Sunday, January 10, 2010


Doubt is a pain
too lonely to know
that faith is his twin brother.

Kahlil Gibran

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Why UU's hate History, and why we shouldnt

As I am in formation in pursuit of parish ministry, I thought it would be necessary to really delve into how Unitarian Universalist History informs my ministry and how I can develop the use of Unitarian Universalist History in building a beloved community. What does it mean to be a Unitarian Universalist Minister as opposed to being a minister. First I think I need to look at my own experiences with learning Unitarian Universalist History and how it has informed me up until this point.

Before I became a Unitarian Universalist (UU) in the late 1980s, I had never heard of the religion. I had passed by the beautiful 4th Universalist Society on the Upper West Side in New York numerous times on the way to the Ethical Culture Society and Museum of Natural History and remember specifically stopping and admiring its architecture. But I had no idea what went on inside. If anything I probably confused them with the Unification Church that was popular in New York City at that time. When I did find my way to my first UU congregation, it was more due to a need to find religious education for my son, then any personal religious motives. What I found was a warm welcoming community. In truth it was a more social than religious experience for me. It was more humanist focused congregation with a touch of religious ritual (both Christian and Jewish) to satisfy my sentimentality. It was a small congregation, and our involvement rarely extended beyond an hour or two on Sunday. So if there was history discussed I was not ready to hear it. At that point in my religious journey, I just wanted a safe warm welcoming community.

I think this points to a very challenging issue that so many members come from different religious backgrounds. Some either assume that UU is a liberal Christian Church or some sort of Inter-Faith society. Often we have come from a religious history that has been painful or unsatisfying to us. Therefore we are looking to build something new, something unique, something that is not tainted with the history of the failed religion of our upbringing. For me, all I needed to know was that I did not have to accept Jesus as savior, and then the Seder dinner, and Yom Kippur service was just icing on the cake. The Unitarian understanding of God (or lack thereof) and its belief of Jesus as human actually made it very easy for me to theologically slide into the religion. Whereas the Ethical Culture Society was Judaism without theology, UU was the Ethical Culture with some sentimental ritual and enthusiasm. So this brings up another point. The strong Humanist influence in the twentieth century seemed to negate the history of Unitarian Christianity and transcendentalist history that preceded it. I sense the feeling was, if we are humanist, and this is what we believe, why do we need to go back to before we became “enlightened” :) . I think another important aspect is that since our sources have expanded there is less of a focus on the Christianity that we grew out of. The result of our lesser focus on Christianity, seems to have been a lesser need to focus on our history as an association which came from Christianity. There has been a strong tension about limiting Christianity as the source of wisdom and history of theology throughout the history of our association, particularly among the Unitarian side of the family. Certainly the Transcendentalists promoted the use of non Christian scriptures, and a historical critical approach to utilizing the Christian Scriptures.

However I think the first real delineation came when Henry Bellows started organizing the National Conference. Although at that time, different clergy and members of congregations had different opinions about theology and history, the National Conference seemed to force the issue as to which side individuals choose. To create an organization seemed to require that congregations had to come to some agreement as to what they commonly believed. Even though the conference was first congregated by members only, the active or lack thereof of participation by ministers would determine the association’s focus. Prior to this, certainly pressure was put on ministers, but often it came from the ministers’ own congregations such as the incident with John Pierpont and the Hollis St Church. Ministers with support from their congregation such as Theodore Parker, although ostracized by other ministers, could still preach and teach what he pleased.

I think the dawning of an associational organization caused fear for many who were not of a more conservative theological bent. The freethinkers who believed in a universal church stayed, but those who cherished their independence left and formed the Free Religious Association. The Preamble to the National Conference in 1865 included the phrase Lord Jesus Christ. Although there were subsequent informal declarations that were issued without such strong Christian language, until the merger, there were no formal Unitarian affirmations. The Universalists issued certain affirmations throughout the years and were much more comfortable including the language of God, Jesus, and Christ. In 1984, when the Principles were reviewed and re-issued, there was a specific exclusion of anything relating to any UU heritage within the principles and only a passing mention in the sources. The message to members from these exclusion seems to be that our history really doesn’t matter much.

I think another factor in why we have not focused on our history is the alienation we have felt from mainline Christianity. As Charles Howe points out in his book, “The Larger Faith”, the Universalist Church of America had been invited to apply for membership in the organization that was the predecessor organization to the National Council of Churches, and the Universalists were rejected. Although the Universalists had affirmations and praxis had become more similar to the Unitarians, they were without question more Jesus and Christo-centric than the Unitarians. I have to imagine this rejection had to have a negative impact on the movers and shakers in regard to Christianity.

