Unitarian Universalism’s Inability to be Prophetic

Unitarian Universalism has lost the ability to be prophetic because it has lost the ability to marry the mystical and the prophetic. Don’t believe me? Check out the latest UU World.  The essays pulled together for this issue discussing the state of Unitarian Universalism as it passes it’s 50th birthday and what’s in story for the future make me think we’re in trouble unless and until we can admit that it’s okay be spiritual and reasonable, love science and religion, and be a mystic and a prophetic witness. Sr. Janet K. Ruffing, in her introduction to the book (a collection of essays) Mysticism and Social Transformation, writes about the task of the prophet and how the prophetic witness has to be grounded in religious experience.

“The prophet is able to convince others only from the perspective of shared memories and norms.”

This is why liberal Christianity and people like Martin Luther King, Jr. are able to move others to action on a large scale and Unitarian Universalism is unable to find an audience for its message.  The overriding mission of Unitarian Universalism as a religion is to spread the message of religious pluralism. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it gives the people no shared perspective, no shared memories and no shared norms.  There is no there there upon which to call people back to. Unitarianism and Universalism have a storied tradition of spiritually grounded prophetic witness. Unitarian Universalism, not so much.  At best we are living through a time right now where some are trying to create that tradition and others are refusing to pull the spiritual and prophetic together as if they don’t need each other to live. Ruffing writes:

“Prophetic speech is the creation of a fresh interpretation of that part of the tradition that has slipped from view and thus is failing to make an effective claim for action in the community or in the larger society.”

You can’t turn to an ideology of “you do your thing and I’ll do mine” as the basis for a platform of social and economic justice. If anything, the underlying ethos of Unitarian Universalism is a permission granting ethos that enables members of our congregations to take a laissez faire attitude towards the moral imperative of social engagement or any other moral imperative.  UU’s may vote for the better of the two corporate controlled major parties and listen to NPR instead of FOX News, but you’re much more likely to find a Methodist or a Presbyterian down at your local food bank or homeless shelter. Unitarian Universalism began to be less “spiritual” in the early twentieth century when, as Janet Ruffing notes “Protestant scholars…espoused prophecy and rejected mysticism.” She also says that the Catholic tradition, in contrast, accepted and tamed mysticism (making it personal and individual – at least until the Liberationists in the 1960’s) and largely rejected prophesy. Unitarian Universalism often seems to be seeking to be a social movement as much as a religious movement on issues such as GLBT rights and immigration. Social movements, however,

“often have mystical roots, and without mystical depth, it is impossible to discern between the products of one’s own inflated consciousness and the impulses of the divine spirit mediated through a prophet’s personality. Without contemplative depth, it is extremely difficult to sustain ongoing resistance, which so often entails suffering at the hands of the very community the prophet serves”(11).

Unitarian Universalism can not continue to build a religious movement solely around social justice because there are no mystical roots to Standing on the Side of Love.  If we want to have an impact with a meaningful social justice campaign, it needs to be religious.  Amnesty International can do human rights better and bigger than we can.  Other organizations can do other issues better and bigger than the UUA as well, but they are all secular organizations. Unless and until Unitarian Universalism wants to get mystical, it relegates itself to the discount rack of religion, culture, and social justice. It is not an impossible task to re-ground a religious movement in the mystical.  It is desperately needed.

“Late capitalist and post modern culture tends to foster a self that is rootless in relationship to community and place, closed in on itself and essentially nomadic, uncommitted to projects beyond employment and the multiple diversions that make such rootlessness provisionally tolerable” (12).

What mysticism does is call into question such an existence.  Why would we want to do that? That’s painful. That calls for fearless self examination.  We would much rather just get together with like minded people for coffee and discussion for an hour or two every Sunday.  Mysticism calls up questions of ultimate meaning and asks of the self much more than any society really wants it to be asking or answering.   You can take time out from employment and X Factor to rally for Universal Health Care or raise money for cancer research, but when you hang out at Occupy Your Town for reasons  related to ultimate questions of meaning and principles of equity and fairness, going back to X – Factor just doesn’t cut it anymore, and neither does your job at the corporate bank, but you have to pay your bills and all of a sudden you feel a need to match your role and your soul.  Where do you do that at your local Unitarian Universalist church without having to defend the mystical experience that sent you on the quest in the first place?

12 thoughts on “Unitarian Universalism’s Inability to be Prophetic

  1. Tony, this topic of spirituality/mysticism and prophetic witness/social reform has been one of the central concerns of my life, so I’m glad I did a little “tag browsing”! I write as a recovering fundamentalist and a United Methodist church “member.” When I was in high school, my ambition was to be a blue-collar prophet, a cross between Alan Watts and Saul Alinsky.

