What Kind of Unitarian Universalist Are You?

Recently I came to learn that the number one sport in America is not baseball, nor basketball or football, nor even my beloved figure skating, but birding! That’s what the Audubon website claims, as it says, breathlessly, “Did you know that birding is the number one sport in America? According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, there are currently 51.3 million birders in the United States alone, and this number continues to grow!”

Birding. As in, becoming knowledgeable about where to look for our feathered friends in a given area: cranes, rails, coots, doves, cuckoos, owls, swifts, hummingbirds, kingfishers, thrushes, thrashers, wood warblers, tanagers, and on and on—knowing your habitat and the kind of life it can support. Then this: knowing what to look for. Noticing distinguishing physical marks. Color variations, variations in size and shape, also in behavior, as in, is the bird acting alone or in a group? Is it stalking, standing still, or flitting about?  Finally, this: knowing how to listen. Some birds that look similar in color and shape are distinguishable by sound only. Sound is key. All of these together, says the Audubon website—knowing where to look, what to look for, and what to listen for—add up to rewards that are well worth the efforts. Birding brings a sense of wonder, and it is just fun.

I was inspired. And it helped me see my topic for today—our diversity as Unitarian Universalists—from a unique angle. Not so much “b-i-r-d-i-n-g” as “b-u-u-r-d-i-n-g.” Our goal is to take out our binoculars and go looking for the different kinds of Unitarian Universalists that are in here, in this bird sanctuary of our congregation, or elsewhere. Carefully watching for distinguishing marks and behaviors. Listening for the varied songs we sing. Doing this because it will bring a sense of wonder at our faith tradition which aspires to do something that is so unique among the religions of the West—to be a true universalism and not a partialism. Doing this because a greater awareness of self and other helps tremendously in appreciating our differences and dealing with them more effectively. “Conflict is inevitable,” says religion writer Max Lucado, “but combat is optional.”

So here we go. Birding for Unitarian Universalists. Consider this sermon a field guide, to use as a reference. Not at all exhaustive and comprehensive, a mere thumbnail sketch, but hopefully helpful enough.

Certainly an obvious place to start is with our theological diversity. A quick test: how you instinctively respond to the following possible sermon topics may indicate the kind of theological bird you are: here we go:

God the Noun

God the Verb

God the Adjective

God the Expletive

Too Confused to Decide

Why Are You Doing This To Me?

Actually, we’re entering into tricky territory. Labeling others and labeling ourselves. As a theist of some type, for example: either supernaturalistic or naturalistic, as deist or pantheist or panentheist or transcendentalist or neo-pagan or even henotheist. Then there’s non-theism of some type: atheist, existentialist, humanist, or some versions of Buddhism. Then there’s types that resist classification as theistic or nontheistic, like agnosticism (which does not know whether or not God exists) or mysticism (which affirms direct experiences of oneness with the universe, and this may or may not disclose anything about God). All these labels! Labels labels labels! How many of you tend to feel that all such labels are confining? You experience the spiritual search as free and open-ended, and maybe you strongly identify with one today, but who knows about tomorrow? It just doesn’t have to be one or the other but not both. It just doesn’t have to be all so cut and dry. It just feels wrong when others seem to have pigeon-holed you—you feel falsified, made out into something you aren’t.

Nevertheless, even as we may prefer the both/and style in religion, labels still have positive uses. They can help to name the different and varied songs we hear in small group gatherings and in religious education classes and in the social hall and in worship. They can help us to appreciate where other people are coming from and how to speak across differences, how to translate ideas into a language that others can understand. Above all, theological labels can help us recognize our own song, clarify it, stimulate deeper self-reflection about what it is we do and do not believe. Does agnosticism express who I am better than something else, at this time in my life? Do I find greater personal resonance with the teachings of the Buddha than with Jesus? How can these labels and categories help me get a clearer sense of what my heart years for, what my head tells me is reasonable, what my soul says is true? Maybe the story my heart, head, and soul tell will be different in the future, but the task of life is not to live in the future but to live deeply right now.

One set of theological labels that I find particularly helpful as I go birdwatching for UUs is this: “pragmatic versus metaphysical.” Now, this distinction draws on a powerful and provocative definition of Unitarian Universalism coming from the Rev. Forrest Church: “Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from a single source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny.” In other words: one source, one destiny. That’s Unitarian Universalism.

I like to expand on it a little more, though. “One source” can also mean: the oneness of all life, the interdependence of all existence; it can mean the mutual sympathy of all things, experienced first-hand if we open ourselves to it; it can mean cosmos, as opposed to chaos; it can mean meaningfulness, as opposed to meaninglessness.

As for “one destiny,” it too can be expanded upon. It can mean that what happens to some happens to all; it can mean all-embracing love; it can mean ultimate spiritual fulfillment for everyone; it can mean ultimate justice, a continuing hope that out of every tragedy the spirits of individuals shall rise to build a better world. It can mean all this.

