Unitarian Universalism: An Uncertain Religion for Uncertain Times

I have mixed feelings about Unitarian Universalism. Whether or not I call myself Unitarian Universalist at any given moment is a matter of my mood, how much sleep I’ve had the night before, what I’ve read recently, and maybe the phases of the moon.

On one hand, I am grateful for what the church has given me. I attended regularly as a teenager, and the church’s commitment to pragmatism and individual inquiry resonated deeply with me. It still does, enough for me to say that I owe the church a very real intellectual debt. On the other hand, in many contexts, going to church feels a little bit like watching a parody of religion. It’s the skin and flesh of religion, but without a skeleton. The result is a regrettable tendency to default to a sort of limp, feel-good, new agey liberalism.

These two features have always been difficult for me to reconcile with each other. On one hand, the religion is capable of a sort of honesty that you don’t often see in religious education. I think this is best exemplified in the UU sex education curriculum, which if I had to describe in a single word, it would be “honest”. In my experience, it struck an impeccable balance between giving young people the benefit of adult experience without making it feel like preaching, or worse, patronizing.  It was not couched in euphemisms. It was not dressed up in an exaggerated fealty to a doctrine that nobody fully understood. It had a sort of “no bullshit” tone that met us at our level, with age-appropriate answers to the sorts of questions we would have about sex and sexuality.

This is the exact opposite of the feeling I get from most of the the other aspects of the church. Their appropriation of religious traditions always felt, well, pandering. Sugar coated. Sanitized. Born from a desire to disengage and deny the ugliness and confusion that course through the world’s religions and the human experience. It’s a hard to strike the correct balance between scaring and coddling, but UU tends to err on the side of coddling.

Which is a shame, because in my view, UU’s greatest strength is its honesty and intellectual humility. It is, in my view, the only religion that has really tried to come to terms with the accelerating pace of history.

For most of human history, living conditions were relatively stable. A parent could raise their child with reasonable confidence that their child would live a pretty similar life, and that the wisdom of their ancestors could be received more or less whole-cloth.

In the world today, we see dramatic technological innovations whose effects are not limited to the wealthy and the powerful, but that alter the way of living at all levels of society. We are among the first generations of people who can be reasonably certain that our children will not live the same way that we do. We live in ways that humans have ever before lived. We die in ways that that humans have never before died.

In its renunciation of doctrine, Unitarian Universalism has tried to be a religion of the modern world. It has at least tried to reconcile the apparent contradiction of the fact that, coming into the world, children need guidance to mature into adults, while also understanding that the world is too big for our guidance. We adults don’t have the world figured out, and the future prosperity hinges on the answers to questions that I and my generation may not have even realized we needed to ask.

Our communities are tumbling forward, thrown into the kaleidoscope of our massive, dizzyingly diverse, yet increasingly interconnected world.  The way UU tries to adapt is admirable. Its principles seem like an attempt to solve the hard problems of living in a cosmopolitan community, where neighbors are more different from each other than at any other time in our history. It explicitly attempts to negotiate this balance between orthodoxy and anarchy, and foster the increasingly necessary ability to collaborate across the boundaries of faith, language, and culture.

And yet, it shies away… It becomes self-indulgent, and in denouncing doctrine, it often implicitly denounces the importance of the questions that doctrines are developed to answer. It asserts (without base) that a certain sort of answer, replete with buzzwords like “love” and “acceptance”, ought to be unconditionally satisfying. This isn’t the case, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion without a doctrine: an apparent contradiction.  The explanation that made the most to me was the comparison to classical religions. In classical regions, canon’s are fluid, with stories and mythologies flowing together in a hectic hodgepodge that nobody could make sense of if they tried. To meet a new people is to ingratiate oneself to their gods, potential allies or enemies, depending on your aim.

There is no heresy in classical religion. There is nobody trying to provide an authoritative answer to religious questions. There is no preoccupation with finding the one true interpretation of Homer. Individuals may devote themselves to this teacher or that teacher, this god or that god, this cult or that cult, but most people were not in a cult and did not devote themselves to a particular set of teachings. They were more occupied with the day-to-day problems of living, and were interested in how the hodgepodge of stories intersected with their lives.

Unlike the Abraham religions, where you have sacred text that scholars scrutinize to resolve ever more esoteric debates about the doctrine, the Unitarian tradition tries to consciously emulate the older relativism-that-wasn’t-quite-relativism, where religion was simply the collection of stories we carried with us.

This is, to me, a more appealing approach faith. It is dynamic, innovative, generative a little wild. It is also occasionally destructive, harmful, flighty. It is red. Blood surges, coursing through veins and occasionally being spilled from them. But this happens regardless. Hatred and fear give people strength just as surely as love does.

But there is a sort of hubris in hatred. It’s an assertion that one knows the state of the world and who one’s enemies are. This seems to be the less interesting feature of the religions that I’ve studied.

The world’s religions tell stories of people marching into unknowns, strangers in strange lands. What sustains them? Wit? Determination? Solidarity? Family? Faith? Some combination of these forces which we barely understand. I may not agree with people’s understanding of the world, but I struggle to begrudge a person anything that gives them the strength to stand alongside me.

To part, I guess I’ll leave a poetic image. My preference has always been to approach people as fellow pilgrims on a dusty road. We may not know where we have walked before, what we are walking towards, or what we have picked up on our journeys. But for the time being, we’re walking together. So let’s just be honest.


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