The Core of UUism
January 3, 2016
For more than a thousand Sundays at People’s Church in Kalamazoo, visitors sometimes would ask me “What do you Unitarians believe?” My reply was that each person must make his/her own definition.” Frowning the person would then ask, “But what does your denomination believe?” My response was always “We are not a denomination; we are an association of churches.” “Well, then, what is your creed, what are your core beliefs?” My answer was usually a disappointment. “We believe that each person is responsible for defining and creating what she or he believes.” Rarely is my reply a satisfactory answer. The visitor then observes “clearly you do not accept Jesus as the Son of God!” After a pause, and wearing a forced smile, I say “No. To begin with, the historical record is not altogether clear in this matter in that the “mother of Jesus”, it is said that she was a virgin. According to my understanding, there is no records to substantiate any woman who became pregnant without benefit of a male’s participation!” Now clearly upset, the questioner declares: “It was a miracle, don’t you believe in miracles?” I knew my answer would end the discussion “Well, I think it would be regarded as a miracle if the Cubs ever beat the Yankees in the World Series!”
The visitor’s face registered total disgust and he did me the great favor of mumbling something and leaving!
In spite of my honest response, during my 28 year tenure the membership of People’s Church quadrupled and we built two major buildings and in quite Un – Unitarian tradition, we paid them both off before I retired in 1985!
Often a newcomer would ask me, “What is your definition of religion?” My reply was “The quest for the highest values in life and the reasoned attempt to live in light of those values.” I would often add “Religion need not embrace any theology and I don’t. Christianity has treated life here as a kind of “spiritual springboard”! If you pass, you will dive into the pool of Heaven. Or if you prefer, it is a false passport to a non-existent paradise. It is your reward for regularly mouthing certain platitudes and supporting the church. These articles of faith have no foundation in science, reality or common sense. Early on, homo sapiens recognized that being alive was an unusual experience. Very few elected to end it prematurely. Religion came about and promised to make your mortality eternal. “When you die here, you will live again and this time for all eternity. By learning and reciting what we teach, you will learn and earn the password to Paradise.”
Now and then on a TV talk show, you hear some loon who insists that he/she had been declared dead but God, who apparently had been on “break” intervened and life was restored! “Their time had not yet come!” Today, the number of people who accept these testimonials is far less than when mankind was still living in caves and sharpening a lance with which to ensure a good dinner that night.
In reality, the first function of religion should be the improvement of human conduct here and now—on Earth. Religion’s focus should be for our conduct, here and now to continue to improve. Our custodial care of our earthly home and the well-being of humanity is essential. It is imperative for humanity to accept and embrace full responsibility for ourselves and the earth that sustains us. One example will suffice. Our love affair with the internal combustion engine that powers millions of automobiles must be replaced with a non-polluting electric car. No, it won’t go over 65 mph and the distance between recharging is a technological problem. Had we made a comparative investment to electric cars that we made to make nuclear powered submarines, we might well be driving electric cars today. The petroleum industry will never support a switch to electric cars. Instead, they have developed new ways to extract oil even without drilling to mine for oil! As it is now, the atmospheric pollution from our cars will simply increase as more and more cars populate the earth.
In the early 1930s, in my hometown of Madison, WI, a very elderly lady drove around my neighborhood in an electric car. Her car was a curiosity. It didn’t catch on. She couldn’t go over 35 mph. What kind of car is that!? It was no threat to GM, Chrysler or Ford.
We have long needed a land ethic that was promoted by Aldo Leopold. Treating Earth as a living organism is essential to human survival. The electric car never caught on. As a result gas engines multiply like rabbits, but at least rabbits do not pollute!
When I was in my 40s, on several occasions, to save money on motels, I would drive non-stop from Battle Creek, MI to Boston, MA. Of course, it was tiring and stupid. The following year, I built a trailer and our trips were thereafter slower and much more fun!
In the 1960s, after the Unitarians and the Universalists finally merged, my cousin, the late Dana McLean Greeley, was elected president of the new Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). He had served as the last president of the American Unitarian Association (AUA). On the occasion of becoming the first president of the UUA, he gave a major sermon at the National UUA Meeting (General Assembly). With absolute sincerity, he predicted that following our merger with the Universalists, the new UUA would number 2 million by the year 2000! Following his sermon, I said to him “Dana, we’ll be lucky to reach 200,000 by 2000!” He laughed heartily and said “Rog, you’re a pessimist!” I shook his hand vigorously and replied “No, Dana, I’m a realist.” In the year 2000, UU membership was less than 200,000.
A non-productive action for many UUs is to equate our success according to our rate of growth and the size of our membership. To me, this is nonsense. What matters is what we mean in the lives of our members. I lost track long ago, of the number of people who, upon discovering UUism, have declared “You don’t have any idea what finding Unitarianism has meant to me! I had no idea that such a church even existed!”
Yes, what we mean to our friends and members is reason enough to rejoice! Yes, I hope we grow. But numbers will not increase the meaning of all those who hungered for a free church, a religion that did not require checking science and reason in the cloak room before attending the service. We are here. We are together. Our focus is here and now and whatever we can do to promote reason, reduce suffering and add to the lives of those who call this place their religious home.
May our numbers increase. May we promote the growth of reason in religion. May we render useful service to humanity. May we celebrate and share our love of life. This life is the one and only one we have to live and enjoy. There is no evidence that we live again by simply committing to memory prayers and swearing fidelity to creeds that were born when the earth was said to be flat with Heaven just beyond the horizon.
UUs are free to gather and exercise their religion as each conscience directs. For centuries, this was a practice that could mean you had signed your death warrant. UUism, measured against human history, is a very new and radical development. Our goal is to provide a dynamic home for those who demand the right to think and believe as the conscience and mind demand we do is a unique feature.
In human history, far too many died for the right to express one’s religious belief and to live fully and joyously. For indeed, Eternity is Now!
I close with this simple reminder:
“Religion is the quest for the highest values in life and the conscious, reasoned attempt to live in light of those values.” So today, do what you forgot to do yesterday. And tomorrow, do what you didn’t get around to doing today. The time is now. The place is here and the way is the challenge to each and every one of us. Do remember the words of Col. [ Major Evans Carlson] who insisted that officers and enlisted share a common lifestyle. Its governing principle was “Gung Ho!” which translated means “Work together in harmony.” What a slogan for our species! What a dream we may yet realize! Humanity’s future is brighter when we are able to find ways to work together with equality, a vital opportunity. We humans are alone together on planet earth. No imagined cosmic Santa Claus is looking after us. The time is now, the place is here. Let us move forward seeking justice, decency and support for the good, the true, the beautiful! Go for it!