I’ve really been wrestling with my future in the Unitarian Universalist movement. I’ve talked with other UUs — people who are smarter and more disciplined than I. I’ve prayed about it. Yes, prayed . I’ve waffled. I’ve read books about humanism. I’ve re-read parts of the Bible that scare me. I’ve lain awake at night wondering if I’ve wasted my soul or if I’m giving up on my free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve decided to explore liberal Christianity. I think it’s more honest for me, at least right now.
There is so much I love about UUism. The honesty about the mystery of the sacred, and the clarity from the clergy about our habit of making meaning through stories, song and silence. I love that the UU clergy is so well-read, generally speaking. I also love many of the UUs I’ve met along the way.
What finally convinced me to leave? A lot of things, including the nagging feeling that UUism lost it’s religious heart to political liberalism a long, long time ago. And I craved so much to learn about the meaning of salvation in UUism, but no one would touch the question with a 10-foot pole. Sure, we could talk about Buddhism, pagan rites, humanist hope for a world transformed — but not salvation, and certainly not sin. I could read Rev. Davidson Loehr’s essay “Salvation by Character” and re-read Walden. But I couldn’t expect to engage in a dialog about salvation with my peers. Mostly, they answered my questions with “We can’t save anyone. We don’t sell fire insurance.” I thought we could talk about salvation from a Unitarian and a Universalist philosophy, leaving heaven and hell out of the discussion. But no. It wasn’t to be.
There are other, more tangible reasons, too.
Ambivalence about membership
In my former congregation, you could pledge $5 a year, rarely show up for worship and decline to donate any significant time to the church. However, you can show up twice a year for the congregational meetings, make a long speech about your many “concerns” about the motions presented and actually get calm people worked up. And there was so much touchiness about money! It’s as if talking about money, and how to use it, was in itself a condemnation of those without means. But even then, there was no specific expectation of what members should do to align themselves with a vision for The Beloved Community, either. As much as the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” nettles my soul, I always felt oppressed by the resistance to articulating clear membership expectations — spiritual and material.
A chief sin of cultural liberalism is its reluctance to label toxic behaviors and assign them consequences. Boundaries are very fuzzy in a lot of UU congregations, and every leadership workshop or seminar I have attended in the last four years has eventually come around to the question about what to do with disruptive members. We always seem to stub our toes on the first principle of our covenant with the Unitarian Universalist Association. Our first principle reads thus: “We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
This principle has been perverted. By what? By a blind terror of the appearance of bigotry. So we are no longer guided to welcome all people, but to welcome all behavior — even disruptive, corrosive and dangerous behavior.
Too often, I’ve seen this behavior metastasize. I’ve watched in horror as people have brought personal grudges up during worship in the messiest and most dangerous part of church life I’ve ever witnessed: Joys, Sorrows and Concerns. (For non-UUs, this is a time in the service when the congregation is invited to share. I’ve seen this part of the service go toxic more than once, and as a lay leader, I never understood the insistence that we protect this part of worship. Probably because those who love it have never or rarely had to spend hours a week doing damage control because of what someone shared. It’s very likely that the folks doing the damage were totally obtuse to the havoc they were wreaking on worship. I can forgive that. It’s harder for me to forgive lay leaders and members who either resist putting healthy boundaries around sharing in worship, or pretend what’s hurtful is somehow protected by freedom of expression. (Expecting people to behave, and to respect the worship hour is not censorship. Shame on you if you think it is. )
For any organization to be healthy — not perfect, but healthy — leaders have to identify boundaries, and then make policy and procedure to protect them. UUs have a very tough time with this. Some avoid setting boundaries all together. I failed utterly in this responsibility myself — sometimes out of ignorance and just as often out of cowardice. I own this, and it still haunts me.
There’s a cartoon that lovingly skewers the UU habit of avoiding depth in worship. The cartoon shows two doors — one is labeled “heaven” and the other is labeled “lectures about heaven.” The UUs in the cartoon are going to the lecture.
I’ve spent too many Sunday mornings listening to lectures that are absolutely inappropriate for religious ritual. An example? A well-respected academic came to my former congregation and spoke (not preached) about something called “facilitated after-death communication.” The professor was obviously very credible, very knowledgeable and very passionate about her work. She wasn’t the problem. The problem was that it wasn’t worship.
UUs are more comfortable dedicating Sundays to the ethics of fair trade coffee than to bringing people together for a common experience of transcendence. I can’t speak for others, but I come to church because something is unanswered in my life and the world, and I’d like to work it out — at least a little — before I die. I want to know how I can help save the world. Or a piece of it. I don’t think I can do that by being a smarter coffee drinker. I couldn’t ignore the grain of indignation I felt when sitting in these worship services. On Sunday morning, I want to leave my consumer identity behind for an hour and reach out to the depths of me — and the depths of the others in church. I want to know why we’re worth saving.
And I can’t live with the guilt that washes over me when a visitor or member comes in, sharing that they’ve lost a child, a spouse, a job or their hope — and they have to sit through a supposed religious service that won’t deign to offer them some sort of blessing, some bit of consolation.
The bloody embarrassing hyphenates
I was at a UU leadership function. I met a really smart, really energetic and sweet guy. The kind of guy that any church elder or pastor would love to recruit onto the board. He volunteered his path to me: “I’m a Buddhist-Humanist,” he said. Then he took a swig of fair trade coffee while I told every particle of my being that, no, I would NOT roll my eyes.
You can’t be a Buddhist-Humanist. You just can’t. Religious humanism claims that there is no supernatural force directing our moral decisions or the environment we live in. Atoms do what they do, and the only help we humans have is a conscience and a heart to make moral decisions. Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches that the world is an illusion. If Buddhism and Humanism aren’t opposing philosophies, they are incongruent and incompatible. (Don’t think I don’t feel conflicted about the big differences between Unitarians and Universalists, either. But that horse died a long time ago. I’ll leave others to flog it.)
Pick a philosophy that resonates with your heart and mind, and then do the work, dammit! Be a Buddhist or a Humanist and do the work, because I suspect that claiming a hybrid philosophy might have something to do with wanting to be “spiritual” without the messy work of transformation.
So I’m leaving the faith. I never thought I would, and I am grieving. I still feel and think like a Unitarian Christian. But I’ve got to do some religious work, work that somehow rises above mere political activism, and learn how to serve God’s children. I think I can do that better in a liberal Christian community, one that won’t low-ball me in terms of expectations or covenant.
My soul depends on it.