During this year’s Ministry Days and General Assembly, the trend toward multiculturalism in American society came up repeatedly—most notably in Paul Rasor’s Berry Street Lecture and UUA President Peter Morales’ campaign speeches.
Paul Rasor asks, “Is our brand of religious liberalism fatally linked to a demographic that’s fading?” In 2042, projections indicate that white people will compose only 50.8% of the population. Will we still be a faith community that is 90% white, as we are today and as we have been for the past 10 years, even after all the proactive antiracism, multiculturalism work of leaders in our denomination? “We face a major turning point: will we stand, or will we move?”
Echoing this, President Morales says, “One of our problems is we have a faith with enormous appeal, but we need to stop packaging it in Yankee culture.” We need “a new faith for a new America.”
Our congregational culture proves to be a barrier to many people who would otherwise love to be a part of us because they love what we love: the promise of personal and social transformation through free religion. Of what does this culture consist? From comments shared by Rosemary Bray McNatt, following on the heels of Paul Rasor’s lecture, this culture is a matter of aesthetic and lifestyle preferences: “We don’t own TVs, don’t like gospel and pop music and definitely don’t like rap, are unapologetic nature lovers, eat locally, say NO to shopping at Wal Mart, listen to NPR, love Garrison Keillor, read ahead in the hymnal to see if we agree with the words we are about to sing.” But, says Rosemary, “how does this allow us to encounter people whose experience of church is different? What’s their entry point into our congregations?”
I can personally attest to this. As Lead Minister of the Pathways Church project (the initial “rapid-start large church”) from 2003-2007, I was given this marching order: think outside of the Unitarian Universalist box, explore ways in which non-UU churches attract people by the thousands, and then, through trial-and error, create a church that integrates these dynamic elements. Build a new kind of Unitarian Universalist church for a new day, one that is at its core UU even as, on the surface, it might look and feel very different from what UUs are used to.
I can personally attest to what Paul, Peter, and Rosemary are getting at because the people who resisted this the most and gave me the most trouble were existing Unitarian Universalists. By contrast, people who had never heard of Unitarian Universalism before and found us (or we found them) were delighted, excited, on board and wanting more. But not existing UUs. Part of this definitely related to worship style. At Pathways, we modeled our worship after the intense, full-immersion worship favored by many evangelical and non-denominational congregations. Our music was primarily popular—one time we even did some rap—and it proved to be the golden thread that ran throughout our services, at times joyfully energizing us while, at other times, taking us to sweet silent places of prayer and reflection. Our services also appealed to multiple-learning styles in that they featured visual, dramatic, and kinesthetic components. I will never forget after one of our first services, how a 75 year-old-woman came up to me and said that it was the best worship she had ever experienced in her life. She loved the music. She loved the slice-of-life dramas. She loved the multimedia. The lesson is clear: it’s absolutely false to say that only youth and young adults prefer contemporary worship. Many people in this world hunger after worship that helps them connect with energy and joy in the idiom of contemporary American life. Many people, that is, who are not already Unitarian Universalist. I can’t tell you how many times I was “pecked to death” by people who came to us from other Unitarian Universalist congregations—people whose sense of what is proper for UU culture was mortally offended by what they were experiencing in our pews. They smelled white trash, and they sneered.
Pathways definitely taught me that Unitarian Universalism, as it is practiced in most if not all of our congregations, is an ethnic religion with cultural norms. Violate the norms, and you are in trouble. Free religion only in mind but not where freedom most fully and truly resides: in the heart and in the body.
And yet…. Even as I can personally relate to what Paul and Peter and Rosemary are saying, I feel that there are other, more significant obstacles to people entering into our faith (and staying). I am particularly struck by how all such obstacles tend to remain generally unspoken, unsaid, and unacknowledged.
One of these unspoken obstacles came to light for me during the opening events at General Assembly. During the opening plenary, outgoing UUA President Bill Sinkford reviewed the highlights of his administration’s achievements, and part of this included a recitation of injustice after injustice in the world, which he enjoined the Unitarian Universalist community to address. Then, during the opening worship that followed, he spoke of truth and reconciliation and formally apologized to representatives of local Indian tribes for what we did in the 19th century: our complicity (however ineffective) in the U. S. government’s initiative to “civilize” the indigenous tribes of Utah and elsewhere. By no means do I think that such an apology was unnecessary. By no means do I think that the evils of the world should go unchecked. Yet the whole thing, from first to last, was so solemn, so earnest, so suggestive of … overfunctioning. I sensed behind it all a larger pattern—a troubling pattern—which I will call “the Unitarian Universalist superego.”
Historically, our UU superego can be traced back to our Boston Brahmin forbearers, though the form it takes today reflects great distance from those social movers and shakers and the transformation of many years. Now it is a moralism that combines masochism with workaholism. Every evil in the world becomes our problem—its very existence suggests some kind of collaboration on our part, unwitting if not witting. And since we are interrupted Calvinists who have rejected the guilt-discharging techniques of our ancient ancestors without replacing them with anything else, the sense of guilt just builds and builds. Can’t get away from it. Our backs ache from the accumulated weight. We have become guilt-grubbers. We look for ways to kick ourselves.
