Tuesday, May 10, 2011

You've GOT to be kidding me...

(Okay, so I've been deep in the weeds of my internship for the last eight months. So mostly I've just been too busy with that, and the rest of life, and trying to maintain my family's sense of family--and feeding my own tremulous sense of sanity to blog. And before that, hospital chaplaincy--and HIPPA regulations are more intimidating to the idea of blogging anything having to do with one's life than anything my former life's security clearances might have done. But this... just demanded a rant...)

So, apparently, some folks have been suggesting/arguing that one isn't UU unless one is a member of a congregation. (I'd like to point out here that Rev. Naomi's post is entitled "Faith is not Membership;" we're not disagreeing. I just find her response too gentle for my soul; as I said, it called forth a rant.

And the first rant dropped into the ethereal abyss of the internet. So this one is Mark II, now with less spittle.

You have got to be kidding me.
Really? Seriously? Someone wants to really make the assertion that you can't adhere to UUism without being a member of a congregation?

Someone hold back the Logicians of the HUUmanist wing of the faith, because it wouldn't be pretty if they ripped into it.

Really, one only becomes a UU by signing a book (or a membership card--not everyone has books. Some may not even have either of those...)? It's just a club?

So, kids--who aren't permitted by our congregation to be members until they're nearly adults, and only then by a more onerous process than the adults ever go through--aren't UUs? The youth I've chaperoned and ministered to at UU Youth Camps weren't UUs either? My goddaughter, who read the adults at her congregation the riot act (from the pulpit, during a Youth-led service) for their failure to live up to UU standards--those that they have taught to the kids in Children's RE--she wasn't a UU (and if so, what business did she have telling adult UUs that they were an embarrassment to the faith?)?

And the people who've written down--over a decade ago--what their vision of religion is, thinking that no such religion exists... and are overwhelmed to find out that it does, that there are already thousands of people who share their faith--they're not already UUs?

When do the members of a dying congregation cease to be UUs? When the last one goes in and turns off the lights, they are now no longer UUs, just because the congregation failed?

When someone who was raised UU and lives in some benighted backwater (which might, from census data, be some rural area, or might be a vastly populous part of some urban center...) decides to try to found a new congregation... they aren't UU? And they're not until someone else shows up and wants to be one?


The people who've spent decades feeling alone and isolated, who weep when they join a congregation and ask us where we've been all these years (because we failed them, keeping the light hidden so well that they'd never even heard our name...), they only become UUs when they sign up? Even though their beliefs didn't change in the slightest?


Let us speak then to the false idol of congregationalism, to the fetishising of a means of organization.

Because UUism isn't conferred magically by congregationalism. Baptists are congregationalists, too. And so are many others.

And our Unitarian cousins in Transylvania aren't congregationalists at all.

Congregationalism is simply the vessel in which UUism exists. In our tradition, in our time. But it's not hard to imagine a presbyterian form of UUism (and in fact, it's pretty clear that there are more than a few of us who'd be more comfortable with just such a scheme). But that wouldn't make it not UUism.

So the people who grew up UU, who think of themselves as UUs, who practice their beliefs and faith, and who adhere to the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that we hold up and inculcate--they're not UUs? Just because they either can't attend a UU congregation, or don't want to (or can't) drag themselves to the local congregation on Sunday morning? Or because the music and form of worship that the congregation is wedded to is demonstrably 19th century, and the individuals are used to late 20th and early 21st century forms of UU worship and music that speaks to them?

Words fail me.

On both sides of our tradition, the faithful have been free-rangers; going where the congregations weren't, or where the congregations (or ministers) weren't ready or willing to go. The idea that we want to jam the world into the Procrustean Bed of formal congregational membership so that we can sneer at those outside the walls and insist that they aren't really UUs... is insane. Were it a proposal from the dreaded entity "Boston," there would be a serious risk of the UUA being dissolved, or of a competing association/conference/convention forming (we've done it before).

Get over yourselves.

If there are UUs out there who aren't connected, then it's more likely our fault for not letting them know we exist, or not providing what they need in order to be in covenant and community with us. But for the love of that which has been called god, stop demonizing them. Stop pointing the finger. Stop falling into the illogical trap that imagines that there's something magical and mystical about a signature on a Book. Because there isn't.

The failing is ours, whatever it is. Perhaps it's the daunting paleness of an array of UUs. Perhaps its the grotesque and often ignored (and denied) classist attitudes and behaviors of our congregations. Perhaps its that a foray into Gershwin is avante-garde music for the local congregation. Perhaps... oh, hell, who knows?

But just stop. We are the people who keep trying to draw the circle larger. Not the people who exclude. At least that's our intent; we're human and we fail. But don't try to create an exclusionary communion of the booked held apart from the not-booked. That is just utterly contrary to our traditions, and it's a hideous violation of the universalist spirit.

Here I stand. Love ya. You're entitled your opinion, of course. And I'll insist on your right to hold it. But it doesn't mean I have to respect it.


Anonymous said...

Hi, this is worker speaking. Hello.

I'll cop to starting this tempest. I'm new to the UU life, and in working through what it means to be UU, I made a couple of provocative statements.