    Let me reply to just a couple of points. You quoted Sr. Ruffing — “The prophet is able to convince others only from the perspective of shared memories and norms.”

    Walter Brueggemann wrote something quite similar in “The Prophetic Imagination” — “the shaping of Israel took place from inside its own experience and confession of faith and not through external appropriation from somewhere else.”

    Basically, we need to speak the language of our audience. We need to use illustrations they understand. We must appeal to “authorities” they acknowledge and respect. Those are just some of the simple basics of communication.

    To state the obvious, the spiritual and the prophetic motivate different people to different degrees, different congregations to different degrees. Personally, and as an outsider, I see the UU church as something like the “unfettered social action” arm of the broad religious community in North America, not in competition with other religious groups, but . Again, as an outsider, I see the UU church as an organic part of the nation, with a task and an ethos that have evolved over the years.

    “Spirituality” and “social reform” are both legitimate religious impulses. Catholics, Southern Baptists, United Methodists, and Unitarian Universalists all acknowledge that “religion” has both spiritual and social dimensions–that’s a truism. But some individuals feel one more than another. And even one congregation will, while acknowledging the truism, tend more in one direction or another. And when both are acknowledged, they will exist–inevitably–in an uneasy tension or with mere lip-service paid to one.

    Tony, I don’t think any human-divine institution will achieve a lasting, harmonious blend of the two. One of the main reasons: Christendom (and I include UUs under that umbrella) is as addicted to hierarchy, status, titles, and privileges as any army or government. Every religious body is subject to the same social and institutional realities. As much as we wish it weren’t so, even our own groups are not exempt.

    But it’s not necessary to believe that to function effectively in our communities and institutions. Visionaries and idealists are as essential as jaded pragmatists.

    You covered a lot of territory in your post, so I think I’ll stop here. Thanks for the stimulating thoughts.

    Namaste, God’s blessings, and Shalom!.

  2. To borrow a quote. Those who stand for nothing will generally far for anything. Excuse the coarseness of it, though I have never attended a UU congregation it sounds to me like a warm and fuzzy circle jerk between closet Nihilists. That said, I believe that Social Justice can exist in it’s own cocoon minus a mystical element. Pure motivation is non-existent as there is no pure selflessness. Some folks are motivated to back causes, serve others, even to lay ones life down for a long list of reasons that have little or nothing to do with mysticism but can much to do about how they view themselves within the context of the group. Even those who claim a mystical motivation must constantly battle motives measured against the black and white idealism they measure their lives by. And those who deny a black and white code of ethics? Give them the phone number to the closest UU congregation, they’ll feel right at home.

  3. You’re much more likely to find a Methodist or a Presbyterian down at your local food bank or homeless shelter because there are a hell of a lot more of them in the US. 12 Million United Methodists. 2 Million Presbyterian Church USA. And what? 160k UUs? If we participate at ten times the rate of other groups, we will still be next to invisible in shared action.

    That said, I know UU congregations that are proud of their participation in community kitchens, etc., considering their effort to be very important to the cause, but in which less than one half of one percent participate and only one day a month and with a financial investment of a mere $150 for the month in a food ministry that serves meals every day of the week and is largely funded by a much poorer congregation. Something is wrong with that picture. Though I’m not so sure it has to do with a lack of “mystical” grounding and a whole lot more to do with ” thinking more highly of themselves than they ought.”

  4. Ken, I’m impressed with UU involvement in immigration and border issues. UU Mar Cardenas from here in San Diego is one gutsy, committed woman–an example and inspiration for this man!


    Mar was among the 87 protesters arrested in July 2010 in a border action. Among the arrested were twenty UU pastors. TWENTY! When was the last time twenty of my own United Methodist brethren were arrested in one place, clergy or ordained, for doing anything?


    Judging from the stories of UU involvement in immigration issues, I’d say the UU feet-on-the-ground prophetic witness on immigration is very strong.


    Ken, one area of commonality between the prophetic and the mystical orientations to life and faith is that they both are contrary the herd mentality, materialistic values, and a half-conscious drifting through life.