The UU superego is into masochism, and it is into workaholism. We must be overachievers, in the lead attacking every social ill. Theologically, it’s not enough to become familiar with one world religious tradition—we’ve got to know them all, in addition to every liberal art and every science. Our dreams have got to be the biggest. And if we are going to do “diversity,” well, then, we’re gonna do Noah’s Ark diversity. We’re gonna gather two of every possible kind within our walls—we’re going to aspire to doing something only a God could do. We are going to act like the God that most of us don’t believe in. It’s all up to us. Poet Wendell Berry says, “Not by your will is the house carried through the night,” but we don’t believe it. It’s ALL up to us. If we don’t do it, it’s not going to happen.
Now I know that I verge upon exaggeration. I know it. Yet every time I hear a key UU voice reciting a litany of all the evils in the world, together with the message that we’ve just got to DO something, I feel the weight of the Unitarian Universalist superego: the masochism, the workaholism. What a heavy burden we place upon our shoulders. What a heavy burden we place upon the shoulders of those who come to us.
Makes me wonder what Meg Barnhouse’s surly waitress would have to say to us. “In my life,” says Meg, “I have certain things to take care of: my children, my relationships, my work, myself, and one or two causes. That’s it. Other things are not my table. I would go nuts if I tried to take care of everyone, if I tried to make everybody do the right thing. If I went through my life without ever learning to say, ‘Sorry, that’s not my table, Hon,’ I would burn out and be no good to anybody. I need to have a surly waitress inside myself that I can call on when it seems that everyone in the world is waving an empty coffee cup in my direction. My Inner Waitress looks over at them, keeping her six plates balanced and her feet moving, and says, ‘Sorry, Hon, not my table.’”
We need to have a surly waitress within ourselves and within our movement, so we don’t burn out.
The next day, I went to Mark Morrison-Reed’s workshop entitled “The Perversity of Diversity.” In it, I was delighted to encounter a message that echoed my own sensibilities somewhat. It was my first GA workshop—I came there right after breakfast at the Radisson, during which I spent most of the time gulping coffee and writing cranky things in my journal. Mark shared his own thoughts about how UUism is an ethnic religion. He affirmed how, as a liberal religion, we are especially responsive to currents and trends in contemporary life, saying, “Rather than leading, we are reaping the rewards of a changing society. The growth of the black and Hispanic middle class has led to more blacks and Hispanics in our pews.” Mark also put his finger on how we assign ourselves incredibly ambitious goals and then, when (of course) we fall short, we fret, we self-flagellate. It’s moral workaholism, moral masochism: the UU superego. I know it well, since that’s exactly what the Pathways experience made perfectly clear. The ambitious and beautiful dreams that led to it; the incredible consternation and embarrassment and outrage that exploded when things did not unfold as expected and the small church did not become large instantly, as if it were some bag of microwave popcorn. As for the people who risked much to do a new thing: scant gratitude. Small thanks.
President Morales: “One of our problems is we have a faith with enormous appeal, but we need to stop packaging it in Yankee culture.” Yes. But more important is that our faith returns to a sense of genuine reverence, as defined by philosopher Paul Woodruff: “Reverence is the virtue that helps human beings from trying to act like God.” “Reverence and a keen eye for the ridiculous are allies: both keep people from being pompous or stuck up.” It’s Meg Barnhouse’s surly inner waitress, coaching us to loosen up. We can take ourselves way too seriously. We can become anti-liberal and inegalitarian in our enthusiasm. We can become overcontrolling of each other. We can nurture a sectarian spirit that makes us feel superior to all the other religionists who are working for world peace too. Perhaps if we talked more about God we would be better humanists. We would do a better job remembering our human limitations.
Of course we should aspire to bring healing and wholeness to the world. Of course we should incarnate our “many ways” theology and celebration of life in communities of vibrant diversity. Of course. But let this not become a moralistic burden, one we are lectured into by a superego that continually whispers in our ears that we are shameful. Our surly inner waitress needs to counter and silence our Unitarian Universalist surperego. Only then will we recognize what is and what is not our table.
Mostly, I’m talking about the need for an attitude adjustment. Resisting the anxious, perfectionistic impulse to clean up the messiness of the world. Savoring the world so that our impulse to save it flows out of a sense of abundance and love. Serving out of the deep knowledge that we exist in partnership with a grace-filled universe. “Not by your will is the house carried through the night,” says Wendell Berry:
The grace that is the health of creatures can only be held in common.
In healing the scattered members come together.
In health the flesh is graced, the holy enters the world.
What if, for example, this grace and this health were the focus of the opening worship at General Assembly, every year? Starting out, not by reciting an earnest litany of social evils and injustice, but by remembering and invoking the grace and the health in which we live and move and have our being? The President of the UUA, saying, “Here we all are, gathered together again, and the Spirit of Life is with us as well, within us and between us, leading us towards more strength and more healing and more peace. Let’s see where it takes us, in our time together. Let’s expect to be surprised. Let’s see where we go….”
The attitude adjustment is remembering always to serve out of a visceral sense of grace and abundance. Put this at our center, and our cultural ethos will be far more sustainable and far more encouraging. We will indeed repel fewer visitors and retain more members, but more importantly, we will be making our contribution to the healing of the world, and we will trust that, however imperfect or limited our contribution, the gracious universe will turn it into some good. It will be enough.