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21.6.08

What UUism Means To Me

The church I went to as an undergrad had a segment of the service called "What my faith means to me" or "What University Church means to me." Every week, one member of the congregation would give a mini-talk about their religious background and outlook. It was an especially useful device for that congregation, since we were coming from such wildly diverse backgrounds (from Pentecostals to agnostics, and including at one point both the president of the College Republicans and the head of the campus feminist group) and thrown together for just a few short years. In 7 semesters, I never quite had the right combination of self-assurance and extroversion to do "What my faith means to me."

I think a similar sort of confessional may be in order right now, though. I don't recall exactly how it happened, but at some point years ago I got adopted into the UU blogosphere. I've been linked (with a gold medal, no less) on Philocrites' UU blog list through numerous purges and trimmings, and my posts have been fed into pretty much every UU blog aggregator there is. And because of all this, I get commenters from time to time who begin their comments with "As a UU, you ..." or something similar.

I've decided it would be useful to set out exactly in what sense I'm a UU. I don't mean this post as a criticism of those who make a UU-centric reading of and response to what I write. But I do think there is a potential for misunderstandings if all someone knows is that, since I'm on a UU blog aggregator, I must identify as a UU. So here's "what UUism means to me":

The easiest way to begin is with biography. I was raised in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- the largest and most liberal of the Lutheran bodies in the US (to be even more specific, we always ended up, for geographical reasons, in German Lutheran churches, though my mom grew up in Swedish Lutheran churches and my dad had been a Methodist). When I went off to college, I joined University Church, Colgate's ecumenical protestant church. I attended UC faithfully for all four years (minus the semester I spent in Australia), even becoming a deacon my senior year.

During my last two years at Colgate, I began drifting away from orthodox Christian belief, starting with the doctrine of Hell (I was aided in this by, of all things, a Jehovah's Witness friend). Over the summer before my senior year, I heard several people speak favorably of the Unitarians. I looked them up online, and was excited to discover the combination of a church-type social organization with a deeply open-ended and liberal theological non-doctrine. At that point I took up using the term "Unitarian" to describe my religious orientation.

Nevertheless, I didn't actually set foot in a UU church until the following summer, during an internship in DC. I attended Universalist Memorial every Sunday that summer. Then I headed to grad school. In theory, going to grad school in the heart of New England should have been the perfect way to get more involved in a UU church -- but in fact it was a 40-minute hike through downtown Worcester to get to First Unitarian. So my attendance quickly became spotty at best, and I may at some point have gone a whole year without going to one service there. (Interspersed with this was attending my hometown's Lutheran church while visiting family, occasional visits to a much more conveniently located Methodist church, and a few trips -- at the invitation of my housemate -- to a Mennonite church.) Halfway through my second summer (which I spent at another internship, this one in Dayton, OH) I discovered the Miami Valley UU church, and went there for the rest of my time in Dayton. After that I returned to Worcester for several years.

Leaving Worcester, I went to Australia again to do my dissertation fieldwork. I was a faithful attendee at St. Anthony's Uniting Church. I loved the community there, though its orthodox protestant theology (the Uniting Church was formed by a merger of Australia's Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists) didn't quite match my beliefs. Returning to the US, I moved here to Casa Grande, where there is no UU church. Going to the nearest one (40 miles away) would be both too expensive (in gas and time) and ineffective at one of the key benefits of church attendance in my book -- forming relationships with people in your local community (which is also why the Church of the Larger Fellowship wouldn't work for me). So at the moment I have no church home. I did, however, get married back at First Unitarian in Worcester -- I wanted a wedding in a church setting, and the UUs' beliefs about marriage are closer to mine and Christina's than any other church.

What all this means is that I have never been a member of a UU church, or even attended one on a regular basis for more than a few months. The culture of UUism is largely alien to me. When I occasionally look at other UU blogs that focus much more explicitly on the church, I can't really connect with what they're saying -- either about church politics, or about UUs' heritage, or about how UU practice should or should not change. This isn't a criticism of those bloggers -- those discussions are obviously important for people deeply involved in the church, and there's no reason it ought to be relevant to me given my position. But it is something that differentiates me from the typical "UU blogger."

Why, then, keep calling myself a UU? Why not "secular" or "lapsed Lutheran"? Besides the hits I get from being in various UU blog aggregators, that is. Several things.

First, it's a useful way of giving Jane Q. Public a very quick pointer in the general direction of what I believe. It signals a respect for (the potential of) religion as an institution (which is both true as well as reassuring to people who might be freaked out by outright atheism), while also indicating the extreme liberalism and non-doctrinalness of my theological views.

Second, there's the thing that drew me to the UU label (and to those churches I've managed to attend), which is what I understand the UU approach to doing religion to be (at least potentially). First and foremost, of course, is its non-doctrinalism. I like the idea that no text or authority has a metaphysically privileged status or is beyond critique, and that it's reasonable to expect some wisdom to be found nearly everywhere in the human experience (and here I would take things like the 7 Principles to be descriptive summaries of what UUs have come to believe, rather than prescriptive axioms which they must work to bring themselves into accordance with and to ground their beliefs on). Related to this is UUism's tentativeness, fallibility, and openness (between persons and over time) with respect to any question. (There's also the fact that, insofar as I'm willing to frame my beliefs in a language approximating orthodox Christianity, I would endorse the heresies of unitarianism -- one god, not a trinity -- and universalism -- nobody goes to hell.) Finally, I like that UU churches put "doing community," both among members and between the church and the wider world, prior to having all of the answers, so that practice dyamically informs the interactive (neither solitary nor collectivist) search for truth and meaning. (In other words, I see UUism as having an inductive style, whereas orthodox churches usually strive to be deductive.)

In the end, though, my beliefs and history are prior to, and the sole basis for, my affiliation with the UU church. If I ever come into conflict with what, "as a UU" I should be, then it's my ties to the UUs that must give.

2 Comments:

Blogger ogre said...

"...here I would take things like the 7 Principles to be descriptive summaries of what UUs have come to believe, rather than prescriptive axioms..."

Yup.

Absolutely.

Which is why they're up for revision and review now--and from the source I have on the discussion... it sounds as if it won't be mere grammatical apple polishing that's being done.

9:18 PM  
Anonymous Chuck B. said...

Well thanks, that explains a lot. You also have my appologies for mistaking you as a UU in the more church going, 7 principles following, activist for change sense.

While my experiance has provided me only a fraction of insiight into the phenomina of the religion, one predictor is that those who try to follow the 7 principles and attend services would rather be a part of the solution. They want to actively try to change the world for the better of all,rather than comment on it. I can see now you are not that type, I was wrong in my comment to consider you such.

This post is interesting to me, however, because I've begun to see a spectrum between those who see UUism as a Liberal Religion first, and those who see it as a Libertarian religion.

Those opposites are not just between those who attend and those who do not. "Libertarian Religion" UU's can attend church and be activists as well, though their activism is usually against liberal aciton or any sweeping changes.

Curiouser and Curiouser.

Thanks for the insight into your position.

6:05 AM  

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