|The U.S. guarantees freedom of religion and some churches in the U.S. take strong stances on political subjects. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
To summarize and add a little to what I wrote in the aforementioned blog post, UUism aspires to be non-sectarian and non-creedal in an effort to provide people who are uncertain of what they believe or who are hesitant to ascent to a particular statement of faith the comfort and freedom to explore their spirituality in a more open environment. This is in part a historical issue, as creeds have been used as litmus tests to divide those who were committed to the "right" views of a particular religious or politico-religious institution from those who were heretics and outsiders. As a result, many UUs jokingly refer to their religion as being founded upon the heresies of Western religion, particularly Roman Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity.
In addition, UUism has a strongly progressive/liberal bent to its culture which is reflected in its social justice programs. This is in opposition to the more conservative "fundamentalist" varieties of Abrahamic religions, especially North American forms of Protestantism. This, along with the very wide and open approach UUism espouses in spiritual seeking and study, appeals to people who have been wary of or who abandoned forms of religion which try to force a single, unquestionable set of beliefs and assertions about the ultimate questions of human existence. For many of these people, religion has been presented as a list of things which must be feared and obeyed upon pain of eternal torment. Often these things appeared to them as incongruous with their knowledge of the world, their sense of joy and compassion, and ultimately their ability to accept these things as true.
Thus, as mentioned, many who have been wounded by some forms of religion, or for some other reason have become jaded or cynical toward religion, are immediately put off by anything that sounds too religious, that sounds too specific or too sure of itself and its answers. For those who still desire some kind of spiritual connection, or some kind of healing beyond secular medicine, a religion which sounds in many ways like the opposite of the kind of religion they have either avoided or left sounds like just what they are looking for, and so it isn't uncommon to find such people attracted to UUism. While the UUA has a list of principles that are kind of like statements of faith, they aren't really (again, with the emphasis on not trying to impose beliefs on people). Thus, intentionally or unintentionally, UUism can give the appearance of being heavy on liberal politics through social justice, while its spirituality may come across as a far lighter (both in seriousness and tone) and less focused, with its religious elements in some cases seeming very superficial.
The end result is that one can on some level come away with the impression that in trying so hard to not be like what some fear, dread, or despise in other forms of religion, UUism is trying to replace it with a form of positive thinking spirituality (which I abbreviated as "pop" spirituality) and liberal activism. I outlined this overall impression and its contributing elements in my previous post emphasizing these qualities and using the more extreme examples of the same. In doing so, I stated that this should not be taken as a overall general impression of the UUA or UU congregations as a whole, and that there are many inviting, affirming, inspirational, and uplifting aspects to UUism as well. I noted that many people find a warm and comfortable place in UUworld in which to sort out their spiritual questions, and while many who want something more deeply spiritual or more firmly committed to a vision of something greater (God, Spirit Tao, Dharmakaya, etc.) may eventually move on, there are those who are raised within or choose to remain in UUworld as their religious home.
So, while it's all well and good to say that there are things I really like and respect about UUism, just what are some of these positive qualities of UUism that I find appealing or worthwhile?
Honoring the personal integrity of each individual's spiritual journey
This is a natural and logical outcome of honoring the UUA's principles, which are discussed below. While there are many denominations and sects of other religions which also honor the spiritual search of the individual, there are people who simply do not feel comfortable within those faith traditions. Even though creeds, professions and confessions of faith, and sacred rituals and imagery from these other traditions can generate accepting, inclusive, and expansive views of the self and others (including members of other religions -- see here for an example), the experiences and perceptions of such seekers, based on the more intolerant and close-minded examples of these other traditions, precludes involvement.
Whether this aversion to other traditions is temporary or permanent, and whether the seekers stay with UUism for a brief period or for a lifetime, offering a room and encouragement to get a fresh grounding in religion and spirituality is very valuable. My own experience involved a rejection of Christianity, a period of non-committal agnosticism, a period of strong(ish) atheism, followed by an interest and willingness in seeing what I might have missed from the world's sacred traditions. These initial few years of investigation (which took place outside of the UUA) followed the spirit of the book Create Your Personal Sacred Text and led to my discovery (while reading The Dhammapada, the Tao Te Ching, The Upanishads, and other texts) of the work of people such as Br. Wayne Teasdale, including his best known book The Mystic Heart.
