UU emergence: opening a conversation for 2008 and beyond

I know bloggers are supposed to do year-end reviews in their last posts of the waning year, but I’d rather look ahead and anticipate the new year. And what I see emerging right now is that religious liberals are finally taking post-modernism seriously. By “taking seriously” I mean that some religious liberals are doing more than just reading, writing, or preaching about post-modernism — they are actually trying out post-modern ways of doing church. (If you know nothing about this phenomenon, check out the Wikipedia article on emerging church first.)

For the last dozen or more years, some Christian evangelicals and a smaller number of Jews have been seriously engaging with post-modernism. They have been deconstructing and reconstructing the shape of liturgy and worship, experimenting with alt.worship, non-linearity, chanting, contemplative prayer, and integration of non-traditional arts into worship experiences. They have been experimenting with post-modern ecclesiology, trying out old-new forms such as house churches, minyanim. Post-modernism has been emerging in traditional congregational settings in mainline churches as well, where people have been experimenting with medieval and older forms of worship/community such as walking labyrinths, vespers services with candles, etc.

Through all this, religious liberals within Unitarian Universalism have mostly been sticking to the old, tried-and-true models they have been accustomed to for the past couple of generations. Partly this is because Unitarian Universalists already incorporate many aspects of what the emergent church people see as post-modern — we have by our very nature been more willing to accommodate ourselves to the surrounding culture; we have never had a hierarchy try to force us into uniform belief; we have long valued dialogue and alternative points of view; we have insisted on social justice work as integral to who we are since at least the late 1900’s; and we have been open to personal narratives as a way of doing theo/thealogy (as opposed to relying solely on systematic theologies).

Now it’s time for us to take the next steps. It’s time to let go of our dependence on the forty-year-old liturgical forms we got from second-wave feminism; and perhaps it’s time to question our basic Reformation forms of worship and become more aware that our Christian religious roots allow us to tap into a rich array of liturgical resources, dating back thousands of years. It’s time to let go of our over-dependence on hyper-rationality, and allow the possibility of trans-rational (yet not necessarily supernatural) ways of thinking and being.

At an organizational level, I’d suggest we need to move beyond mid-20th C. committee structures for running our congregations (since after all the surrounding culture no longer supports those structures — there are no more “wives” who can volunteer forty hours a week at our churches). I’d like to see us be more open to the possibilities of fully integrating house churches, CUUPS worship groups, and other non-traditional structural forms into our congregations (and while “small group ministry” is a baby step in this direction, we could go much further).

And I think it’s time to seriously question modernist notions that there is one form of Unitarian Universalism that is good for everyone the world over. Since we love them so much, we think that in order to be a True UU you must be able to recite the “seven principles” (which are a product of middle-class First World Unitarian Universalists from the U.S.A.), sing “Spirit of Life” (a second-wave feminist song that may not adequately integrate womanist and mujerista insights), and love the flaming chalice (which is a U.S. Unitarian, not a Universalist, symbol). Grand narratives about the “right way to do things” no longer serve us well.

All this suggests that we Unitarian Universalists need a network equivalent to the Christian Emergent Village, and Jewish Emergent. Notice I said “network” — this is not going to be a top-down hierarchically-structured organization; this is not going to be denominationally-sponsored; this is not even going to be a movement. It’s going to be a conversation of diverse people in diverse settings coming from diverse perspectives — who will come up with diverse solutions to the problems that postmodernism poses to liberal religion and religious liberals.

For the sake of convenience, let’s call this UU Emergence. If you want to participate in the conversation, post something on your blog (if you have one) and tag it “uuemergence”. If you post something on your Web site, include the word “uuemergence” so that search engines can pick it up. (If you don’t have a blog or Web site, then haul your butt over to WordPress.com and start yourself a blog for free!)

And keep your eyes peeled for announcements about a UU Emergence gathering at General Assembly — or even at your next district gathering — so we can all meet face-to-face….

9 thoughts on “UU emergence: opening a conversation for 2008 and beyond

  1. Kim Hampton

    Hi Dan,
    I hope you’ve talked to Ron Robinson lately. He’s got some connections and is doing really good work in an emergent way. Of course, he’s doing it from a UU Christian perspective, but he’s a fount of information.

  2. John Pageless

    You can expect me to join in the conversation, Dan… Although I’m not as knowledgeable of service structure as other UU Bloggers, my love for all things radical could add another dimension to the dialogue. I look forward to reading more about this.


  3. Sarah Millspaugh

    Dan, this sounds very exciting. I am blogless and homepageless, but look forward to being part of the conversation in other ways.
    I think emergent church might be swimming more upstream in Unitarian Universalism than in more conservative traditions. It’s my impression that shared worship and traditional orders of service act as “glue” in UUism in a way that shared theology and/or shared scriptures does in other faith traditions. We have to be better at explaining and enacting our UU “glue” if we start changing worship and orders of service on a large scale.

  4. Bill Baar

    ….seriously question modernist notions that there is one form of Unitarian Universalism that is good for everyone the world over.

    I’ve never thought this the case and surprised it seems many do.

    So many UUs I know have been people who’ve left other traditions. They’re a small minority that did not fit, and part of being a UU has been reconciling themselves with the majority they left behind.

    But that reconciliation shouldn’t mean destroy or take over the major tradition. We can’t. We’d fail. And in fact, we need the majority tradition.

    That’s why I never feel like rooting for sides when Christian Churches split as the Episcopalians have done.

    I don’t expect or really want Christianity to progress to where we are.

    Instead I want our Church to be open to those who no longer fit in a Christian tradition and offer ourselves as alternative where people come together and convenant …not as agreeing in opinion… but in the search for truth and moral improvement.

    (ashamed to say I don’t have UUSG’s covenant memorized, I just link it and now it’s missing in favor of a mission statement?!)

  5. Dan

    Sarah — You write: “I think emergent church might be swimming more upstream in Unitarian Universalism than in more conservative traditions.” Unfortunately, I’m afraid you’re correct.

    Bill — You write: “I’ve never thought this the case and surprised it seems many do.” There was indeed a movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s to promote Universalism and then UUism as a “universal religion.” (Sigh.) Also, just wanted to let you know that you can find your church’s truly excellent covenant on the Internet Archive site here.

  6. h sofia

    Increasingly I’m feeling the value of UUism is its commitment to the process of working things out, trying things out, trying new things, communicating. Not the end result, which we can’t control (though we can influence it).

    The institution is good for some things, but bad for others. I think the institution is bad for UUism’s future, because it diminishes UUism’s strengths.

  7. Bill Baar

    Re: H Sophia, it’s a philosophy called pragmatism, very American, and we UU’s claim it but it’s in need of an overhaul.

    Re: Geneva’s covenant. Lindsey had them add it to the new website…at the top of the home page where it belongs.

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