Unitarian Universalism as One Big Codependent System

Yesterday I wrote about a new insight I am exploring in which the anti-Christian sentiments found throughout Unitarian Universalism can be seen and understood as aversion addiction.  This post has received a lot of traffic. In 24 hours it is already one of the most visited posts in the history of this blog.  It has received as many comments as I usually get on a post, many post comments coming on the Facebook cross-posting and not here.

David Pyle’s (Celestial Lands) comment notes that he has looked at the phenomenon of anti-Christian attitudes in our communities before through the lens of post-traumatic stress, but he says the analogy didn’t quite exactly fit.  He writes that the aversion addiction angle seems to be a better match for the behavior that he too has experienced in our congregations, especially in light of family systems theory and we all know how big the UUA – and many church consultant types are on family systems theory.   And he asks the big question – so how do we respond?

I think we need to seriously consider Unitarian Universalism, the Unitarian Universalist Association at large and certainly most of our individual congregations as Codependent family systems.  We have addicts – people with aversion addictions to Christianity, certainly, but also to spirituality, and spiritual and religious language.  The entire structure of Unitarian Universalism colludes to support this addiction.  Within the last decade a brief intervention was begun with then President Rev. William Sinkford’s call to reclaim a “language of reverence” in an effort to be a more relevant religion.  Although welcomed in some quarters of the UUA, it was met with the reaction that most addicts have when confronted with their addiction in other quarters: denial, rejection, ignoring, and other delaying tactics so as to not have to confront the reality of the addiction.

The ministry, the religious educators, the national staff and leadership have for too long been enablers of the aversion addiction.  We, the leaders of Unitarian Universalism have created a codependent and culture. We collude with the aversion addicts to keep religious language neutral, leave theology out of our church life, and not demand spiritual discipline or disciplines.  If we were to insist on such things, the church family system would blow up in anxiety.   Gerald G. May writes

“Codependency is not simply a matter of other people trying to cope with the addicted person’s behavior. They actually create their own interweaving webs of deception. They may even unconsciously develop new, more inventive mind tricks for the addicted person to use. Ironically, it is the most sympathetic, compassionate, loving persons in the addict’s social circle that are most likely to fall into such collusion.” (Addiction and Grace)

We really have no choice but to name the addiction and demand that it stop. Now. Why?

“When the community surrounding an addicted person tried to help in way that does not support ending the addiction, it will wind up supporting the addiction instead…Both the …addicted person person and his or her immediate community know that the ….addiction has to stop…but at another, more insidious level they find themselves colluding with the addiction.” – Gerald G. May, Addiction and Grace

We do verbal gymnastics in Unitarian Universalism to avoid words like God, spirit, covenant, and faith. Why? Because some people have an aversion addiction to them.  It is completely fine that some people in our religious communities are not Christians. It is completely fine that some people in our religious communities do not believe in God.  What is not acceptable is that some of these people hold our community hostage with their aversion to the language, ideas and expression of faith and spirituality.  At a theological level, that kind of insistence on never hearing certain words is a fundamentalism. It is just as much an expression of fundamentalism as insisting a person accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior or they are going to hell and that every single letter of the Bible is factually, historically and theologically true. At a behavioral level it is an aversion addiction.

We have lost much of our ability to deal with this addiction because we have become largely codependent.  We are not a place where people holding differing religious views are welcome. If that were true, I wouldn’t be writing this.  We are a generally a place where people holding some different religious beliefs except Christianity, which is ironically our roots and history, are welcome.

Let’s take a look at some of the Characteristics and Patterns of Co-Dependents from Co-Dependents Anonymous.  Read through the list and see if any of the patterns remind you of common patterns you recognize in congregational behavior.  It’s not very scientific, I admit, but my observations from being intimately connected to four UU congregations (one as a member and three as a minister) is that of these four congregations, the one that exhibited the fewest of these characteristics was the UU Christian congregation.

