Celebrating Ourselves

In a mid-1950’s play by David Hare, called Racing Demon, a
minister complains to his bishop, “You know the situation.
It’s desperate. I wouldn’t say the church is a joke. It’s
an irrelevance. It has no connection to most people’s lives.”

“As a priest,” pontificates the bishop, “you have only
one duty. That’s to put on a show… hold services.. And look
cheerful as you do it.” I happened to have come across that
passage the day after watching the television biography of P.T.
Barnum. Barnum, you may or may not know, was one of us. He was a
Universalist. And did he put on a show! “The Greatest Show on
Earth!” I often wonder what Barnum might think if he were to see
our amphitheater-like sanctuary with this “ring” in the
center. He’d be delighted to heed the bishop’s advice to
“put on a show.” And to be cheerful about it, too!

The vicar’s complaint came out of his dismal experience that
traditional religion had become irrelevant to the daily lives of
ordinary people. And the bishop’s response was to cheerfully put
on a show. Give the people what they want. P. T. Barnum said that that
was the secret to his success. Just give the people what they want.

As I think back over my ministerial career, it seems to me that the
question of irrelevance began to nag at Unitarian Universalists in the
early 1960’s. The first inkling I had that we — as a religious
movement — were not sure what we were all about was when, somewhere
in those years, we set up a complex and expensive survey of the
beliefs and values of our members. In an attempt to find out who we
were, thousands of Unitarian Universalists were asked how they defined
“God,” whether or not they prayed, whether or not they
believed in an afterlife, what did they think was most important on
Sunday mornings.

The congregation I was serving at the time was one of those chosen to
take part in the survey, so I was very much immersed in its
complicated mechanics of totting up and averaging out responses. And
all the time, I was wondering why we were doing it. Why were we asking
people what they wanted? Didn’t we know what they needed?
Isn’t it the task of the religious leader to offer what vision and
revelation says our spirits need, not what we want? And if it
came clear from the survey that what our Unitarian Universalists
wanted was a circus, a good show on Sunday morning, is that what we
would give them?

This was market research. Find out what attracts the consumer. Should
it jiggle? Should it hum? Should there be flags and flugles and
fandangoes? Well, almost. In a desperate attempt to get the attention
of young people wandering about in a smoky haze, our ministers
preached in Nehru jackets and bellbottoms. The organs were stilled.
Organists fidgeted in idleness. And wired-up guitars bellowed forth.
We played tunes from “Jesus Christ Superstar” and set up
multiple projection screens for “mixed media” —
heavily-poignant pictures accompanied by tunes from “The Yellow
Submarine.”

We Unitarian Universalists were so theologically bankrupt in those
days that many ministers actually based some of their sermons on
something called “The Playboy Philosophy,” quoting at length
from the bathrobed guru of the so-called “new morality,”
Hugh Hefner. Oh how desperately au courant we were!

Of course, we did fill up our churches during the years of the civil
rights and Vietnam war eras. “Oh we knew who we were then!”
Our front steps were for burning draft cards and our parking lots
staging areas for demonstrations. Certainly one of the high points of
my career was introducing a draft resister to a crowd on our church
steps, while the football team from the high school across the street
threw rotten fruit at me. They had been led over by their coach.
“Boys were boys and men were men.” But all good things must
come to an end. The civil rights movement fizzled. The Vietnam war
ended ignominiously, with a whimper, not a bang. The people of liberal
religion went back to their identity crisis. Who were we when there
wasn’t a civil rights movement or a dirty little war to keep our
pews and our coffers filled? A lot of people couldn’t find the
answer to that and drifted away, either into some New Age group, back
to the churches and temples they had come from, or to the Sunday
papers.

