Universalism for a new era

UU World magazine just put a good article by Paul Rasor on their Web site. Titled “Can Unitarian Universalism Change?” the article is an excerpt from the Berry Street lecture Paul gave last June.

Using demographic and other solid evidence, Paul makes the case that in an increasingly multiracial society, Unitarian Universalist congregations are predominantly white. In other words, we are increasingly out of step with the surrounding culture. In other words, we are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Paul goes on to say that our Universalist heritage offers a solid theological foundation on which we could build a truly multiracial, egalitarian religion:

Early Universalism was a communal faith. ‘Communal’ here means more than a group of individuals who share a common belief and come together for mutual support and worship, the way we might understand it today. Instead, in this form of communal theology, the individual was removed from the religious equation. Universalists insisted that our personal salvation was no more important than anyone else’s salvation. As Ann Lee Bressler, author of The Universalist Movement in America, 1770–1880, puts it, Universalism ‘encouraged the believer to think of his own interests as inseparably linked with the eternal welfare of the whole body of humanity.’

This theological core led to a radical egalitarianism. The American emphasis, shared by most Protestant denominations, including Unitarians, had always been on equality of opportunity, at least in principle, while in practice tolerating vast inequalities of outcome. But Universalism’s egalitarian theological doctrine became the basis for a truly egalitarian social doctrine — ‘an egalitarianism not of opportunity, but of desert,’ or outcome. In other words, Universalism was not simply pluralistic; it was radically inclusive.

However, a radical Universalist inclusivity is going to ruffle lots of feathers of current Unitarian Universalists who place an extremely high value on personal and individual freedom. In my reading of the Treatise on Atonement, Hosea Ballou’s foundational theological statement of Universalism, Ballou places great restrictions on free will: you don’t get to choose whether or not you wish to be saved, you will be saved no matter what. Unitarians placed much more emphasis on free will:– they believed that you affect your ultimate destiny by the moral and ethical choices you make. Thomas Starr King, who was affiliated with both denominations, famously said that the difference between Unitarians and Universalists was that the Unitarians believed they were so good that God would not send them to hell, while the Universalists believed God was so good that God would not send them to hell.This witticism accurately represents a deep theological difference between the Unitarians and Universalists.

Today, Unitarian Universalism is dominated by Unitarian theology and culture — just like Unitarianism of 100 years ago, Unitarian Universalism today is a denomination that aims to provide a safe haven for well-educated whites with substantial incomes who want to believe that they have maximal control over the course of their lives. The average Unitarian Universalist wants a theology that reassures him or her that people of good will can bring about heaven on earth progressively and through their own efforts; that, in fact, reassures him or her that he or she is that person of good will who is bringing about that gradual progressive change for the better.

The notion that individuals may actually be relatively helpless to further goodness in the world, and the related notion that there might be a power greater than an individual human which can further goodness in the world, is anathema to most Unitarian Universalists today. These two notions lay at the core of Universalism, and were related to a further notion set forth by Ballou:– that the final outcome for all human beings was not a slow progressive process wherein inequalities would gradually disappear, but rather a sudden and utter equality. Thus the moral imperative on earth is not to institute gradual equality over a period of years or centuries;– the moral imperative is to allow heaven to burst forth here and now on earth;– and in particular, to allow sudden equality to burst forth now in our lives, especially in our congregations.

As a contemporary Universalist, I belive that heaven is not some abstract transcendent state awaiting us upon our death; rather, it is a state that already exists in the here-and-now, a state which can be called the Web of Life, a term which is a synonym for the Kingdom of Heaven. (1) Most Unitarian Universalists think of the Web of Life in Unitarian terms — it is the web of relationships between human beings and other species, where we Unitarians are probably best suited to tell other human beings the appropriate relationships we may have with other species. As a Universalist, I would say the Web of Life must include intraspecies relationships as well; as an altruistic (and, I might add, altricial) species, we literally cannot live without other human beings. Thus, the Web of Life demand of us a radical inclusivity and egalitarianism.

If I were to predict the future based on current trends, here’s what I think will happen in Unitarian Universalism: A few larger upper middle class white Unitarian congregations (and I mean Unitarian, not UU), the ones located in upper middle class white enclaves, will continue to thrive. Most Unitarian Universalist congregations will try to retain their upper middle class white trappings, and will continue to shrink relative to total surrounding population; and because the costs of maintaining churches continue to outpace inflation, because these congregations won’t adapt and grow, they will gradually drift into financial insolvency. Obviously, that financial insolvency will be closely linked to the inability to move beyond white upper middle class values and theology; theological rigidity will drive financial obsolescence. A few — a very few — Unitarian Universalist congregations will do the theological and cultural work to become radically inclusive and egalitarian, i.e., they will live out the Universalist side of our theological heritage, and these congregations will thrive and grow.

That’s my take on the future of our denomination; of course I reserve the right to change my mind. What do you think?

