Tuesday, November 24, 2009

From where does our Unitarian Universalist faith spring?

On Saturday, 11/21/09 James Ford has an interesting article on his, blog Monkey Mind, describing his thoughts on the meaning of the Mayflower compact made on 11/21/1620.

He ties this kind of approach to the development of covenantal relationships to the principles of Unitarian Universalism. I don't understand his meaning and I wish he would explain his ideas in more depth and yet I glimpse that he is on to something.

I think we yearn for a covenantal church and fool ourselves into thinking that we are one, but I have grave doubts that in our postmodern world this is not the case, and it is this fact which explains the lack of growth and vitality in the Unitarian Universalist movement.

Our church is very much a contractual church in which most of our visitors and members are shoppers who are looking not for what they can give or contribute, but rather for what they can get out of membership. Any spiritual commitment as Rev. Ford seems to say comes from other religious traditions which have been brought along by the new members or been co-opted as he points out in an hyphenated way. Unitarian Universalism has yet to develop a spirituality of its own which engages people in personal and communal transformation at any deep level.

For a religious experience that deepens one spiritual understanding one must go to another tradition.

It seems that what Unitarian Universalism has to sell is superficial and has little substance. Rev. Ford seems to imply that it is in the exploration of the principles and the reverence for that which gives rise to them that is our biggest hope for developing a spiritual tradition which has some legs and meat on it.

I wish he and others would explore this more deeply and report their findings to us floating on the surface.

Thanks to Rev. Ford for his thought provoking article. I recommend it to you.


  1. David, could you maybe be more specific in what you mean by "spiritual commitment?" By "legs and meat" do you mean ritual, discipline, or what?

    If we define "spirit" by its etymology -- as life-giving, or more literally as the breath of life -- I don't think I can agree that what UU has to sell is superficial and has little substance. If spirit is what embraces life in all its sacredness, and empowers us toward a more abundant life, both individually and collectively, then I do think we have something of substance. As a profound response to crippling dogma in service of a higher tradition that strives to bring people together in ways that matter most, to me that's substance. And whenever I see somebody like 10-year-old Will Phillips, who felt himself called to social protest by refusing to stand for the "pledge of allegiance," to me that's a reflection of the one of the most basic of UU "spiritual" premises...that of respect for the personal uniqueness and inherent worth and dignity of every person, including the idea of self-discernment of truth and even personal accountability for our actions. And, our presence in the arena of interfaith community has provided what someone has called the "leaven" that makes the yeast to rise. That's pretty substantial, wouldn't you say? Again, that goes right to the heart of our Reformation roots, to people like Hans Denck and Sebastian Castellio and Francis David who all said that in opinion we may differ, but in love we are one.

    These premises of individual worth and ultimate connectedness are parts of our tradition that go back for centuries, and couldn't be more substantial to me. But it's up to each of us, I think, in every generation to provide the meat and legs, isn't it?

    I'm enjoying this conversation, David, and like yourself I welcome more from Rev. Ford on this as well.

    -- Ron S.

  2. "It seems that what Unitarian Universalism has to sell is superficial and has little substance."

    Well said David. Sometimes I wonder if Unitarian*Universalism aka The Tiny Declining Fringe Religion™ to plagU*Urize Rev. Peter Morales :-) isn't the Potemkin Village of world religions, *if* The U*U Movement can be seriously considered to be a *real* world religion at all.

    Certainly from my perspective there is practically zero substance behind the fine words expressing U*U principles and ideals. Montreal Unitarian U*Us, and too many other Unitarian*Universalists, including top level UUA religious and lay leaders, have repeatedly broken virtually every "covenant" that U*Us profess to "affirm and promote". Regrettably too many U*Us are unready, unwilling, and apparently even quite unable to genuinely "honor and uphold" the so-called "covenants" that they quite emptily and insincerely, if not outright fraudulently, "affirm and promote". . . I always thought that a "covenant" was a quite solemn promise, if not a form of social contract, but in my experience and observation a great many U*Us don't know the meaning of the word "covenant". Come to think of it. . . maybe I have grounds to sue the UUA and Unitarian Church of Montreal for breach of contract. :-)

  3. Dear Ron:

    Thank you for your comment and your thoughtful questions. I wish we could have a discussion of these ideas rather than communicate in this format because I think the ideas would benefit from a more nuanced expression than this format provides.

    UUs claim to be convenantal but I think there is little evidence for this claim. I think the relationship model is more contractual. UU requires very little for people to become members other than signing a membership book.It more difficult to become a member of a civic club where more vetting occurs than to join the UU church. There is nothing more required of an individual unless the person wants to become a minister. In other faith traditions there are roles which signify greater commitment such as becoming a deacon, an elder, a Brother, or Sister, a monk etc. Where there is little opportunity for social sanctioned and acknowledged roles of commitment to the faith tradition, the tradition itself suffers from the lack of human manifestation of that commitment.

    The legs and meat of a faith tradition are the symbols, myths, rituals, and pratices which comprise the faith traditon. Outside of a flaming chalice and a hymnal, UU has little to offer in way of the sacred enchantment of the world. Unitarian Universalism being an outgrowth of Protestantism is very sparse in symbols, myths, and practices. Its adherents must turn to other traditions if it wants something deeper and richer in that regard.