One, in this post where I wrote "I think to be a Unitarian Universalist, you have to be affiliated with a congregation acknowledged by the UUA." (April 28)

The other, more recently, in a post called "Correct Me" was "There's no such thing as a free-range UU." (May 7)

On May 10, I kept the strong formulation open as a point of debate in a post called "Freerange Identity".

What I'm grasping toward, and attempted to articulate in each of those posts, is an understanding of what is unique in the UU identity. It's a question not about beliefs or practices, it's a question not about other religions' perspectives on UUism, it's not a question about Unitarians in other countries. It's about being UU, which one couldn't be before the UUA consolidated (though, of course I'm sure there were unitarian/universalists before the UUA).

I completely agree that the circle should be big, and always pressed bigger. And in my first post on this I deliberately chose 'affiliated' rather than 'member' and 'acknowledged by the UUA' rather than 'member of the UUA' in order to be as open as I could be in that framework.

I'm still wondering about 'freerange' (or, a term I'm rolling around in my brain, 'Congregation of One'). But I'm beginning to see that my central reservation 'how to be a member of a congregational religion without being in a congregation' cannot be answered in the abstract. The answer is out there in the world, lived in each individual's way of being.

ogre said...

Hi worker,

Don't apologize for asking the question or arguing a position. It's a good question. It's a discussion worth having. I've pondered it too, in the past. Because there are some aspects of being a free range UU that are inconsistent with being a fully-fledged UU.

The UUAoC (UUA) is constituted by congregations, who are constituted by their members (the UUs). It's tautological to have to be a member of a UUA congregation to be a UU. There are UUs in free range congregations, independent churches, or who are members of congregations that are UU, but are too small to be members of the UUAoC.

Historically, the Unitarian congregations resisted any sort of association for a long time. The AUA formed as a publication and missionary organization of individuals, and was so for a long time. We're really big, on that side of our tradition, on free range rights. And we're very fond of claiming Thomas Jefferson as a Unitarian. Given what he wrote, and the realities of his time, I think that's legitimate.

There have been unitarian universalists for a long time. The great Universalist, Hosea Ballou, was unitarian in his theology. Thomas Starr King was Universalist, was called to a Unitarian congregation (and remained Universalist as well). An irony is that the Unitarians weren't really hung up on being Unitarians; many of them were Arminians, and heck, some of them were probably simply liberal Trinitarians devoted to the idea of maintaining the communion of the Standing Order. It was the folks who became the Congregationalists who insisted on excluding all the liberals, those who were unitarian and all those who kept such company.

Your question, 'what is unique about UU identity?' is a good one. It's a hard one, because we refuse to give a prescriptive answer. You can't simply affirm the Seven Principles and "be" a UU; we have no Shadada and nothing that serves as a creedal test. We're so used to religion meaning belief in the West that it's hard for us (even those of us not practicing such religions!) to get our heads around religion based on praxis. I think this is the hook you want.

The Layman's League of the Unitarians used to run an ad that read "Are you a Unitarian and don't know it?"

We're not about orthodoxy. We're about orthopraxy. Are you living your life well, and doing the kinds of things that you should be doing? Are your actions consistent with your (personal) beliefs? Are your actions consistent with UU principles?

For the free ranger, it may be an answer to a modern version of the Laymans' League's question, "Are you a UU, and don't know it?"

To be free range puts oneself at greater risk; the community does things that are important. Some are supportive--a place to take the tragedies and injustices of life and be held and supported. Another set is a counterbalance to individualism; one’s great idea about how to save the world (or whatever) may be terribly defective in ways one won't/can't see. Others may be able to help one see it, may be in a position to tell one, "We love you, but you're wrong on this...". That kind of sanity check is largely missing for a free ranger. There's being fed and affirmed by feeding and affirming; supporting others is self-affirming. Being there as a net for those who are seeking and aren't able to be free range UUs, who need a congregation now.... Then there’s collective work for justice.

I tend to step back and think "yeah... I don't think so..." when someone says that they're UU, but aren't participating in a congregation, when I look at the shape of their lives, the way that they live and the way that they treat others and the world. Orthopraxy, again. If they're simply mouthing the values of the principles, then they're not free rangers, they're posers.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for taking time to give some more perspective on this. I had actually typed up and then deleted a bit about how I wasn't apologizing for the strong formulations, but I felt it was a sort-of lame-o trailing off.


Sally G said...

There is a proposed change to the UUA (generally, UUAoC, more correct, is rarely if ever used) bylaws regarding congregations, and what defines them. I don’t remember the details right now, but how does this play into the discussion here?

ogre said...

I don't think it plays in at all, Sally. Not unless the UUAoC is going to leap across the great divide and try to restructure itself as a significantly more top-down faith tradition.

The discussion here is about what makes one a UU or not a UU. And while I think that congregations are incredibly important, what they do (speaking of adults who come to the faith now) is not to make one a UU, but to welcome one into membership, into the congregation's covenant with each other.

Nothing supernatural is held to have happened in signing the book, filling out a membership card, or pledging. Profound, yes. Important, yes. But I firmly believe that one becomes a UU before joining, and one remains a UU if one allows membership to drop... unless one radically revises one's beliefs in ways that are contrary to the shared values we affirm in statements like our principles.