with UUs or ability to interface with UUism. There was no campus ministry; I had no car and thus couldn’t drive to the nearest church; the internet was new and online resources were lacking; since I was away from home I couldn’t read our family subscription to the World; there were no UU books in the library; I tried the Church of the Larger Fellowship but found it inadequate (for me–I don’t want to diss the hard work those folks do). I was in college and had always oriented myself via religion (UUism up until that point), and in such a vacuum, the on-campus Buddhist group stepped up and offered me a community that shared my UU values remarkably. Ten years later here I am, hyphenated and teaching Buddhism at a local university while I work on the subject for my PhD dissertation.

    Anyway, that self-indulgent aside there was just to show that I became hyphenated out of circumstance, not any necessity inherent to UUism or my ideas of UUism. If there had been a good campus minister at Sarah Lawrence I can say with some confidence that I probably still wouldn’t be hyphenated. Many of my childhood friends (and my brother) are not hyphenated yet–as we move into our 30s most of them are still just UUs, three decades on. Few if any of us have ever considered ourselves Christian in any substantive way. We can see Humanist, Christian, Transcendentalist, Neo-Pagan, and other influences within our thinking about religion, but that doesn’t make us adherents to any particular creed.

    I said on Transient and Permanent (quick aside: the site name was quickly snapped up after I released it and is now hosting a porn blog!) that I was going to try to tone done my ruminations on “birthright” vs. convert UUs. But here I see an appropriate place to make this distinction. The fact is that people who grow up UU are by no means necessarily hyphenated. It is entirely possible and pleasant to just be UU, and to spend one’s whole life in this state, and it doesn’t suggest any self-exhaltation or self-aggrandizement. For that matter, my parents are definately just UUs–having left a very lukewarm Christianity they are simply UU, no more Christian than Humanist or any other thing. They are clear on their religious commitments and don’t see any need to go beyond a simple allegiance to Unitarian Universalism (stress on the second half, perhaps, since they attend a historically Universalist church and I can see clear shades of that orientation in their spirituality–and in mine, for that matter).

    I’m just laying out an overlooked but I think necessary part of the situation here. I could go on to try and describe what that common UUism of “birthright” UUs is more clearly, but that’s another post.

  4. IMHO, real UUism isn’t about seeking diversity, it’s about seeking what is good. Diversity is a natural byproduct of looking for what’s good, though.

    Amen to that, sister. Especially that second sentence. Might you be interested in teaching a course on this to future ministers?

  5. In defense of non-hyphenatedness:

    As I noted in a previous post before this discussion got an entry of its own (sorry I don’t know how to link back to that…), I came to UUism about four years ago. Despite the fact that I am in divinity school and preparing for ordained ministry in this tradition, I am still not completely aware of all the internal conversations and debates that go on in our faith. This was one of the ones I was not aware of. And it reminds me of when I was in high school and involved in a Christian church (for the first time) and I was shocked (shocked, I tell you) to realize that people were talking behind each others back and making fun of other people. Hadn’t they heard the sermon just a few weeks ago that made it clear that that was not something okay to do?!?! My point about this is that I often tend to see the best in religions and take them at face value somehow. Some might call it naive. Some might call it idealistic. Probably both.

    So anyway, I was not even aware that I fell into the “very haughty and a bit self-deluding” segment of our faith that does not hyphenate. I just sort of thought that some people in our congregations identify closely with one tradition, others with multiple traditions and others with none. In fact, that was one of the most exciting things to me about UUism — that I didn’t have to be Christian or Buddhist or Humanist, but rather I could be Unitarian Universalist and draw from the seven principles and the various sources listed after the principles as the things that brought us together. I (again, naively) thought that the seven principles and accompanying sources were the common basis for Unitarian Universalism. I was not aware, of course, that non-hyphenatedness “goes counter to the general drift of the movement for decades” (perhaps new members should get some sort of overview of these sorts of issues on new members Sunday).

