Are Unitarian Universalists Christians – Or What?
Hardly a week goes by in which I am not asked, “Are you people Christians, or what?” People ask because we certainly don’t seem to be Christians. If the popular understanding of “Christian” is what one sees on television religious programming, it is noticeably absent here on Sunday mornings.
The Bible is not in evidence anywhere. The preacher remains relatively calm and stable– seldom, if ever, given to flights of passionate possession. In fact, in good New England Protestant fashion, he or she is corralled in this box to discourage pacing or, worse, spirit dancing. Far from being the subject of every sentence, “Jesus” is mentioned only rarely from this confinement. “Christ” hardly at all. “Sin” and “Salvation” seem not fit sermon subjects. The congregation stays seated, hands in their laps, and there’s no shouted Amen encouragement while the preacher is speaking. It’s pretty poor theater. And, all in all, some might say the service is often not terribly exciting. It’s not surprising, therefore, that anyone visiting us would be led to ask “Are Unitarian Universalists Christians — or what?”
The question is always with us because we so obviously do not fit the popular understanding of what a Christian religion is. We walk like a duck. We quack like a duck. We even look like ducks most of the time. But we don’t act like ducks.
The question also comes up more frequently these days because of a relatively new emphasis in Unitarian Universalist congregations and in the liberal religious movement.
Diversification leads Unitarian Universalists themselves to raise the “Christian” question with frequency and fervency these days. The ministry’s Internet Chat forums are abuzz with ministers empathizing with each other’s travail as distress brews in the pews over certain services, certain words, certain ministers who have talked about Jesus too much or perhaps not enough.
It has only been in recent years, after all, that Unitarian Universalist congregations have embraced diversity as a religious value. Our congregations now strive resolutely to welcome of people of varied classes, traditions, races, theologies, sexual orientation–and even political persuasion. When you start to add ingredients to the pot, you get a different flavor. The mix may be richer, stronger, better for you– but it’s different and will take some getting used to.
I remember a stand-up comic talking about American diversity, saying to the grumbling, sniffling, pure-bred upper crust, “Look, you put up a big statue in the harbor with a sign that said to all the world, “send us all kinds of different people, different colors, different classes, all those huddled masses, yearning to be free.”
“Well,” the comedian said, “They did.”
A mere twenty-to-twenty-five years ago, when I was a minister in New England, our congregations were heterogeneous. People knew their place and went to it. Sociologists wrote books, like “Small Town in Mass Society,” in which they showed clearly that where one worshipped was determined not theologically, but socially. The owner of the mill was either Episcopalian or Unitarian. The manager was a Presbyterian. The foremen were Methodists. And the Baptists and evangelists got all the rest.
Just a generation or two ago, most of our congregations were Lily-white, middle class, college-degree-or-better, democrat and damn straight (if they weren’t damn straight they didn’t let on). And, our congregations were made up of committed non-believers or, like our nineteenth century forebears, liberal Christians. There were no “welcoming congregations.” There were no UU-pagans. There were no UU-Buddhists. There were no UU-Jews. There were no hyphenated UUs at all, that I recall.
At least, that’s the way our congregations looked. And that’s the way our congregations behaved. “Don’t ask. Don’t tell” was the rule. The unspoken sociological intent of suburban religion was not pluralism or diversity but assimilation.
There was no “L’Chaim group” in the congregations I served. There were no Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur Services, even as recently as a decade ago. It would not have occurred to me to recognize Hanukkah or Passover. We had no drum choirs, Kwanzaa celebrations, Rites of Spring, or Zen meditations.
Then, not so long ago, our liberal religious movement came to the collective understanding–like our forebears welcoming the Lady of the Harbor–that diversity is a good thing. Where once the colonial steeple bell was our summons, we are now called together from Concord, Massachusetts to Atlanta by the Buddhist singing bowl and African drums, and our way is lighted by the chalice, the Advent candle, and the Menorah.
People of Jewish heritage have been welcomed into our denomination by Jewish hymns, services and celebrations. Pagans were welcomed by being written into the bylaws. Sections of our hymnbook readings are devoted to humanists, Buddhists, nature and goddess worshippers, Jews –and, yes, Christians (ironically, perhaps, the group in the mix which, these days, often experiences the least welcoming atmosphere, are the Christians).
And here we all are. But, in all that diversity, what are we?
I’m reminded of a greeting card I saw awhile ago. On the front is pictured a cute, furry, unidentifiable creature who is saying, “You tell me I should be what I am…” And, inside the card, the creature says, “…but what am I?”
Are we Christians. Or what? The question is raised–here in our congregation and in Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country–mostly in relation to language.
As I say, except in some old New England congregations, believing, practicing Unitarian Universalist Christians–even they’re heretics by any traditional standard–are these days a beleaguered minority. Which is ironic also because much of the language and the structure of our institutions, have remained decidedly Christian.
Within our institutions, we still talk and act, for the most part, like our nineteenth century forebears who, let us not forget, were Christian theists. Our European Unitarian sisters and brothers are still Christian theists. Unitarian Universalism has a Christian history, a Christian foundation, and a dominant continuing Christian presence. Consequently, those who are offended by Christian references and by Christian terminology find it hard not to run into what they object to.
Are Unitarian Universalists Christians? Obviously, some are–by their own self-defining. But the question really is, “Is Unitarian Universalism, the institution, the movement, the religion, Christian?” A few of my colleagues might disagree with me but I think the answer is simple.
There are Unitarian Universalist Christians, but not by any serious understanding of Christianity can Unitarian Universalism be considered Christian. There are Unitarian Universalist Christians in the movement– none that Pat Robertson would embrace. There are Unitarian Universalist Christian congregations. But the movement itself is not Christian.
