Wednesday, November 29, 2006

'Tis the Season For Terminal Uniqueness

It's one of those seasons (Easter is the other one) when Unitarian Universalists are most prone to practice extreme Terminal Uniqueness in their worship and conversations:

"People say that Jesus was the Son of God, but UUs believe that..."

"Advent is a time when Christians wait for the coming of the Christ child. But for Unitarian Universalists..."

"Jewish people celebrate the festival of lights, Hanukah, this month. UU's don't believe in miracles, but..."

This Advent season, I'm making it a point to try to avoid this kind of phrase, believing as I do that if Unitarian Universalism is to survive the coming century, it will do so not by making its exclusive brand more appealing to the masses ("The Uncommon Denomination!") but by moving beyond its stifling isolationism into a more ecumenical position in our culture. No matter how far we have moved from our Christian origins, our theological heritage is in liberal and heretical Christianity. We are still unmistakably culturally Christian in our forms of worship, our congregational structure, and our theological identity (how can you tell? If we weren't, we wouldn't be fighting so hard against it).

Whether or not we can move into a more inter-faith position in our culture is not only up to us but up to the faithful of other world religions, who may know of our desire to be regarded as their spiritual kin, but may or may not appreciate our dabbling in their prayers and practices.

Unitarian Universalist questions about the existence of God, the relative "divineness" of Jesus, the divine spark in humankind (is it in everyone? Is it in Hitler and the BTK and Saddam Hussein?), the afterlife, the integrity of the Church, the worth of the Bible, the efficacy of prayer, and how to square scientific knowledge of the material world with mystical intuitions of the spiritual realm, are shared by practically every non-fundamentalist religious person in our midst. Yet we persist -- especially this time of year -- in acting as though these questions are unique to us, examining commonplace theological questions with a gee-whiz naivete, as though we were the first to think of them.

Is this really the best way to minister to our faithful? Yes, it may appeal to those who are walking through the door for the first time ("Wow! I've never heard this suggested out loud in a church before!"), but it does not give much spiritual sustenance to those who are beyond the negations of their old traditions and seeking a faith based in affirmation.

Unitarian Universalists are not the only religious people who doubt very much that a virgin got pregnant by the Holy Spirit approximately nine months ago, that angels visited shepherds the night he was born, and that a star shone in the East that beckoned Wise Men to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are not the only ones who mostly don't believe that God literally filled the lamp of the Maccabees with oil to last the eight days it took to reconsecrate the Temple. Our religious heritage has so much more to offer than dismantling Bible stories, kicking at christology and debunking miraculous tales.

This holiday season, I hope we will seek not so much to take our place outside the religious world as gadflies and myth-busters but as weavers of an especially strong and beautiful vision within the religious world.

"Don't be cynical, Algy. It's perfectly easy to be cynical."
-- from "The Importance of Being Earnest," Oscar Wilde


Blogger fausto said...

FWIW, we observe a proper Advent in my UU church. We light the candles in the wreath and everything. And we will continue to do so as long as I continue to chair the Worship Committee.

The problem with terminal uniqueness is that the more enamored you become with the uniqueness, the less aware you become that it really is terminal.

Blogger Berrysmom said...

Right on, PB. I have just concluded a meeting with our Communications Council chair, in which we were attempting to come up with just the right description of our Christmas Eve service for an ad in the local paper. "Lessons and Carols in the Christian Tradition?" "Traditional Lessons and Carols?" "Worship with us in a relaxed atmosphere?" (I pictured bathrobes...) "Family Worship?"

I just wanted the ad to say that we're having a Christmas Eve service, and y'all come if you want to. I really don't think that there's anything particularly unique about the way we (in my congregation) celebrate Christmas--we insist that it be CHRISTMAS and not Kwanzaa or Hanukah or the solstice. On Christmas Eve we do Christmas, and it's probably not a lot different from what the Lutherans or the Methodists do.

Thanks for the backup.

Blogger Matt said...

One could argue that UU understanding is closest to the essential core of the teachings of Jesus. Somehow along the way, mainstream Christianity became more focussed on christology. Believing 'in' Jesus (affirming the Creed) became the measure of a Christian rather than believing in what Jesus taught (being Christian).
Best wishes.
PS. I'm not a Unitarian...

Blogger Jaume said...