(1) This term comes from Bernard Loomer, the liberal Baptist theologian who also joined a Unitarian Universalist church late in his life.

22 thoughts on “Universalism for a new era

  1. Charlie Talbert

    Since you have asked, here’s what I believe. I’m not sure if it’s Unitarian or its Universalist, but largely through my association with Unitarian Universalism, I’ve come to see that moral progress is inevitable. Its timetable isn’t a certainty, though. Each person has the capacity to make a difference. We can hasten a better world for all beings who by fortune or misfortune have found themselves plopped here on this remote location in the Universe.

  2. Jim

    I think that most UU congregations really do want to be “radically inclusive,” but they don’t know (or can’t agree) how to do it. Rasor’s article doesn’t offer much in the way of specifics. What is it that these “very few” UU congregations you mention will do theologically and culturally that will allow them to accomplish radical inclusivity? And why aren’t they already doing these things?

  3. Jeff Wilson

    I think there is much that is right about this analysis (both yours and Paul’s), but I hesitate to affirm it completely. For one thing, Paul is charting the relative decline of UUism compared to the total (American) culture, especially in terms of racial demographics. But this hides the fact that while whites as a percentage of the total are declining, they are nonetheless increasing in absolute numbers. White people remain (and will remain) an enormous resource for UUs and other groups that traditionally draw on this demographic. To show what I mean, consider that in 2005 non-Hispanic whites made up 67% of the total U.S. population, which was 288,400,000. That means there were 193,228,000 non-Hispanic whites. In 2050 the non-Hispanic white population of the USA is projected to be only 47%, but this in a country that will have risen to 439,000,000 total citizens. That means there will be 206,330,000 non-Hispanic whites–an increase of 6.8% and still plenty of melanin-deficient honkeys to keep our UU churches humming along the same as always. This doesn’t mean the doom-and-gloom is unwarranted, merely that the apocalypse isn’t as near nor as certain as the worst case imaginations might suspect. I think we may indeed have the option (unfortunately) of remaining non-inclusive for many decades to come.

    Leaving aside demographic numbers, there is still the issue of theology. Paul, yourself, and I are all Universalists, and I think we can agree that the Universalist side of our heritage holds riches untapped (indeed, generally unrecognized at all) by our overall denomination. I agree with the characterization of Universalism as a faith fundamentally built on the spiritual insight of a common, universal destination, as well as with the characterization of Unitarianism as being considerably more ambivalent about this as a fact, preferring to base its religious principles on the idea of total individual freedom. Perhaps one might say that Universalism is an inherently centripetal force while Unitarianism in an inherently centrifugal one. This can be easily overstated, but I feel it does capture the basic situation fairly well. I also agree with your characterization of the basic religious message conveyed from most of our pulpits as one that emphasizes our control over ourselves and our world, of constant improvement toward a sort of crypto-post-millennial paradise, and of us as the force of good and light in the world–all ideas clearly related to historic Unitarianism (though with overlap in some places with certain phases of historic Universalism). In fact, in my wide perambulations through North American UUism I have found this package to be so remarkably consistent that I think we may have here the holy grail “essence of Unitarian-Universalism” that so many people are often in search of. This is not a message that is able to be affirmed nearly as widely as we might imagine, and the fact that it clashes with the lived experiences of great numbers of people (even, indeed, many UUs) may help explain why we are unable to reach a wider and more diverse population.

    Recognizing that Universalism is relevant to the discussion is not the same thing as delineating a robust, applicable model for action, of course. And here I have to echo the above commentator Jim. I have heard a lot of talk about “radical inclusivity.” I have heard Paul repeatedly speak with eloquence about the potential of Universalism as a resource. But what I don’t seem to hear are specifics. I don’t know what these commentators envision as radical inclusivity, beyond a better racial mixture in our congregations. And I don’t know how they expect us to get there.

    Particularly, I don’t know how we expect a resurgent neo-Universalism to accomplish such things for us. Universalism itself does not seem like a very widely accepted spiritual orientation within our denomination. For one thing, my spiritual orientation as a lifelong Universalist is fundamentally devotional and expressive, as I was taught in good New England Universalist fashion. Now having spent my adult life outside of New England and in a succession of historically Unitarian congregations in various parts of North America, I find that public devotionalism is mostly discouraged and services are nearly always intellectual in orientation rather than expressive. They are thus only able to nurture a certain type of religious person, and that type is best represented in a slice of the white, upper middle class American portion of the population. If we are unable to find ways to really embrace even a wider portion of our own direct spiritual legacy, I have little illusion that a) that part of our spiritual legacy can legitimately be expected to revivify our denomination or that b) we will be able to embrace any sort of truly substantial change that might alter the racial, class, OR religious demographics of our congregations. Leaving aside the problem that the end-game (“point Z”) is poorly defined, I just don’t see how we get from here at point A all the way to point Z, or even to point B. We’ve already talked a lot about radical inclusivity as a buzzword, so if talking about the issue was supposed to move us on to point B, I don’t think that has worked. What concrete actions should we be taking? That’s what I’d genuinely like to hear.

