Saturday, July 08, 2006

I Respond to "Searching" and Bill

I am so glad that "Searching" commented in my last post about welcoming the stranger and that he or she pointed out two of our most egregious sins in how we approach visitors. Thanks for posting, Searching, and welcome to PeaceBang.

First of all, it is never truly welcoming to denigrate the former religious life of a seeker. Even if it makes them feel more welcome at the moment of their arrival, it does not do credit to our maturity as a faith tradition to bond with them over what we all rejected. First of all, to do so is based on assumptions that may be incorrect-- such conversations have no real place in coffee hour, either -- they should be worked out in a much deeper, reflective setting such as an Adult Education class. Secondly, to welcome newcomers in the spirit of what they rejected immediately centers all of us in a common unity of religion-bashing rather than in a unity of positive, affirming fellowship.

When Bill Baar says we'll never be a majority religion because we are a religion for people who don't fit in elsewhere, he is reading the crystal ball based on how we behave today, and in this wise, he is absolutely prophetic. However, I don't think he has to be correct. We can together choose to be a religion for people who could ostensibly fit in lots of other places, but who choose to be Unitarian Universalists because they find something rich and deep among our congregational life that is more powerful and life-giving than what they have experienced elsewhere.

Searching also warns us against interrogating self-described Christians with great suspicion and even veiled hostility. YES! We DO this! While we wouldn't think of similarly harassing a humanist or an atheist or a Jew or a Buddhist (I'm not including pagans here, because I think they are also commonly greeted with a raised eyebrow in many of our churches), we think nothing of piercing right into someone's fragile philosophy with insensitive questions or harsh comments intended to let that person know just where we stand. Again, hypocrisy. Again, terribly damaging, and assuring our small numbers and reputation as a club for godless, politically liberal brainiacs.

Why evangelize, asks Bill Baar. Why not, Bill? Evangelizing is simply sharing one's "good news." For those of us who have more to share than just doubt, it is easy to evangelize. I agree with you that ministers have much more work to do in clarifying what IS our Unitarian Universalist good news, and I think it's getting better. But we need UU laypeople to join us in digging deep for what it is we can affirm and in welcoming people without succumbing to the temptation to join them in wounded rejection (in fact, ministering to their wounded rejection should be our first order of business as a welcoming people).

Finally, we must stop assuming that everyone who comes to us is joining us because they didn't fit in anywhere else. A great number of seekers today are totally unchurched and have had no negative experiences with former faith communities. They come unknowing, open, interested in the religious endeavor, and eager to be clearly shown the transformative power of our spiritual community. They are the ones who find us through or by reading, and who come with a textbook understanding of Unitarian Univeralism that includes our Christian heritage, our vaunted liberality and generosity of spirit, our shining exemplars of social justice and liberation work, and our Biblical and Enlightenment values.

They are the quickest to intuit our contemporary hypocrisies and to go away thinking, with good reason, "I had heard that those were the people who are deeply devoted to the notion that God speaks in a variety of ways to people, that these UUs are people who understood that reverence and moral goodness are not reliant on creeds and conformity, they they respect that free individuals join in religious community with a wide divergence of spiritual orientation or none at all, and that they are intelligent and thoughtful and committed to mutual support. But I didn't see that. What I saw was a group of people fighting turf wars about power or money, complaining about minute aspects of the liturgy they personally don't like, insulting Christians with no apparent understanding of the many Christianities that exist in this country, and far more invested in mutually cherishing their prejudices against people of faith than in deepening their common spiritual life. They're much better on paper than they are in person. I think I'll try another church, or the Vedanta Center."

I believe that it is through the strength of our Associational covenant that we can lovingly confront these behaviors among us and change, together. Those congregations that do not operate in the ways I describe -- that are healthy, truly hospitable places -- need to share their spirit and their methods with the congregations that aren't there yet. And so on and so on, until every one of our churches, societies and fellowships is a place of tranformative religious life, unabashed passion, and unapologetically deep faith.

That's why I was so happy to see so many programs on the subject offered at GA. We're on our way. I believe that we're on our way.


Blogger Doug Muder said...

I think there's a huge generational divide on this issue. Older UU's mostly grew up in a Christian-dominated environment and revolted against it. Many still have scars.

Younger UU's not so much. A lot of them grew up in a religious vacuum and are looking for something deeper in life than consumption and celebrity-worship. They take for granted that they don't have to have a religion, and so they are much less threatened when someone starts talking Christian to them.

Blogger GloryintheMorning said...

Bang on, PeaceBang.

When I think about our (shameful) UU tendency to "test" visitors for their appropriate political affiliation/hybrid vehicle type/far-afield summer itinerary/etc. to see if they "belong," I think of the Bibical concept of "saying Shibboleth," as told in Judges, chapter 12.

(I got the idea, I'm not ashamed to admit, from watching most of season 2 of "The West Wing" on my day of rest. The story of the Ephraimites being tested as to their true identity by pronouncing "Shibboleth" correctly is artfully woven into episode #208. I am a such a geek as to be better acquainted with the West Wing canon than the Old Testament.)

I think we UUs do the same thing: force visitors to say Shibboleth so that we're sure they "belong," and so that we can feel assured in welcoming them graciously. I fear for what would happen if a visitor were spotted climbing out of a car with a Dubya bumper-sticker, or confessed to voting against the school levy in the most recent election.

Radical hospitality, to me, means not subjecting guests to tests -- however unconscious -- of how well they match our self-imposed identity.

Blogger GloryintheMorning said...


(warning: shameless self-promotion!)

On my own blog, I expanded on this a bit, including the story of the Ephramites and on a parallel test retold in a Rita Dove poem. See


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