“The Unknown Unitarian Universalist”
I once received a strange piece of mail from an organization I support. The content of the letter was not strange. It was the usual appeal for financial contributions to aid them in their organizational efforts to provide needed services to their constituency. What was strange about the letter was not its contents, but its address. It was addressed to: "Unknown Unitarian", P.O. Box 152, Norwell, Mass. That's was my box number all right, but I thought I was better known than that. Perhaps they'd lost my name from their contributors files, but still had my address listed under Unitarian donors. And so they said let's send it to Unknown Unitarian and see if we get a response.
This got me to thinking. If someone accused you of being a Unitarian Universalist would you make yourself known? Would you own the title? Better yet, how would you know a Unitarian Universalist if you met one? Isn't one of our problems as UUs that we are somewhat of an unknown quantity to the rest of the world? Unitarian Universalism is the best kept secret in the religious marketplace. "What's that?", someone asks, and wonders if we're Moonies, part of the so-called Unification Church. No, we have to explain, Uni-Uni's are not Moonies, although we have no objection to their having their own church, as long as they don't try to take over ours. Will it someday be our fate that someone will lay a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Unitarians? God help us. I hope not. The world needs us and we need to make ourselves known to the world.
My late friend and colleague Robbie Walsh, formerly in Duxbury, reported that there was a story in the newspaper about a seminary professor in Kansas City who was put on trial by the Southern Baptists. He was accused of being a universalist. Robbie comments:
It's no wonder they were suspicious. He stated publicly his belief that
all people born into the world are children of God. And as if that were
not enough, he also supported the ordination of women. Case closed?
The professor denied the charges. "I'm not a universalist," he said, and
he convinced them. After four hours of deliberation they voted 21 to 11
to let him keep his job.
Robbie then reflects:
Now, I confess to being a universalist. In fact, I am a Unitarian
Universalist. But I wonder. If I were arrested and charged with being
one, would there be enough evidence to convict me? The Kansas City
story proves that having the right beliefs is not enough. The professor
believed that all people are brothers and sisters, that every person has
a piece of the divine spark, that women are the equals of men in the
sight of God. That was not enough to bring in a guilty verdict. No, if
they are going to pin Unitarian Universalism on me they will have to
be able to show that I participated in and supported a Unitarian
Universalist church. That is the only way to be sure. Beliefs, no matter
how noble, must be embodied in a living institution or they will have
no convicting power.
A number of years ago the UUA General Assembly met in Charlotte, N. C. There were nearly 3,000 UUs registered for the conference and we completely filled the four large downtown convention hotels as well as a number of other establishments. The following incident occurred at the front desk of one of the main hotels. A woman, who was obviously not a UU, was attempting to get a room without having a reservation. Normally this would not be a problem. But on this particular night all the assistant manager could do was to inform the woman that not only did his hotel not have a room, but that the computer indicated there was no room available in the entire downtown area. He told the woman that all the rooms were taken by "these Uni-somethings who were holding a convention in Charlotte." She replied in a disgusted tone of voice that they were "called Unitarian Universalists and there are getting to be an alarming number of them." Would that were true on a local, national and global scale.
This is a good time as any to ask the question, "What are the distinguishing marks of being a Unitarian Universalist?" Dr. Helen Gordon, speaking at a church fund raising dinner in Bakersfield, California, offered the following dozen suggestions, tongue-in-cheek:
1. We are a very friendly people. If you aren't friendly too, out you go!
2. We are very genuine people. Even if we do have an occasional phony in our midst, he's a real phony!
3. We don't pretend to know all the answers, and we're proud of our humility.
4. We believe in tolerance. In fact, we can't stand intolerant people.
5. We are non-competitive. In fact, we are more non-competitive than anybody.
6. We believe in equality; every one of us is as good as the next person and a whole lot better.
7. Dogmatism is absolutely forbidden.
8. Freedom of belief is rigidly enforced.
9. People who don't believe in anything are free to persuade others to the same point of view.
10. Church meetings are run very democratically because the Moderator insists upon it.
11. Of course we have our critics--but they're just a few paranoid people who are out to get us.
12. We can resist criticism. We can resist anything but temptation.
One of the signs of a mature religion is its ability to laugh at itself, to have, as someone has said, a sense of humor about absolutes. It is a recognition, I suppose, that all things are relative, including absolutes, and including the statement that all things are relative. A religion that can't laugh at itself will soon become stodgy, stuffy, self-righteous and fanatical. If we can tell jokes about other religious traditions, but not about ourselves, then we are taking ourselves too seriously and need to clear the air with a good laugh at our
puffed up estimate of who we think we are. Humor keeps us human and humble. We need that in church. We need that as part of a reasonable and mature faith.
Unitarian Universalism tries to instill a sense of humor about absolutes, a sense of humor about itself, not to scoff at holy things, but to free holy things from sanctimonious piety. I like Robert Frost's line: "Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee/ And I'll forgive Thy great big one on me." Life is too serious to be taken too seriously. If we are God's frozen people than a little bit of humor will help thaw us out. So that's one more requirement, you must laugh in church. But it must be holy laughter.
So, be assured, that when you join a UU church or religious society we take you seriously, but not too seriously, and we ask that you take us on the same terms. We know that whoever you are, no matter how much you may know, that you are finite, limited and human, that you don't have all the answers to life's big questions, and neither do we. That's why we need one another. All we have are hints and guesses, and the insights and example of those who have struggled to articulate a faith in times past. Knowing this about ourselves, that we all live with uncertainties and ambiguities, it is good to laugh heartily in church once in awhile. It reminds us that we are all in this mysterious business called life together and that we should try to help one another and make the best of it.