    This is a tangent, but I would be curious to hear more about the idea that this life is itself already somehow a manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven. I find that I have great difficulty accepting this principle, but remain willing to be convinced. It seems to me that this life is quite blatantly non-heavenly, indeed it is a world of tremendous suffering and grief, where massive inequalities exist between people that are the utter opposite of the Universalist vision of heaven. While I honor the Web of Life of which we are all a part, I also acknowledge that it falls far short of the traditional Universalist conception of universal peace, rest, and reconciliation–the Web of Life not only sustains our lives but also takes them away, especially taking away prematurely the lives of the less fortunate and filling those briefer lives with greater pain and suffering. The Web of Life is a phenomenon that I can be grateful for and humble towards, but it is far less than the vision of absolute, all-embracing, never-abandoning Love that I was raised with. Perhaps I am mischaracterizing how you understand or intend this term and the idea of heavenly here-and-now, and if so, I hope you will disabuse me of my misconceptions.

    I apologize for the length of these comments: please take them as a sign that you’ve successfully stimulated thought and interest in the subjects.

  4. Bill Baar

    I need to read the full Razor piece and his Berry Street Sermon but I have a feeling what’s driving much him is fall-out from secular politcal thinking: the attempt to gain the hispanic voting bloc for either Dems or the GOP. Much of the multi-cultural outreach I hear talked about (and I say talk, because I don’t see it done much) is towards hispanics and not asians who are also a fast growing segment in American’s demographics.

    I’ve been googling the history of Chicago’s First Universalist Church aka St Paul’s Universalist aka St Pauls on the Midway (Universalist) aka All Souls Universalist Society which exists today on Chicago’s south side. This was once known as The Church of the Millionaires counting George Pullman as a member. Today it’s a small congregation meeting at a home (They’ve graciously invited me to a service weekend after next) and I’m guessing the only all African American congregation in the UUA.

    Their minister in the 70s and 80s was a fellow named Rev. Hugo Prosper Leaming. Here’s a bit about him from an email I sent the UU History list,

    From Nathaniel Deutsch’s Inventing America’s “Worst” Family: Eugenics, Islam, and the Fall and Rise of the Tribe of Ishmael


    [i]In the 1960’s, Hugo Leaming embarked on his own remarkable journey of self-invention or, as he preferred to see it, self-discovery. By the time he published his revisionist account of the Tribe of Ishmael in 1977, Leaming had assumed a radically new identity. After living half a century as a white man, Hugo Leaming now claimed that he also possessed Native American and African American ancestry and was therefore “tri-racial.” In the coming years, he would also undergo a profound religous metamorphosis; as Graham Hodges has written, “during the 1980s, Leaming sought acceptance as an African American in a Black Muslim temple. Eventually he was received and permitted to war a fez, which he combined with his Unitarian robes.”[/i]

    [i]In 1989, Jame Koehnline visited All Souls First Universalist Society in Chicago, where Leaming was pastor emeritus. For the first time since suffering a stroke several years earlier, Leaming delivered a sermon before the congregation. Koehnline rememberd that Leaming, “proudly wearing the fez of the Moorish Science Temple,… stood before us, a pale-skinned man of ‘tri-racial ‘ Chickahominy Indian stock, an delivered this moving sermon, ‘My African Ancestry.'” Leaming’s identification with the Chickahominy Indians adds yet another ironic twist to his story, for the Chicahominies were one of the triracial “Isshie” communities discussed by Arthur Estabrook in Mongrel Virginians and were also part of Leaming’s own research on the marrons of Virginia and the Carolinas. Racially and religiously, therefore, Hugo Leaming had recreated himself in the image of “the Other America” he wrote about so passionately.[/i]

    One of my fears is UU tries Hugo Leaming like to reinvent itself based on a false history.

    On the other hand, Chicago (and America) the kinds of places where people free to reinvent themselve on any darn narrative they chose, and sometimes successful at it too. Sometimes wildly so… although I think Leaming not.

    I’m guessing though, if we continue as an association of Churches, we will do so as a minority of dissenters; people united by iconoclasitc and highyl idyosyncratic searches for truth. That’s the community I suspect I’ll find and whoreship with Sunday after next. Not certain, but if they permit, I’d sure like to write their history.

  5. Dan

    Charlie @ 1 — You write: “…I’ve come to see that moral progress is inevitable.”