During this period, I was very much like the people I have characterized who are put off by conventional religious structures and activities. While I eventually began to find ways and reasons to overcome such feelings and objections, I can definitely appreciate the value of having a supportive community in which to engage in such exploration. If I had attended a UU congregation during that time, I am sure it would have been a place I would have been fond of. If UUism can offer anything at all that is positive and encouraging to people in that position, it has accomplished an important and laudable service.
Commitment to social justice
This is a the other major thread running through the UUA's principles. There are many traditions, especially those in the Abrahamic family of religions, which have a strong commitment to promoting their values in the communities in which their members live. As an offshoot of Christianity, UUism has retained this trait. While some Christian denominations such as the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church (in America) have been moving towards explicit inclusion and welcoming of people such as those in the GLBT community in their own congregations as well as working for their civil rights, the UUA has a big head start in such efforts, which is epitomized in the slogan currently used for their social justice campaign(s), "Standing on the side of love."
While I have mentioned before that UUism sometimes seems to try to substitute social justice for contemplative and especially devotional spirituality, that observation should not be seen as taking anything away from the importance of working to uphold the dignity, welfare, civil liberties, and universal rights of every human being. By caring for and empowering the stigmatized and disenfranchised, the UUA are doing the work of the divine as it is known in sacred traditions around the world, even if many of the UUA's members reject any and all representations of God or some greater and deeper experience of reality beyond the conventional materialist view of existence.
In other words, while some may wish that within the UUA the ratio of profound spiritual engagement to activities promoting justice and equality wasn't skewed quite so heavily toward the latter (or perhaps that the latter might more fully embrace and be energized by the former), this is not the same as wishing that the UUA was less involved in advocating publicly for the value of human and non-human life. Again, in these efforts the UUA is to be commended.
Offering services and smaller fellowship groups to meet diverse needs
This might seem repetitive, as I have already mentioned offering a place for people who cannot or will not seek spirituality in other forms of religion, but this is about how this is done. In my recent critique of some aspects of UUism in line with another blogger's criticism and questioning of the religion in which she had been raised, I gave some example of things that represented the most potentially disappointing, frustrating, or off-putting aspects of UUism.
One of these involved a description of service that seemed dismissive (of other forms of religious spirituality) and contrived. The colorful description of this service is, I think, the part of that post that to me seems like it is itself being dismissive and condescending. I had written in that blog post that what seemed shallow or artificial to one person may seem challenging and genuine to someone else. In other words, what might be too little to one part of the audience may be just enough to another. But upon re-reading that section, I don't think this was explored sufficiently, so allow me to elaborate.
Imagine that you are a UU minister or part of the congregation responsible for crafting and staging various elements of the regular service and other offerings to your congregation, including its visitors. You know that many people have been damaged or offended by other religions as already discussed here, but you want to try to offer them something spiritually uplifting. The trouble is, if you get too specific (consistently referring to a term like "God") or use religious imagery or stories that are too familiar or associated with the religions most upsetting to those likely to be in your audience (in particular the Christian religion), rather than being uplifted people may be offended or tune out what you are trying to share altogether.
So maybe you try to use generic descriptions along with stories and images further removed culturally (in time and space) than the more familiar variety. You attempt to use these kinds of elements to put together a meaningful ceremony and rituals that are heavy on sugar and mild in spice, with an emphasis on that which sounds positive. Yet in doing so, you come across to some as appearing somewhat insincere. You try to translate the importance of spirituality in somewhat non-committal sounding language borrowed from the Enlightenment, leavening it with humor or little knocks on other religions, in order to make it palatable to those who might otherwise feel uncomfortable with the topic. But in doing so, the effort comes across as tinged with a degree of triviality or arrogance.
In the end however it is all in the eyes of the beholder. Again, these same things may be inspiring and meaningful to many experiencing them. That's why I mentioned checking to see if others shared the same impression. I do not envy UU ministers or others who must put these services together. It would be like a comic having an audience containing more than a few people who are wary of comedy and are hesitant to embrace their sense of humor because things are too serious for laughter. No matter what you do, you are likely to miss the boat with at least some of your audience, so you have to decide which needs you are going to minister to and which part of the audience can find what they are looking for elsewhere. Religious and worship leaders always have this dilemma, but I suspect it is particularly tricky for UUs.
