The Liberal Church Finding Its Mission: It’s Not About You

Recently, a fellow who does some work for my congregation was in the building. We had never met before, and so we introduced ourselves and chatted for a while in the church office. At one point he said to me, “You know, I should tell you this story. I have a thirteen-year-old son who has been asking a lot of religious questions lately. I was raised Catholic, but we’re not involved at all, and haven’t really given him a religious education. One day, my son was with me in the car when we drove by another Unitarian Universalist church. He asked me, because he knew that I had done some work for them, what kind of a church it was. When I told him, he asked what Unitarian Universalists believe. So I told him, ‘Well they don’t really believe anything specific. It’s a religion where whatever you think or believe or feel is what the religion is all about.’ And my son said, ‘That’s the kind of church I want to go to!’” And the fellow chuckled and we had some pleasantries about his teenager being a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it.

But my pleasant façade betrayed the bomb that had just gone off in my head. Oh dear God, it’s true. We have institutionalized narcissism. Here was a person that was not involved in a Unitarian Universalist church, and yet knew something about us. As an outsider, the message he received about what we stand for is: It’s about whatever you want it to be about. It’s all about you.

This man did not invent this perception of Unitarian Universalism. He got it from somewhere. He got it from us. It could be posited that many thoughtful UUs talked to him about our creedless religion, our covenanted communities in which one is free to search for truth and meaning. It’s likely that thoughtful UUs explained being gathered around basic principles and values rather than beliefs and doctrines. But what he heard was: We don’t believe anything. We’re just making this stuff up as we go along to suit ourselves. Of course, it’s also possible that this is precisely what he was told.

There’s a difference between a free and disciplined search for truth and meaning, unencumbered by doctrine and “a religion that’s all about you and whatever you want.” How does, “You are responsible for discerning your spiritual path” become “Whatever you think, believe, or feel is what the religion is”?  How did we become the religion that puts its faith in you (to quote an ill-conceived denominational slogan)?

A good deal of this slippage comes from a lack of opportunities for faith formation in our congregations, especially among adults. A disciplined search for truth and meaning takes effort; it takes discipline. Being unencumbered by doctrine ought not imply that doctrine is not examined for the truth it may contain. Indeed, not being constrained by creedal formulations seems to have been translated into an abandonment of theological reflection altogether.  We offer a non-dogmatic approach and context to religious inquiry without equipping members of our communities for the search. Discerning your spiritual path is difficult without tools, without support.

Faith formation is not simply adult religious education. Run a couple of classes on building your own theology and spiritual practice and then you’re done. Formation involves worship and preaching, mission work and governance. It’s the work of the entire enterprise of being church together. It takes place collectively, mutually as well as individually. We are also formed as people of faith in conversation with the tradition, with our historic testimonies. The tradition speaks to us and we respond. We respond lovingly, critically, thoughtfully–but recognize that our historic context has a voice shaping today’s conversation about who we are and what we’re about.

And it takes discipline. It is telling, I think, that the 1961 principles of the newly formed Unitarian Universalist Association speak of a “free and disciplined search for truth and meaning” and the statement’s revised 1980s version is, “a free and responsible search.” I also find it telling how Unitarian Universalists like to speak, when they do at all, of “spiritual practices,” but almost never “spiritual disciplines.” Being together in community takes discipline and effort. I think we have become lazy and simply tell each other, “You do your thing, and I’ll do mine. You have your spiritual practice and I have my book discussion group. Whatever.”

Engaging one another in a spirit of curiosity, openness and humility, with the recognition that one might be mistaken, or one’s own perspective might be partial, is the opposite of institutionalized self-involvement. The practice of hospitality is the antidote to self-centeredness. The ever-present narcissism enshrined in our congregations spawns entitlement and complaint rather than engagement and curiosity because, well, you’re not giving me what I want!

There is a contradiction inherent in liberal religion. We are free, autonomous individuals in community with one another. Tension exists between freedom and connection, autonomy and community. There is no getting around it. Our calling is to live gracefully in that tension, holding them with equanimity, without being weighted as we are now toward individual freedom and autonomy. Our capacity for being a transformative presence in the world is diminished when we neglect the communal, connected, covenanted aspect of our life together and when we focus primarily on the individual and their freedom. Our institutions suffer.

When my congregation was in search for a new minister, they conducted a workshop on welcoming their new settled clergyperson with the district executive. When she asked, “What is the minister’s primary job,” somebody answered, “To make us happy.” “To serve our needs,” somebody else chimed in. The DE replied, “Guess what? The minister’s job is not to make you happy. The minister’s job is to serve the mission of the church.” There was a sharp intake of breath in the room. That moment was such a shock of recognition that the people who were there remember it still. It’s not all about me. It’s not all about my needs.

At church these days, and in our movement more broadly, we are having conversation about mission. What are we for? What are we called to do? Where are we being sent? In a collection of individuals, each on their own responsible search, these questions are impossible to answer. There is no “we.” There is no shared identity, let alone shared sense of purpose or vocation.

I am skeptical about Unitarian Universalism ever becoming the sort of missional religious movement that some of my colleagues and friends are imagining. A group of like-minded individuals doing community service together with no theology, no discerned sense of vocation, is not a faith community; it’s the Rotary Club. A group of people dedicated to liberal ideals with no (perhaps I should say) shared theology, shared sense of vocation is not a church. It’s a political club. The National Lesbian and Gay Task Force do a fine job of fighting for LGBT equality. Why would I join a church to do that? The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is doing terrific work (as are other organizations) defending the rights and freedoms of immigrants. I support the ADC. Why would I join a church to do that? Local service agencies alleviate suffering of all kinds and use my volunteer time. Why would I join a church for that?

Religious liberals, both within our movement and beyond it, dropped theology in favor of social action in the twentieth century. We are compelled to do social justice work, but we have little or no understanding of why this is religious. To base whole congregations around this kind of mission work without a clearly articulated theology is to reinvent the Rotary Club for religiously inclined political liberals. And a clearly articulated theology of social ministry is not possible as long as “theology” is whatever individuals happen to believe, think, or feel at any given moment.

Inasmuch as Unitarian Universalist communities continue to neglect discernment, theology, discipline, spiritual practice, faith formation, vocation and engagement with our historic testimonies and tradition, we will never be a missional religious movement. As long as we are known as the church of individual seekers we will never have the kind of impact that a missional religion has on transforming the world. It should go without saying that the chronically self-involved have no interest in serving the needs of others.

What would it take for us to be known in the wider community for some of the traits, characteristics and perspectives we hold in common and that we continue to share with our historic legacy? What would it take for our communal calling as a faith community to become as important as our much-vaunted individual spiritual journeys?

What would it take for a parent, in the car with their thirteen year old, to be able to say, driving past a Unitarian Universalist meetinghouse, something like:  That’s the church where they believe you can hear God talking in nature. Or: That’s the church where they teach religious studies and make you think about what to believe. Or perhaps: That’s the church that says there’s no Hell. As well as: That’s the church that houses homeless people in its building in the winter. That’s the church that helps you recover from addiction.