  5. I think that often what UUs intend as prophecy is heard by others as petulance. I think it is because the great majority of UUs have disavowed our former willingness to speak within the framework of a moral compass and a religious heritage that the rest of society shares in common. We have become too fey, too self-referential, too ‘other’, to seem compelling to those to whom we would presume to issue moral imperatives. You say we have lost our moral influence because we have lost a sense of mysticism; I say it is because we have repudiated the faith traditions that we used to share with the larger society within which we exist. We can agree among ourselves on telling others how they should behave and what they should value, and we spend most of our collective energy and resources doing exactly that, yet we can’t even agree on our own fundamental beliefs (at least, not beyond formulaic idolatry of a limp collection of seven platitudes). Well, those priorities are precisely backwards; faithless prophecy is an oxymoron. You can’t be an effective prophetic voice to a society that does not recognize your moral authority. We need to recover an inward soteriology to give us a valid and evident moral platform from which to give witness, before we can hope to offer an effective external eschatological vision of the just society. In the old days Unitarians found that soteriology in the doctrine of salvation by character, and Universalists found it in the doctrine of universal atonement, both of which were expressed with heavy reliance on the more-widely-recognized moral authority (if not literal inerrancy) of Scripture. If we no longer are willing to affirm either of those, what will take their place?

    • Bravo and Amen. Well said, Fausto. If Unitarian Universalists are not going to return to salvation by character or universal salvation (and they may yet), then that place of salvation can only be found by taking an honest spiritual journey. I still think it is mystical path that has been lost. The place of discernment wherein the soul emerges knows what language of salvation it speaks and knows what makes it and us whole. I think that what happens is, UU often neglect this voice because it may be calling them to things that they feel they need to leave behind on idealogical grounds such as anything having to do with the bible, Christianity, or “church.”. Rather than admit our historical tradition speaks to them, it is dismissed because of other elements.

      • As our denominational ancestors John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson first demonstrated to us, the tension between antinomianism and social prescription has been consistently and authentically present in our congregations since their founding. However, as they also demonstrated, it’s impossible to be simultaneously antinomian and socially prescriptive. The two principles are inherently opposed.

  6. Hi Tony,

    Hope all is well with you. UUs are prohetic. The lone voice in the wilderness is pretty much definitional to being prophetic and a perpetual descriptor of us. We were among the first to speak out against slavery, for women’s rights, for integration (UU died for this one), against the wars, for the environment, for marriage rights—our prophetic list of causes goes right up to the minute. Eventually others get with the program, but UUs are almost always first with the public witness of these issues.

    Another possible confusion. The difference between charity and advocacy. Many denominations think that the path to advocacy is through charity. Not so with UUs. We do advocacy right out of the gate. I have many non-UU religious friends in the trenches of doing social change who WISH they could get their people out of the food pantry and into a state assemblyperson’s office! UUs have always been WAY more influential in proportion to our numbers because we understand advocacy.

    So what’s the difference? You’ve heard this, but it’s a great illustration. There are people drowning in a river. There are more and more of them. Some who see this happening stay in place and keep pulling these people out. That’s charity. Others, like the UUs, walk up the river and find out why all those people are falling into the river in the first place, and stop it from happening. That’s advocacy.

    Have a wonderful holiday! Keep writing.

    • Hi Louise. I think you are correct, UU’s WERE once very prophetic, when we shared more of a common spiritual language with our culture. We are certainly good activists and that’s important. I think we may have lost the ability to be heard as prophetic. We certainly are still heard as being voices for human rights, acceptance, and on some major issues of the day. I think what we’ve lost is strong capacity to get others outside our own fold of UU-ism, to join us. And some UU’s are great advocates, but I think if you took a measure, the standard UU practice is to give money to things or serve food to hungry people, but it is generally not the response to go and sit with hungry people. And although we are making adjustments and I think getting better at advocacy and prophecy in the last few years due to some particular efforts around immigration and black lives matter and marriage equality, I sit here in liberal Massachusetts with hardly a black lives matter sign on a local church. So, note that this essay that has been given a new look lately, is four years old. I think we’re doing better, but I still wonder – are we a prophetic voice, a religious voice, a spiritual voice that others hear?

      • Hi Tony,

        Maybe there is another confusion. The media, and the power status quo who pays the media, will not say to any of us, “Hey you really got me that time!” It is up to us to dilineate our victories. There have been many. Our denomination spoke first when there was a news brown-out of Occupy. The closest UU church to the encampment in Rochester gave them fearless support. All unreported.

        I had the opportunity to speak to people from that church at a recent NY Universalist conference. It is one for the history books. I wanted them to know that because of that support, young UUs, other religious and non, are now at the center of every justice initiative taking place in our city, including BLM, police reform, food justice, eco justice, education justice, and foreclosure defense. I know for a fact that the people of that Rochester church, First Universalist, did that from a spiritual ground. They gave time, money, meals, a porta-john (the city’s condition for the emcampment to be there, so Occupy Rochester would not have happened without First Univ.). Our spirituality is not like everyone elses’. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

        I appreciate your concern, but I wouldn’t want you to discount the ongoing work of great UUs because it is not heralded in the press every two minutes! What we do is dangerous to the power hegemony. That’s why there is a resounding silence in the press about it. If you are not finding it in MA, then you need to go into it a little deeper. It’s there.

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