And yet they do it anyway. Maybe what they offer isn't always going to speak to everyone in different phases of their spiritual development, and like any such endeavor there are going to be hits and misses even with their target audience, but they keep doing it anyway. They keep offering efforts that allow people who might otherwise never darken the doors of a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple to have some experience of fellowship in commitment to goals and values that transcend themselves. Another valuable gift of the UUA.
Offering space to other religions who need a meeting place
Some outside of the UUA might not realize this, but UU congregations are known as the place to inquire if your own religious or spiritual group lacks the funds to provide a separate, stand-alone meeting place. This doesn't mean that other religions don't do so, as there are Christian churches and Jewish synagogues who offer space as well, but given their reputation for being open and affirming and respecting the insights of sacred traditions from around the world this makes UUs a good choice to inquire about such an arrangement.
I am not talking here about the small group fellowships and ministries focusing on other traditions that are affiliated directly with the UUA itself, but these are worth mentioning also. It is another manifestation of the UU goal of supporting a full, free, and responsible search for the answers to questions of human existence, and it is another welcome offering to the communities that UU congregations serve.
The Church of the Larger Fellowship
This online form of UU community, which is now hosted at the site Quest for Meaning, is an interesting experiment in spirituality for those who are unable or unwilling to meet at a physical location with others as part of a UU congregation. I am not sure how exactly how what is offered in terms of worship services is different than what was available at the original site, but it is an idea that other sacred traditions have been very slow to embrace yet which the UUs have been doing for several years. And lest anyone think that my "but you could do more" critique is reserved for UUism, I have suggested in the past that religious groups with small numbers and scattered members (or those wishing to inquire about the religion) in countries such as the United States would do well to consider the UU online outreach program as a model to be emulated. Another forward-looking feather in the UUA's cap.
The UUA Principles and Sources
While they have been alluded to in other sections, they deserve their own separate mention. Here are the principles which are to guide every UU congregation:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Clearly, the social justice aspect is a primary concern of these principles, as discussed above. For what it's worth I would recommend adding a couple of their "sources" to the list of principles:
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.
I think it would make a significant difference. And while I am at it, I will again suggest that the UUA (or even individual congregations or persons) take a close look at the Snowmass Conference's Guidelines for Interreligious Understanding.
The principles of the UUA, the creeds and professions of other traditions, would mean nothing without the people who incarnate them. This is clearly seen in how people twist and fail to live up to the potential embodied in such statements by lacking the proper spirit with which to interpret and embody them. The people I have personally met or who I have encountered online who identify as UUs have been consistently friendly, thoughtful, and kind-hearted. This sort of thing should not be overlooked or devalued. There is not enough time nor sufficient space in this post to enumerate the many examples of such experiences, but my sincere thanks to everyone who has contributed to this impression.
It is hopefully clear by now that I am not advancing a one-sided view of the UUA. It may also be clear that many of things that can seem disappoint or frustrating about the UUA share the same roots as those aspects which are inspiring and engaging. No institution can all things to all people, and none are without flaws or deficiencies. The criticisms I and others make should not automatically be taken as deriding the UUA or warning others away from UU congregations. If that is the take-away from such critiques, or at least my own, then the real point has been lost.
Speaking for myself, I see potential (realized and otherwise) in the UUA (as well as Western Buddhism and the re-emergence of Contemplative Christianity). The UUA has undergone many growing pains over the last several decades as it has tried to understand itself and what it's vision is of something greater than the limits of the imagination of our hearts and minds in their self-centered configuration. It's vision of the "transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life."
I appreciate much about the UUA and would encourage those who are curious about spirituality but shy about religion and unwilling to explore more established traditions directly to give their local UU congregation a try. Of course, for those who are willing to explore them, you might want to try the UCC or the Episcopal Church for Christianity, or organizations such as the Buddhist Churches of America, Nichiren Shu (or Rissho Kosei-kai for a less formal version of the Nichiren tradition), or Zen groups like Cloudwater Zendo (which features an "Ask-a-Monk" section) for Buddhism.
So I will close by repeating my 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.
*still not referring to the publication of the same name.