    Yes, I do start from somewhere, but that place is not where I am now and doesn’t make me hyphenated. I am not daughter-of-a-Baptist-and-of-a-Catholic-attended-a-Methodist-church-considered-the-epsicopal-church-draw-
    from-Buddhism-Paganism-Gumanism-Unitarian-Universalist. This, of course, does not mean or imply that I think I am the core of Unitarian Universalism. To me, the whole idea is that we are ALL the core – that is how we get along (or agree not to get along, as the case may be for some) and continue because there is no one group that is the orthodox and then the deviation from that, but rather if one is on board with the seven principles and sources we draw from (sorry to keep coming back to those, but I just thought that that was sort of settled, but I’m thinking now not so much) that one is “in”, so to speak.

    Respectfully and sincerely,

  6. A few notes, then I’ll let people comment as they will, and move to part two. Reverse order.

    First, to Elizabeth, the Principles and Purposes — far from being the core of personal faith or a common faith — was a politically wrought document that probably (as much as anything) made thinking in terms of “hyphenations” possible. Those unfamiliar with the history ought to go back to the documents flying around ’84 and ’85 to see what they thought was at stake. Others have written extensively on the matter,and the seminaries are full of resources. The matter isn’t simple: ChaliceChick, you might want to say something here.

    We had been getting along — getting to Jeff’s point — assuming there were commonalities not in evidence. The Nashua book (a particular dislike) is case in point. I suspect people then and now tend to assume what’s true in one congregation is more or less true in others. King’s Chapel — so often visited when people go to Boston — gets a good deal of the cognative dissonance, being treated variously as impossibility, anachronism, deviant, or savior. (Little wonder it has an iconic status among the Christians, despite the lack of any recent outreach to them.) Unitarian Universalism — in history and place — is takes on local meaning, so that the whole idea of a common proclamation is already suspect. Again, I can’t but think that we haven’t talked about the matters that divide us usefully for the fear that the whole enterprise will fall apart: a working definition of dysfunction, no? Ignoring differences is as good as ignoring the other, but since this gambit hasn’t scared off any theological cohort yet, it isn’t likely to make anything clearer.

    Jeff, philosophically, makes some good points, but inherited religious identity isn’t much of a case when the vast majority of those who grow up in Unitarian Universalist congregations leave and don’t return. Or move, and find the local variety of Unitarian Universalism alien. Or just grow old in the same congregation and see what they knew to be true be openly derided. (Something the Christians and Humanists have in common: this this be a warning to all. Our notion of “progress” takes a terrible toll.)

    Lastly, ChaliceChick, I’m a bit tickled that you ended your comment by pitching out some boundaries. No real objections to your comments, but I don’t agree with your assessment of Unitarian Universalism as a community for free development. Not that it isn’t a good idea, but from being too many times on the sharp end of “you can’t do that here.”

  7. So is this thread the beginings of an UU theology thread or just all of us blind men rubbing that elephant?
    the optimism of the new vs the wearniss of the experienced? – or the optimism of what UU can be vs what it is?

    I sorta see here a slight attempt at what the UU tried to do earlier this year and failed: what do we have in common?
    what is our meaning? why do we go on sunday? What do we want?
    We say we have diversity, but how many UU folks actually profess to liking it? I hear lots of folks saying “you know if we get any more Christians, Pagans, Humanists, woo-woos, then I’m outta here. This used to be such a nice place before they came along – why cant they go back with their own kind?” And if you think Im joking about that – I’m not.
    our dirty little not-so-sceret is exactly what you said Scott, UU can be a place for folks to “see what they knew to be true be openly derided”. We often mumble a good story but fall short at implementation.

    there’s the old saying “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” , but that doesnt mean that we have to stomp him dead every single time….
    but let us be bold if we dare–what is or should Unitarian Universalist be to us?

  8. Some random thoughts on this topic….

    I have met some Unitarian Universalists who are truly hyphenated — the teenager I knew who did Catholic confirmation and her Coming of Age program — my friend who’s a member of a Jewish temple and a UU church and whose son will do bar mitzvah and Coming of Age — etc. Now that’s hyphenation. Anything else is a pale poor imitation therof.

