God, ministry, and church


A blogger who is a Unitarian Universalist minister has written an entry in which she argues that the "humanist" label that her denomination frequently applies to itself is inaccurate. If I understand her argument correctly, she contends that humanism is historically a theistic tradition, while UUism is officially nontheistic in its principles (although many members in the denomination may themselves be theistic.) Instead, by shedding itself of God within its religious philosophy, UUism more closely resembles the nontheistic norms of Buddhism than humanism. Thus she argues that Unitarian Universalism is evolving into what she calls "vague Buddhism". Again, I may not be exactly paraphrasing her ideas correctly, but I believe that is the gist of what she has written.

I can't address this issue with much direct knowledge, since I am not a UU, but I did attend a UU service a few weeks ago, the first one I have attended in a few years. The church was in an interim period between ministers, and this particular service was conducted by its young adult group. The theme of the service revolved around the question of people finding their calling in life, and two individuals, a man and a woman (whose ages I wasn't sure of, but they were probably in their late twenties, give or take), discussed their own journeys as they tried to discover what they wanted to do in life. The man talked about spending some time choosing to sleep on the streets in Southern California as a kind of ministry to the homeless. This was indeed inspirational to hear, and it reminded me of my own comfort in life and the fact that I would not have the courage to undertake such an endeavor. The woman spoke of her re-evaluation of her career choices.

Both speakers told interesting stories. But neither speaker spoke of God. Although I think the word God may have appeared on the walls of the church somewhere in the form of a quotation by a nineteenth century Unitarian, there was no reference to the Divine to be found in the actual service itself. In fact, I found the word "ministry" rather odd when used in conjunction with the social justice work that the one speaker who had spent nights on the street was engaged in. I absolutely think that service to the poor is admirable, and his actions are praiseworthy. We need more people in the world who do those sorts of things, regardless of what their religious beliefs are. But I'm not sure how the term "ministry" describes this kind of work.

I am absolutely not saying that ministry requires religious proselytizing. On the contrary; I am not in the least bit a fan of those religious souls who use services to the poor as a means for them to preach to potential converts, or who expect those they serve to listen to listen their version of the Gospel. I do think, however, for it to be "ministry", it ought to at the very least be an expression of one's religious faith--at least when the word is used from a pulpit, as it was in that instance.

Perhaps I am splitting hairs, and I suppose it is possible to use the word "minister" in a broader sense, but when it comes out of a religious setting, for me it strikes a dischordant tone. Although the religious pluralist in me likes the idea of broadening the term as much as possible so that people of many different beliefs can be considered ministers, the God-believer in me also wants to view ministry in a community of faith as an expression of that faith. I personally think that those who believe in God reveal God's presence through their actions--not by preaching, but by doing. But without this religious basis for the actions, it seems to me to be nothing but a case of doing good deeds, which, wonderful as that is, is not to me the same as ministry. Sure, it is possible that the speaker at that service had a religious belief--perhaps a nontheistic, "vaguely Buddhist" one--that inspired him to act as he did, but he did not speak of what that was, if it existed. And if there was such a religious basis, the fact that it mattered so little to what he did that he didn't feel a need to mention it was, in its own way, quite telling.

None of which is to say that I have anything against Unitarian Universalism, or with Buddhists, or with "vague Buddhists". UUism serves a need for some people. I'm just not one of them.

The absence of God-talk in the service I attended, especially in conjunction with the idea that doing good without any religious impulse behind is the definition of "ministry", left me just slightly cold. I needed something more.

All of this is interesting in light of the book I am currently reading, Leaving Church by Barbara Taylor Brown. She was a pastor in an Episcopal Church who, like those speakers in the UU service I attended, struggled with trying to find her calling in life. However, she was in fact older than those young adults in the UU service, when she underwent some changes in life in pursuit of that dream. Repeatedly, she struggled with the difficulties of living according to what she thought was her calling and her dreams. Things didn't always work out well for her, and she learned the hard way that the grass is often greener on the other side. But at every step of her life, the actions she undertook of helping and ministering to others represented an expression of her theism--her love for God. This is what is absent from Unitarian Univeralism, and this is why I found myself looking elsewhere.

This past Sunday, I attended a service at a local UCC church. It was a small church and a small congregation, but it was also remarkably friendly and welcoming. And it was, for me, a breath of fresh air to hear the word "God" being used in the service. Even if my theology may be a little to the left of what that church teaches, no one forced a theology down my throat either. I might not have been crazy about a reference to the Triune God that came out at one point in the service, but at other points the pastor acknowledged a kind of religiously pluralistic perspective that I found comforting. It was okay if I didn't necessarily agree with everything, she seemed to be saying. But at least, for me, a starting point was an acceptance of a Divine element to one's religious faith.


Sarah Louise said...

I loved loved Leaving Church. Traveling mercies on your journey.

PeaceBang said...

Thanks, Seeker. I appreciate your posting. I do want to clarify, however, that I don't think Humanism is a theistic tradition, but that classical Humanism has always been in intentional conversation with the transcendent theism of its time. In other words, it has never just arisen out of a vacuum, but has always developed within a context of a theistic majority religion or beleif system.