    And I think you fit right into the mainstream of Unitarian Universalist belief. However, this belief has been challenged repeatedly:– first by the new orthodoxy of the mid-20th C., exemplified by the Neibuhrs, people who looked at the chaos of the 20th C. and said “This does not look like moral progress!”; later by various liberation theologies (feminist, black, Latin American, etc.) who said that if there is any moral progress it has left behind billions of people; still later by the postmodernists who deny the possibility of any such metanarrative. One of the theological difficulties that Unitarian Universalism is facing right now is that we are trying to hold onto our old belief of continual moral progress and the challenge of liberation theologies that tell us that things are getting worse, not better (can you say Prop 8?), and postmodernism. James Luther Adams helped us confront the challenge of neo-orthodoxy, though he gets less attention today than do the Transcendentalists; William R. Jones arguably helped us confront the challenge of certain liberation theologies, though he has been essentially marginalized within mainstream UUism; Paul Rasor and Sharon Welch and others are trying to help us confront the challenges of postmodernism. But I cannot say we have successfully confronted any of these challenges — we cling to our belief that moral progress is inevitable and seem to ignore these challenges rather than confront them head-on.

    Jim @ 2 — You write: “What is it that these “very few” UU congregations you mention will do theologically and culturally that will allow them to accomplish radical inclusivity?”

    Best to point to some examples. Looking at the past, First Unitarian Chicago became deliberately multiracial in the late 1940s, when James Luther Adams was on their board — Adams writes about his experience in one of his essays (I’ll try to find a citation). The Tulsa, OK, Unitarian Universalist church is in the process of facing up what it means to be radically inclusive, as reported in this article.

    Bill @ 4 — Thanks for the mention of All Souls Free Religious Fellowship in Chicago. I think Leaming was originally fellowshipped as a Universalist. Nice video of the congregation may be found here. Let us know how your visit goes!

    You also write: “One of my fears is UU tries Hugo Leaming like to reinvent itself based on a false history.”

    Given the way Mark Morrison-Reed has published extensive documentation about how effectively Unitarians and Universalists have rejected anyone who doesn’t look white, I’m not too worried about that.

  6. Dan

    Jeff @ 3 — Separate reply for your long and thoughtful comment.

    First, while absolute numbers of white folk are increasing, it is not clear that absolute numbers of upper middle class white folk are increasing, given the growing divide between wealthy and not-so-wealthy in the U.S. But even if absolute numbers of upper middle class white folks is increasing, three things working together seem to be preventing growth. First, something like 80-90% of UU congregations have an average attendance of less than 200 people per week; to grow beyond that requires a huge change in organizational behavior, as has been described by Alice Mann and others at the Alban Institute (this seems to be tied to the way human beings function in social institutions, and there is some sociological research on the topic of how different size groups function).

    Second, while absolute numbers of white folks might be increasing, a given congregation needs a certain absolute number of white folks within their “service area,” i.e., within convenient driving distance of the church building.

    Third, Baumol’s Cost Disease tells us that salaries in industries where there is no increase in productivity rise along with salaries in industries where there has been a rise in productivity. Most ministers have demonstrated little or no rise in productivity in the past century or more, yet salaries of ministers have to keep rising to keep pace with other industries where productivity has risen dramatically. The result of this is that congregations with an average attendance of less than 150 people are coming to find it more and more difficult to pay a competent full-time minister a livable wage.

    Now put these three things together. In order to pay a competent full-time minister a living wage, the typical local congregation will soon need greater than 200 average attendance (some areas will need even more people than that). Many congregations will not see an adequate absolute increase of upper middle class folks within their service area. Most of the remaining congregations (the ones that do see an absolute increase of upper middle class white folks in their service area) will not be willing to engage in the organizational change necessary to get above 200 average attendance. So if we’re not going to attract non-white folks, and non-upper-middle-class white folks, and we’re not willing to change our organizational behavior, we’re going to see a growing number of local congregations lose their ability to pay staff wages. A policy of radical inclusivity could get us out of this quandary.

    Another way out is to get upper middle class white folks to actually give 5% of their gross income to their congregation. I think that is less likely than UU congregations including people of color, and middle-class and lower-middle class people.

    You write: ” I don’t know what these commentators envision as radical inclusivity, beyond a better racial mixture in our congregations. And I don’t know how they expect us to get there.”

    To me, radical inclusivity means focusing on the theology, rather than trying to maintain a congregation that feels comfortable socially. Right now, most of our UU congregations function as upper middle class white social clubs, where what is most important is that everyone be white, have a “professional” job, belong to the Democratic Party, listen to Prairie Home Companion, and enjoy 19th C. (male) Romantic composers like Beethoven and Schubert. Bus drivers need not apply; leftists and conservatives should shut up; people who watch Letterman should not mention it; people who listen to Steve Reich or Radiohead or A Tribe Called Quest should stifle their musical tastes on Sunday morning.

    How do we get to a place of radical inclusivity? Well, a theology of inclusivity would demand of us that we recognize more than just the narrow range of upper-middle-class white Anglophone culture. I mean, I’m a white guy, but I spend most of my time in environments where English is not the only language spoken; where I hear music written in the last thirty years; where digital social life is crucial; where not everyone is white; in the past, I spent quite a bit of time in lower middle class jobs, and know lots of people without college degrees. I don’t need all of those things, but if none of those things is present I am not going to feel comfortable in that church. So let’s include the following in our worship services: bilingual readings; music written in the last 30 years (I don’t need hip hop or rock, contemporary classical music is fine with me, or film scores, or Broadway); sanctuaries as wifi hotspots and a worship service Twitter feed; a culture where no one’s going to ask me what college I went to, or what my parents do/did for a living; a culture where no one looks down on my accent. That will make church look more like the more inclusive world I inhabit outside of church. That’s before we even get to racial inclusion.

