Emergent Loyal Radical Universalist

I haven’t posted to this blog over the last week because I’ve battling a severe ear infection.  The type of owie that makes me want to find an adult-sized bottle full of pink amoxicillin liquid and jump into it.  I can’t remember having an ear ache like this since I was a little kid. Have I said ouch, yet? It caused me to miss the first meeting of a retreat/study group of colleagues here in my UU Church District. Our topic was David Bumbaugh’s essay in the recent UU World “The Unfulfilled Dream”  One of my colleagues was graceful enough to email around the full address from which this essay was taken. It was keynote address to our Southwest Conference UU Annual Meeting in 2006. Here’s the video.

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I am a Gen X child of the 80’s.  So my reading of Rev. Bumbaugh is that he is basically asking, as has been asked before about Unitarian Universalism, –“Where’s the beef?”  He asks from the vantage point of having lived through the merger of Unitarianism and Universalism and seen our history.  I’ve only recently come in the door from Catholicism, yet I tend to agree with his historical perspective that Universalism seems to have gotten the short shrift in the Unitarian and Universalist merger and that the probing, missional, spiritual questions of Universalism were left behind in the wake of the social justice oriented marketing machine.

“The unfinished task Universalists brought to consolidation—the effort to restate the faith tradition in light of contemporary challenges—has been swept away by the fear—one that echoes throughout Unitarian history—that if we define ourselves too clearly, someone may be offended.”

Thus it has been and thus it always seems to be in our religious life.  Unitarian Universalism seems destined to be a mile wide and an inch deep. Yet there is a deep end of the pool. We need not stay wading in the shallows close to shore. The essence of Rev. Bumbaugh’s reflection for me are the questions he asks of us.

If we are to be the religious movement some of us dreamed fifty years ago, if we are to respond to the needs of the world from a liberal religious basis, it is critical that we be able to address and answer three central questions: What do we believe? Whom do we serve? To whom or what are we responsible?

Indeed my first encounter with Unitarian Universalism in any meaningful way came at Harvard Divinity School, of all places, and the impression I got of Unitarian Universalism at that time was Unitarian Universalism was about unbelief, serving left wing political causes and being responsible to one’s self.   It was not an appealing message and I had no interest in Unitarian Universalism at that time.

I went to Harvard Divinity School during the years 1991-1994.  During my years at HDS, I was still Catholic.  During my years at HDS, Catholic students were the largest religious group represented in the student body.  During my time at HDS, I seriously considered leaving the Catholic Church, but didn’t. One of the reasons was that I  wasn’t sure where I would go if I left.  I never, in three years at a traditionally Unitarian school, considered becoming a Unitarian Universalist, and the chief reason was the behavior of other Unitarian Universalists I met while there.  As a whole, none of them had any room for my God (MY God.  My God who wasn’t the traditional personalized old white man in the clouds playing the universe like a computer game) or for Jesus.

Hear this with love my Unitarian Universalist brothers and sisters – it wasn’t that all UU’s I encountered had no room for God or Jesus, but the overall sense I got from the UU’s I met in general was that I was not going to be comfortable in Unitarian Universalism if I left the Catholic Church.    I remember enjoying the UU’s sense of political activism and involvement. Their politics certainly seemed to match mine.  I have many memories of being told about the superiority of humanism and atheism, but I have no recollection whatsoever of being told about Universal salvation by a Unitarian Universalist while at HDS.  I have no memories of being introduced to William Ellery Channing or Hosea Ballou, or Theodore Parker, or even Henry Ware, although Emerson was spoken about frequently.

Later, I couldn’t believe I missed it all. Where were these voices?  These deep theological voices were not part of the conversation I remember from Unitarian Universalism while at HDS, all I remember is being told about a religion that was getting past all the god stuff.  Thus when I finally did leave the Catholic Church I was a bit skeptical that my new religious home would indeed be Unitarian Universalism.  The librarian at the Catholic high school where I was teaching, a Unitarian Universalist, convinced me that my deepest values, all the things I considered holy, were wrapped up in what it meant to be a Unitarian Universalist.  God and Jesus included if I wanted.  Then I heard about the language of reverence and found myself not long afterward at a traditionally Christian Unitarian congregation.  I had come home.  Unitarian Universalism had saved me.

And yet home isn’t what it used to be, if it ever used to be what we thought.  Longing for some idealized past is a losing proposition from the start.  I grew up in a house run by a divorced single mom.  The fantasy of a 1950’s Father Knows Best home and family life was always just that – a fantasy from TV Land.  I’m not sure there isn’t anything amiss with Unitarian Universalism that isn’t problematic for any denomination or any serious non-fundamentalist approach to religion or being religious in the early 21st century.  The very nature of family life has changed. The very nature of what it means to be religious and to be a religion and to be a congregation is changing right now as we live it and experience it.

This is both a source of hope and a source of anxiety.  There is much floating about the blogosphere lately related to folks leaving Unitarian Universalism for liberal Christianity, including this Dear John letter to Unitarian Universalism.  This hits home for me. I am a Universalist Christian. I serve on the board of the UU Christian Fellowship. I have watched a number of people in my own congregation leave and become members of a church plant of a liberal Christian church not too far away.  A couple of days ago, Anna Snoeyenbos wrote a great piece on her blog Deep River  about her struggles being an Emergent Christian UU and wondering whether or not she’s still at home with us or more at home in the Emergent Church movement, where denominational ties mean little.  I wrote about the same concerns for a Greenfield Group project two years ago and called the project An Emergent Rev. X   And yet I stay.  Rev. Carol Howard, a Presbyterian minister, author and blogger calls folks with Emergent sensibilities who remain in the mainline churches “loyal radicals.”  I suppose that fits for now.  I’ve always been a bit radical.

When I first read Rev. Bumbaugh’s essay in UU World, I thought that maybe it was time that Unitarians and Universalists got divorced.  I’m comfortable with divorce. I’m a Gen Xer.  It’s not my preferred resolution to relationship, but it’s no longer a taboo.  I thought, you know just let the more humanist crowd go and get on with it. After all, Universalism is a big sell these days with folks like Rob Bell preaching our theology to the top of the best seller lists.

Then I thought, no, loyalty is radical and it’s time to bring the life of the spirit into a bold new relationship with all our people.  Scratch that, will ALL people.