Can Unitarian Universalism be a “Religion for Our Time”?

by Robin Bartlett Barraza

None NationHave you all been paying attention to the NPR series on the rise of the “nones”? The “nones” are people who check “none” when asked which religious organization they affiliate with, and they are now famously growing like gangbusters spelling doomsday for all religion in America.

The “nones” have some characteristics in common. The majority of them don’t claim to be atheist, but they do claim to be skeptical about organized religion. The other major commonality that they share is that most “nones” are in the younger generations.

As people for whom church makes a difference in your life, I hope you are paying attention to this trend. It matters for us. It particularly matters for those of us who are attempting to shepherd the younger generations into faithful adulthood. The reality is this: most of our young people won’t choose to be participants in faith communities as adults. Not unless we can bring our churches into the 21st century, anyway. I think this is a thrilling challenge set before us that we need to rise to. Not for the sake of keeping our historic buildings and our historic silver and our historic hymns and our historic Sunday Schools and our historic ways of bickering about things that don’t matter.

I think we need to rise to this challenge for the sake of the soul of our nation and world. Some people won’t agree with me that religion matters this much. But I think that religion offers us a sacred narrative to be a part of; a narrative that orders and gives meaning to our lives. I think that entering and continuing a story about humankind in unbroken line with our ancestors–a story that has more to do with Love and transformation than the story of empty consumerism–this matters a lot.

Listen to the series here.

So how does Unitarian Universalism fit into this trend?

We are in an era of Unitarian Universalism that is unprecedented. Church as we know it in our culture is declining. People no longer feel as though they “need” church in order to be good people, or to appear to others as though they are good people. We can all meet our needs for community, social justice organizing, consumerism, and moral discernment, at many different secular organizations.

As a faith tradition, we are tiny and declining. We are finding ourselves at a crossroads and on the brink of survival, needing to reclaim and reposition our niche within the meaning-making spectrum. People aren’t coming to church simply to reject the church that they came from anymore. There is nothing in the broader culture to compel them to go to church on Sunday morning, particularly in our part of the Northeastern United States. Therefore, as a denomination, we are finding that people who come through our church doors aren’t just looking for a healing method of “doing church” anymore. In addition, they are looking for a healing message; one that says something about the nature of humanity, life, death, brokenness, God and suffering.

Angus McClean once said that our “method is our message.” It is true that the method we have used to organize our churches and our religious education programs was radical at one time, and even healing, to our adherents. In the past fifty years of our history, we have claimed our covenantal (not creedal) tradition as the message in and of itself. Our covenantal method, after all, is a departure from the orthodox and dogmatic traditions many of our congregants have come to us from.

However, as Unitarian Universalists, we are increasingly finding that our method is no longer particularly unique in the secular or religious worlds. Schools, social justice organizations, liberal Christian, Buddhist and Reformed Jewish congregations (among others) use similar methods to teach morality, justice, and the tenants of their traditions. For instance, there are UCC churches that use their own version of Neighboring Faiths. There are Episcopal churches that stress deeds rather than creeds. There are public schools that empower our children with messages of their inherent worth and dignity. There are Human Rights organizations that work for equal marriage and immigrant justice. And so on.

So, Unitarian Universalism finds itself struggling to answer the question: what is our unique, bold message? Our seven principles, a beloved covenant between our congregations written in the 1980s, are often held up as a statement of our shared beliefs. At the same time, they are criticized by some as too creed-like, or as a set of principles that could be appropriated for use in the American constitution or any human rights organization. “What makes them uniquely religious?” People have rightly countered.

I think our attachment to our principles, and the desire for our principles to be used as a catechetical tool within our own congregation, is indicative of a deeper search for truth and meaning by modern Unitarian Universalists. We crave a message, one that is inclusive, but still contains religious meaning; a message that says something about life, death, creation, human unity, interconnectedness, God, suffering, Love.

I believe that our method needs to be informed by our message, and not the other way around.

There is also a great fear in Unitarian Universalist churches of claiming a bold message of faith, one that includes a robust theology, or one that re-claims our Judeo-Christian texts, for fear of offending our current constituents. As a result, we remain timid in the effort to nurture the inherent spirituality of our children. We run the risk of becoming a mile wide and an inch deep because of this fear. I believe we hemorrhage our children as a result of this fear, as well. 90% of them do not remain Unitarian Universalist as adults.

But there is hope!

I believe Unitarian Universalism can, in fact, become a religion for our time. I see this era of Unitarian Universalism as an incredible opportunity for growth, if we are willing to be bold. Our historic theological traditions make bold theological claims. Our Unitarian tradition reminds us that we derive from one sacred source, therefore we are connected to one another and to the earth, and are capable of committing Godly acts of love in the world. Our Universalist tradition reminds us that we are fated to the same destination, and that our liberation is bound up in one another’s. We believe in this-earthly salvation. Therefore, it is imperative that we love our neighbor as ourselves, and that we work for justice in human relationships—that we help save one another in Love.