    For me as a Universalist, I guess I’d add this:– I know that I’m an incomplete, fallible being. I can’t pull it off on my own. I want some acknowledgment of that in every worship service.

    And that’s an overview of specific things we could do in our worship services — which some congregations are actually doing. Again, I’d point to the Universalist revolution going on in the Tulsa, Oklahoma, UU church right now.

    You also write: “I would be curious to hear more about the idea that this life is itself already somehow a manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

    Read theologian Bernard Loomer, Unfoldings and Unfoldings II, two pamphlets available through online used booksellers.

  7. Bill Baar

    You have some links to Morrison-Reed Dan? Is it we reject or just don’t offer what’s wanted? By people of color and a good many others for that matter.

    What bothers me a bit about this growth and diversity talk is it targets Catholic Hispanics and seems to leave everyone else out… and it’s not like all of these other groups don’t have heritages of their own including Hispanics of course… so what in the world are we “marketing” to this “wave” of “others” awashing our shores?

    It just seems sort of weird to me…

  8. Dan

    Bill @ 7 — You should read Morrison-Reed’s Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, available in a limited preview here — or check your church library. In this book Morrison-Reed spends quite a bit of time on the founding of the Free Religious Fellowship in Chicago, which you mention above.

    Basically, Morrison-Reed documents how African Americans have found Unitarianism, liked what they saw, tried to get involved, and been shut out. He’s got a new book coming out Real Soon Now on the same topic (for which I wrote a chapter).

    As for what we might offer non-white people, one partial answer can be found in Anthony Pinn’s excellent Varieties of African American Religious Experience, available in a limited preview here. See pp. 154 ff., the chapter on African American humanists. Pinn talks about where an African American humanist might find an institutional home, and he says basically if you can tolerate a lot of white people, Unitarian Universalism might be a good place (note that Pinn himself, while friendly to UUs, does not belong to a UU congregation).

    In short, there is no wave of “others” breaking up on our shore, because we have built a very effective breakwater to keep that from happening.

  9. Sean

    This is only tangentially related, but I think it’s interesting that not having yet read your post, I preached this on Sunday:

    Of course, the hard part begins when two people, through the same process of reason and experience, come to radically different conclusions. It is easy to guard the free and responsible search for truth and meaning when one expects that the search will lead to a similar answer. But as our Unitarian Universalist communities become less homogenous, we have to grapple with the reality that with so many different kinds of people searching, we are going to be asked to build community with people who have come up with very different findings in this ongoing experiment we call “life.”

    I was talking more about the perceived split between “humanists” and “theists,” but the point was meant to be intentionally broad. It is written in a way that is also intentionally hopeful, but there was an implication throughout the sermon that if we do not become more homogenous, we will not only be irrelevant, but will be (again? still?) acting in direct contradiction to what we say we wish to be.

    Good insights, Dan, and so well-articulated. Thank you.

  10. Jeff Wilson

    Dan, I’m a historian, not a sociologist, so I’ll just have to trust and go along with you on those citations. I don’t know what Baumol’s Cost Disease is, but a lot of what I did understand seems to make sense. Thanks for offering some more details.

    Between now and 2050, things will change. We can’t know precisely how, of course, but one thing religious liberals know is that nothing stays the same and religion adjusts to the times (sometimes in too slow or unhelpful ways, but it nonetheless always reacts in some manner to its cultural environment). Maybe we will become more inclusive in reaction to declining whiteness in American society and/or a felt theological need, maybe we will become reclusive and turn into an ethnic enclave, maybe we’ll just barely manage to stay ahead of the doom-sayers and will continue our slow growth in absolute terms and slow shrinkage in relative ones, maybe we will simply shrink and become less relevant.

    Another potential path that occurs to me is that we are always producing more ministers, but have only a limited supply of pulpits that can sustain/want a minister, and furthermore that many (most?) of our ministers are second-career professionals who already have lots of skills and maturity developed in their earlier decades, and who are going to seminary because they really believe religion to be their correct path. For most religions, these factors would virtually guarantee the production of a robust mission movement actively gathering and planting new congregations, which would combat the factors you listed: either the congregations would be gathered especially from among the UU-under-evangelized (i.e. people of color and the lower class) or they would be targeted toward the growing areas of white population (as you said, the numbers may increase in an absolute sense but not be uniformly distributed), or both. Either or both would be potentially growth scenarios. The lack of missionary spirit in Unitarian-Universalism compared to virtually any other religion is surely as much a factor in its decline as American racial trends or alleged UU non-inclusivity. Developing a mission attitude would probably help solve the problem of decline, either by allowing us to remain white or recreating us as non-white. “Evangelical” UUs seem no less far-fetched to me than fully multiracial UU congregations (which is to say, I don’t expect to see either as big trends, but stranger things have happened; either seems more likely than the easiest and most obvious solution that you mentioned, which would be for UUs to give more money).

