When I first joined a Unitarian Universalist church — it must have been forty-six years ago now — I had a feeling of homecoming. It was as if I had finally found a religious home that somehow I knew must exist, that surely I could not be the only one who felt as I did: that religion should be an important part of our lives, but that religious belief could not conflict with what we knew about the world, about the universe, about people, and about how those things interrelated. We spent a lot of time being told that this or that belief was true, and all we could answer was that it could not be true if our learning and experience were anything to go by. And yet, thinking that other people’s beliefs were not true was not enough. We needed to find a faith of our own, a faith that could include the teachings of science and of our own experience and observation. We found Unitarian Universalism which said that we were right — that ancient authority unsubstantiated by anything but tradition is not enough, that such truth as we can know is based on evidence, on reason and on personal experience —religious and secular truth as well. It was a great joy to come home at last, and the religion of Unitarian Universalism received my deep and abiding loyalty.
There are many who begin their lives in a religious tradition to which they give their consent, and find as the years pass that they have changed, have grown, and the religion which once satisfied them no longer does. That often happens as people learn and mature. It has happened to many of us. Sometimes, however, the opposite happens. Sometimes the religion changes to the point that it leaves its adherents. I have said that I am a Unitarian Universalist. That is my faith, and the Unitarian Universalist Association has had my loyalty and support. I have even been accused of a kind of idolatry in my loyalty. I do not think it is idolatry, however, because I have begun to worry that although I do not intend to leave Unitarian Universalism, it may leave me. It will leave me if its goal is to become the quintessential religion of the consumers of religion. Such a religion has no goal, no purpose, except to be all things to all people, except more money, more members, more buildings, more visibility, more diversity. Is that what a religious movement is for? Besides, clearly it doesn’t work. The huge regional advertising campaigns that used this approach have been spectacular failures. The churches involved had a short-term spike in visitors, but very few of them stayed. It is a recipe that gives us a product that is flat, tasteless and ultimately inedible. Now the thrust is to pay attention to the changing demographics of our country. And then what? Change our message of a free faith in order to attract a different demographic? To what might it change?
Have you ever had one of those nightmares where you see someone in terrible danger, and you try to warn them, try to rescue them, and you can’t make yourself heard and can’t reach them in time to save them? It is a terrible nightmare, and I have had it several times. It is also how I sometimes feel about my relationship to my chosen faith. The danger that I perceive is that not I, but the institutional center of my religion is falling into idolatry. It has forgotten what we are about and is teaching only that we will be anything the religious consumers, wish. Instead of the consumers fitting a religion, we’ll give them a religion that fits them.
People have always, of course, if they have been serious enough about religion to do anything beyond fitting comfortably into the old shoe of the religion they were brought up with, chosen the religion that seems best to them. Frequently it is the same religion in which they were raised, but sometimes it is not. We have always been a chosen faith. Most of our congregants become Unitarian Universalists in adulthood, and even our youth have to make a positive choice to become members. It was because they found it to be what they wanted — not that it became what they wanted in order to persuade them to choose it. That may be the way to grow in size and money, though it doesn’t seem to be, but it is not the practice of religion.
We are, after all, a religious institution. That means that we celebrate certain values and try to bring about a world in which those values are practiced. We find meaning and purpose in a spiritual journey which leads us (we hope) to goodness and truth. Liberal religion, no less than others, and in some ways more, requires a serious religious discipline. Our greedlessness, the center and source of our identity, our greatest pride, can also be our greatest danger. If we forsake the discipline that it requires, we can and will, it seems, fall into superstition and idolatry. The idolatry that we tend most easily to embrace is that of diversity. We are creedless because we believe that truth is to be found through individual experience refined in the crucible of thought. We cannot tell you what is true, but help you to experience the truth for yourself, responsibly, thoughtfully, because the freedom of creedlessness, like any freedom, is responsibility. We are not creedless in order to be able to welcome Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, adherents of American Indian or native African faiths, pagans, witches, plants or animals. That is not to say one cannot be any of those things and still be a Unitarian Universalist. One can if — and this is the big if — one accepts first, before one’s Christianity, or Judaism, or paganism, or whatever else we may secondarily call ourselves, the integrity of experience and reason in the search for truth. We may disagree about what the truth actually is and still be Unitarian Universalists, but we cannot put truth second to making everybody feel included.
Every once in a while someone will talk about the fact that we aren’t completely open, that there are some people who don’t belong in a Unitarian Universalist church, that although we’re inclusive, we don’t include everybody. We've had General Assembly sermons on the subject as well as a theme speech at district meetings not too long ago. The examples given are always political ones: We don’t accept Ku Klux Klansmen and Nazis. We don’t accept people who discriminate against others for any reason. We don’t actually have a process by which we can throw such people out, but we can certainly discriminate against them, and for good theological reasons grounded in our respect for the individual based on their personal qualities rather than their background, sex, color or whatever. In fact, in New Orleans for a few months we did have a declared Nazi. We never said he couldn’t be there, but we made it clear that we found his opinions unacceptable. It strikes me as peculiar, though, that a religious institution can make judgments about political positions and can’t make them about theological ones. I think we should also be able to say that we do not accept those who disagree with our process in the search for the truth, those who would look to authority other than the authority that we accept: experience refined through reason as well as the spirit, Not that we would throw them out — simply that we would make no effort to make them comfortable. We do not have a church that would fit them. Ours is a different discipline.
Also while I was in New Orleans I was told of an incident at a cluster meeting at the North Shore Congregation (that’s the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain). The opening worship began with the invoking of spiritual power from the four directions, a ritual based on one of the American Indian religions. A woman there became literally hysterical because the leader had not ritually released the power which had been so invoked within the circle at the end of the service. There was all that power still rattling around in the ritual circle with nothing to do. That is idolatry. G. K. Chesterton would certainly recognize that as superstition, and I think we should be able to also, and to name it as such. It is not what Unitarian Universalism stands for, and yet we are welcoming such idolatry in the name of creedlessness and diversity and being the quintessential religion for consumers, the religion that fits me. We do this in the hope that it will help us to grow and instead we become more marginal.
We need, instead, to keep our eyes on the prize. Instead of trying to tailor our faith to make everybody comfortable, we should focus on what we are. If free religion is, as I believe, the hope of the world, enabling people to live unambiguously in a more and more ambiguous universe, that’s what we should be practicing, preaching, and living. Whether or not our congregations grow or diversify is wholly irrelevant. What matters is that we live with integrity of the mind and spirit, seek the truth whether the truth we find is attractive to consumers or not, and serve the holy in freedom and in love. If we speak that truth and live it clearly seekers who need that faith will recognize it and become a part of it. We have a great gift to give. We don’t need to water it down to sell it.