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?