We believe that Truth comes in the form of sacred scripture from our own Judeo-Christian tradition, and from all of the world’s religious traditions. Therefore, we engage our Jewish and Christian scriptures and other religious texts, mining them for metaphorical truth. We believe that all people contain the spark of the divine. Therefore, art, poetry and our lives themselves are inspired texts. We believe that we must be stewards of this earthly paradise, which is the heaven we have been given. Therefore, we uphold the interconnectedness of all existence and take care of the earth on which we dwell. We believe that hell is also on this earth, and comes in the form of separation from our best selves and one another. Therefore, we strive to create Beloved Community wherever we go by loving one another with humility, curiosity and respect.

We have a message beyond our method, and our method is inspired by our message.

With an emphasis on the healthy, multi-faceted spiritual development of our children, the Religious Education Committee at UU Area Church in Sherborn embarked in December on the important project of boldly naming the fundamentals of our Religious Education program. The RE Committee seeks to create a statement of faith that might help provide a lens through which to interpret sacred story, evaluate curricula and write new curricula, develop programming and ensure excellence and depth of meaning at all levels of child, youth and adult religious education and faith development.

Below is a draft of the “message” the RE Committee would like to convey at all levels in our faith development program at the UUAC in Sherborn. While we have yet to develop this into a terse statement, I thought you might be interested in our initial brainstorm.

At the Unitarian Universalist Area Church in Sherborn…
• We have respect for minds, bodies and souls.
• We believe that grace is real, and that we must be grateful for unearned gifts.
• We believe that revelation is continuous. We are seekers, questioners and stewards of hope.
• Love is our religious ethic.
• We believe that the universe is benevolent. Love wins.
• We know that we are connected to one another in our humanity: in our celebrations, our capacity to love, our sorrows, and our brokenness.
• We believe that suffering is a part of life, not a punishment for living
• We believe that God offers us presence, not protection.
• We believe that God is bigger than any name we give God, and any religion or doctrine that tries to contain God.
• We believe that religion is horizontal, not only vertical. God is present in relationship.
• We offer a ministry of radical hospitality. We are hosts who provide a grand welcoming table for all.
• We believe that we must not think alike to love alike.
• We believe that to whom much is given, much is expected, and thus we use the gifts we have been given wisely – We believe that STEWARDSHIP MATTERS.
• Our task is to grow souls so that we may send forth visible saints into the world.
• We seek to build what Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as the Beloved Community. We come to church not to be a beloved community, but to practice the ethics of the Beloved Community for use outside our church walls. Practicing being beloved community means treating all people who we encounter as though they are beloved, unique, children of the divine.
• As such, we see church not as a sanctuary from the world, but as a training ground that helps us to live in the world in a way that transforms the world.

May we be a place where these truths are practiced and realized.

7 thoughts on “Can Unitarian Universalism be a “Religion for Our Time”?”

  1. As an Atheist, I stayed away from the UU simply because the word “Church” is in the name. While this may seem petty, maybe that word actually turns people off. As your article points out, “Churches and Religions” are declining yet other organizations stay steady. Could these words actually be damaging? The use of “God” and “Jesus” and “Prayer” also just make me roll my eyes. Of course I am the culprit of my narrow mind, but I can tell you there are others like me. I don’t bother with memorizing the 7 principles or our Mission Statement. To me, it really doesn’t mean that much.
    Of course, Acts or Deeds ring true to everyone. Maybe changing our outward perception by having more Acts and Deeds rather than words that really don’t ring true to us could allow the UU Organizations to at least remain at a level pace. I joined my local UU because I saw people helping the community. I don’t really see a reason to go to “Church” other than to connect with others that do good Deeds and Acts.

    I think your ideas are going in the right direction.

  2. Here’s how I challenged the non’s at the end of my MLK sermon this year:
    Martin Luther King Day is a time for everyone to measure of how far we have come in the struggles for civil and human rights and how much further we need to go. It is a time for all Americans to pause in gratitude, and with pride, for the gifts all humanity received from Rev. King’s passionate life. But the day presents a special challenge to non-Christian U.U.’s and all who describe themselves as non-religious. That challenge is to locate for ourselves the liberating courage Rev. King found in his Almighty God. May those of you who have achieved that kind of faith use its power for good. May those of you who are searching for it not lose your way on the journey. And let me also pray that those who have not begun the journey toward a faith that sustains the work of love take the first step. May this beloved community stand on the side of love as devotedly as Rev. King did in his human rights ministry.

  3. I guess it comes down to whether or not Unitarian Universalism wants to be a religion or not?You mentioned that young people who are claiming to be spiritual but not religious are still looking for, “a message that says something about life, death, creation, human unity, interconnectedness, God, suffering, Love.”

    But what does UUism have to say about those things? That God is an illusory notion, that really doesn’t exist? A metaphor for ethics or the evolutionary process?
    What can UUism give them? Does humanity have a purpose? Does life have meaning beyond its own perpetuation? Does Love matter, or is that a myopic and delusional conceit unique to homo sapiens? Is suffering one has in life as much God as the subduction of tectonic plates (assuming god is a metaphor for the evolutionary process)

    UU has so much potential but it has to choose to believe in a relational theism at the very least.
    If it is to unwilling to take that leap it will have nothing to give to the next generation. It will continue to be a place for people who like community but hate religion, the oft derided country club faith.

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