I think the larger challenge in focusing on history which I have experienced is the lone ranger mentality of congregations. Some of this might be intentional, and some unintentional and just a consequence of circumstances. The unintentional would due to the sparsity of congregations within the association. In some areas of the country there are not many congregations near each other. Therefore it is hard to see oneself as part of a bigger organization with a deep history if you have very little engagement with others in the association. The internet has helped reach others, but as it is used now, it is impersonal. The live streaming of General Assembly I think is a good example of how it can be used effectively. However I would go a step further and use the internet or video conferencing to have UUA representatives in Boston or elsewhere communicate directly with congregations that are distant from other congregations. Our current district executive has been having live webinars each month on congregational issues, that I feel have been quite helpful to leaders of our congregation.

Secondly, we as an association, have a history of not remaining with the status quo and in being anti-organizational. In essence, the starting of Unitarianism was to break from traditional organizational protestant teachings. The Transcendentalists, to a degree had an anti-organizational characteristic as part of their tradition. Emerson left the ministry rather than follow traditional ritual (although granted there were probably many other reasons he left). Even Theodore Parker, in starting his 28th Congregational Society, was doing so outside the Unitarian Organization. And of course as mentioned above the creation of the Free Religious Association was in reaction to an attempt to formalize the association with common statement of beliefs. Now in most of these cases, it was felt that the organization was too restricting. I see the association coming to this realization in current times. I believe the development of regional districts and their events, creation of Association Sunday, and other focus’ have been quite helpful in having congregations feel connected to the larger UU world. However I think there should continue to be vigilance to ensure that creativity and diversity are allowed to flourish among congregations. In addition, it would seem to me that there should be an effort to create more smaller satellite congregations in outlying areas that with technology, could meet and be connected with larger congregations for worship.

One last item that creates challenges is the fact, that in some ways our religion is very young. We merged two religions into one almost fifty years ago. So in some respects our history is only fifty years old. And although we can point to many similarities, each of the original religions had its own uniqueness and its own history different from the other. Today, only a small % of members, which is only decreasing each year, were ever a member of either religion prior to the merger. So it makes it a bit more confusing, as we now have three histories to examine, Unitarians, Universalists and UU.

So how did I learn about UU History. In the most unexpected ways. In my membership class there was approximately one hour spent on UU history. This was brief, and was more focused on famous UU’s than on UU itself. It left me with the names (some familiar, most not) of UU in History. By far, my first in depth study of History was when I was I teaching middle school religious education. The curriculum that year was UU History. Of course, I had to do extensive preparation to be able to sound knowledgeable and authoritative to the youth!! I learned much that year. Another way I have learned about it was when our minister did a sermon series on UU Historical events. Our minister also ensured that Adult religious education had one curriculum each year focus on UU History. Also General Assembly included focused workshops on more specific issues. Then of course when the thought of pursuing ministry entered my bloodstream, I started reading the MFC reading list books. The journey continues. Each type of learning I did seemed to build on the previous. The earlier learning was superficial, then it became more intellectual, and finally I was able to add more depth. Perhaps this is a lesson we should consider as we teach history. It starts with the realization that everyone is not at the same point of their religious journey, and there must be different opportunities of education at different levels of depth for different people.

So up until this point I have been discussing why it is so challenging to engage individuals and congregations in the historical depth of our tradition and how I managed to obtain an education on our history. I would now like to discuss why I feel it is important to do so. Although I will go on to pontificate the benefits in a moment There is one simple reason. WE ARE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS. This may seem like an obvious statement. With so many people coming from other religions, and many non church goers shopping for a religion we need to be able to extol who we were, who we are and where we are going or else we are just another commodity. History in and of itself doesn’t create meaningful religious community, but it does add to the depth of the meaning that is currently be realized.

Having grown up Jewish, I can say, history was almost an exclusive focus of my religious life. Who we were is important but should not be the exclusive focus. One cannot gain religious depth just because of its history, but its history can be a guide and a foundation to grow on. My mother (God rest her soul) used to tell me that it didn’t matter what I called myself, I could call myself a UU, but I was born a Jew I would die a Jew. To some degree this is true. Having grown up actively Jewish, it will always be a part of my personal and family history and it helped create who I am today. Therefore it is always part of who I am. And although to some degree it informs me, it doesn’t uniquely define me or my current religious practice and theology. There was a point early in my religious life where I felt I was Jewish attending UU services. Over time though that transformed into being a UU who has a Jewish Heritage. In fact thinking about it, I have now been a practicing UU longer than I had been practicing Judaism. I still respect the religion of birth, its culture and wisdom is still a part of who I am, but it is not my religion today.