In the late 70’s and 80’s, Unitarian Universalists, never sure
what was religious about their religion, went the way of personal
growth and consciousness-raising. Some of our ministers changed
costumes again, now dressing to look as much like Timothy Leary as
possible. Encounter groups were popular. The Board of Trustees of one
congregation I knew held their meetings in the nude in a hot tub. Some
ministers — like me — pursued degrees in counseling as another
alternative to a failed or non-existent theology. Interesting that one
sociologist of the time referred to psychotherapists as “the new
priests.”

The people eventually tired of pop psychology and morose
introspection. Some actually did find out who they were and didn’t
like what they found. The personal growth movement didn’t help
congregations much. Self absorption merely nurtured the individualism
that liberal religion is predisposed to. Hell, said the poet T. S.
Eliot, is where nothings connects. And our congregations were going to
hell for awhile. When individual paths move away from connection,
community suffers, institutions die.

Then came the nineties. A Newsweek article proclaimed, “This is
the 1990’s, an age of mix ’em, match ’em, salad bar
spirituality — Quakerpalians, charismatic Catholics, New Age Jews —
where brand loyalty is a doctrine of the past and the customer is
king.” Church affiliation was referred to in that article as
“market driven.” Once again, the religiously-clueless turned
to the experts. We Unitarian Universalists engaged the services of a
noted Boston advertising agency to find out what Unitarian
Universalists might want now. The company launched a full-scale
marketing campaign called “A Religion That Puts its Faith in
You.” One of the print ads developed by our “marketing”
program shows a young woman saying, “Instead of me fitting a
religion, I found a religion to fit me.” That worried me. How did
that come about, I wondered — that perception that ours is a religion
that will accommodate itself to the individual? Were we so
undemanding, so pliant, so groundless, so unwilling to wrestle with
the hard demands of faith that we will fashion a “one size fits
all” product? I tried to imagine a convert to Judaism saying,
“I found a religion that fits me.” The faith and practice
requirements of most of Judaism are rigorous and demanding. One fits
the faith, transforms one’s life to commit to it –or doesn’t
and looks to an easier path.

That Newsweek article mentioned us Unitarian Universalists by name. It
said we are the quintessential “Boomer generation religion.”
And what gave us that dubious honor? We were deemed to be among the
least demanding, among the most accommodating of religions. It was the
time in which we said — not sure what else to say — that Unitarian
Universalism was a creedless faith — and that was misunderstood to
mean that one didn’t have to believe anything.

That was then and this is now. Emerging from the religious morass in
which we wandered through the decades, Unitarian Universalists
struggling mightily in often painful two-year process of debates,
brought forth seven principles, purposes of our religious association.
(You can find the history of that struggle in my book, “With
Purpose and Principle.”) Those principles affirm the worth and
dignity of every person. They affirm justice, equity, and compassion
in human relations, the rights of conscience, and the recognition and
affirmation of the interdependent web of all being. Those Principles
were not formed to fit the market. They were formed to define and
declare what it means — the very least of what it means — to be a
Unitarian Universalist. If we are perceived to be “the
quintessential boomer church,” it could be that we have been
misunderstood and, if we have been misunderstood, it may be because we
have not properly represented ourselves. Perhaps we have suggested
that we provide easy place for the so-called “generation of
seekers” to end their search.

Rightly understood, Unitarian Universalist faith is by no means a
“gimme” faith, which is perhaps one of the reasons that it
has been so difficult to “market” with any high degree of
integrity. We do not offer spiritual assurances. We do not offer
absolute truths. We believe that truth is eternally unfolding, that we
must commit ourselves to truth as we understand it in these moments,
while knowing that new truths may call for new ways of being and
doing. One of our hymns says, “New occasion teach new duties.
Time makes ancient good uncouth.” We know, as another of our
hymns puts it, that “revelation is not sealed,” that what
one book, or one prophet, or one vision proclaims cannot be the whole
of truth. We do not demand submission to religious authority,
obedience to pope or bishops or priests. Authority does not require
intimacy, relation, or connection. Free religion depends upon it.

