The End of Unitarian Universalism

As I observe the living, breathing experience of Unitarian Universalism as it is actually practiced in the United States, it is more and more difficult for me to see it as something sustainable. I am increasingly convinced that unless our actual practice of this religion changes, we will see the end of Unitarian Universalism before the twenty-first century is complete.

This may sound like a gloomy thing to say, and it may seem especially morose on the Sunday when we’re supposed to be ginning up a lot of enthusiasm for the church in order to get people to pledge generously. I have preached a lot of sermons like that over the years. I am one of those preachers who actually really likes to talk about money. I like to talk about money because I like to talk about things that really matter, I like to have adult conversations about realities that we all have to deal with and shouldn’t avoid, and I like to think about how we organize ourselves in order to accomplish those things that matter most to us, and we can’t organize effectively without raising funds effectively. But we also can’t organize effectively without a mature understanding of the obstacles we face.

Unitarian Universalism is a new phenomenon. For many generations, Universalism and Unitarianism were Christian denominations. Sometime in the last hundred years or so, we have evolved into something else, just as Christianity started out as a form of Judaism and gradually became a thing unto itself. Christianity has had twenty centuries to figure out what it is, and we can see it has had mixed results of successes and failures like any other human enterprise. Unitarian Universalism is still trying to find out what it is. I’m not suggesting we need to go back to being Christian, because I don’t believe that is either necessary or even possible. What we do need is a more coherent sense of who we are and what we are doing.

One thing that makes this an existential crisis for Unitarian Universalism is that absent a clear sense of purpose, what many of our congregations actually end up doing is becoming shrines to personal gratification. Communities that strive to cater to individual whims will almost inevitably end up appeasing the most vocal and strong-willed members of the group, and not infrequently those people are the most vocal and strong-willed because they are the most anxious. We should not be surprised if an organization falters if its goal is to mollify its most anxious members, just as we shouldn’t be surprised if an organization thrives when it is guided primarily by its most courageous members. The all-too-familiar tensions around theological language in so many UU settings are a symptom of this. Individuals want to hear more or less of the word “God” not because of how it squares with a sophisticated understanding of Unitarian Universalist history or theology or praxis, but how it squares with a given individual’s personal preference. What is problematic is the desire to include or exclude something from our common religious life not on the basis of its intrinsic value, but on the basis of how well one likes it — as if the purpose of church were to provide us with things that we like, as if we have a right to be disappointed and to protest when what happens in the church doesn’t match our personal preferences. I am not saying we can’t and shouldn’t ever object to anything that happens in church. I am saying if we are going to object to anything that happens — in church, or anywhere else — it should be because we perceive that the objectionable thing that’s happening is at odds with the espoused values and goals of the institution or the community. I have made no secret of the overpowering revulsion I feel toward Donald Trump. I don’t like him because he is a self-centered, mean-spirited con man. But who cares if I like the dude or not? I object to his being president not because I dislike him, but because the way he expresses his self-centeredness and meanness and dishonesty is altogether at odds with the core values of this country — for instance, joking that not applauding him might be treason. This is not the language of the leader of a free country. To say, “I don’t want our church to do thus-and-so because I personally don’t like it” is not the language of a free religious people; it is the language of self-indulgence.

It is easy to fall back on a Kennedyesque aphorism, an exhortation to “ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church.” President Kennedy was far from perfect, but it is painful to reflect upon how far our country has wandered from that attitude since he spoke those words in 1961. A supposed right to self-indulgence has become an almost religious conviction for many in our country, as evidenced by 63 million of our fellow citizens electing as president someone who is very likely the most self-indulgent human being ever to rise to that office. When people are self-indulgent, when they focus upon their own satisfactions and cravings and ignore or willfully subvert the needs of others, we reach the fulfillment of that prophecy of Jesus who warned us that “the love of many will grow cold” [Matt. 24:12]. We know in our inmost hearts that what makes life meaningful, what makes life bearable is the knowledge that we are not alone, that we need one another if we are to be whole, that interconnectedness is the essence of existence, that something of abiding worth that is both within and beyond our selves is what is most worthy of our enduring loyalty and love. That is the fundamental essence of this faith; that is the goal and purpose of this religion; that is the end of Unitarian Universalism. Do we believe in it or not? Are we willing to live and to die for that, or not?

I’ve often said that I am optimistic about the future of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, and I have meant it; I still mean it. I’m optimistic for many reasons, but one that I keep coming back to is that this is a church that does not sweep everything under the proverbial rug. I have asked many, many members and friends of this church about their experiences, and the answers I have heard have been candid, both about satisfactions and accomplishments and joys as well as about frustrations and disappointments and hurts. That candor, that openness, that honest vulnerability is an immense strength. How will this church continue to embrace and further develop that strength at this crucial time?

Whether or not Unitarian Universalists in general have an abiding sense of purpose is an interesting question, but for the moment it doesn’t actually matter a whole lot. What matters right here, right now is whether this Unitarian Universalist congregation in Silver Spring, Maryland sees itself as a place of communal meaning-making or as a place that gives out nice goodies to those that say “Gimmie.”

We either believe in this church for what it is, or we are waiting (perhaps impatiently) for it to be something it never pledged or tried to be. We either see ourselves as part of something that includes ourselves and yet is greater than ourselves, or we don’t. As we begin this year’s annual budget drive, to those who connect with this church in the hopes that it will gratify their personal whims and tastes and preferences, I say, do one of two things: give a pittance and expect little, or stop expecting the church to give you what you like. The church never promised that, so now’s a good time to give it up. To those who see this church as an anchor of meaning and purpose, as a beacon of hope and compassion and possibility — to those I say: you already know what you must do. So do it, and God bless you for doing it.