But now the question becomes: on what basis do we affirm Unitarian Universalism? Why do we affirm “one source” and “one destiny”? Is it because the ideals of “one source” and “one destiny” are so beautiful and noble that we will work to make them live no matter what the nature of reality happens to be—even if reality turns out to be fractured, nihilistic, absurd, or even malicious? Or is it because we believe that ideals like “one source” and “one destiny” have genuine metaphysical standing, reflect the way the world really is, beyond all illusion? “Built into the human makeup,” says scholar of world religions Huston Smith, “is a longing for a ‘more’ that the world of everyday experience cannot [satisfy]. This outreach strongly suggests the existence of something that life reaches for in the way the wings of birds point to the reality of air. Sunflowers bend in the direction of light because light exists, and people seek food because food exists.” In a similar vein, do Unitarian Universalists affirm “one source” and “one destiny” because these ideals reflect a longing for something real that both transcends humanity and attracts humanity to it? Pragmatic UUs will say NO. Metaphysical UUs will say YES. There is a famous quote from UU history that talks about how the arc of the universe is long, yet it still bends towards justice, but pragmatic UUs will work for justice even if the universe has no bend to it, or even if it bends away from justice. God or the immortality of the soul or reincarnation are not on their radar screens. But it’s different for metaphysical UUs. They simply can’t make sense of Unitarian Universalism without such realities. Both, I hasten to emphasize, agree on the value of the ideals of “one source” and “one destiny”. Both work to expand them and magnify them in the world. But they come at them from very different angles, understand them in very different ways, live in very different worlds. The person sitting beside you right now, possibly living in a completely different world, even though their commitment to “one source” and “one destiny” is as solid as yours….

And that’s a little on our theological diversity. The varied kinds of bird song we hear in this place. Any of this coming home to roost for you? (I know…. couldn’t resist….). But now let’s turn the page in our field guide to a different set of things to look for. Not so much about theology as sociology. Specifically, the different ways people happen to enter into our faith community.

Here’s two of them: the “come-outer” way and the “born-inner” way. “Come-outers” are the majority among us—they grew up in non-UU faith traditions and, finding them unsatisfactory for one reason or another, left, only to discover, at some later date, the new world of Unitarian Universalism. “Born-inners,” on the other hand, were born into the faith, grew up as UUs. These are two very different kinds of feathered friends.

Take the come-outer. One of the best descriptions I’ve found of this particular UU bird is from the Rev. David Bumbaugh, who writes, “Throughout our denomination, a large proportion of our adherents are relatively recent come-outers–people who have left the religions in which they grew up and are involved in the necessary process of defining themselves in relation to their new freedom. Consequently, for many of our people, their new-found Unitarian Universalism has a decidedly negative tinge to it. Typically, new Unitarian Universalists may not be able to tell you what they believe, but they will have little difficulty expounding on what they no longer believe. Often they are Unitarian Universalists largely for negative reasons–because this religious body validates and accepts their doubts and does not demand that they meet some external standard of religious belief. Here they may redefine, question, or deny the existence of God; here they may proudly reject any metaphysical or theological explanation of existence; here they may redefine, question, or denounce as invalid such traditional religious practices as prayer or meditation; here they may question all assertions and even give vent to anti-clericalism and hostility to all forms of organized religion, including this one if they wish. Here no one will demand they embrace a view of life they cannot embrace in good conscience.” David Bumbaugh continues: “For [come-outers], Unitarian Universalism is important because it provides them a breathing space, a decompression chamber, an institution which will help them to get unhooked from the religious assumptions with which they grew up. This is part of the reason that we witness, over and over again, the phenomenon of people who join us and for a few months or years are filled with enthusiasm for the church and its program, and then gradually and without explanation drift away. The church has been useful in the process of unhitching them from the past, and when that has been accomplished, their need for our church is no longer so great. They become our ‘graduates,’ people who learned here how to be free from religious assumptions and dogmatic demands which had become painful and crippling, but who no longer feel a need for the church after that task is accomplished. They still feel warmly toward us. If they ever go to church again, it would be to a Unitarian Universalist church. They would hate to see us go out of business, for there may be other people who need us as they once needed us, and some day, driven by some other need, they may come back for a post-graduate course. But for the moment, organized religion no longer has an important role to play in their lives.” And that’s David Bumbaugh, on the come-outer. In process of defining themselves; perhaps a bit cranky and adolescent; knowing more about what they don’t believe than what they do believe; appreciating Unitarian Universalist community because it allows them breathing space to get unhooked from the past; but whether Unitarian Universalism will be in their future is another matter entirely. Maybe, maybe not.

Have you ever seen this feathered friend before? Are you this feathered friend?