What would it take for us to be the religion that puts its faith in something larger than you?

95 Comments

  1. Hane

    I’m a fairly new UU, having come to our denomination in my mid-50s, after a lifetime of devout Roman Catholicism. It saddens me a bit when I am considered a bit “quaint” for being a theist and for wanting to learn more about the history and philosophies of Universalism and Unitarianism, for wanting a greater feel of religious community. Am I nuts for wanting something a little more than a fairly ethical social club?

    • Friend, you are not nuts. Your intuition for more history and philosophy is a good one–follow it! We need more of that, and indeed, I have seen over my years as a UU greater attention being paid to our historic testimonies.

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  3. You are articulating exactly why I stay in my evangelical Foursquare church even though I’m doctrinally (is that a word?) liberal. I’ve never felt a desire to seek out a UU church because I just don’t see the point of going to a church where we can all happily slap eachother on the backs and tell eachother how enlightened we are, yet fail to engage with the wider world beyond the liberal agenda UU is known for.

    • Thomas Drake

      Josh, this is exactly why I struggle at remaining a UU,

  4. It would take a huge break from the love of the bureaucracy our faith is known for. It would take a lot less discussing about discussing, and preparing for and preventing the perceived slight on an imagined someone’s delicate sensibilities. It takes a lot more doing and a lot less saying.

    • If we were as effective doing as we are discussing, we’d be growing leaps and bounds. Our endless discussions, explorations and failure to commitment to our larger community and believe that together we are better than what we are as individuals. Until we learn to have faith in our own community, and that our community is wiser than any of us as individuals, we will continue to focus on all the things we are not, rather than celebrating the things we are and can accomplish when we are together.

  5. Excellent article. If we don’t articulate our theology – whether it’s about social justice, same-sex marriage, or why being in community makes you a better person – then divisions among us get swept under the carpet and we are not being in community. We need to have dialogue (genuine dialogue where people are open to changing their mind about things) not just the kind of tolerance that does not involve really engaging with each others’ ideas.

  6. Paula Greenwood

    Thank you, Peter, for articulating some of the confusion I feel when trying to respond to questions about Unitarian Universalism. Please continue this thread – it’s so helpful for all of us as we continue to grow as a community. And a warm hello to you, dear Peter.

  7. Deborah Bly

    Always so good not with words but putting things in a perspective that makes us think and self reflect to grow better than we were yesterday not just for ourselves, but those around us.

  8. bond perry

    I am a 71 year old man who grew up in the Universalist Church….and that was the religion of the preceeding 5 generations in my family. When I enter my church sanctuary I have no doubt about the powerful spirituality of my faith. I hear the words of the hymn….”Forward through the ages in unbroken line, move the faithful spirits to the call sublime…..” Others maybe confused about their faith……to quote emily dickinson…..I live and travel it “as if a chart were given”. My UU minister in Vista California once said to me……”We are held in love and mystery….deeper than we will ever know”……that “Blessed Assurance” is real to me and a central part of the UU faith I have cobbeled together over the years.

    I am proud to stand in a rich and vibrant spiritual tradition…..it sustains and inspires me.

    • Chester Randolph

      “We are held in love and mystery,,,deeper than we will ever know.” Yes! Thank you for this blessing.

  9. Because when I said that Unitarian Universalism is a type of protestant Christianity based in the acceptance of the singularity rather than trinity of God and universal salvation through Jesus Christ instead of salvation for a few, and that these doctrines are viewed by the Catholics as heretical…someone gave me the feeling I needed to shut up until or unless my tithe got a lot bigger and I was ready to “duke it out” with the humanists who get upset when the minister says God during one of our Sunday services, and some old woman tells me to shut up about Jesus so I don’t alienate our paying pagan members, and they do treat me like this even though I grew up a UU, have practiced it as an adult and spent years bringing my son to church to keep the tradition. That’s why “foo foo”. I agree that a disciplined search for truth and meaning matters – and actually I have done some pagan stuff, but it was for specific limited reasons which I haven’t really discussed and was never intended to turn into “my religious conversion”.

  10. Kayla R.

    Thank you for articulating this! I am a life-long UU and presently a college student majoring in religion. I’ve spent hours engaged in discussion about such things with UUs and non-UUs alike, so this is something I’ve thought a lot about. What steps do you think we can take in order to move toward that vision articulated in the last paragraph?
    Really appreciate this article!

    • Well we’re on this journey together, and we’ll take steps we (communal “we” not the royal we!) are led to take and learn as we go along, making course corrections as needed. Keep reading here as I thrash this out in conversation with all of you, and where we can explore steps related to discernment, theology, discipline, spiritual practice, faith formation, vocation and engagement with our historic testimonies and tradition.

  11. lefthymiou

    This is exactly why I left our UU church. No one except our minister seems to really understand, although they hear my words and accept my decision. Nobody who is still involved there seems to see the need for a “shared” theology on which to base a real mission for the church.

    • It isn’t so much that we don’t share a theology, as that we can’t articulate that shared theology. for example, most UUs I know believe in “a woman’s right to choose,” but we haven’t found anyone who can say what religious principles support that. Why do we believe that? Which of the seven principles gives us that position?
      Could we have a curriculum of required classes? With a certificate of graduation?

  12. Chelsea

    Great post! I want a church that thinks this way. Right now it is easier to find outside the UU world than within it.

  13. Bruce M.

    I hear this kind of argument commonly, and tho I am a theological neophyte, I am satisfied with my stock reply: read the seven principles we affirm, carefully and intently. The first one alone is an incredibly challenging and worthy philosophy to PUT INTO PRACTICE both personally and and as a community. The last one was the first clear statment on the envirmental cause made by a major religious group, and is still blithely overlooked by many others because the Bible makes no mention of it.

    Then look at the many position statements UU has put into print on everthing from gay marriage to euthinasia. While I agree that I’m not impressed with any group that doesn’t “walk the talk”, I feel UU’s have a rich depth to be proud of and do further work with. I don’t know what’s being suggested here that wouldn’t smack of clay tablets and bannishing unbelivers, just the sort of stuff that many worthy folk who come through our doors are trying to avoid.

    • As Doug Muder said, religion isn’t about what details you believe, it’s about how you are to live your life in order to be fulfilled. We don’t articulate it all that well, but UUs are, according to our district executive, “Much more honest than average.” That’s a start.

  14. Patricia Tuton

    Thanks. I know why I joined my UU church, but when it comes to trying to explain it to a friend who doesn’t see the need to join, I’m at a loss. This helps, but we need more on going dialog for sure!
    Pat Tuton

  15. Eric Bliss

    Absolutely spot on. Thank you. I hope every UU reads this.