When you join a Unitarian Universalist church (or any church for that matter) you are making a symbolic statement about your relationship to the members of that particular congregation. Similar to a covenant of marriage you are saying "for better for worse, in sickness and in health" I accept these people as members of my extended spiritual family. I will do my best to relate to them as lovingly, caringly and as honestly as I can and I expect that they will do the same with me.
Joining a church is getting very specific about the admonition to love your neighbor as your self. It does not mean that you do not love and care for people who are members of other churches (or none). It doesn't even necessarily mean that your best friends are members of a UU church. What it does mean is that you've made a covenant to make a special effort to relate to this particular group of human beings in a loving way. To paraphrase a line from the New Testament, if you do not learn to care for those you have known and seen, how can you possibly care for those you have not known or seen.
As with any family, so with this extended spiritual family, love is hard work. It requires a commitment of time and money to make it work. We do
not always like or agree with the members of our personal families, but for the most part we do manage to accept, tolerate, forgive, and attempt to understand one another in spite of our differences. And that's the way it is, or at least should be, in our UU extended spiritual family.
When you join a particular Unitarian Universalist church it also means that you acknowledge, however begrudgingly, that you are related to the Uni-Uni clan in other churches around the nation and world. These too are my people for better or worse because no church exists in isolation from others, not even a free church. When you join the Unitarian Universalist Church in Chatham, Norwell or Podunk, Alaska, you don't join the UUA--you join a local church not a denomination--but since your local church is affiliated with the UUA the connection to a larger movement of liberal religious churches and fellowships is implied.
If you ever have the opportunity to attend a UUA General Assembly, or a district regional conference, you would have a much greater appreciation of the importance of our UU super extended family. The UUA statement of principles and purposes which we read earlier in the service is an expression of our larger spiritual identity.
Now, sometimes the members of our super extended spiritual family do some crazy things that we would just as soon not have publicized in the media--like the time, over a decade or two or three or more ago, that one of our UU Fellowships in Texas had a female stripper perform on Sunday morning. Yes, it actually happened.
For them that was the bare necessities of religion, for us it was barely religion and a crude facsimile at best. But as with any family you can always find weird cousins distantly removed, or not so distantly removed, who say or do things we'd just as soon forget.
When you join a Unitarian Universalist church you also inherit our religious family tree of heroes and heroines of the faith along with some occasional skeletons in the closet. We lay claim to founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson with some pride, but we don't like to mention Millard Fillmore who signed the fugitive slave act which Universaqlist Wm. Lloyd Garrison and others worked so mightily against. We are justly proud of Emerson's transcendentalist philosophy, Clara Barton's founding of the Red Cross, and Susan B. Anthony's struggle for women's suffrage. But we don't make much of Fanny Farmer's cookbook, Lydia Pinkham's tonic or P.T. Barnam's circus. Yet all are members of our Unitarian Universalist family tree.
The roots of our UU family tree go all the way back to the beginnings of our Judeo-Christian heritage, to Jesus and the prophets, to Moses and ancient Biblical authors. Though some of us may not define ourselves as Christian there's no denying our historical roots and the fact that our rites and ceremonies, our thought forms and theologies, derive from Judeo-Christian sources. We didn't fall out of a Buddhist bush or a Hindu tree though we may appreciate and borrow from those great religious traditions for our own use and purposes, as did Emerson and the New England transcendentalists.
The hallmarks of our approach to religion are what Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur called Reason, Freedom and Tolerance. The only time a Unitarian king ruled in Europe, in Transylvania, he issued an Edict of Religious Tolerance granting freedom of religion to Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and Unitarians. The year was 1568. This year marks the 452nd anniversary of that important event in our UU history.
To practice reason, freedom and tolerance in a modern context means not only that we appreciate and tolerate other faith traditions beyond our own, but that within our own household of faith we learn to appreciate and respect those among us who would define themselves as UU Christians, Jews, pagans, humanists, theists, atheists, pantheists, or some other ist, as well as those who would declare or claim a differently-oriented sexual or gender identity, along with those who don't know who or what they believe or how to define themselves, and for whom a label does not exist other than "human being--please do not bend, spindle or mutilate."
To join a UU church means that you must be willing to accept and embrace pluralism and diversity, a unity that embraces and affirms differences, and celebrates them. Because of this we cannot meet the religious and spiritual needs of everyone all of the time. The best we can do is to try to meet the spiritual needs of most of our membership most of the time. Those who want or insist on more will probably go elsewhere.
The truth of the matter is you have to take some responsibility for nurturing and developing your own spiritual life beyond what happens here on Sunday mornings. Only you can grow a faith which is meaningful for you. As Whitman once said, "No one can grow for another, not one." What we can offer are some tools, and examples, and encouragement and support for walking the spiritual path. You don't have to walk alone, at least not all of the time. You can walk with others and share, but no one can do the walking for you. So walk with us, and talk with us, and help us to walk our talk.
Above all, if you hear someone in a hotel lobby or elsewhere talking about Uni-somethings or Uni-Uni's, have the presence of mind to say, "That's what I am, a Unitarian Universalist", and then you can quote them your UU church covenant of membership, or you can show them a copy of the UUA Statement of Principles and Purposes .
Finally, if someone accuses you of being a Unitarian Universalist make the charge stick. Let them know you actually belong to a UU church and invite them to attend some Sunday. After all, why keep it a secret. It's time to make the Unknown Unitarian Universalist a known quantity. If we don't do it, who will? The "U" in UU is "you", “you”. and "you" and all of us together creating here a free family of faith and making it real and true in our personal and collective lives. So may it be.