Friday, July 27, 2012

For Mizz Bang on her critique of UUism

The version of the flaming chalice currently u...
The version of the flaming chalice currently used as the logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Having read PeaceBang's critique of her own denomination and its general disposition toward religion (hostile), spirituality (shallow), and visitors (pandering), I decided to write a comment on her blog. Then I realized it would be too long. I have too much writing to do right now, and I am way behind on my own blogging (which is a great hobby for someone like me), but I decided it might be worth it to punch out a response anyway over here and send the link over there.

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!
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  1. This is absolutely terrific. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thorough and articulate review of your perception of UUs.

    1. Hello PeaceBang. I was concerned that my caveat, that I was intentionally focusing on my impressions from the point of view of your own concerns rather than a offering a "fair and balanced" treatment, would be ignored or given short shrift. On the other hand, it seemed important to actually give a coherent picture of such impressions rather than a few anecdotes. I mostly write things here to help me recall and keep track of my thoughts and to keep myself honest, and this has included frustration or criticism involving Christianity and western Buddhism as well. I don't expect any religion, institution, or movement to be perfect or to get it right all of the time, but constructive criticism (hopefully) can't hurt.

  2. Hi Dave, I tend to agree with you on much of what you've said here. I have returned to UUism mostly for my children. I find that in many ways, I have found something of a home, but it often feels that things are really lacking. I had been a member of AA for 13 or 14 years, but have a difficult time the the local meetings (in the town where I moved).

    I am an atheist, but had continued to search for a spiritual context in life. I thought you might appreciate this sermon I wrote a few years back about morality and spiritual atheism. I am a lay-preacher and try to write sermons with substance and which challenge the congregations where I'm invited to speak:

    1. Hello Michael, thank you for your reply and the link. I had a response but it was too long, as you can find it by clicking here. The purpose isn't to be argumentative or dismissive, but rather to look into some the atmosphere that produces something like "spiritual atheism" and some of the potential contradictions of same. Be well.

  3. "It has the appearance and the rhetoric to draw people in but may appear to lack substance upon direct exposure."

    You are being awfully polite here Dave. . .

    Try this on for size =

    It has the appearance and the rhetoric to draw people in but many if not most Unitarian Universalists, including far too many U*U clergy and UUA administrators, are chronically unready, obstinately unwilling, and apparently even just plain unable to genuinely honor and uphold the letter and spirit of their own UU rhetoric. To borrow a line from Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein's own critical blog post -

    Deeply spiritual people who want a religious life without dogma but also without a constant haranguing about what “other religions” (ie, mostly Christian neighbors) do wrong, simply leave. They know they’ve been had by false advertising. They say to themselves, “This is a denomination that looks great on paper but feels lousy in practice.”

    The sad fact of the matter is that there is considerable extreme hypocrisy in the so-called U*U World in which far too many Unitarian Universalist U*Us (mis)conduct themselves in ways that are completely antithetical to the purported "principles and purposes" and other claimed ideals. As if that was not bad enough these U*U hypocrites obstinately refuse to responsibly acknowledge their unprincipled and even abusive behavior and properly atone for it. Au contraire, all too often these U*Us do their damnedest to shoot the proverbial messenger when someone dares to blow the whistle on them.

    1. Hello Robin,

      I have no actual quarrel with the UUA nor any basis for accusing people within it of misconduct. I was giving my impression of the UU experience from my own perspective, inspired, as is often the case, in response to something I came across on a UU blog that got me thinking. From what I can tell you seem to have your own beef with the internal structure of the UUA and its workings, but that is beyond the scope of my critique and you have already substantially documented your own experiences and disappointments quite extensively on your own blog(s).

      There are many spiritual seekers looking for a home, and despite my own critiques and usually unsolicited advice for the UUA, I realize that while it can't be a home for everyone it is a home for some. I don't have any reason to cast broad aspersions against their home based on my own experiences, thus my characterization reflects only the parts of my experiences relevant to PeaceBang's post on the matter. What you have called polite others have called tough or difficult to read. It wasn't intended to be either. If the UUA isn't the right place for you and if they are not open to your complaints and criticisms, I hope you find a community where you will be accepted and supported. I wish you well.