  16. Gerald Ford

    Many of us who are conservative say the same thing…”There is a contradiction inherent in [conservative] religion. We are free, autonomous individuals in community with one another. Tension exists between freedom and connection, autonomy and community. There is no getting around it. Our calling is to live gracefully in that tension, holding them with equanimity, without being weighted as we are now toward individual freedom and autonomy.”

  17. Republican uu

    It is about me And you, too. This is not so hard, people. How you relate to others, your role on Earth. No, it is not just a social club- but it is a community where we are supposed to be free to express our ideas about spiritual relationships with each other. It is definitely not supposed to be an arm of a political party, as this article and some church services would have you believe. The focus is supposed to be Me and You working together to have the world become a better place for all of Us and nurturing our spirit in the process.

  18. Katie O'Hare Gibson

    Thank you, Peter. I am one of those that remember the moment when she said, “The minister’s job is not to make you happy”, and all but yelled out “Hallelujah!” Ours is a long road with no set destination, which is what makes it such an exciting journey!

  19. I have blogged on this subject many times, and have never gotten satisfactory answers. In a comment to this post ( http://cuumbaya.blogspot.com/2010/03/church-as-school.html ), I said this: “So what is at our core? If advocacy is truly our core, then we’re miserable failures at our core mission. I mean really, if all we are is a halfassed ACORN, then logically speaking couldn’t we be of greater service to mankind by disbanding and devoting all our resources to groups who are actually doing the work we’re advocating? Why are we wasting all that money on the overhead of a thousand congregations and a central organizing body when successful advocacy groups for everything we advocate already exist? Why not give to and work for these causes directly? Oh, and if we’re “…not defining a religious grounding for our advocacy…”, then it doesn’t merely appear political, it is political.

    If advocacy is not our core, then what is? I have asked the question before, and gotten a hundred answers- but no one answer. UU has no mission statement; we don’t even have a universally agreed upon “elevator statement”. I’ve heard it said that if you can’t explain something in a series of simple subject-verb-predicate sentences, then you don’t understand it yourself- does anyone understand UU?”

  20. Sue Lowry

    I was born and raised as a UU and as a second career was well along the way to fulfilling all of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee’s (MFC) to becoming a UU minister. But during the last semester of seminary, I changed to the United Church of Christ (UCC). I have been officially approved for ordination and am actively looking for a UCC congregation to pastor. There were a number reasons for my dissatisfaction with UUism and for switching, and a lot of it had to do with exactly what this article is saying. I am currently involved in a wonderful UCC congregation that is a lot like my UU congregation except that they all identify as Christian. There can be many, many ways of looking at Christianity – so our congregation’s theology is quite diverse even within Christianity. But we do have the “common” theology of accepting a God of some kind and we recognize Jesus as a great teacher and many, but not all, believe in the incarnation and the Trinity. The other difference is that we actually DO social action instead of just talking about it. Among other things, We house homeless guests once a week for the three coldest months of the winter and the two hottest months in the summer and we’ve taken a fairly large number of people to protest at Gov. Perry’s (Texas) “Day of Prayer” with was sponsored by a conservative, homophobic organization and our message was “Hate Speech is NOT the Gospel”. Converting to the UCC, although a very difficult choice, was the right choice for me. Now when I preach, I can say the word “God” without having to defend myself or explain exactly what I mean when I say that. And, heaven forbid, I can actually say the word “Christ” without being run out of the congregation!

  21. Andy Reese

    Well said. This will probably become the subject of my next sermon.

    I remember when I first discovered this faith back in ’92 that I was trying to explain the attraction to a long time friend. I talked about the great people, the enlightening sermons, and the social justice work. She stopped me cold when she said, “Why don’t you just join the Rotary Club. They do all those things and the dues are cheaper.”

    I think it was James Fowler who defined “god” as that understanding of the ultimate and the set of values abound which we organize our lives. Our job, as a church, is to help people discover what their god is in this sense, to examine it critically, and to help it grow and deepen over time.

  22. Anne-Marie D.

    I couldn’t agree more. We have become far too head-centric: the work that we do is no more and no less than what many secular organizations do. I’m seeing two things I want UUs to do: One, I want us to make worship the center of our religion. Not just what happens in church on Sundays, but in all we do. Two, to help us get there – and to be able to speak about what we do believe – I want a Holy Book full of Unitarian Universalist tradition. As long as our tradition is defined by what we borrow from others, it’s going to be very difficult for us to say what being UU is about. If we define what OUR tradition is, it’s no only easier for us to define what we are, but for others to understand what might be compelling about us.

  23. Scott Harris

    I very much enjoyed your article. I am in seminary and it has given me thought as to how I can incorporate these concepts into my own ministry. I wonder though, how do we incorporate this into our congregations filled with multiple belief systems including atheists, agnostics, Christians, pagans, Buddhists, etc., etc. ? Is it enough to say that in the UU religion we all believe, but we just don’t all agree on what it is we believe in? That we all have faith in something even tho that something isn’t the same? I love the idea of a missional church, but how do we get there without just being one of the clubs or organizations you describe? I’m sure I’ll be working on this one throughout my ministry.

    • It isn’t about WHAT we believe, but about how what we believe tells us to live our lives. It’s about how our understanding of the Divine Mystery makes us want to be good generous people who take care of each other and work to make a better world filled with better more honest relationships, etc….

  24. Ethan Contini-Field

    Excellent post, Peter! It’s been reshared dozens of times on FB. Many who shared it commented that our congregations are “full of” these narcissists. I don’t think it’s true. I agree that the problem is a huge one, but I don’t think it’s because of the number of people who *exhibit* the behavior. I’d guess it’s because of the number of people who *tolerate* and even *enable* the behavior.

    That’s why I think it persists. If *I* am attending to another person’s neediness, then *I* don’t feel narcissistic, I feel charitable! If it goes on for a long time, I might get weary of it… but if I stop enabling that person, then *I’m* left feeling selfish and uncharitable. I apologize and bow out, but underlying all of the interactions is the assumption that that’s how we roll.

    So while I agree that we need a new and different kind of ministry for the “all about me” people, I think we need even more a new ministry for the rest of us who enable those attitudes. I think that latter ministry is the much harder one, and will require a language, mission, and theology that many of us will find challenging.

    • Our challenge is more than the behaviour of individual narcissists in our congregations, though that obviously is part of it. I’m afraid we perpetuate a culture of self-involvement–habits and expectations that focus on the individual and their perceived needs and wants.

      • Ethan Contini-Field

        True. I have concerns about the number of UUs who think of church as a “fee-for-services” institution. In that mindset, even those who contribute a lot and don’t act destructively are hesitant to call out someone who does… in the same way that I’d hesitate to lecture another coffee shop customer for being rude to the barista.

