Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Whopper, hold the bun (Whither UUism?)

Or - whither UUism?

I don't know. To be fair, I am not a member of a UU congregation. I've visited one of the local congregations for a couple of Sunday services and participated in peripheral activities, but I have not made any real commitment. So, it's easy to say "OK, looking in from the outside, I don't like the looks of this and that from the window." Getting involved in the solution is always more effective than merely pointing out the problem. Yup. On other hand, sometimes what you can see from the street or the window can be enough to let you know "I don't think I want to call this place home."

So onto Burger King.

Yes, the fast food franchise. Burger King has long used the motto "Have it your way." For those under, let's say, hmmm, twenty five, you may not recall what fast food used to be like in some places. Not that it's a big deal, nor did you miss much. You would go in and they would have rows like little slides for each main sandwich. And they were made with standard toppings. All the regulars knew precisely what came on each sandwich. You could order one without this or extra that, yes, but mostly the idea was, here is our product, sitting here ready to go under a heat lamp. Special orders took extra time. As someone who got everything plain, I was very aware of how much of a pain fast food folks often found my request. Sometimes they would make a new sandwich, but often they would just toss out the top half of the bun, scrape off most of the toppings, and pop a new top on. I could still taste the remaining ketchup and mustard and the juice that had trickled down from the pickles. Most people just took what was there.

So it was a big deal to advertise that at BK your sandwich was always made to order and the burger meat was fresh off the grill. Now everyone makes the sandwich to order every time. So now let's take that image and use it as analogy for UUism.

That's right, I just called UUism the Burger King of religions and religious groups. I really do think that the motto fits - "Have it your way." Now, in the case of fast food, that motto set a level of service that other chains eventually adopted. It was a positive innovation. Rather than the same old pre-formatted, rigidly formulaic religious traditions in their bland wrappers, the comparison between UUism and Burger King suggests that UUism can give people what they really want, hot and fresh with the Spirit, to suit their own experiences and tastes.

Now onto the punchline I used as a title for this post. OK, there was a joke about just how far one could go with BK's "Have it your way" policy. What if people took it to an extreme? The original Bloom County comic adopted this idea in a strip where the main character orders a Whopper, "hold the bun". After finally getting the employee to honor the company motto and call back to the fry cook for a whopper minus the bun, without missing a beat the customer then asks for a milkshake, sans the cup.

So now we are getting to it - just how much can UUism (which in the form of the UUA is a collection of affiliated, localized congregations) honor the concept of "Have it your way?" before becoming a Whopper without a bun or a milkshake without a cup? In some extreme cases, one can imagine a new version of the above routine in which the customer asks for a Whopper without a bun... or cheese... or any condiments... or any veggie toppings... or any meat. The hapless employee looks up and says "Uh, so you just want the wrapper?" The customer says, "That's right, and make it snappy!" Without missing a beat, the employee asks "You want a fry box with that?"

Just what is it that makes a Whopper a Whopper? How much can we take away and still rightfully call it a Whopper? If a sandwich is a meal made by putting something edible between two slices of bread, then does a Whopper sans the bun qualify as a sandwich? And however we finesse and parse our definitions and their implied religious counterparts, what is it that people are hungry for?

I don't know that I speak for anyone else, but here is my order. I don't want a pre-made sandwich with the toppings mostly scraped off. But I also don't want an empty (or even mostly empty) wrapper. I want a filling sandwich that is tasty and nutritious. Of course understanding what that might mean requires a clearer idea of what I think the sandwich should look like in general.

To me, a large part of religion is going to church. Obviously we can substitute in mosque, temple, synagogue, etc, but we go for a shared experience. But what kind of experience? I would say one primary feature is expressing the values and principles of the religion through its symbols and imagery to address the urgent questions of our lives. Some are existential - who are we? why are we here? where are we going? what is it all about? Others are more practical - how should I deal with a particular kind of emotion or ethical dilemma? how do I handle a crisis or other stressful situation? Some are a mixture of both - does my past make me a bad person? what can I do to make my life more fulfilling?

Now, from a "Have it your way" perspective, this might seem like we are saying, "OK, let's draw on a number of different insights from various sacred traditions to really scrutinize and examine these questions."

Another important aspect of the church experience would be a celebration of a shared vision of something transcendent in which we are united. This celebration would include joyful songs and hymns and various other liturgical elements such as lighting candles and incense, making offerings of flowers, water, or fruit, prayers and meditation, etc.

In Have-it-your-way-ism, this might sound like speaking in many ways of One Truth beyond any one sacred tradition but which can also unite them all.

So, if we put these elements together, it would go something like this: Addressing the urgent questions of life and creating a sacred space in which to open ourselves in common liturgy and private reflection to the transcendent by drawing on insights from various sacred traditions pointing to (the) ineffable Ultimate Reality.

It's not complete - the description could be fleshed out a little more, but it certain is a good start for outlining the parameters in which our individual tastes can operate. In other words, these are like the bun and the cup. We may quibble about what goes in each, but they are the basic necessities. The liturgy or order of service in and of themselves are simply the wrapper.

So looking at things such as the current and upcoming themes for services in most area UU congregations, the large majority of what I see is about social justice, social justice, learning about other cultures in general, social justice, what it means to be a UU, what it should mean to be a UU, what it could mean to be a UU, social justice, and important figures in UU/social justice history. Maybe it's just timing. I don't know. Maybe there is more to it than what it looks like. I can't say for sure. But the impression I am generally left with, and not just from a survey of current service topics, is that the stuff I am looking for is there mostly for show, perhaps given lip-service, and certainly played up on the UUA website and promotional materials.

I am not knocking social justice, by the way (nor the UUA!). If we are humbled and uplifted in our encounter with Ultimate Reality, and if we take the expression of principles and values told through religious language and imagery to heart, then yes, the outcome should be a commitment to make a practical application of that vehicle (principles/values) and that fuel (our encounter). That's the gist of the whole "by their fruits shall you know them" litmus test of genuine spiritual growth. But to change analogies for a second, it's important not to focus so much on the fruit that we neglect the roots, trunk and branches.

So that brings us back to the subtitle of the post - whither UUism? I don't know the answer to that. But what I do know is that I am hungry.

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