Why stay with the Unitarian Universalists?

Dan Harper’s year-end blog post — The year in review: Unitarian Universalism — has coaxed me to do what I thought I would not do again: write about Unitarian Universalism, and particularly that part filled by the Unitarian Universalist Association. 

I’ve been nursing a post-COVID cough and so a long-form post will not do; I’ll take this a bit at a time, and hope to be more candid than usual. 

I’ll start with a question that’s followed me for decades, Why don’t you just leave? It’s rarely that direct and usually followed by some nostrum about how much happier I’d be elsewhere. I’ve looked, and haven’t found that Brigadoon. Besides, there’s all the signs of a bad-faith question; clearly the questioner would be more comfortable if I left. This was usually because I’m a Christian and that seems to bring out the worst fears. Wasn’t the UU past all that? My low opinion and subsequent non-membership in the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association also raises the alarm, except in that case I’m more likely to be talked about. Shameful business, but not a shame I bear.

But to answer the question and set the stage:

  1. I don’t let bullies win, or soothe their agita. Particularly those who have just arrived and have no idea about our history or traditions, religious professionals included. Unless there’s an overwhelming reason, I’ll stay where I’m planted.
  2. Many of my dearest and oldest friends are here.
  3. My lovely Universalist Christian church is a member of the UUA.
  4. The UU Christians were always the fun, thoughtful ones and that hasn’t changed.
  5. Pulling up stakes takes a lot of time and effort, likely without making deep connections there or returning to the parish. (The future of parish ministry being its own big thing.)
  6. Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists are notoriously fickle and this is not new. Ask John Murray and Andrews Norton. I’ve long said there’s room for one idea, at most (to crib the old joke) and the current idea is beginning to show wear and tear. Some of the most problematic people have vanished or gone quiet. I can wait for what comes next — save a real crisis of ethics in the UUA — even if all that’s next is silence. 

I work better in silence anyway.

3 Replies to “Why stay with the Unitarian Universalists?”

  1. Scott, glad to have you back! Your thoughtful writing has long moved me and led to deep reflection on my part.

    The UU Christians are definitely fun and thoughtful, and some of my favorite UUs. They also tend to be kind, and good company. After saying that, it would be nice if I were a UU Christian… and Jesus is my spiritual leader… but I’m really in the Transcendentalist camp, along with Louisa Alcott, Henry Thoreau, William C. Nell, Elizabeth Peabody. We tend to be impatient wild-eyed mystics, so we’re not really much fun, but at least we’re thoughtful. Also, there’s so few of us, not many people know what we are — you can say you’re a UU Transcendentalist, and people just look at you funny, but they don’t really make any judgements. I find that useful.

  2. Thanks, Dan. I think the Transcendentalists are seen as both less threatening and being “authentically Unitarian” so you’re welcome to cultivate large numbers.

  3. Scattered thoughts.

    I’ve seldom felt bullied in UU circles, but I have more often felt unwanted. Having a concern for Universalist theology ends up being a liability in the eyes of many. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, “Well that was then, this is now.” As if I were some sad atavism that needed to be banished to a book. Sometimes I tell myself otherwise, but the truth is that these experiences hurt.

    I’ve been elsewhere, including most recently a 7 year stint among the Quakers who use pastors (a tribe with their own Universalist Christian stripe). And I can tell you that the Quakers have their own very serious problems: frequent passive aggressive behavior, group think that masquerades as Divine leadings, and presently a community with an imploding capacity to be good stewards of their own institutions. The grass is not greener on the other side of the fence. It is just different grass no matter if it is Quaker, UCC, Episcopalian, or Swedenborgian. And lots of it shows different shades of yellow and brown.

    Much of what I stick around for in the UUA are specific congregations that embody a life-giving capacity for ministry, spiritual community, and religious grounding. I love these communities. But I’ve observed that the UUA is often irrelevant to the concerns of these same congregations. So they largely “do their own thing” in various degrees of seclusion.

    Finally, when congregational certification is complete I fully expect to see the major shrinkage of a number of long established major congregations, AND I also expect to see a steep decline in RE enrollment across the Association. Which saddens me as somebody who worked in RE for more than a few years.

    Prepare now for a Unitarian Universalist world that is smaller, older, and less able to communicate with the people around us.

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