  25. I am new to Universalist Unitarianism. I live in the UK where it is not so well known or common, and I’m a refugee from traditional Christianity which stopped speaking to my heart over 16 years ago. I began to feel that Jesus had got lost somewhere in the dogma, creed, doctrine and ritual and that ‘church’ had become something you did, if you were so inclined, just like any other social club or pastime. I couldn’t detect that spirit of Jesus which jumps off the pages of the bible in any church I tried, and in the end just got so disillusioned with it I lost my belief in God’s existence. I’m still a non-theist, but after the ‘wilderness’ years of not belonging to a spiritual community, stumbling across a UU church in North London has been a breath of fresh air and a kickstart to a new kind of spiritual journey. I am pretty wowed by the unconditional acceptance and warm welcome I’ve received there, I’m inspired by the services which draw on wisdom from many sources and relieved to find no symbols from any organised religion on display. I’m impressed with the concern for social justice I find there and the fact that nobody shoves God down my throat or expects me to believe things that seem totally implausible. It is very easy to receive a positive spiritual experience from the services, something that I have not had in a church service for 2 decades. I feel that the word ‘church’ is an offput in the UK but that people do need some connection to a spiritual community that will help them to grow in wisdom, compassion and respect for the earth.

    • Thank you for your post, Carol.

      What I sense here is that some people who have posted are UUs who wish for more doctrine. Personally, I have not found any doctrinally based church that I wanted to join, because the doctrines are based on such requirements as acknowledging Jesus as the one and only way to salvation, or accepting as fact everything printed in a certain edition of the Bible, or believing that there was an immaculate conception and that Jesus arose from the dead, or any other number of “must believe” statements to which I cannot subscribe.

      The UU principles are powerful concepts and are sufficient for me to belong to my Unitarian Universalist congregation and to feel in kinship with other UUs. I do not seek a shared theology nor a “missional church.” The “big tent” aspect of Unitarian Universalism is precisely what I want. It means that my congregation has members who identify as Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Christians of various stripes, atheists, humanists, pagans, as well as people who have created a tapestry of their beliefs from past and current religious and secular experiences. I love this, and I don’t see it happening in any other denomination.

      I can appreciate that some UUs wish to to find ways to create more disciplines for themselves and to structure ways to explore, discuss, and practice their faith or beliefs. UUs often do this in congregations through adult education courses, small group ministry groups, lay-led services, and in social action and service groups of many types, and I hope that those who yearn after more discipline and structure can create it through these types of groups.

      The one thing that drew me to Unitarian Universalism twenty two years ago was the lack of religious doctrine, and it is one thing that I still celebrate about Unitarian Universalism.

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  27. Judy Cole

    Very well written and thought-provoking in the deepest way. I really enjoyed reading this piece, Peter! It has really coalesced in my mind a lot of concerns and indeed confusion I have had about Unitarian Universalism. To me, your writing: “I am skeptical about Unitarian Universalism ever becoming the sort of missional religious movement that some of my colleagues and friends are imagining. A group of like-minded individuals doing community service together with no theology, no discerned sense of vocation, is not a faith community; it’s the Rotary Club. A group of people dedicated to liberal ideals with no (perhaps I should say) shared theology, shared sense of vocation is not a church. It’s a political club. The National Lesbian and Gay Task Force do a fine job of fighting for LGBT equality. Why would I join a church to do that? The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is doing terrific work (as are other organizations) defending the rights and freedoms of immigrants. I support the ADC. Why would I join a church to do that? Local service agencies alleviate suffering of all kinds and use my volunteer time. Why would I join a church for that?”
    Now that really hits the nail on the head!

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  29. Sally G

    Sorry, I agree with Bruce M and Republican UU—I cannot imagine that I will find a shared theology with anyone; I am NOT a theist. The sources and principles I find very appropriate, but a holy book, as someone commenting suggested? Not sure what that could be, that would be able to speak to all of my 50% theist, 50% nontheist congregation. Certainly we could assemble something with passages that each spoke to some, but that is about it.
    I have heard the phrase “the mission owns the church”, and I respond “Say what?” Generations of UUs (originally, generations of Unitarians) built the facility that I attend, created the documents that give our community a legal structure, set the path—our generation has the responsibility to interpret that for today, work within or change parameters as seems best, and then to pass it all along for future generations. We develop our own mission statement, so who but us owns the mission? Who but us is responsible for its success?
    I suspect that the possible descriptions of UU churches in the closing paragraph individually DO apply to one or more UU congregations “out there”—and there are also many which include more than one of those as a partial description.
    I certainly prefer a diverse community. where not everyone thinks alike. If the suggestion is to squeeze us all into one theology, I for one will drift away—probably not leave; I have good friends in my congregation, but will feel less connected. Which, of course, is not to say that I get to choose for anyone but myself.

  30. Joe Aristote

    The writer brings up many good points but in a few cases jumps on his own sword. He is discussing the “we vs me” but in a few cases when he says “we” when he means “me.”

    He says for example, “…we have little or no understanding of why this is religious.” What he means is, “I have little or no understanding of why this is religious.” I am a new UU but I have been around UU for quite a long time and I can say that many UU’s know why this or that is “religious.” Many don’t for sure but this is no different than other faiths. Go to Catholics and a group of Catholics might be able to name the dogma but not explain how they got there. This is really no different than the various levels of understanding that UUs have invested in their church.

    What I see as the problem is that UU has abandoned or mollified the intellectual part of what made liberal religion strong. I have seen many a sermon where the minister discussed a “theological dilemma” when strictly speaking the question is philosophical and has been batted around for ages. Yet the minister insists to the point of arrogance and a pat on the head that its “theological” and that we UU’s have some new approach to the this problem or that. Rarely have I heard a UU minister preach on the virtues of being intellectual of the sake and jot of being intellectual.

    Why? I see that as being a result of the rise of the mushy word, “spiritual.” Spiritual is often just a substitute for many things like deeply held beliefs, or I really believe it, or it feels good, or merely a shield to avoid deep inquiry and challenge of one’s beliefs. It leads to that tired and idiotic phrase, “I am spiritual but not religious.”

    This is related to the author’s discussion on “discipline.” To some degree intellectual inquiry must occur in a free environment and that is, in fact, where the Western concept of liberalism arises from. However, it requires the same discipline as was demanded by intellectual environments before the rise of the Enlightenment.

    Why this emphasis on ” a missional religious movement?” I say, “OK” because I don’t want “a missional religious movement.”

    Many UUs I know join and participate for the sake of their children and families. In other words, as an open and participatory demonstration in belonging to an open and accepting community for the sake of their upbringing of children. When I do a search of the author’s piece and the comments, I only found the word “family” once in the comments up to this point and that use was to point out family history.

  31. Bob Dickens

    We UUs seem to be able to talk about most anything except theology, religious beliefs, philosophy and the history of these. This lack of real conversation/discussion with each other makes us weak in a peculiarly self-righteous way.