    I wonder about the turn to theology that you mention. You are a minister, so naturally theology is of some importance to you. I am a historian of theology, and a devotionally-inclined UU, so it has a central importance to me too. But I find that a large percentage of my fellow lay UUs are positively averse to theology. I think this related to the Unitarian vs. Universalist distinction you raised before, though again I think this can be overstated. The Universalist congregation I grew up in valued personal freedom, but stressed togetherness and nonjudgmental hospitality as more important ideals. The various Unitarian congregations I’ve been in since then have all stressed personal freedom from all obligations to and necessary agreements with groups, including the very churches we were all attending. People were (and are) much more concerned that someone would express a theological opinion they disagreed with and that that would somehow mean it was being forced down their throats, than they were concerned with congregational demographics or whether there were people being left out of the UU good news. One result is that there is little theology at all to speak of–the lowest common denominator is sought and this tends to mean simply tacitly agreeing not to speak at all on matters of theology. I can’t see how these people (a majority of UUs–hundreds of thousands of people) can be moved to a place of healthy relationship with theology, and from there moved to a theology of inclusivity that potentially threatens their personal independence and freedom, which is their highest religious value.

    I have to speed this up, I’m about to go to work. The things you mentioned as practical solutions (contemporary music, etc) are things that Evangelical Protestant churches do (among others). I wonder if that has raised their diversity (that is a real, not rhetorical, question). I don’t know that the Tulsa model is reproducible–it didn’t change and attract a more diverse crowd, it had the unique opportunity of inviting another church to join it, thus instantly changing its practice and culture (if I understand the situation right). I personally would love to attend that church or another like it. But I see no possibility of that happened at any of the various churches I have belonged to. Hopefully I’m wrong! Although, it would alienate huge numbers of current UUs, and I don’t feel real good about divesting my fellow UUs of their spiritual homes.

    OK, now I’m really out of time, sorry these thoughts aren’t as well thought out and expressed as my last comment. Just a last bit: I put in inter-library loan requests for the Unfoldings books. Thanks very much for the tip, I appreciate it.

  11. Dan

    Sean @ 9 — I just have to show you the poem by Unitarian Universalist poet Everett Hoagland titled “The Pilgrim,” where when he gets up to the peak of experience, his footsteps merge with those of the Other….

    Jeff @ 11 — You write: “The lack of missionary spirit in Unitarian-Universalism compared to virtually any other religion is surely as much a factor in its decline as American racial trends or alleged UU non-inclusivity.”

    Yes, yes, yes. I think there’s something associated with that, and that’s an entrepreneurial spirit. My completely non-scientific observations of religious conservatives seem to show that they have more of an entrepreneurial spirit than do religious liberals. Example: the UUA funds that big start-up congregation in Texas, Pathways church, which doesn’t achieve its goals, and suddenly every UU under the sun is saying what a stupid idea it was. Yet religious conservatives are constantly funding church start-ups that fail; for that kind of start-up, like Pathways, they expect a 90% fail rate.

    Some of those same UUs who complained about Pathways work in entrepreneurial settings in their work life, settings where most start-ups fail, and where the whole point is to get lots of venture capital out there so eventually you will fund the Next Big Thing; yet you expect a high failure rate. Unitarian Universalists don’t get that we have to come up with the equivalent of venture capital, and that lots of that venture capital will go to fund projects that don’t succeed. And here I am in a UU congregation in Silicon Valley, where a big percentage of the congregation work in start-ups, yet I’m not seeing people make strong connections between the surrounding culture, and the possible role of venture funding for their congregation.

    There’s a major disconnect going on here. I don’t get it.

    You also write: “But I find that a large percentage of my fellow lay UUs are positively averse to theology.”

    Yes, and I think this is a major locus of our problems. We’re a religious organization, for Pete’s sake, ergo we do theology. Too many UUs see their religious institution as either a way to deliver social services (and congregations are very inefficient at doing that), or as a social club (and frankly congregations are not particularly good social clubs either). If we’re not doing theology, it all seems kind of pointless to me.

    You also write: “Although, it would alienate huge numbers of current UUs, and I don’t feel real good about divesting my fellow UUs of their spiritual homes.”

    I think about it this way: We have at least four types of UU adults: (1) born into the religion; (2) “come-inners” who grew up with no religion and came into religion as UUs; (3) “come-outers” who grew up in another religion, often were wounded by it, and came out of that religion into UUism; (4) “pass-throughers,” people who pass through our congregations as they follow their spiritual journey from one place to some other place. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between the “come-outers” and the “pass-throughers”; sometimes both groups carry such wounds from earlier encounters with religion that we cannot heal them. Right now, I think the wounded “pass-throughers” and wounded “come-outers” dominate our religious discourse.