    I have many people ask what UUs believe and where they can read more. I have been asked many times "Do you have a book?" I have referred people to Our Chosen Faith by Buehrens and Church but it doesn't really describe the history and essence of our faith tradition. Somebody could meet a real need and make a forture if such a book were written but I am sure that it also would be the target of much criticism and disagreement as well.

    The further development and application of our seven principles are what strike me as having potential for the development of a more robust theology but I haven't seen much in this regard.

    The lack of a theodicy in Unitarian Universalism strikes me as it main weakness. How do we as Unitarian Universalists explain evil, suffering, and the shadow side of human nature and societies. I think we deal with it mostly by denial and to rail against social injustice which is an external projection of the internal weakness and frailities of our natures.

    Until we can explain and suggest how people deal with their lust, greed, jealousy, hate, arrogance, and desire for power we have failed as a world class religion because we have ignored something primal and basic about human nature. Science and reason will not save us. Optimistic and sacharine beliefs about human nature and our world will not save us.

    How do we as UUs explain the holocaust and militarism and the greed and exploitation which we see all around us?

    How do we UUs deal with sin other than to ignore it, overlook it, pretend it doesn't exist? Until Unitarian Universalism can come up with a cogent explanation for pain, suffering, and evil in the world it will continue to have only marignal influence on human kind.

    I am very interested in your further thoughts.

    All the best,

    David Markham

    PS Let me just say further that I have investigated as much as I am able Robin Edgar's complaints about the way his complaints have been dealt with and he has been treated and it is a good example of the failure of UU to come to terms with the dysfunctional behavior of some of its ministers who seems to have falsely accused him and attributed things to him that are unfair and untrue and discrimatory and stigmatizing. The failure of the leadership to deal openly with his complaints reminds me of the coverup by the Bishops of the Roman Catholic church in dealing with the evil behaviors of its clergy.

    This failure to acknowledge and deal with the ugly side of human nature does not bode well for the world class religion that Peter Morales says he aspires to.

  4. Thanks for your P.S. David. It is quite regrettably "right on the money" as they say, with one important caveat. . . This is not simply a question of dysfunctional behavior on the part of some "less than excellent" Unitarian*Universalist clergy. The dysfunctional behavior extends to the Board and whole congregation of the Unitarian Church of Montreal as well as the UUA, including at least two UUA Presidents, the very aptly named Ministerial *Fellowship* Committee, and the UUA's Board of Trustees who have responded in a grossly negligent and effectively complicit manner to my serious grievances that initially arose out of Rev. Ray Drennan's deeply insulting and defamatory verbal attack on me. As far as I am concerned the fact that the whole congregation of the Unitarian Church of Montreal has repeatedly walked past my picket signs protesting against the anti-religious intolerance and bigotry that I was subjected to by Rev. Ray Drennan and other leading members of this alleged Unitarian Church, as well as other related injustices and abuses that these and other dysfunctional U*Us have either directly perpetrated or indirectly perpetuated, is amazingly dysfunctional behavior. Can you imagine a Roman Catholic church totally ignoring a protestor for over a decade? Can you imagine the Roman Catholic church absolutely refusing to engage in ANY dialogue or conflict resolution practices for over I decade? I can't. . . For all its faults the Roman Catholic church least spoken with victims of clergy misconduct and gone a long way towards responsibly dealing with clergy misconduct complaints. As the UUA's decade old (and apparently "obsolete") official apology to victims of clergy sexual misconduct says -

    "Let me say this as simply and unequivocally as I know how: the Association has largely failed the people most hurt by sexual misconduct, the victims and survivors. Other denominations have done better. These brave and bruised people have, more often than not I suspect, been left lonely, confused, afraid, angry and betrayed. Un-ministered to."

    I am sorry to have to say so but at least when it comes to responding responsibly to clergy sexual misconduct and actually providing some restorative justice to victims of clergy sexual misconduct the Roman Catholic Church has put the Unitarian*Universalist Association to shame over the last decade or so. Not that the dysfunctionally guiltless and prideful UUA has any shame. . .

  5. "UU requires very little for people to become members other than signing a membership book.It more difficult to become a member of a civic club where more vetting occurs than to join the UU church."

    Very well said David. I well remember being approached by a "greeter" at the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco when I visited it in August of 2006 who pretty much solicited me to join the church. He didn't even bother to find out if I was a local or not. . . When I asked him what requirements the church had for becoming a member he said there were only three requirements.

    The first requirement was to meet with the minister of the church. The second requirement was to make an identifiable financial contribution to the church. And the third requirement was to sign the membership book.

    That's it. That's all. . .

    I actually decided that it would be fun to show up the ridiculousness of those minimalist "requirements" by joining the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco on the spot but unfiortunately the minister was on holiday (it being August and all. . .) so I was not able to meet with him. Had this been possible I would have met with him, given the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco one single Almighty Dollar identifiable financial contribution, and signed the membership book just to make a point about the incredibly lax standards for membership in that U*U church.