So how does my experience inform me. It tells me that although history cannot be exclusive it is an inclusive part of what religion is. The stories, myths, culture, and scriptures of Judaism are still with me as part of my UU religion. I have just added more. I think it is Critical (with a capital bolded C,) that we educate our youth on the history of our religion. Yes we teach them how to think, not what to think, but we want to pass down our values and our culture to them as well. Religious growth doesn’t start in a vacuum. We need a foundation to understand where we have come from and where we are going. What is it that makes us uniquely who we are? What is a UU culture? In Judaism, it was always, because of our past, this is why you must believe this or act in this way. For UU, our history seems to say to me, because of our past, this is why we think this way; this is what led us to this point. Without the history, all we have “this is what we think, what do you think”. What is it that informs our thought process?. There has been an un-linear series of thoughts and events that led us here. For youth, I think we need to create some UU holidays and celebrations into our liturgical calendar, to give them a sense of pride in the uniqueness of who and what we are. I am always in awe of our young people who are active in YRUU (or whatever it is called today) who then go on to leadership roles or become future ministers). I see this as my role as a minister to focus on youth, youth religious education, and youth leadership development. Too often (particularly in Florida where there are less children in the congregation) youth are not integrated into the life of the congregation or given as much support. They are just as much members of the church as the adults and should be ministered to and with the same focus as with the adults. If youth do not see themselves as part of a great history, then they in the future they will just as likely attend another religion where they find like minded people and a welcoming community.

My relationship to the religion and association changed as soon as I started attending district events and General Assembly. I felt empowered, connected and part of a long tradition, singing and worshipping with thousands of other UU’s. Learning more about who we as a religion were, who we are, what we stand for, and what gives meaning to us. It was no longer just what Jay thought about something. It created new questions such as how does my thoughts impact others, or where are my values in relation to the associational values. These experiences provided personal growth but more so provided a bigger vision of what we as a religion could be. I have heard similar emotions shared from others who attended such events. Yet I also realized that I was one of only a handful of people who attended these events from my congregation. Thus access to events of this sort should be eased and increased.

So my experiences have shown me that helping connect people to a congregation makes them feel part of something larger than themselves. Even the historical significance of the congregation itself can help do this. Connecting the congregation to the larger UU vision, makes them feel part of something greater than themselves. I believe that realization that we are part of something larger than ourselves leads to transformative spiritual growth.

So our history informs us of who we were and how we got here. We examine our history with critique, It is important to remember our history in context. History connects us to a long tradition of religious freedom and hope and exploration. It also connects us to a long history and tradition of transformation of self and society. But it also connects us to challenges of a changing society and how quickly we can become irrelevant. It connects us to how we have dealt either positively or negatively with differences. It connects us to what brings us together and what rips us apart. We need to let History inform us how we move forward. What has worked in the past, and what has not? When and how have we reached towards our highest ideals and what has led us to abandon them. One of the chapters in Charles Howe book on Universalism is entitled “We do not Stand, We Move” I agree, we should not be trapped by our history for better or worse. We move with the full realization that we move in uncertainty with wonderful intentions that often have ambiguous outcomes. Knowing this, let us move forward with wisdom gained with knowledge of the past to give us the best chance to create the beloved community in the present and in the future.

We are not just a conglomeration of like minded people from other religions or no religions who have come together to share time on Sunday Mornings to hear a nice sermon. WE ARE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS. We should be proud of that, not dogmatic, but proud. It means something to be a UU versus being part of another religion. Our religion includes a theology of ongoing awareness, Awareness of ourselves, others and the earth itself. We become aware through learning from others, experiential activities, and ongoing revelation from multiple wisdom sources. Ours is a transformational religion, that believes that due to our existence on this world, we can, and have a responsibility to transform ourselves, our communities, and the world itself. WE ARE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS.

This whole thought process informs me as a future UU minister. It has made me consciously think about what I can do to engage our congregation with the core values and principles of the association. Sadly, I imagine many could not repeat our principles, so perhaps there would be a way to insert them into a weekly liturgy. I can encourage bringing UUA and district personnel to visit as a way to connect the congregation to the larger UU community. I can encourage participation in outside District and National events. I can do a sermon series on UU History. I can offer multiple ongoing tracks of UU History adult religious education program. These should all be taped and posted on the web, so guests or new members could watch them over time. There is also a good DVD, “Our American Roots” that could be utilized for the course or for individuals self education. I would encourage our Religious Education to make UU history part of the curriculum for youth. I would engage youth in all aspects of congregational life.

Finally we must act and live out our principles for history is not stagnant. It is being created all the time. We should by the way we live and act, continue to make religious history. WE ARE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS