While very friendly, it was the whitest, berkenstock-wearing, CoExIsT bumper sticker-toting, upper middle class liberal college town group of people I’ve ever seen concentrated in one place.” <– Some random person on the internet, on their experience of Unitarian Universalism.
“It’s not enough to wear sandals. You have to wear them with lemon yellow socks, preferably hand-knitted out of organic free range tofu by a lesbian women’s co-operative in Nicaragua.” <– Some other random person on the internet, who has truly been there.
I recognise that all too often we live up to our stereotypes. Sometimes, we even pride ourselves in living up to our stereotypes – perhaps because, as a small, obscure group with a funny name, we need something to hang our hats on.
But I’m worried by the way that we Unitarian Universalists seem to have become a caricature of ourselves. It is almost as if our non-creedal liberalism and legendary obsession with coffee have become ends in themselves, the only source of identity we can cling to in our religion of form without substance.
To me, that’s not the point of it at all. Our non-creedal liberalism comes, at least historically, from a profound experience of the spirit of the living God which we believed leds us into all truth; we are open-minded because we believed the God was still speaking – that revelation was progressive, not closed, and that we still had more to learn and discover. This meant that truth cannot be shut up in one book, one institution, or one path. It did not mean, however, that ‘there is no truth’, or that ‘it’s all just relative’, in a way that excuses us from thinking and exercising discretion. ‘Test all things; hold fast to that which is good’ is the way to do it; not ‘dabble in all things, and say they are all as good as each other’.
At best, Unitarians should approach theological questions not just with an open mind, but also with a rigorous, empirical – even sceptical – attitude of testing and proving. Hippy-dippy-new-age-tree-hugging is all well and good, but if we lose that element of rational criticism – God speaking through reason, conscience and experience – then we lose our ability to discern, and Unitarian becomes an excuse for all sorts of superstitions.
Also, the Unitarian approach has traditionally centred on the person, life, message and teaching of Jesus – not as a divine god-man, but as a great prophet, radical reformer, master and teacher of the Way. As such Unitarianism has traditionally been a christian movement of the left-wing radical reformation – and not what it is becoming, which a post-christian syncretic religion for people who believe in magic stones, tarot, fung-shui, reiki, and the consumerist bits of Buddhism.
Such a religion of feel-good personal satisfaction cannot change us or the world. Our needs are greater and deeper than that. Our calling in and through Jesus is so much more powerful. If I’m saddened and frustrated by Unitarianism today, it is because it seems to have lost is spirit and its fire. My theology across a broad range of issues is, through the application of reason, in accordance with classical Unitarian and Universalist positions, but I see them through the lens of a spirit-filled born-again experience which I can neither fully understand nor simply deny.
Sometimes I feel like I am the only ‘charismatic evangelical Unitarian Universalist’ in the world. Ok, not exactly ‘rolling on the floor’ charismatic – but definitely having had encounters with what in the christian tradition is called the Holy Spirit. And not ‘1-2-3, say after me’ evangelical, either – but definitely thinking that Jesus’ message is good news which deserves to be lived and shared.
The bottom line is that, for me, being a Unitarian Universalist isn’t a hobby. It’s not about tea and cake. It’s about the radical idea that ‘God is One and He loves everyone’. All the standard UU disclaimers about God apply, of course: I know what the word apophatic means and I’m not afraid to use the word ‘panentheist’ in a sentence. But at the root of it all is an encounter with the grace of God, as shown through the way, truth and life of Jesus, that is life-changing and world-changing . This encounter makes a call that demands a response. Jesus said, ‘Come, follow me’. I might be Unitarian in christology and Universalist in soteriology, and my favourite theologians might include such heretical rogues as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg, but my response to that call was Yes.
I have a vision of what an active, living, serving Unitarian Universalist church could be. A place where people can live out that Yes in worship, silence, work, service, love, laughter, prayer and tears. A place where people can support one another in applying that Yes to their lives, their family, their community and their world, with honesty and integrity, without having to swallow their brains, toe the party line, believe impossible things, be beastly to the gays, or check their critical faculties at the door. A place, perhaps, where (in our own open-minded, non-literalistic, over-intellectualised way) we can be the people of God sharing the love of God to build the kingdom of God. Most of all, I imagine it as place were we preach ‘good news to the poor’ through our deeds – transforming lives from the ground up, and bringing hope, joy, life and a future to people who are currently in the darkness of poverty.
Is this even possible?