  4. Saying -

    "It has the appearance and the rhetoric to draw people in but may appear to lack substance upon direct exposure."

    Is just a somewhat long-winded way of saying that Unitarian Universalists do a rather poor job of practicing what they preach aka U*Us do not walk what they talk in their religious rhetoric.


    My point was that not only is your observation about the emptiness of U*U religious rhetoric quite correct, but that U*U failure to walk what Unitarian Universalism talks can be, and all too often is. . . rather worse than a simple lack of substance. There is little or nothing in Peacebang's blog post that I have not said before. In fact I reproduced much of what Peacebang said in that post on The Emerson Avenger blog with embedded links in Peacebang's words going to material that I had previously posted to the internet as much as a decade ago or even older.

    If the UUA aka Unitarian Universalism isn't the right place for me it is 100% because Unitarian Universalists aka U*Us not only abjectly fail to practice what they preach in their religious rhetoric (that is often so insincere that it is effectively fraudulent) but they even obstinately, and quite continuously. . . outright refuse to walk what they talk. This U*U hypocrisy affects FAR more people than just your's Truly Dave. I have seen plenty of evidence of numerous other persons of "inherent worth and dignity" being deeply dis*illusioned and even seriously harmed by Unitarian Universalist hypocrisy of one kind or another. And then U*Us wonder why Unitarian Universalism is what Rev. Peter Morales bluntly, but quite Truthfully and accurately, described as "a tiny, declining, fringe religion" in his "stump speech" announcing his candidacy for President of the UUA.

    Your observations and criticism here are "right on the money" for the most part. AFA*I*AC, if your critique deviates from being 100% accurate it is because it doesn't go far enough, as my initial comment suggested. Unitarian Universalism is in serious trouble these days and more and more Unitarian Universalists are finding out the hard way that there are some very good reasons why Unitarian Universalism has been "a tiny, declining, fringe religion" for quite some time now.

    Thanks for wishing me well Dave, but in order for me and other people who have been harmed by U*Us to truly "be well", Unitarian Universalists need to start sincerely practicing the Seven Principles in their human relations with me and other people rather than repeatedly making a total mockery of them.

    1. There is no institution that lacks members who sometimes fail to practice what it preaches, but there was more to what I wrote than simply suggesting some UUs may be guilty of this. It wasn't just about specific things that are listed in UU literature that members or congregations fail to live up to, as I didn't even list their principles. Much of it was about degrees of emphasis in terms of materialism, spirituality, generality of views, and the like. It was also about generically implied messages, in addition to explicit ones, that clash at times with the actual experiences of some visitors. This doesn't reduce to simply not "walking the talk", it is about the complex relationship between the history of the UUA, how religion has been done in North America, and how the UUA has adapted to those it has attracted who are fleeing or avoiding how religion has largely been done.

      I cannot speak to your experiences, but if you feel so strongly in the hypocritical and fraudulent nature of the UUA there is nothing at all that can stop you from letting go of your connection to that organizations or expectations about their willingness to change if that is what you truly wish to do. The Buddha was correct when he said that holding a grudge (a form of anger) is like drinking poison and hoping the other person gets sick. Whether or not you hold out hope for reform and reconciliation with regard to the UUA, keeping old wounds fresh will prevent any chance of healing.

      We all have the power to practice letting go of the stories we keep telling ourselves about those who have hurt us, the stories which stoke resentment and bitterness, whether or not we receive apologies or compensation from the offending party. That is an aspect of forgiveness. It doesn't mean we have to forget what happened, but we have the hope of freeing ourselves to some degree from the painful grip that the memory of the offense has on us. The more we practice forgiveness, the more free we become. That is something we each have to choose to do ourselves, and I cannot and would not make that choice for you.

      My wishing you well is about the intrinsic inner state that sacred traditions claims is always there, like the blue sky which is temporarily hidden by grey clouds. The blue sky is always there if we can but remember it. As Julian of Norwich wrote, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." You have your blogs and other platforms for venting against the UUA, for warning people about your experiences with them, or with which to engage the UUA constructively if that is what you desire, but I personally have no resentment toward that organization.


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