  32. An interesting post. I would like to think that the issue of “insitutionalised narcissism” isn’t as acute in the UK Unitarian movement, but I would be wrong to say it’s not present. It is one of our continuing challenges that we balance the needs of individuals with the collective. We affirm individuals, whose conscience is their supreme spiritual authority and who need to be equipped and supported for their own spiritual journey, which will be personal and unique to them.

    As a collective we need to be a loving community: worshipping and growing together, sharing and challenging each other with integrity. It’s a tension within our movement that we should view joyfully and make into something creative and fulfilling.

    I have to disagree with your position on mission-related activity. I’m involved in a political party and I support charities because they’re ways of putting my values into action. I believe that if we want to be transformed by our values as individuals, then we as a community should also find ways of living our values and transforming our communities: not because we expect something back, but because it’s right and the way of love.

    Individuals will have their own reasons for becoming involved in such activities, and we have to accept that sometimes they may be indulgent or self-centred, because we all belong to imperfect communities.
    But because we lack a common belief set doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to discern the values and spiritual impreative that should prompt us to take action together. If we do this as a group, then we differentiate ourselves from the political party, the welfare charity, and the Rotary Club.

    • I think you’re saying the same thing I have said. We join and support secular organizations that support our values, and this is an outcome of our convictions. When a congregation seeks to do similar work, yet has no understanding of why it is religious, something is missing, namely, an articulation of the religious convictions that led us to the work. I think we need to continue doing missional and social justice work as churches, I am only saying let us be clear about how and why it is religious work, indeed how and why it is the calling of a religious institution to do so.

      • Thanks Peter.

        I think finding a value set or theological understanding behind doing certain actions is the smaller problem. I sense the greater challenge is convincing fellow Unitarians there is a scope for and a point to social action on a congregational level, and that it’s not a practice that only “other churches” do.

  33. Barb Clark

    I can think of few things more divisive that trying to cobble together a common theology for UUs. Our strength is that we see the world through very different theological lenses, and practice many – or no – “spiritual” disciplines (some meditate, some pray, some study others’ practices and beliefs, some don’t). While it’s true that that might well limit our ability to become the unifying vision that transforms the world … so what? Maybe that’s okay. Maybe small is good. If we provide a haven for skeptics and seekers, who will never unite around a worldview, and will always value the journey more than any imagined destination … why is that a problem? Other churches may, and many do, imagine themselves to be the One True Path that everyone else ought eventually to find. We need not. Maybe it’s sufficient for us to provide community, especially for those who have difficulty finding it in other churches.

    Many – I think probably most – UUs spend generously of their time, energy, talent and money working for social justice, peace, and the environment through a wide variety of agencies, some of them UU-based, but most out there in the wider world. National and international organizations – like the Rotary Club and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Amnesty International – are generally much better equipped to do their work – with the paid and volunteer labor of a disproportionate number of UUs, I’d bet – than are either our individual congregations or our denomination as a whole. We need not compete with them.

    What we might do – IMO what we should do better – is provide a community, a haven, and a bit of respite for those who labor, either at work or with much of their unpaid time, in those vineyards: people with whom you share the worship – celebrations, song and mystery – as well as friendship, emotional support, and intellectual exploration. To some extent, that should be “all about you.” A UU community ought to be one place – for many, it’s the only place – where you can find people who, whether or not they share your theology or practice the same spirituality – whether or not they even share your politics – know, hear, value and affirm you.

  34. Kathleen D. Korb

    My eldest son sent me a link to this post saying that it was saying exactly what I have been saying for years. He was quite right. Even the metaphors are similar. It’s nice to see someone else sharing my concerns.

  35. Kathleen Hunter

    Now that we don’t have an easily accessible directory anymore it’s hard to find out where people are or have been – where are you Peter – weren’t you once in Montreal?-

    I appreciated your post. So good being old to feel younger people are on the right track – you are – keep going -

  36. Well said, Peter–thank you.

    The rub is, what is that shared theology? Sometimes, people who call for UUs to be about something more than “believing anything you want” have a specific agenda: they want us to be about what THEY believe, and nothing else. Usually, it means they want us to be Christian or they want us to be on the atheist end of humanist. Ptooey on both their houses, is my theologically nuanced response.

    I believe we can do just fine without a shared, that is, a unanimously held, theology; we can do just fine without being unanimous about our practices. It’s hard to explain what holds us together, if some people always skip Water Communion and others flinch when the worship leader says God and others wish we’d read from the Bible every week, but I think you hit the nail on the head with the word “discipline.” We are not united by a shared creed. Rather, we come together to better discover what we believe (that would be principle #4), in a context where we support and challenge each other (that would be principle #2) and to act on our convictions in a way that makes a difference in the world (that would be all seven principles and more). The man and his son had it almost right, but they left out the discipline.

  37. Peter,
    Why do WE need more of that and how were you chosen to speak as to what WE need. UU’s seem to me to spend too much time searching and talking about being spiritual rather than acting in community in a fashion that nurtures the creative spark that generates spirituality. UU’s are like those who decide to date specifically to get married. The more you decide you are dating to find a life partner, the less likely you will find your match. The more you talk about spirituality during the service, the less likely you will find it.

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  39. I admit I’m unfamiliar with UU history and tradition, having simply accepted the present congregation as exemplars of what UU ought to be. I haven’t been disappointed, and am hard put to think of any other community that does what we do as well as we do it.

    What strikes me as the unique offering of UU, and what I hope the mission will preserve, is our inclusion and acceptance of others. In my time in the church it has seemed to me to be the single most consistent message. With it, it doesn’t seem to matter that we have no consensus regarding when or how the universe came into being or how it is or is not being governed presently.

    In its best moments, our church challenges me to stretch my brain and think new thoughts and be a better person. If the mission is about more of that, that’s good.

  40. Ann Sabin

    Thank you for the thought provoking essay and responses. All I feel there is for me to do now is to decide who am I going to be in the matter and what I need to do to be at cause in the matter

  41. Interesting debate and UK Unitarians have discussions about such things on our Facebook page as well as in our local communities etc.

    I am always bemused by such ideas as, ‘It’s about whatever you want it to be about. It’s all about you’. If it’s about faith then it’s not what you want it to be about, it’s what it has to be about. Whilst our personalities may dictate which part of the whole that we see or experience this does not mean our faith comes easily. I am often challenged by my faith not to believe that certain things did or didn’t happen 2,000 years ago but by what I am called to be. Called to be in terms of being with people that I would not necessarily choose to get to know let alone love; called to spend time and effort co-creating a faith community; called to say things that may make me unpopular; called to be open and challenged by others and their ideas; called to receive help as well as to give it; in short – called to be faithful – even if I cannot articulate to what or whom I am being faithful except a vague idea that the values underpinning it are about love and wisdom.

    I blog on developing spiritual community because this is where I think the challenge comes from. We need to reframe the idea of faith – our Unitarian (UU) faith. To restate my view, faith is not a choice, it is a given. The choice we have is whether to be faithful or not.