    I suggest that we cultivate the skill of tuning out those wounded folks. If we stop listening to them, our congregations would become stronger, more stable and more secure places where those folks could heal their wounds. If we stop listening to them, I believe we’ll retain more of our born-into-the-faith folks (many of us get so tired of rehashing the same old strident arguments every couple of years), and we’d chase away fewer of the “come-inners” who really don’t resonate with the religious woundedness that currently dominates many of our congregations. And again, if we could manage to do this, I think we could better minister to the real needs of those religiously wounded folks. Everyone would benefit. Let’s just tune them out, and do some serious theology together.

  12. Amy

    Will someone please send this to Peter Morales? I was jumping up and down reading Jeff @ 11: “Another potential path that occurs to me is that we are always producing more ministers, but have only a limited supply of pulpits that can sustain/want a minister, and furthermore that many (most?) of our ministers are second-career professionals who already have lots of skills and maturity developed in their earlier decades, and who are going to seminary because they really believe religion to be their correct path. For most religions, these factors would virtually guarantee the production of a robust mission movement actively gathering and planting new congregations.”

    A plea to Dan @12: to distinguish between come-outers in general and those come-outers dominated by their wounds. I’m a come-outer, I had some crap to deal with from the religion of my birth & upbringing (nothing traumatic, just your standard grudges and disappointments, like most of us carry from our families of origin as well), but “woundedness” never dominated my motivation for coming to UUism. And plenty of people who do walk in our doors wounded, even preoccupied with their hurts (whether from previous religions, personal losses, or whatever), heal and remain as healthy UUs. But I agree that “the wounded ‘pass-throughers’ and wounded ‘come-outers’ dominate our religious discourse,” and that that is harmful to all. So let’s tune out the woundedness-obsession, not the come-outers themselves.

  13. Dan

    Amy @ 13 — Why don’t you send Jeff’s comment to Peter Morales?

    You write: “distinguish between come-outers in general and those come-outers dominated by their wounds”

    Good point. Adding another type makes for a more robust typology, as well as helping us all better understand appropriate developmental paths that people can take into (or through) liberal religious communities.

  14. Jim

    I agree with the points about aversion to theology and that congregations cater to the “wounded”. These issues are part of what led me to leave UUism after 4 years and join a UCC congregation.

  15. Jeff Wilson

    It’s been a busy week, but I was thinking about this discussion today during services (the sermon was by a guest and went on about how UUs are superior because we seek to be spiritual, not religious, and I found my attention wandered–I’m a religious person, who was raised in and belongs to a religion, and don’t have a lot of interest in being condescended to yet again while I sit in my house of religious worship).

    I found your four-part typology really excellent, Dan, thank you for sharing it with us. I’ve heard some of these distinctions kicked around before, but you put it very clearly in a way that really made it stick in my mind.

    I also found myself thinking about the subtypes that exist within those types, so I was amused to come back to this thread and find Amy’s comment. That’s exactly what I was thinking of: that the come-outers may come out because their old churches were merely lukewarm or mildly uncomfortable, or that they may come out because they were toxic, and that these two different experiences produce two different types of come-outers. Further, I was thinking that come-iners differentiate into two types: those who come-in because they want some sort of community and UU is nearby and comfortable enough, and those who come-in because they are turned on by UUism specifically. Likewise, born-iners can be broken down into those who don’t go anywhere else because they are comfortable and don’t feel any particular spiritual impulses, and those who stick around because they are deeply and specifically UU and would not fit elsewhere. And finally, passers-through come in the wounded and the just curious varieties. So each of the four groups has at least two clearly distinguishable sub-types that I think we can all recognize from our own church experiences.

    Catering to a congregation with eight different types of basic members, who have their own trajectories and agendas, would be hell to start with, but add to that the UU imperative to be open to every single type of religious tradition under the sun without stepping on the toes of any of them, and the UU ministry seems like an impossible cross to bear. We can argue about whether or not our ministers are saints, but it seems clear that anyone who truly makes a go at it in this situation must be respected as a martyr!

    Since this seems to be situation where it is simply not possible to please everyone, I have to take seriously your suggestion Dan that we tune out (or at least tune down) the angriest and least-community-building voices. Your comments about the weird disconnect between hyper-entrepreneurialness in the business and social justice world on the part of UU congregants and yet near total lack of such thinking in the religious sphere are really insightful. I live in what is arguably Canada’s most technologically innovative community, with at least a dozen prominent congregation-members being employees and/or owners of successful start-up companies, yet we can’t seem to organize even the most basic campus mission to the 40,000+ university students here. I’m going to keep considering this issue, you’ve helped me think through some of the finer points.

  16. Cyndi

    I personally don’t think the UU denomination will be successful in “recruiting” non-whites in the numbers that is wanted unless the denomination makes an effort to find out what can be provided to to non-whites that other denominations aren’t providing. We know why the white people at UU congregations are there – Dan stated them above.