We may agree that UUism should not ignore its Christian roots and blueprint, but at the same time we need to be distinct, exclusive, and unique, to make it worth choosing us. Otherwise we become the saccarine version of every conceivable religion. (Even worse, we may become the saccarine version of interfaith dialog with our hyphenated membership of people who actually think the same about a lot of issues except theology.) And who wants the imitation of any religion, when you can get the original?

Blogger SC Universalist said...

great, because there are some UUs who do believe in miracles (maybe not the same ones that other people believe, but they do believe)

Blogger Obijuan said...

I brought Advent to my internship site last year. The expected complaints never came (at least not directly to me). I did, however, hear a lot of "Thank yous" and "I've missed this."

I'll be blogging Advent this year.

Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

I barely know what Advent is, but I guess I'll be finding out more from the folks who blog about it this year!

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Jaume, when you say that UUism should be "exclusive," what do you mean? I'm intrigued, because "inclusive" is such a buzzword for us.

Blogger fausto said...

Matt, you're exactly right.

Objuan, good on ya.

OTOH, for a breathtaking example of great swathes of UU terminal uniqueness concentrated into a single, concise, clueless statement, click here.

It's got it all -- cultural misappropriation, Famous UU "ancestor worship", Christian-bashing, self-congratulation, emptiness of spirituality, emptiness and even ignorance of any of its own core beliefs or values (other than that "other religions have value"), and a blissful obliviousness to the dangers of all of the above.

Blogger boyinthebands said...

Fausto, I thought you were going to refer to this, which still leaves me speechless.

Self-parody, unintentional I hope, at its highest.

Blogger Obijuan said...

still leaves me speechless . . .

Holy S#!+!!!

I would have just called it FestivUUs. :-P

Seriously, if we want a real Unitarian Universalist holiday, why not the old "fast day" in April or May, sort of an "opposite day" Thanksgiving with fasting and [gasp!] confession of the year's sins.

Dean Grodzins used to promote this practice at Meadville while he was still there. I've thought about carrying it forward.

Anonymous jinnis said...

I'm just glad that one congregation I served figured out that a Thanksgiving seder is too . . . too. . . well, not right.

Blogger fausto said...

BITB, you're right. Words fail.

And to think that if the flaming chalice is anything at all, it's either a meaningless official-looking logo for some old stationery designed only to fool obtuse bureaucrats, or else it's the flame of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2) rising out of the Blood of Christ (Luke 22).

Looks like they're celebrating the former and not the latter, but even that they're doing unwittingly.

Blogger Jaume said...

Sorry for being so late in answering. Perhaps the word is wrong here (blame my bad English for that). I rather meant being unique, having a concrete and inspiring message of our own that is not the watered-down version of whatever other church or religion. Being creedless should not mean that we need to rewrite our heritage and reinterpret our tradition after every single newcomer that signs the membership book. Some call it a center or a core. I call it an identity.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Thanks, Jaume. I totally agree with you!

Blogger Jaume said...

Fausto, I do not totally agree with you about the page you link to. On the one hand it deals with the misappropiation of what is actually the interfaith movement. I know many good-willing Catholics who do exactly that, and Catholic publishing houses which publish books about how religious pluralism is fascinating and enriching. But they are still Catholics!

OTOH I think that we do need this "UU ancestor worship". History is one of the elements that uniquely identify us as a distinct tradition within the framework of reformed, humanistic Christianity. Perhaps it's my Catholic upbringing that leads me to the veneration of saints, but I think it is still a good idea. We just need to be faithful to the message and the work of those ancestors, rather than deforming in politically correct terms. Most of them were very, very incorrect for their times.

Blogger Ellis said...

I actually think that teaching children about other religious traditions is important, and that concrete learning activities help to teach them well. My own parents brought me up with lots of discussion and reading about world faiths, with my family, other UUs and people in those other religions. We talked about cultural anthropology a lot.

But it was always made clear: this is part of their tradition, not ours. We also talked a lot about our own theological heritage, and its similarities and differences with other churches.

I have regularly attended Christian churches, but I don't take Communion. I sing, bow my head, stand and sit quietly, out of respect for the service. But I generally don't join in the spoken prayers, since they're not mine to do. I sometimes kneel, and sometimes don't. I feel like my observation of Christianity helps me deepen my faith.

It's worth pointing out that people in the churches I've attended have never asked me to act differently. They universally welcome me and affirm my presence as an observer. I've had great conversation about faith after those services. If all that didn't happen, I wouldn’t go.


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