  42. Peter – thanks so much for this post. I think it is enormously important to recognize that we as UUs (or Unitarians) are not here for the purpose of making ourselves happy or comfortable. Not only is that not the minister’s job, it’s not the congregation’s purpose either. The fun statement has always been “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This is more truth in that than we usually admit.

    I think that we run into some trouble when we confuse a focus on theology with all having the *same* theology. Those are very different things. UUs (and Unitarians) need to engage in a more responsible search for truth and meaning, to engage in more disciplined spiritual practice, to talk with one another more openly about theology, and to have a clear, compelling, actionable mission in the world. This is *not* to say having a fully shared theology (although I think that we actually could get farther in that quest than we think we can if and when we relax and broaden our notion of what theology actually is.)

    I want to thank Terasa Cooley who so clearly and simply articulated the essence of the issue at hand in the chapter she authored in “Why liberal churches are growing”
    (Martyn Percy and Ian S. Markham, Eds): “It is not all about UUs.” Our faith will only have meaning, power, and purpose in the world when we abandon the idea that it is about and for our comfort.

    As you say, Peter, the practice of hospitality is key. When we recognize that we are here for the wounded person who arrives this Sunday morning and for so many other hurting people longing to grow toward wholeness, then we’ve really got something.

  43. Kurt

    Peter–A friend posted this on his facebook page or I am sure I would not have seen it. Coming from the other side of the theological spectrum, I was struck by some of the same themes that I have struggled with over the years: mission, message, and spiritual formation. Thanks for the thoughtful discussion of faith in practice. Maybe our journey’s are not so different. I would suspect the context by be much different but the struggle much the same. Simple questions almost always have very complicated answers. Blessings.

  44. Diana Luykx

    As someone raised UU who has been a member of UU churches in various U.S. states, I appreciate all of your comments above. My “shorthand” for explaining UU theology may not be correct and, I admit, has not changed much since childhood. I tend to say a bit about the part of our history in US colonial times, and then say, “Unitarians believe we pray directly to God and tend not to believe in the trinity; we are truly Uni–Monotheistic. Universalism teaches that everyone is “saved” [thus no hell, though I generally don't think to point that out.] Then I undermine this by saying, “but I don’t believe any of that stuff.” Because I’m an atheist. However, in my experience, most UUs are not Christians and believe God loves us all equally, so I may continue with my mini-theology and add that we are encouraged to explore and question what this theology means for us and how we can make our lives more spiritually meaningful.

  45. I am not suggesting that Unitarian Universalist congregations adapt a uniform theology. That would not be possible even if it were to be desirable. Even churches with creeds do not have theological uniformity among their members–not everybody agrees with official statements, and even those who do interpret them in diverse ways. This kind of diversity, and our owning it, is indeed a strength in Unitarian Universalism. But there is more for us to do with our diversity than simply celebrate it.

    At our best, we create environments of mutual respect and deep listening that is both edifying and community-building for participants in our churches by engaging with one another across such differences. Again, this needs to be encouraged and promoted, not shut down as potentially divisive or acrimonious.

    (As an aside, it could be argued that we already have shared perspectives and aspirations, theological and philosophical, that could be teased out more. Pluralism itself is one such ideal. As somebody always likes to point out, “Our creed is to have no creed”).

    I am saying that it seems unlikely to me that mission-driven congregations will work without a shared theology of social ministry, a communal sense of calling. I am not sure it’s possible to have missional churches without a compelling theological impulse behind it, even one loosely defined. I could be wrong. It may be possible to have pluralistic, coalitional congregations (which I assume UU and Unitarian churches to be) doing church this way together, but (as I have written) I am skeptical that it can be done.

    I do, nevertheless, advocate for more theological reflection among us. We would benefit, I believe, from an increased intellectual and spiritual depth in our common life. It’s not just the minister’s job to “do theology” in a faith community that holds each member responsible for their own spiritual journey. It is up to each participant in such a community to be informed and curious learners. Our congregations can be doing more, it seems to me, to equip individuals better for their personal journey of exploration and discernment. And to walk whatever particular religious path they are walking.

    In this respect, it is about “you.” But a privatized, atomized self (“you”) that stands apart from its context seems to me to be an ultimate form of alienation, not community. “You” can have all kinds of wonderful experiences on your own, why join a church if not for the sometimes sublime sometimes aggravating push and pull of life together in community? Something is required of us when we come into community with others. We draw on resources of grace, humility, forbearance, joy, altruism, generosity. Sometimes we get what we want, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes decisions go the way we want them to, and sometimes they don’t. We commit ourselves to something larger than us when we join with others to form a congregation. And yes, sometimes the “something larger” trumps the tastes, desires or interests of the individual. Mission or purpose are some of the congregation’s “something larger” and no, it is not always about you.

    My sense is that most people in this country (I’m living and writing in the United States) are unhappy when something is required of them. There’s a cultural celebration of the individual and a denigration of the social, a resistance to the “group” or the “state” or “the church” making demands of you. There is a diminished sense in this country of being responsible for the common good, and that this responsbility asks something of you. (“Why should I pay school taxes, I don’t have kids!”).

    The context an individual enters when an individual enters a community includes its history. A person enters the stream of Unitarian and Universalist history and tradition when one joins a UU congregation. To remain insistently impervious to the historic witness and testimonies, the shared story, of the tradition as a privatized individual is not simply arrogant or narcissistic, its a betrayal of those faithful, loyal stewards who maintained and transmitted this faith to us.

  46. Brother Peter, thank you and bless you for lobbing some serious truth grenades here. I hope this was the text of a sermon. If so, preach on. If not, get up in that pulpit & preach it, brother!

  47. Mary Shaw

    I recall a previous conversation with you Peter over the statement, “I don’t know whether I believe in God, but I believe in churches”. My take on that is that we gather in churches to support various efforts beginning within our local community and gaining inspiration and strength from one another. I can do LGBT work in a different setting, I can feed the homeless in a different setting, I can do music in a different setting. The church is the place where those of us with similar or complementary interests can share them, can find a call from others to join in their work, supported by our geographic as well as philosophic proximity; I see my fellow congregant at the grocery store, in the library, at the PTA meeting, and am reminded of the work she does for civil rights, for Ugandan girls education, for Katrina relief. Perhaps I speak with her about it, perhaps not. When I see my fellow fair housing advocate at church, I feel better about myself and my work, whether or not we connect at that time. What’s wrong with being as Marcia said a place where we gather together to gather together, to teach and to learn how others meet their individual mission to responsibly search for truth and meaning?

  48. The whole post is excellent, but those lines in italics near the end in particular — I want to frame those and put them on my wall.

  49. Way to go, Peter! You’re going viral here. I’m leaving on sabbatical on Tuesday and am secretly praying that I’ll return in April to find a congregation transformed by your charge. Amen to spiritual discipline. You’ve got our attention. What’s next?