    But is there something that non-whites, in mass numbers, are looking for that would easily place them in one of these four categories? Or does the UU denomination need to create another category and change the way it “does church”?

    Most UU churches have a humanist secular feel/social action justice. Is this something that can be experienced outside of a UU congregation? Yes. There are plenty of social clubs and charities that can provide the same type of environment. Are non-whites flocking to UU congregations to get this secular/social justice feel? No, or this wouldn’t be a topic of discussion.

    Would the numbers be different if the UU congregations practiced a progressive theology that wasn’t practiced in congregations outside the UU denomination? A theology that actually used various religious documents in the worship service, with universal reverent language that could make anyone from any religious or non-religious background feel welcomed and unafraid of religion? A theology that wasn’t based on an ancient interpretation of those documents, but one that is all the things the old interpretations aren’t? Who knows?

  17. Dan

    Cyndi @ 11 — Actually, in my experience there are plenty of people of color who come in to UU congregations because it is what they’re looking for — except that the congregation is just so doggone white, and there’s no sense of a willingness to change, and no sense that the white folks are even aware that they are so doggone white (I’m summarizing what I hear from people of color).

    Come to think of it, there’s a similar dynamic going on with white folks — Unitarian Universalists tend to get large numbers of newcomers, but we don’t retain them. What all this might come down to is simply figuring out how to chase away fewer newcomers of all skin colors….

  18. Amy

    Dan @14: Done. And I told him if he’s looking to create a blue-ribbon panel on growth & diversity in Unitarian Universalism, the people writing and referred-to here would be a great place to start. Does that constitute uncollegial behavior on my part? *g*

  19. Cyndi

    Good point Dan @ 18. I do think the UU denomination doesn’t know enough about the audience they are trying to target as members and what makes them tick, so to speak.

    For example, one of my non-white friends in my UU congregation mentioned that religious communities/churches consisting only of one minority race/ethnicity are one of the few places where minorities have the opportunity to be in the majority. This sense of majority is usually something that wants to be held onto, not given up by going to another congregation, even it means that a new congregation’s theology is more in line with their own personal theology. He told me his friends/family still don’t understand why he left his black Christian church for a UU white church. (He’s gay and his former church’s theology did not support that, even though his family and friends did.)

    His statement to me, really made me realize how powerful certain subtleties are….subtleties I rarely get to experience, except when I go to certain stores in my neighborhood.

    I think if I spent most of my time M-S surrounded by mostly non-whites, (at my job, when I’m at the store, etc.) I might want to have a few hours on Sunday surrounded by white people, regardless of what the message from the pulpit was. As long as the people were nice, I’d probably not care because I’d just want a sense of community that I wasn’t getting elsewhere.

    My deduction could be wrong, but his statement explains to me why all the different ethnicities in my community live in clusters, create their own stores, medical centers, law offices, accounting practices, their own churches, etc. I don’t see them looking to white people to give them what they’re lacking – they’re creating it themselves. White people don’t need their support or help so why patronize their stores/service centers when they (the minorities) can do it themselves?

    Another example of this is the Publix grocery store that opened in a very popular shopping center for Hispanics near my house. The immediate community around the shopping center is heavily Hispanic & very populated. Publix was relying on them to keep it in business. They ignored the impact of all the Hispanic grocery stores nearby and never did research on what types of foods Hispanics actually buy. Needless to say, Publix had to close it’s doors about 7 yrs later (running on a deficit for most of those years) because the Hispanics only went there for lunch at the deli and only bought a few items on the shelves. The income from the white people that shopped there wasn’t enough to keep it afloat. After the Publix closed, a huge grocery store catering specifically to the Hispanics opened up and is doing well. The other Hispanic grocery stores in the area are still in business too. I think a little research on Publix’s part would’ve told them their store was never going to thrive selling an American buffet of foods to an Hispanic community.

    After having said all this, I don’t see the UU attempt at integrating minorities a failure, yet. I just see it as a lack of understanding of what we can provide to them, en masse, that they aren’t providing to themselves or getting elsewhere. If that can be overcome, maybe our energies will be put in the right place/direction and then we will see success on a realistic level.

  20. Dan

    Amy @ 19 — Gosh, you’re playing denominational politics even while you’re out of the country. I’m impressed.

    Cyndi @ 20 — I love your example of the supermarket that didn’t do its market research. One interesting question that occurred to me after reading your comment: Do we want to integrate congregations, or do we want to welcome non-white folks into the denomination? Depending on our answer to this question, we might wind up learning from Publix’s mistake, and pursue quite different growth strategies for different demographic segments.

  21. Cyndi

    Good question Dan@21. I’m wondering if the denomination has even thought that out. I’m sure individual congregations haven’t thought about it either.

    Are we wanting non-white people in our pews to be enriched by us or do we want them in the pews so we can be enriched by them?

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