We do a lot of relational gymnastics because of this codependency.  When there is a major conflict in our congregations, we are extremely hesitant to name the aversion addiction.  We skirt around differences of religious language and perspective, especially if the addicts are major donors or hold positions of power or leadership in the congregation.  After all, consider a family system in which you need to confront a parent with their alcoholism.  We send leaders to workshops on family systems, we hire consultants from the Alban Institute and study congregational dynamics and all kinds of leadership theories.  None of it amounts to much in terms of Unitarian Universalism growing into a vital spiritual presence in America. Our congregations continue to shrink, people who grow up UU leave and join Christian churches or Buddhist sanghas, we continue to suffer from lack of financial support and lack of sustaining mission and vision.  Revival will depend on becoming missional, but we can’t be missional while being codependent.

I am not arguing for a return to a liberal Christian only Unitarian Universalism, but I do believe we need to insist on naming the aversion addiction.  If someone needs to be a community where there is never any mention of God, no one ever prays and religion itself is thought to be for lesser people, let’s be honest and tell them they don’t belong in our congregations.

When ministers confront the addicts and the addictions, they should be supported by their colleagues, district and national staff and policy.  Our polity get in the way of doing this and is another piece of our codependency.  Often, addicts are in positions of leadership and by standing up for Christian or things associated with Christianity or spiritual or religious expressions, the clergy become targets of addicts, made to be the scapegoats of systemic dysfunction which is in reality an addiction and not the addiction of the minister.  The ministers, however, often contribute to the codependency for many reasons, not the least of which is they need to keep their source of income.

This exploration has generated a lot of conversation so far and I look forward to more.

13 thoughts on “Unitarian Universalism as One Big Codependent System

  1. yes yes yes – for the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m not crazy! 😉 thanks so much for naming the elephant in the living room.

  2. I would gently suggest that not all is lost. On a young adult retreat at my church, we had a discussion about what UUism meant to us in our lives. One thing that was widely shared is that being UU actually helped us get over our biases, and calmed the knee jerk reactions when it came to reading texts that had a basis in a Christian faith. Most of the people in the room came to UUism on a path that included atheism, so it represented a widening of minds.

    I’m also apart of a church that includes “God” in its verbal gymnastics, so perhaps my perspective is coming from an outlier congregation?

    1. Thanks, Chris. I realize the problem is not the same everywhere. I also recognize and believe that this issue has definite generational characteristics. I think the aversion addiction response if more pronounced and more prevalent among the baby boomers, although not exclusive to their generation.

      1. As a boomer, I think you’re right, Tony. Our generation was most likely raised in a traditional Christian church, and growing up in the 60’s cultural revolution, started to question many things that our parents generation took as absolute, religion being of them. Aversion adiction is a very appropritate term to apply to this, where we neutralize the language and content of Christian spirituality, without really replacing it with anything of substance. I myself struggle with this, when I try to explain to a Christian what Unitarian Universalism is and what it means to me. It’s easy to say what WE DO NOT believe in, but pushed to say what WE DO believe in, is difficult at best. Christians have no problem telling us what they believe in, and can site scripture and verse. Thanks for an insightful article.

  3. Treating differing views, theologies, anti-theologies, as pathology rather than for what they are: disagreements, disrespectful and a profound break with our covenants. Please reconsider this one.

    1. Nope, not reconsidering this one. Still very much exploring this one. I am not treating a different theology or anti-theology as a pathology. I am treating a pathology as a pathology. There are plenty of people in UU congregations who are Buddhists, Humanists, Pagans, etc who do not exhibit the behaviors of aversion addiction, yet there are plenty who do. It is a symptom of our collective codependency that we have a lot of trouble distinguishing between people and behaviors and between people who exhibit these behaviors and people who don’t. Let’s start being real about the problem is and admit that it affects us all. Just because someone is a Humanist or a Pagan doesn’t mean they have an aversion reaction to the mere mention of Jesus. And yet there are a lot of people in our congregations who do. So let’s name it for what it is when it happens instead of pretending it’s always just a difference of opinion.

