|The version of the flaming chalice currently used as the logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
This blog isn't new to a critical "you could and should be more" stance towards UUism. Just check out the somewhat in need of updating selected archives about two thirds of the way down under the heading "UUism and spiritual potpourri..." The one about the Whopper might be a good place to start.
I agree with much of what PB writes in terms of my own experience with UUism, limited as it is, and I am going to give some caveats first. Most of the UUs I have encountered in UU services have seemed very pleasant and friendly and my sense is that they were good, decent people.
Second, I've only had very limited exposure to a small handful of congregations, all of them in the eastern United States. I've never attended more than, say, three to six services at any particular UU congregation. While that may not qualify me to talk about the "real" feel of a congregation as seen by its members, it does give me perspective on a short term visitor's experiences and reactions.
Third, I have my own biases and issues when it comes to religion and spirituality. I came from a Christian background that I consider a mixed blessing, which I became thoroughly disenchanted about and severed ties with early in my adulthood. I drifted through agnosticism, anti-religious atheism, open and sympathetic non-theism, and then moved into a place where I'm a kind of spiritualist without an actual sense of spirituality who has practiced and draws upon Mahayana Buddhism and contemplative Christianity. My experiences with UUism started from the period of moving from "anti-religious atheism" toward "sympathetic non-theism" onward.
OK, with that out of the way, here is my reaction to what PB wrote.
Based on UU publications, blogs, and my encounters with UU congregations, here is how I generally see UUism and UUs as a whole with regard to the kinds of criticisms raised by PB. Yes, of course, there are exceptions, but again this is the appearance to at least some outsiders and visitors:
- completely materialist and secularized, wherein "spirituality" does not refer to greater depths of existence obscure to the casual observe nor to deeper levels of consciousness and awareness beyond conventional reductionist notions of the mind (note: in contemplative and mystical traditions it is both). In other words, in UUworld* the mind is only the ephemeral collection of cognitive processes produced by the brain and interactions in a social context. The idea that some fundamental and expansive form of consciousness may exist at more subtle levels reality, and that the conventional western notion of "mind" might be a finite, localized expression of this larger awareness--an idea which in various forms underpins the traditional notions of spirituality (also known as that which gives life, the deep rhythm which underlies the readily observable universe, etc.)--is a quaint superstition (along with the other depictions and notions of spirituality and their related imagery). It's value in UUworld is that it those who discuss it sound somewhat progressive with the whole "deep down we are all one" talk; and such talk, taken superficially, can be incorporated into a kind of positive thinking/cheery attitude pop psychology that is part of the UU experience.
- anti-religious, giving lip service to the historical value of religion and selectively quote mining from sacred texts, commentaries, and other sources which correspond to modern notions of liberal politics and progressive thought as well as to a generic "positive thinking" form of pop spirituality which is mixed with a general appreciation of emotional calm and the beauty of nature. However, there is a strong impression that religion is inherently intolerant, ignorant, anti-modern, manipulative, and so on, and taking religion seriously is dangerous and counter-productive to personal growth and to progressive social change. Fundamentalism is the prime example of religion taken too seriously. All services must therefore be self-conscious about not taking any of the readings, hymns, or sermons too seriously, especially when they might involve some kind of firm and unambiguous conviction that is more than just an expression of generalized liberal political values or generic common sense. This is especially true concerning convictions about how to move toward the kind of spirituality or recognition of the divine that has already been rejected (see above). And there can be no serious or binding commitment to anyone other than oneself regarding the formal adoption of such convictions or the adoption of practices intended to take such beliefs seriously.
- unwilling to take anything other than vague notions of personal integrity and liberal political views seriously in the service or during coffee hour. See above. It is very reminiscent of the joke about crossing a Jehova's Witness and a Unitarian to produce someone who knock on your door for no particular reason. There is a lot of pride over a list of principles and sources but even these are taken so lightly (except when endorsing positive thinking and liberal politics) as to be superfluous. This certainly stems from current and historical abuse by some in other religions regarding creeds, which are seen in UUworld as intellectual straight jackets rather than as central pillars of common faith (even when allowing or engendering differences of interpretation).
- composed mostly (or most vocally) of people who were damaged or hurt in some way by other religions and therefore very distrustful of anything that too much resembles or functions like religion (see pretty much everything else listed so far). Thus (it looks like) there is little or nothing at the core of UUism other than positive thinking and liberal politics because those are being used to replace the utterly serious notion that there is some common truth that is bigger than individuals, bigger even than our species and all of its accomplishments, and therefore there is something much greater about life. Such a profound view of something more, when continually explored and when the results and methods are tested and passed on for centuries or millenia, give us the great sacred traditions of the world and their associated religions. In UUworld, this something more, this Tao, this Dharmakaya, this Great Spirit, this Original Mind (which by the way in the East is more akin to what we in the West call the heart and includes the intellect as well), this... dare I say it?... this God is intentionally left unexplored. Well, except again for the pithy, inspirational sounding excerpts and soundbites sprinkled in here and there. And of course, these must come from a fair and balanced collection of sources so as not to offend anyone but more importantly not to take any particular source too seriously. While it is true that at greater depths of such exploration the contemplatives and deeply devotional all start sounding alike, they all got there by commitment to and practice involving a particular vision of this greater something. It was then that they discovered a unity in the diversity of faiths. Having abandoned and eventually coming to despise its original Christian vision, UUworld refuses to seriously cultivate and develop its own vision, it's own set of teachings and forms of veneration of such a vision, or its own set of practices aimed at following these teachings as a way of realizing the power and veracity of this vision.