Then there is the born-inner. Who here resembles this kind of feathered friend? Consider the rich description that comes from the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons: “I am,” she says, “a child of humanist parents and the product of Unitarian Universalist religious education, shaped by the philosophy of the religious educator Sophia Fahs. She advocated allowing children’s own experiences and growth to lead them naturally to discover wonder and sacredness in life, rather than imposing religious texts or ideas on them. And so I have built my theology out of my own experiences, not according to any blueprint, but rather from the material of my life’s pondered meaning. I cherish the freedom of my religious inheritance, and I have never had a moment when it has seemed likely that any self-conscious supernatural personality actually presides over the universe. Nevertheless,” continues the Rev. Gibbons, “this approach had its drawbacks. As a young Unitarian Universalist in the 1960s, I was educated about human sexuality in a relatively open fashion; human religious experience, in contrast, was a closed book. I discovered my spirituality in much the same way that my peers raised in more conservative faiths discovered their sexuality—accidentally, furtively, without guidance, moved by overwhelming inner tides, and with some sense of shame. I longed for the white organdy First Communion dresses and the menorah candles of my neighbors. I secretly memorized Louisa May Alcott’s “My Kingdom” prayer, written when she was thirteen, and sang myself to sleep with “For the Beauty of the Earth.” I was fascinated by the hidden life of nuns. I yearned for someone, anyone, to take my childish capacity for devotion seriously. But seeds planted in paper cups on the Sunday school windowsill, the dead bird discovered in the backyard, the calligraphic hymns in We Sing of Life, and the annual flower communion were the scant resources my liberal religious education offered. To my parents and teachers—almost all of whom had grown up in other religious traditions—the absence of texts, rote prayers, sacraments, holy objects, and moralistic picture books represented freedom. But without any language for my emerging sense of mystery and wonder, I came to feel the contrary: deprived of the tools with which to understand or express those experiences.” And that’s Kendyl Gibbons, on the born-inner. From the first, freedom to grow naturally, without the imposition of a single text or set of religious ideas. From the first, nurtured in inner-directedness, all questions and all thoughts welcomed. Yet, the result is often a collision with the needs and allergies of come-outer parents and adults. Come-outers welcoming the absence of more traditional religious ideas and practices because they are looking for breathing room in which to get unhooked from the past, but born-inners suffering from this same absence, often needing to leave Unitarian Universalism in order to find spiritual food. It’s so ironic. Come-outer parents anxious for their children to be born in the faith, but the parents’ need to stay at arms-length from their past unwittingly resulting in their children’s faith being stunted and shallow. Born-inners—birthright UUs!—overlooked as our congregations cater to the large majority of come-outers.

It’s a challenge. These two different kinds of birds sing very different songs, at odds with each other. One threatens to overwhelm the other, in fact, and this is NOT diversity. It’s the OPPOSITE of diversity.

But there is a way forward. It happens when the come outer bird takes the next step in its development and follows the phoenix path, becomes what David Bumbaugh calls “born again.” Not in a Christian evangelical sense. But simply in terms of finding oneself in a different place regarding one’s religious past and therefore one’s religious future. Says David Bumbaugh, “Some Unitarian Universalists, having gone through the experience of being unhooked from old, personally destructive religious forms, discover that the experience of freedom is not the end of the journey. Freedom from dogma, freedom from creeds and traditions, freedom from past ways of thinking and looking at the world is not the answer to any ultimate question. Rather, freedom poses the most terrifying of all questions: Now that you are rid of past loyalties, of past commitments, of past concepts, how will you use your freedom? ‘Freedom from’ always casts us into the dilemma of ‘freedom for what?’ To what will you be loyal? By what will you be defined? By what star will you steer? The born-again Unitarian Universalists,“ he says, “are those who have broken the mold of the past, have transcended their rejections, and now reach toward the affirmation of life and the ‘something more’ which underlies all the various forms and rituals, dogmas and assumptions of religion.”

It’s the burning, transforming issue: by what star will you steer? Freedom for what? In this, the future of Unitarian Universalist churches and congregations rests. Taking the phoenix path. More and more come-outers learning to answer in positive ways, which ultimately represents a needed working-through of allergies born of old resentments and possibly old misunderstandings. More and more come-outers doing this, as a way of honoring their own personal and spiritual growth, as well as honoring the growth needs of born-inners together with the needs of people who come into our midst who grew up unchurched, who don’t really have formed prejudices yet (either positive or negative), who want to know what’s up with this God thing and thing Bible thing, who hunger for an experience of the sacred and are open wide, tabula rasa. What about them, and so many other varieties of UU birds that I haven’t had time to mention? We’ve got to keep our diversity healthy. Its ultimate purpose is to be an exciting and enriching environment in which each of us can come into a positive sense of our purpose in this world. Transcending rejections, reaching towards affirmations that make sense, grow our souls, grip our souls, send us into the world as servants and healers and creators and teachers. One source, one destiny. All-embracing love, whether it is but human love that we work hard to magnify, or the love of God. Justice, no matter how the universe bends. Amidst all our difference, amidst all our times of discord, let there be a larger harmony of song we build towards, a harmony of hope, that out of every tragedy the spirits of individuals shall rise to build a better world. Whatever else we find, as we go birding for Unitarian Universalists, let us find at least this.