      1. Than malpractice it be: making a DX without a license.

        You’re dismissing disagreeable views on psychiatric grounds; in the long run, that will harm your own intellectual health most of all. (Tha amateur doc’s diagnosis can slice many ways).

      2. Nope, I’m not. I think you’re missing the point still. It’s not about views. It’s about behavior. This raises another good point, though. Our congregations have become so dysfunctional in some cases due to behavior like this that they don’t need ministers, they need therapists. There’s the next post in this thread. Trained professionals such as myself who are ready, willing, able, and trained to help take people on the spiritual journey, oftentimes, never get to do that in our congregations as the vast majority of time is actually spent trying to manage psychologically dysfunctional systems. These systems don’t need ministers, they need counselors trained in group therapy. If our clergy by necessity need to be trained to handle this, it really does need to give us pause as to just what the heck we are trying to accomplish.

  4. Gee Whiz, i find this statement of yours frightful :”I am not arguing for a return to a liberal Christian only Unitarian Universalism, but I do believe we need to insist on naming the aversion addiction. If someone needs to be a community where there is never any mention of God, no one ever prays and religion itself is thought to be for lesser people, let’s be honest and tell them they don’t belong in our congregations”
    What an astounding statement of exclusion. i’ve always considered Christian UUs to consider themselves as in alignment with the reported teachings of Jesus and not among those who saw such a figure as the actual Son of God. However, your snappy
    diagnosis leaves me questioning that consideration and your perscription for the health of the organization, to cast out those without Faith (whatever that is) seems to be just a first step on a path to another conventional Protestant theology.
    Reading the comments of those who favor a Christian UU system of thought i note the word faith used several times. What is meant by faith, is the prime question. Some Christian UUs may be insistent on the presence of an overarching supernatural being who can and does act in ways contrary to the natural processes of the earth for the benefit of those who “worship” Him/Her. At minimum i hope such UU folk still manage to see such a figure as either or both male and female. i can not read your words without getting the image of yet another moral failure, the failure of inclusion, so typical of religious figures who rely on gods as their witness. My way or the highway! indeed.

    1. Hi Ben, I’m sorry that you are missing my point. I’m not talking about differences in theology. I’m talking about having the type of averse reactions you seem to be demonstrating. The lens I am trying to look through I believe helps gives us all a way to name destructive behavior thus hopefully making communities more open and accepting places. I think the adverse reaction this idea is causing in some quarters only proves my point.

      1. Thank you Tony for a reply. However, i still see your insistence on describing a difference in pathological terms as dangerous to the idea of inclusion. There remain a number of UUs who continue to feel that the term God stands for a supernatural being who takes an active role in the Universe in contradiction to what we know about the nature of this world. Therefor when the Pulpit offers prayers to such a being, it not only appears to be a form of worship, but one, which by its format, demanding. This may be theological, but i feel it is deeper. The problem with most of our churches is that they lack an Adult Sunday school where such issues can be discussed. Trying to discover what is meant by the use of words like faith, worship, and the phrase “son of god” are important to working out working relationships. Such activities do draw upon the minister’s time but are likely doomed in most congregations by a lack of interest. ben

  5. I worked in 3 different UU churches within a 6 year time frame and I noticed your insights to be spot on. All other faith traditions were ok, because little baggage in the western world came with those. Chrisitianity does spawn, and understandably so, a large group of people who are wounded and recovering from the messages they received from its tenets growing up. However, I do not not believe we should throw the baby out with the bathwater, and UU churches have developed an implicit culture of awkwardness with Christian thought. There are many beautiful beliefs and ethical behaviors in the western world that stem from Christianity, and I am honored to walk in that tradition as an adult who’s worked through some of my own woundedness associated with the judgementalism of Christianity. I hope that UU culture will slowly learn to show the open mindedness that it shows to ALL OTHER religions to Christianity someday. It takes an emotionally mature adult to be able to get there. I do not say this to be critical of anyone- we are all on the “path” and wherever we are is perfect for us as individuals. I stopped going to UU churches because of this “stunted growth” in their religious paradigm.

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