- a halfway house for many seeking the right sacred tradition rather than a destination, which is abundantly clear if one accepts the characterization already given. It can't really be a destination for many of these seekers because it cannot or will not offer what is essential to going deeper into the mystery which spirituality and religion aim to propel people. Some UUs bristle at suggestions they aren't part a "real" religion, but maybe it stings so much because there is some element of painful truth in such comments. There are of course those think they can go it alone in their do-it-themselves approach but enjoy the fellowship, those who simply miss or desire weekly meetings with hymns and socializing, or those who supplement their UU experience with small-group fellowship or trips to the church, synagogue, ashram, or synagogue down the road, but it seems like there is a an obvious concern about getting new people to keep coming back. That kind of concern usually comes from having visitors routinely leave after a brief period of attendance.
- lacking in well-trained, disciplined, and seasoned spiritual practitioners who can guide and instruct others on their own journeys. These are the people who have demonstrated dedication to some vision of the Greater mystery and Bigger something and have acquired the practical experience which comes from the devotional commitment to seeking that vision. They have been tempted by their passions, the concerns over status and accomplishment that fuel spiritual materialism, and the times in which individual effort and academic intellect were not sufficient to continue on the path. Their reward has been patience, insight, and humility. It isn't just enough to have (more of) these people but to put them in roles and positions where their wisdom can serve others through teaching or example. This problem afflicts all religions, but perhaps is more acute for UUs.
The list could go on, but it would start to become recursive and redundant. The basic theme is that UUism can seem all cool and exciting on the outside but hollow and disappointing on the inside. It has the appearance and the rhetoric to draw people in but may appear to lack substance upon direct exposure.
Here are some examples of what I am talking about (spread over several years and various locations and in no particular order):
- going online to look up local UU churches and finding the recent and upcoming sermon topics either superficial sounding or disrespectful to anyone who takes religion even slightly seriously, especially with regard to Christianity.
- attending a service full of more enlightened-than-thou (in the sense of the historical intellectual movement) attitude and pleasantly framed dismissiveness toward anything other than the aforementioned faux spirituality-light than you could shake a phylactery at; a service which was simultaneously full of contrived looking efforts to honor some vague archetypes and sacred truisms.
- seeing a co-worker who had gone to the above mentioned service and finding her to be as unimpressed as you were.
- watching someone try to sign up visitors who have been attending a couple of weeks to help with activities while actually saying (perhaps unintentionally) that it's how they get people to keep attending/join the congregation.
- seeing someone in the service stand up during the part where joys and concerns are shared and mentioning the word God as if it were profanity (and actually emphasizing, "Yes, I said 'God'...").
- hearing someone at a different service/congregation reminding people that they don't meet as UUs because "some God" wants them to.
- knowing someone who had less than positive experiences with religion while growing up who was put off from UUism because of jokes about UUs being utterly heretical (not really blaming the congregation, I'm sure it was meant to put people at ease, but not everyone is so eager to be part of a stridently controversial sounding religion that sometimes comes across as intentionally disrespectful of other religions or casually blasphemous).
I am not saying this is what all or most UU congregations are like. Not even close. The sources for the impressions and examples given may have, in actuality, been very different if one had kept attending for a few months. There are certainly UUs who will not at all recognize their own beliefs, attitudes, or experiences at UU services in what is written here, perhaps even those involved. No objections here to any of that. What one person sees as contrived or superficial may be just the right (or tolerable) level of spiritual engagement for someone else. Different strokes for different folks, and all of that. No doubt many people find strength, encouragement, the joy of fellowship, and a safe space to consider spiritual and religious questions in UU congregations. In no way is that being knocked or dismissed.
This is simply what UU writings (books, blogs, etc) and my own first-hand experiences have impressed upon me, at least in terms of the criticisms that PeaceBang mentioned. It doesn't mean that there has never been anything beautiful, welcoming, affirming, or uplifting about these same interactions with UUworld. Far from it. So don't assume these books, blogs, congregations, etc have little or nothing to recommend them. The examples used are extreme ones. But on-balance I do tend to lean away from actually being a part of that world.
I wonder if UUs might do better to reach out and draw in people who are happily practicing other faiths as unofficial members or ambassadors if they are going to reject having their own strong vision of the Great Something. Maybe act as a kind of safe meeting place for shared values and commitments, while having different presentations of the sacred offered by such affiliate members and received respectfully and gracefully by the rest. Honestly, I am not sure what will work so long as UUism has that "God"-shaped hole in its center (and this comes from someone who has no real sense of the presence or reality of the divine).
In any case, I continue to hold a frustratedly hopeful wish for the maturation and success of the "uncommon denomination" and its potential to offer a fiercely bold, utterly serious, and blessedly uncompromising vision in which compassion, wisdom, and love shine forth from a Source with many names regardless of our religious squabbles, a light and warmth that shines through each of us by our humility, our practice of virtue, the necessary faith in this Source (for such genuine humility and selfless practice), and a shared devotion to it and to each other.
*refers to the way UUs see things, not to the publication of the same name.
UPDATE: In order to give a more complete picture of my impression of the UUA, a post on What I like about the UUniverse is now available. Thanks!