The work of our faith, carried out here — the work carried out in all
our gatherings and conversations with each other — requires careful
and continuing attention to the quality of community and to the moment
by moment quality of creative relationship. Not everyone will find
that such demanding work of community “fits” them,
especially not those who, as the Newsweek article put it, are
looking for the group affirmation of self. We are looking for the
self, the person, who can affirm the community. The Unitarian
Universalist theologian, James Luther Adams, said that religious
community is a place where you go to practice what it means to be
human. And that, I think, is where we have come to on our journey. And
perhaps, on reflection, it was a journey we needed to take. For a
century and a half, Unitarianism — far more so than the Universalism
— had been a heady, overly-intellectual, rationalistic, upper class
movement which had yet to struggle with what it meant to be human. And
let us grant ourselves this — that through all our journeying, our
liberal religious movement did survive eras of elitism, eras of
wandering in the wilderness, eras of downright silliness. Something of
value and necessity lay still at the core, waiting for the right time.
It is this time.

We have much to celebrate in this time. The vision statement of our
congregation is a milestone in our religious journey. “UUCA is a
community of faith which encourages and supports our individual
spiritual quests out of which we act together for social
justice.” “A community of faith.” “Faith” is
a term we probably could not have used a decade ago. We may not have a
common understanding of precisely what the term means; but we have
matured religiously to the point at which we understand intuitively
that we live by intention, by vision, by “faith.” Faith is
choice. We choose to live and act in the faith that connection,
community, relationship are of the highest human value, that it is in
connection, community, relationship that we will learn what it is to
be human. That religious “assumption” — that faith —
supports the sense of community and it is from that sense of community
that we draw the power to undertake the work of religious community —
to practice what it means to be human. There is much to celebrate in
that.

We support and encourage each other in our personal religious
journeys. We do have different ways of seeking the elusive absolute,
different ways of attempting to transcend the ordinary, different ways
of letting go of certainty and engaging in what might be called
“prayer.” Support and encouragement of each other is our
purpose and it is our strength. We have grown to value the personal
spiritual journey.

It took liberal religion many decades to achieve that religious
maturity. But we have come to an even more profound understanding. Our
intention to continually strive to understand and create community
supports our individual spiritual quests — out of which we act for
social justice. We celebrate that.

Liberal religion has always acted for social justice. Our 19th century
Unitarian forebears were at the forefront of the anti-slavery
movement. Our 20th century forebears have been deeply committed to
justice, to racial equality, peace and ecology. But, as I have
recounted, though most often right and just, our actions were often
grounded in nothing more abiding than a personal sense of right and
wrong. Nothing wrong with that in itself. But our actions in the world
did not so much rise out of the faith of religious community as they
were a substitute for the faith which eluded us.

What we now celebrate is the religious intuition that the most
effective and enduring action proceeds out of and is inseparable from
spiritual growth. Our action is no longer a substitute for faith but
is an expression of our faith. It is what it means to be human, to do
the hard work of learning to live in community, to struggle in
uncertainty and frequent disappointment, to grow in spirit and self
understanding, and to know that, because we are human, we are
connected.

We have so much to celebrate today. We have come this far. All about
this house today we see the works of religious community. We see the
many ways in which the devotion of our time, our energy — and yes,
our financial support — take shape and work in the world. I hope you
won’t rush off after the service this morning. What we are, what
we are becoming, is so much more than this hour can encompass. As you
will see, what we are, what we are becoming, is more than we can hold
in the building! (NOTE: This was the Sunday of UUCA’s
“Expo,” when all the committees and organizations of the
congregation create booths and displays to demonstrate their work.
This year, the displays filled the front lobby, the social hall and
the front and rear terraces!)

The life and work of this congregation is laid out before us. It is a
celebration of ourselves. It may not be the greatest show on earth,
but it is our show. It is what we have to show for all our practice of
religious community, our practice of what it means to be human.

But, as Andre Gide said, “To free oneself is nothing. The very
arduous task is to know what to do with one’s freedom.”