  50. eshana

    Amen! That is why I attended one time and no more. I want a church about G-d and the Journey to Understanding, not a “me, me, me” place. Thanks for recognizing this! Maybe things will change. . .

  51. Paul Ricketts

    Thanks Ann for the Story.. When a faith community doesn’t have communal narrative (which is not a creed) you have in the words of Peter Boullata “institutionalized narcissism” and no grounding for social justice.

  52. Paul Ricketts

    When a faith community doesn’t have communal narrative (which is not a creed) you have in the words of Peter Boullata “institutionalized narcissism” and no grounding for social justice.

  53. Brett

    I really enjoyed your thoughts. As a member of the United Church of Christ, I think we are very much in the same boat. One of the first realizations I made about my church and our denomination, was that we’d be noticed by others when we make a difference in our community. Keep up the good work, and keep us thinking and looking to be more.

  54. This gave me a lot to think about.
    Having left one church in my youth, I found clubs and societies that filled my need to be actively involved as a “helper.” Spiritual exploration has been a more private affair. Even when joining groups to meditate I have believed that spiritual growth is personal. I never saw a reason to join with others on that level.
    As I said, I will think about this.
    Thank you.

  55. Stephen Allerton

    “If the path before you is clear, it’s probably someone else’s” – Joseph Campbell

  56. I think we already have a shared theology in the 7 principles. Unfortunately, it’s written in bureaucratic and uninspiring language.

    The principle of respecting the inherent worth and dignity of each and every person is a difficult and truly controversial principle if taken seriously. Throughout most of human history it would have gotten you killed. Even today, and even in Western liberal democracies, how many people really and truly follow this principle in how they live their daily lives? Not that many. And it’s very hard to truly and consistently adhere to such a principle with all your soul. A church community that supports such a principle with emotion, reason, music, dialogue, speech, and action is helpful to most of us.

    Where we get into trouble is that many people interpret shared theology as a shared metaphysics. A shared metaphysics is a completely unattainable goal for most UU congregations. But is that what is really important in religion?

    If a shared theology focuses instead on principles by which to live our lives in the here and now, that is (1) more useful, (2) more supportable by experience, discussion, and much past work of many thinkers, and (3) more likely to unify people. UUism should NOT be interpreted as “anything goes”. Rather, it should be interpreted as a shared commitment in community to try to truly live by a set of shared principles for living in the here and now.

    The challenge for UU religious leaders is how to make the 7 principles more real, more inspiring, more intellectual, more emotional, and more meaningful in how people in their congregations live together, and in how the church interacts with the larger human community. The other challenge is that a call by UU religious leaders to make our principles more real is sometimes resisted, in part because some people misinterpret a shared theology as implying a shared metaphysics.

  57. Susanna Whitman

    Thank you, Peter. I think your discussion of faith formation is very important. I believe that it is maturity in our faith development that helps us to get beyond our individual selves toward empathy for others, to relating well within our faith community, and to laboring for those who need our justice work. Disparity in dimension of faith formation leads people within the congregation to not understand one another, be it in depth of: worship, social justice work, or in comforting the afflicted. Thanks for your faithful witness.

  58. Julie Sullwold

    Thank you so much for articulating what has been a jumble in my head. I’ve been a UU since 2003 when I entered recovery from alcoholism. I’ve been involved in addiction ministry work in the UU world since 2006 when I learned of Rev. Dr. Denis Meacham’s work. In establishing addictions ministries, I have always tried to reflect our UU faith … one size does not fit all. In other words, while AA helped me, I struggled with the “God thing” (which is why I was drawn to the UU church in the first place) so I believe we in the addictions ministry must be aware of all paths to recovery in order to provide a rich variety of resources to those who are seeking help. I came into recovery knowing what I didn’t believe in (the traditional Judeo-Christian God) and through the 12 steps I started to learn what I did believe in. It is a lifetime process and I will be forever grateful to AA and the women in the program for being there for me. It has been interesting to me, however, that many people in our congregations are satisfied with knowing what they don’t believe in and leave it at that …. like I did for 53 years. When I entered recovery, and, ergo, the UU church, my whole world opened up. Thank you again for such a delightful and helpful article!

  59. Renata

    How can we talk about being “called” to do something when we deny the existence of a “caller?” How can we have a theology without the “theo?” We need to start with what we (all) believe about God.

  60. Renata:

    With all due respect, why do we need to start with what we all believe about God?

    Why don’t we start with what we believe about how we should live?

    Isn’t it easier, as well as more relevant, to see if we can agree as a community on principles about how to live in the here and now?

    I find it interesting that many religions and many philosophies all converge on the Golden Rule. Some base this on divine revelation, and others on philosophical reasoning. But if they all end up with the same Golden Rule, how much does it matter if they arrive at that point from different metaphysical assumptions?

    • Renata

      I still think the question of “God” is primary. Can we really be a “religion” if we don’t believe in a God? As Peter points out, if we are a “religion” rather than “the Rotary,” we should hold some spiritual beliefs in common. Not just be a good person and help others, but – what is the nature of reality? of “soul”? of the afterlife? of goodness? of suffering? If we don’t have a “God” then what does the UU principle mean, “that all souls shall be in harmony with the divine” – ? We should define what we mean by “divine,” because that is an essential part of why we are together – “to the end that…” It seems that many people in our UU church feel the need to “supplement” UU… with Buddhist or pagan religious practices. And yet there is strong opposition to “supplementing” with Christian or Jewish practices…. why?

      Comment on the Golden Rule…. many people have graduated to the “Platinum Rule” — do unto others as THEY would have you do unto them.”

      • I agree we need to hold some beliefs in common, but I think it more likely that we can agree on some beliefs that relate to what we can see, feel, debate, and understand in the here and now.. It is also more important to agree on such “here and now” beliefs.

        I think it highly unlikely that most UU churches will EVER agree on most of the topics you mention, such as : “the nature of reality? of “soul”? of the afterlife? ” , or the nature of the divine. There seems no source of really good evidence on these topics that will elicit widespread agreement. On the other hand, we might be able to agree more on some other topics you mention, such as the nature of goodness and suffering, as these are things we can deal with in the here and now. In addition, it seems more critical for figuring out how to live to figure out what a good life is, and how to alleviate suffering, then to uncover some of these more esoteric topics.

        There is a famous Buddhist “parable of the arrow” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_arrow ) . The Buddha was asked by a disciple to settle certain issues such as the nature of the cosmos and the nature of life after death, otherwise the disciple would renounce the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha supposedly responded by saying that this is like someone who was shot with a poisoned arrow refusing to allow the arrow to be removed until he knew who had shot the arrow, what the arrow’s shaft was made out of , what kind of bow shot the arrow, etc. Before all these less important and more difficult to know topics were uncovered, the man would die of the poison.

