Wednesday, February 01, 2012

What's a Unitarian Universalists

1. Technically, a Unitarian Universalist is a person who is a formal member of a UU congregation.
2. Popularly, a Unitarian Universalist is anybody who calls themselves a UU, whether or not they belong to a congregation  (Group #2 is three times the size of group #1).
3.  Beyond Congregations is a conversation about how we might serve/include/claim  more people in group 2 and, by extension, some of the "spiritual but not religious" who would say, when they found us, "I've been a UU all along and didn't know it!"

4. It is an interesting fact of our UU life that lots of people seem to know exactly what Unitarian Universalism is, including Beliefnet, three quarters of a million polled persons, and that "I've been a UU all along" new member, but the official UU's do a very poor job of articulating this.

I think this is at least in part because we're so afraid of creeping creedalism that we won't articulate our shared theology.  So..let's be clear. A creed is a statement of beliefs which is used AS A TEST FOR MEMBERSHIP.  ("Believe this or go elsewhere.")  We don't have those.  But we do, it seems to me, have a theology.  The theology goes something like this.

Life is good, and so are you.
Reason and Intellectual Faculties are good.  You can trust them to understand life. 
However it's a Very Big Universe out there, and many important things can't be known through reason and intellect.  For this we have intuition, heart, spirituality, and other faculties which are useful but don't lead everyone to the same conclusions.
Truth on these Very Big matters is best found in conversations, actual, virtual, literary, and internal.  It is to be expected that there will be differences.  They enrich us.

That's what we do as Unitarian Universalists...grow in spirit, together.  

Many Unitarian Universalists have much more specific theologies...beliefs about God, the afterlife, and so on.  And this is NOT A CREED.  People can join our churches who think that science is a bunch of baloney.  But they won't hear their view extolled in sermons and there will probably not be any adult classes on the subject.  We don't determine membership based on our theology, but we do figure out what "fits here" based on it.

I go into detail about this because it is going to be hard to figure out whom we can serve among the "spiritual but not religious" unless we can describe ourselves and what we offer more clearly than we do.    


Tim Bartik said...

Rev. Robinson:

I heartily agree with your notion that we do have a shared theology and a positive message.

But I wonder whether you would agree that we can push it a bit further than you have here. Don't the 7 principles imply that we endorse the worth and dignity of every person, which can also be translated as an endorsement of some version of the Golden Rule?

And I think this is more than saying we endorse motherhood and apple pie. If taken seriously, saying we believe that "each and every human being has worth" is a quite demanding principle to incorporate in our hearts and actions. Few societies and few individuals have succeeded in living consistently by this principle.

I think there are some corollaries to this principle that also represent a shared theology about this life. For example, one possible implication of the "worth of all" principle is that a life shaped by compassion for others is better than a life centered on material possessions. Should we agree on that much?

Thank you for your thoughts. I greatly appreciate your attempts to describe a positive theology for UUism that is also inclusive of UUs as we are now, both in your blog and in your Minns lecture.


Tim Bartik

Seth said...

It seems to me that when you're talking about a "technical" UU, you're talking about a member of an organization. When you're talking about a "popular" UU you're talking about someone who adheres to a faith or philosophy called Unitarian Universalism. So the shift in model that we're discussing may actually be a shift from thinking about UUism as an organization to thinking about UUism as a faith.

Christine Robinson said...

Currently this distinction has been labeled "UU's" and "Free Range UU's".

Bill Baar said...

I have doubts about those free range UUs as a group we should reach out too.

I suspect we have, they've but some distance between themselves and a Church, and may be quite content to roam on the range.

Regarding theology, there's a shared theological heritage a UU gains when joing a UU Church. I suppose one gets it free on the range too.

But I think UU theologians have neglegated theology for a good many years. If they hadn't we might not be in such a fog over whether or not we share one.

Anonymous said...

Christine, I so much enjoy reading your blog posts! I agree with 98% of what you say. I appreciate your wisdom and the honest way you approach even the most controversial of issues.

Reading this post, I admit that I get nervous at the use of the pronoun "we" when referring to UUs. That said, I confess that I use "we" all the time!

In my view, you've captured the core of the mostly unstated beliefs of "us" UUs. However, does this statement of beliefs constitute a theology? I've wrestled with that question and I can't seem to get comfortable with either a yeah or a neah. It sounds more like a philosophy. Or a religious worldview. But a theology? I suppose it all comes down to how you define "theology". Still, it seems possible to stretch the meaning of this word to the point that it becomes unrecognizable. Jews have this debate too--some hold that there's such a thing as Jewish theology, others (the majority) disagree.

Kudos though for fleshing out a statement of "our" basic UU beliefs. Because without fleshing it out, we can't talk about it. And I wish we'd talk it to see whether we're fully comfortable with where these convictions take us. For example, I'm troubled that we have a basic faith in human goodness. Because how then do we make space in our congregations to talk about sin? How do we make space for shame--a sentiment I carry with me now that I've visited coal mining country in Southern Illinois; I understand that I bear part of the responsibility for the environmental destruction going on down there (Chicago relies on coal-based power plants). "We" do operate out of basic, shared assumptions. But these are assumptions. And assumptions deserve questioning like many of the other beliefs we more openly evaluate.

The willingness, nay the responsibility, to question our beliefs and implicit assumptions all the way down is, I think, part and parcel of what it means to be a UU. Oh, oh, here I go with the "we." "We" UUs hold (in principal) that no belief is so self-evident that it is immune from examination and public discussion.

So thanks for giving us this opportunity by holding our beliefs up to the light! Or for now, I will simply say--thanks for giving me the opportunity!