    As someone who grew up Unitarian Universalist, I guess I got used to hearing people who described themselves as Universalists (Bob Needham, for one), and Unitarians (too many to count), and Christians (Dana Greeley sometimes called himself that, for one) and humanists (lots of folks). For me, that’s the norm, but it’s not hyphenation so much as this rich stew of people living out their religion. That’s what’s cool about being a Unitarian Universalist — we don’t have to limit ourselves to some narrow belief or creed. And if we can stop being so conflict-avoidant, we could really have a blast.

    What theologies unite us? Our flavor of ecclesiology (that’s why JLA is so important). Our flavor of theological anthropology (less well-thought-out recently, but think Hosea Ballou). Feminist theology (think about it, that’s what led to the “Seven Principles” process). And maybe recently we’re starting to see glimmers of queer theology and ecological theology that could serve to further unite us.

    Final thought — in Mass Bay district (the area around Boston), if you didn’t quite fit in to the nearest Unitarian Universalist church, you can easily find a more compatible one within a few miles. And most of the Mass Bay churches are big enough that you can find a like-minded group of people within the church. What if UU’s were that desnely packed everywhere? –I think it would change things for us.

  9. I think Dan is dead-on with regard to density, which is one (perhaps the biggest) reason I promote church growth (and by extension, effective administration) so much.

  10. one of the problems that I have in writing on the run (so to speak) is that after writing, re-writing, and moving stuff around; I often have better words (although not better spelled words), but have sometimes cleaned up my words to remove part of my original point. In the case above, I seem alot more down and negative that I am in person about UUA and UU (at least I hope I seem more negative than I actually am! I sure wouldnt want to hang around that gloomy gus myself!).
    Maybe a better (and shorter) thing for me to have said was

    “UU has problems and most of us know some if not most of them. How to solve them seems difficult, particuarly since some of the ways to solve them comes back to determing “what is that which holds us together”, And we seem not to want to answer that. But let us be bold if we dare – what should Unitarian Universalist be to us?

  11. The reverse question may be: where does hyphenation lead us, at the very end of the evolution road? IMO, either to the Interfaith Church model (what C. Scovel called the “federation of faiths”), and to UUism being a religious parasyte, with no thinking of its own but dependent on what other religions are affirming/producing/promoting. If you happen to think, as I do, that most if not all religions are obsolete, remnants of a pre-industrial past that are trying to survive by either vindicating the fundamentals (and thus opposing modernity), or by giving up their very own nature and centuries-old traditions in their frantic adaptation to a society that no longer accepts them as normative, then perspectives of being dependent of them makes the future look even bleaker.

  12. Interesting conversation. I’m a Quaker but Scott’s posted to my stuff a few times lately with the remark that the conversation is similar to internal UU debates and this is perhaps another issue that UUs and Liberal Quakers have in common. I’ve talked about hyphenated Quakers; generally I think of it as those who are culturally Quaker and part of the lived community of Friends but who’s spiritual nurturance comes from elsewhere.

    I’ve seen it as a question of influences. When we identify a problem or issue, where do we look for answers? Do we look to see what the Methodists are doing? What’s academia have to say? Have the UU’s weighed in on this? (Smile!). We often forget to ask what a traditional Quaker response might look like is a shame. Friends have had an interesting way of looking at the world and articulating issues of gospel order. When we forget the tradition, the tradition dies and the world at large loses a piece of its spiritual biodiversity. The answer isn’t to try to slavishly hang onto old forms (some Friends do and miss the whole point) but to engage with our tradition, to wrestle with and to situate oouselves as inheritors and stewarts of the living tradition. I’ve been calling this the “Conservative Liberal” option.

    I have no idea what this kind of approach would look like with Unitarian Universalists. I get the impression your traditions are even more spliced together than Friends’.

    An aside: Stephen brought up the ol’ blind man/elephant chestnut. Lately I’ve been thinking of it in terms of traditions, not people: what if Friends are the ones who have a good feel for a tusk, UUs for a trunk, certain fundamentalists with the hind quarters (ahem): can we as humans figure out the big picture if each of the traditions abandons its post?

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