Unitarian Universalism and Christianity

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There has been some discussion among UU Christian bloggers about how they practice their faith. The discussion was initiated by Mama G, who is part of a small group of UU Christians who meet in each other's homes.

What I think is interesting about this question is that it presupposes that UU Christians find their denominational worship to be, in and of itself, inadequate for their faith--so they have to supplement what is offered in their church by creating their own form of worship outside of their church. I have to admit that I am baffled by this concept. What is the purpose exactly of going to Sunday services at a church if they are so inadequate as an expression of spiritual fulfillment that you have to go off somewhere else and create your own in order to make up for it? What is the basis of this loyalty to the UU denomination under those circumstances? Is going to a UU church service just a nice social outing, while the real thing, spiritually speaking, is found somewhere else?

When I attended UU services in San Francisco, the one thing that was clear to me was the services were inadequate for me as a means of spiritual fulfillment. I like to come out of a service feeling uplifted in comparison to how I felt going in. A worship service actually means something to me. It is a way for me to connect to God. It is valuable to me in and of itself as a vital means of reaching out to the transcendent. I actually like hearing the word "God" used once or twice in a worship service. If I don't get that from going to church, then I am going to the wrong church and I go look elsewhere for my spiritual nourishment.

So why do UU Christians remain within their denomination, given that their services for worship are inadequate for their purposes? Peacebang, who weighed in on this topic and elaborated on how one can be both a UU and a Christian, suggested that UU Christians have a set of common characteristics that presumably set them apart (and which allow them to remain loyal to their denomination); although she doesn't come right out and say it, the unstated assumption seems to be that these characteristics distinguish it from other varieties of the Christian faith. For example, she says that:

1. UU Christians don’t proselytize or make claims that theirs is the one true faith. They just choose this path for themselves.

2. UU Christians don’t exclude people from fellowship for expressing doubts or irreverent thoughts about the Bible, Jesus or God.

3. UU Christians don’t worry about who’s going to hell and they don’t engage in competetive spiritual development.

4. UU Christians assume that all are capable of taking on leadership, and they share the responsibility of planning, setting up and cleaning up.

In reality, none of these characteristics are unique to UU Christians, but are in fact found among many progressive Christians in mainline denominations, so as a reason for remaining UU, it just doesn't wash. There are plenty of Christians in other denominations who share these same, exact traits. The notion that UU Christianity is an oasis of theological liberalism in a sea of intolerance and exclusivism seems to reflect the UU self-image more than reality. Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, and John Shelby Spong are not UUs, to cite three examples. In fact, the existence of intolerance against Christianity that is often found within the UU denomination suggests that this vaunted UU tolerance doesn't quite live up to the hype. The UU self-image notwithstanding, I personally feel that these supposed attributes of UU Christianity listed above really don't serve as an adequate justification for remaining tied to the UU denomination; they just aren't uniquely UU. I can find plenty of progressive Chrisitianity within mainline denominations, in varying ways. There are resources for finding such churches--one can look, for example, at the directory of affiliates on the website for the Center for Progressive Christianity. Admittedly, "progressive" means a lot of things to a lot of people, and it takes some legwork to find a church that is really sufficient for one's spiritual needs. I didn't say it was easy--but it is definitely possible. And for me, it is more rewarding to search for and find a progressive church that is committed to connecting with God, where the form of worship actually connects with the sacred in a way that I can relate to, than to try to invent a spiritual sub-community out of whole cloth because the church I go to is not up to the job.

This does not mean that I do not respect Unitarian Univeralism for what it offers to religious seekers who are not tied to the Christian tradition per se. When I was in my late twenties and making my first tentative steps towards re-connecting with my spiritual side, it was only through Unitarian Univeralism that I was able to do it. The first church I set foot inside as an adult was a UU church; the very notion of walking into a church was so scary at the time, and I was filled with so much baggage from my fundamentalist upbringing, that I never could have made that move in an explicitly Christian environment. For me, Unitarian Universalism was a necessary baby step towards re-establishing my religious self. Eventually, however, I realized that the UU denomination was not for me. It was time to move on.

I have written in the past about my struggles with finding progressive Christianity in my own metropolitan area. I have issues with a lot of what goes on in many worship services, even in many ostensibly progressive Christian churches. That being said, I have found that it is possible to find churches that are progressive, Christian, and committed to theological exploration beyond the boundaries of traditional dogma. I haven't found the perfect church, but perfection is a hard thing to find.

4 comments:

Sarah said...

First off, I don't really see myself as a UU Christian, but right now I am attending a UU Fellowship, and plan on staying for a while, so I guess that's close enough.

My first experience with a UU church was in the St. Louis area. I found it unsatisfying, and I haven't returned. I don't think they said the word "God" once, and I'm with you, I'm quite okay with saying God.

However, I now live in a small college town in an overall conservative area of Missouri where my options are more limited. There are few "progressive" churches in the area. The closest I think you can get is the Episcopal church, which I've been to a few times, but I also found it lacking in other ways. It is not that they aren't spiritual or open to ideas there; it is just that I can't seem to get into the liturgy. I just can't seem to find a good fit with any of the regular churches here, not even the university groups, even though everyone is my age there.

So when I found out about the UU fellowship, I was curious and bit surprised that there even was one. It is not big enough to be a regular church. There are about 6-10 people at every gathering. But I've found that I really prefer that kind of atmosphere. So for me, it's more about the fellowship. I really like the people there. If that's just a "nice social outing" then so be it. For me, it's still preferable to not going to church anywhere at all, or going to a conservative church. At least in the UU group we have interesting discussions even if they're not solely focused on Christianity. I admit it's not ideal, but for me it works.

Mystical Seeker said...

Sarah, you raise a very good point. I live in a large metropolitan area, so I do have more church options than people who live in smaller communities do. I didn't really take that into account in what I wrote. Thanks for reminding me of that.

PeaceBang said...

Hi MS,
Just a couple of points.
1. I make a constant effort to remind UUs that we are not at all unusual in our practices and attitudes. You, as a regular reader, have seen me do this time and again. My post on what UU Xtians do was specifically for Mama G and her group, who asked a specific question. I replied with a list, not an analysis of the overall progressive Christian movement. I have offered such elsewhere and many times.

2. Your point about why UUs need to go elsewhere to get spiritually fed is one that I thought would come up at PeaceBang. It is a very important one, I think. Do I attend UU worship just because I'm the minister and am responsible for leading it? No. Like most ministers, I find it hard to worship while leading worship. I go elsewhere so that I can simply worship. The fact that I go to Christian churches is telling, of course, and it would be disingenuous to say that your queries are off-base. I frankly don't know if I would attend UU churches if I wasn't a minister. The last time I "church-shopped" I was a nascent Christian in my early 20's and wound up with the UUs. Would that happen this time around if I had my Sunday mornings free? I don't know, but I've certainly wondered.

PeaceBang said...

P.S. I should have said that I wound up *back again* with the UUs, which was the church of my childhood, and into which I was dedicated at the age of 3.