        The question is, what are the most crucial spiritual beliefs? My view is that for a liberal religion, the most crucial spiritual beliefs are those that are directly relevant to how we live in the here and now. Some evidence on how to live in the here and now can be uncovered through introspection, historical and scientific study, philosophical analysis, a listening dialogue, and compassion.

  61. Being a more progressive Baptist minister, I hope that we can seek for truth, question assumptions, examine history and philosophy. But I come back to the idea if we are seeking for truth, there must be truth that can be found. The historic witness of the Church Universal is that truth is found in Jesus Christ. We see the eternal God as seeking to reveal his(non gender specific) self to individuals.
    Most of the UU’s I’ve know seem to see truth as sentimentalism and will only accept something if it makes them feel good.
    I appreciate this article, it challenges me to see the quest for truth is not about me and what makes me happy.

    • Ann Sabin

      One reason I am a UU rather than attending a Christian Church is that for me the truth that is Jesus that sets me free is a truth that I hope always keeps me uncomfortable; i.e., now that, through the teachings of Christ, I can see how great I can be and how great the world is. Consequently, I feel highly uncomfortable if I am not living with integrity with the truth revealed to me. Is this similar to what you are thinking? And if you and I are ever in the same city, Mr. Hogan (I am in Idaho), I would love to talk theology over coffee/tea.
      -Ann

  62. Sun Dragon

    One of the things that would be really nice is if UUs began holding each other accountable for actually walking the Seven Principles talk – especially the FIRST principle, says the woman who was utterly betrayed and backstabbed by a UU who once said “I don’t believe in the first principle anyway”. And UUs wonder why people leave???

  63. Fred Small

    A beautiful and challenging essay, Peter. (I like Evan’s “truth grenades”!) I expect to be quoting it from the pulpit this Sunday.

  64. Thank you for sharing this message. I have heard it said before that the orthodox church is the church about Jesus Christ and the UU church is the church of Jesus Christ. I like to think of it this way that we strive to live as Christ would want us to live. To live the golden rule. To seek out knowledge and accept that we are all children of God each and every person in this world. When you look at one another this way you cannot help but reach out with social justice and love to one another. Amen.

  65. Bill Johnston

    I think it’s clear we do have shared beliefs, whether we articulate them or not. We see the world differently than others do. And I see no danger that naming and discussing those shared beliefs will become a creed or set of dogma. Each of us will have our own take on our shared beliefs and might add to or subtract from any statement of things commonly believed among us.
    For example, from our principles, it’s clear that we Unitarian Universalists recognize that all of reality is interconnected, so that what we do affects others, including non-human others, for good or ill. We believe each person has worth and dignity. We believe the ultimate authority on matters of faith and morals is the individual conscience. Because of that, we believe no one should be able to force their views on another. We believe in discussion and debate and democratic processes, out of respect for individual’s conscience and in the expectation of better solutions and ideas. We believe that the dignity of all individuals requires working towards a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. Because, to circle back to the first statement, we are all connected.
    I would suggest that the interrelatedness of all reality is as acceptable a starting point for theological reflection as, say, a belief in a creator God.
    As a basis for action, William R. Murry has written of a basic Unitarian belief in unity and says, “A deep sense of the unity of all life becomes a basis for a commitment to both environmental protection and human betterment.” Rev. David Bumbaugh, extending Universalism beyond all humans, has written: “To understand the human race as related in the most intimate of ways to all living things on this planet … is to enlarge our sense of responsibility and our definition of moral living.”
    These are just examples but I suspect all of these statements would be accepted by any Unitarian Universalist, though likely expressed differently. Articulating these and other shared beliefs, studying their meaning, implications and historical roots in our faith, would I think strengthen our faith communities, as well as our individual thinking, and with a deeper understanding of what our faith is about and what is requires, undergird and encourage shared social justice efforts.

  66. Fred Van Deusen

    First let me thank you Peter for the thought-provoking post that you provided, and thanks to all who have commented for your equally thought-provoking comments. I think it is quite possible for UU’s to have a common mission and still hold different beliefs. Many organizations and groups are able to accomplish this at many levels and with a wide diversity of people: non-profit organizations, corporations, and even the U.S. military. It is the overall goal and purpose of the organization that is held in common, not any specific religious views.

    UU’s do not have a specific doctrine that we must all follow, and that is one of our greatest strengths. We are not told what to believe. Because of this we are all engaged in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” With no definitive answers given to us, we are all searching for what we believe, for that which will help us lead our lives in a manner that will be good for us, and for those around us. We hold this search in common.

    As with any beliefs or values, it is one thing to hear about them, another thing to espouse them, and quite another thing to actually put them into practice. Our UU churches provide us opportunities to do all of these things. Sermons provide us the opportunity to listen, and to think about and perhaps challenge our beliefs. Covenant groups and other community gatherings give us the opportunities to explore our beliefs with others. Our social action programs are critical to us, not only because they clearly help society, but also because they help us to truly match our actions with our words, to put our beliefs into practice. They take us out of the thinking mode and into the doing mode. It is only through actually experiencing our beliefs in action that we can truly adopt them and make them ours.

    So, for me, this is the mission of the UU churches. To help us perform a free and responsible search for truth and meaning (theology) so that we may live the lives that will both bring us joy and make the world a better place to live. Service is an important means to this end, but it is not the end in itself. I believe this sets us apart from the Rotary Club.

  67. Ron Schaeffer

    Thank you for a truthful and inspiring critique. I teach a UU History course at our congregation in Southern Delaware. Not for the dates and names so much, but to help establish a theological base about who we are and where we came from. But also, to help us see where we are headed – how do we move as a community into the future knowing and respecting our historical roots. Two of my colleagues are teaching a course this February on “Daily Religious Practice”. I think we see this “tension” between our deep regard for individual freedom of choice and the collectivve mission of a united religious community. It’s takes work, it takes discussion, it takes leadership to make our kind of religious community prosper.

  68. Thank you for sharing this. The Rotary Club comparison is one that I often find myself thinking. Having practiced with a Buddhist group for many years before working at a UU church, I often find myself asking “If we don’t share a discipline, what can we really share on a deeper level?” This isn’t to say we all must think the same things, but if we aren’t engaged in a discipline, one that everyone engages in, the main feature of UUism will be its featurelessness, it’s individualism, and lack of substance. And it won’t really change people. And if going to church doesn’t change you, why would you do it?

    I will follow this up by saying I think that the children’s and youth programming at our churches really helps young folks grow into thoughtful, caring, considerate people. The only thing is that the case often is that these thoughtful, caring, considerate people no longer see a reason to be a UU or go to church. I myself had a great experience in the church growing up and am very grateful, but found that Buddhism, one of the sources our church likes to talk about and borrows from, was what I felt my true spiritual home was as an adult.

    Anyhow, good thoughts and discussions from this all around, thanks for writing this.

  69. Pingback: Who Do We Say That We Are « East Of Midnight

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