Unitarian Universalism is, however — and here is where understanding and a degree of acceptance is called for — Unitarian Universalism is undeniably culturally Protestant. As someone recently pointed out, the religion of Unitarian Universalism is outside the Christian consensus but the sociology of Unitarian Universalism is Protestant. Our institutional structure and practice, including much of our language, remain grounded more in Christian forms than in any other.
Those who enter our congregations from a non-Christian background are entering an institution which is very much in process, stretching toward an identity not yet clear. Those who come to us from a non-Christian background may have come, to some extent, precisely because of an understanding that we are not Christian.
Again, in some respects–in some important respects–that is true; true enough for most seeking an alternative religion to be comfortable among us. But it is not entirely true, often to the eventual uneasiness or disappointment of those who seek to make a home among us.
I feel quite comfortable in saying that this is not a Christian congregation. At the same time, it is not a Jewish congregation. It is not a Buddhist or Wicca or Islamic congregation.
Our congregations exist in an era in which our ministers–even our youngest ministers–are trained in seminaries (a Christian term) which, while decidedly liberal in their perspective, are grounded still in the Protestant models of curriculum, worship forms, language and practice.
I was stripped of my traditional Christian faith in a liberal, Protestant seminary. But I was, nevertheless, sent into the world to minister with the institutional Christian church as the only model I knew and — outside of a couple of courses in comparative religion– with Christian theology the only theology I knew.
And I am not untypical of the ministers of our congregations.
Consequently, our worship forms remain essentially Protestant: we have hymns, prayers, offerings, and–what in seminary we called “the hymn sandwich”–the sermon between two hymns. There is some experimentation here and there but, for the most part, most ministers and congregations rest into the known and comfortable forms and categories.
We celebrate Yom Kippur and Rosh Hosanna Passover and Hanukkah. But what happens here in December is a whole lot of cultural Christianity, right down to the star and the Christmas tree.
I’ve been avoiding the word “Church.”
Some Unitarian Universalists who do not have a Christian heritage, drawn into our congregations by the promise of diversity, hear terminology, such as “church,” as belying the promise. Those who have experienced or who have been raised in the knowledge of the centuries of Christian abuse, terror and genocide, are offended by the words of the Christian lexicon–like Church.
I try to be sensitive to the sense of affront; but consider this, again in relation to the Protestant culture: the term “church,” to most people simply refers to the place. Even in the congregation I once served which called itself The Unitarian Society, the people still spoke of going to the church. They wouldn’t have known what else to say where they were going. The Society was the people, perhaps. But the building was a church.
If someone is looking for a Unitarian Universalist congregation and turns to the yellow pages, under what heading must they look? “Churches.” What else? “Religious Institutions?” Fine. That would do — if we could get the telephone company and the entire American Protestant culture to agree.
When I first came to Georgia, almost ten years ago, I discovered that wedding licenses stated that weddings could be conducted by “Officials, Justices of the Peace, and Ministers of the Gospel.” I fired off a letter to everyone from the governor to animal control pointing out that that language excluded me, since I certainly was not a “Minister of the Gospel” — to say nothing of the rabbis, Imams and others. Last year, after suffering eight years of my harassment, officials finally adopted my simple suggestion and changed the wording from “Ministers of the Gospel” to the all-inclusive “Clergy.”
We can change, and we have changed, our language where it offends and where it belies our claim to value diversity. We managed to stop saying him and he and Man when we are speaking of men and women. We managed to stop saying Negro, and worse. We managed to stop talking about fags and queers.
But watching our language is a continuing responsibility. In the meantime, while we continue to learn, all of us need to live humbly in toleration, understanding that even eight years is not long to change the language in which a culture has been embedded for two thousand years.
And my hope is that all of us will come to understand that diversity means inclusivity. In Unitarian Universalism, diversity does not mean replacing Christians or Christian language. Diversity does not mean replacing humanism or theism. Diversity in a liberal religious community means enriching the community, its life and vision, not by replacing but by adding. It is the essence of liberal religion that none of us holds the truth or has the one true way. We are a community of seekers.
We have come to value diversity because we have learned that glimpses of the divine, glimmers of truth, intimations of immortality, come from all the ancient and new-found expressions by which we celebrate, seek, and summon the spirit. How fortunate we are that, in our seeking, we have not just one Enlightened One to follow, not just one saint to hear, not just one story to tell.
But we cannot invite the Buddhist to speak to us of the Buddha if the Christian cannot speak to us of the Christ. We cannot invite one to speak to us of Mohammed if another cannot speak of the goddess. We cannot extol the wonders of science if we will not allow the singing of the spirit.
You and I can, in love, fellowship, and respect consider our language carefully. I can persevere in my effort to say “congregation,” rather than “church” when speaking of our gathered people. But I’ll forget sometimes. And, frankly, I don’t know yet where to look for the replacement term when I tell my wife I’m going to a meeting at the … the … Well, we can work on that.
As important as the continuing effort to watch our language is the continuing effort to hold each other in high regard, to know that, however difficult, no matter how often we forget or fail, our intent, individually and communally, is to include, to embrace, to encircle and to leave no person of infinite worth and dignity outside our love and concern.
I’m going to close with a passage from Moby Dick — probably one of the most theological of novels in English literature. Ishmael, while waiting for the voyage of the Pequod to begin, finds himself sharing a room — and, to his horror — a bed with the “pagan” harpooner, Queequeg.
On their second night at the Inn, Queequeg begins his ritual of worshipping his gods through a small wood idol. It is clear that he would like Ishmael to join him in his worship. Ishmael says,
I was a good Christian, born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolater in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth–pagans and all included–can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?–to do the will of God– that is worship. And what is the will of God?–to do to my fellowman what I would have my fellowman to do to me– that is the will of God. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolater. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salaamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.