Response to 1999 Gould Discourse
Alice F. Anacheka-Nasemann, Student Minister
I would like to start by saying that Andy has brought before our attention this evening some of the more important issues facing our denomination today.
We are struggling to define ourselves. That's what the UUA's Fulfilling the Promise survey was all about. On the congregational level, the newest trend is to create mission covenant statements--our efforts to bring cohesiveness and clarity to our movement.
It's true, we have all been stymied by those questions about what Unitarian Universalism is. I have attempted to come up with my "elevator answer," that is, the answer I would give while traveling from the 10th floor of a building to the lobby. I have to admit, my answers are not always consistent, nor do I always feel that I have been successful in my efforts to summarize our religion. Deliciously indescribable--I like it. Thank you, Andy.
Finally, that diversity which eludes us is frustrating--and much effort has gone into defining and attempting to remove those subtle and not-so-subtle barriers that Andy has so eloquently pointed out to us tonight.
Andy went further than simply discussing some of the current issues, however. I would say that he actually turned the problems upside-down and inside-out in order to get an intriguing new look. I'm afraid my neck got a little strained when J, too, tried to see these new angles!
Just when I was starting to think, "Cool, I'm finding some useful ways to define Unitarian Universalism," Andy turned everything around and suggested that we shouldstop forming community around those ideological similarities. To do this, he says, we must stop presenting ourselves as a religion, and instead gather in loyalty to humanity, with our faith located in people rather than ideas. This is a worthy goal, indeed, although I would add the caveat that we value all life, not just humanity.
Either way, I am not sure Andy's suggestion represents a true move away from ideas and beliefs. After all, deciding to place one's faith in people is based on an idea. In fact, Andy's proposed center for this "non-religion" sounds an awful lot like our affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of all people, to me. Not only is it an idea, but it happens to be one of the ideas that already defines us. It is also, I believe, an inherently religious proposition, one which stands in stark contrast to those denominations which proclaim the inherent worthlessness and depravity of all humankind.
Along with Andy and many other Unitarian Universalists, I would love to see our denomination grow in diversity. Rather than downplaying our shared values and beliefs, however, I would suggest that our failure to diversify is based in the fact that our commonideas are typically expressed in ways that are very much culturally determined. The fact that we are a predominantly white denomination, made up primarily of well-educated, economically privileged members, is reflected in all areas of our life together as a community. Despite the rather large emphasis that has been placed on eliminating institutional racism from our midst, it seems that it has only been relatively recently that we are also engaging the beasts of classism and intellectual elitism. Let's tackle these issues before deciding to become a non-religion. This difficult and important work will, I hope, pave the way for increasing diversity in our congregations.
Yes, I, too, wish for a growth in diversity. But, I do not want it to come at the expense of the message that we bring to the world--a message which represents our shared ideas and values--and yes, a message which is often clouded by our inability to articulate it.
Andy points out the dangers of organized religion. Certainly, history has shown that our human tendency to be clannish can lead to the inhumane disregard ofthose people who find themselves to be on the outside of our embrace. Just look at what's happening in Kosovo right now, and you can see the truth in Andy's words of caution.
All the same, I have to disagree with Andy's proposed solution, namely that we strip religious institutions of their corporate power and have them, instead, focus solely on "the creation of, the celebration of, and the maintenance of, covenanted community." The idea has an alluring pull to it-after all, building community is a big part of what we are about. Yet, despite the dangers, I would rather be part of a religious denomination which is willing to proclaim and advocate for particular values.
I enjoy having kindred spirits. Andy is right, it is comfortable. But it goes beyond my comfort levels-l also like being part of a religious organization which is able to influence the world. I like the message that is proclaimed in our principles and purposes. I admit it--l want to see that message spread like wildfire. I want our denomination to be a voice for change, a leader in influencing policies and people.
The Reverend Mel Hoover says it well, when he says, "What we are is a limited example of being different than what everybody said was the norm or the probable. And I think we underestimate the power of that." He goes on to add, "One reason I'm in this denomination is that we do have power and privilege, and positions of power, and the capacity to influence." (from "A Conversation on Race and Class," World Magazine, July/Aug 1998, p. 22)
It is my belief that it would be a mistake to cease being a religion--a corporate entity that stands for certain key values. Rather, I suggest that we need to cease floundering around in an identity crisis and wield the power that we do have, using it to support and promote justice, equity, and compassion. Using it to support the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Using it to support the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
Perhaps this is a risky road to take-we are always capable of making the wrong decisions despite all the right intentions. How do we know that what we advocate is truly what's best for the world? The only thing we can do is search our consciences, thoroughly and repeatedly, and act upon that which we believe to be true and good.
We may not always succeed in our efforts. Certainly we need to continue to ask ourselves just how it is that we are excluding people from our sanctuaries, and how we might broaden our circle to include those that are "different" than us. But all the same, I believe that we do need to define, and then affirm and act upon, the ideas that we do share.
It is my conviction that our purposes and principles represent a life-affirming stance. Rather than trying to start from a blank slate that has no presuppositions, I would prefer an approach which builds upon the suppositions that we have agreed upon. If we truly live out our affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of all humanity, than I would have to answer Andy's question of us by saying, "No, we are not carrying out the dangers of sameness from our churches and poisoning the world." And if we successfully hold that valuing of the individual in tension with an understanding of the interdependent web, which calls us to be responsive and responsible to one another, then perhaps, just perhaps, we will participate in guiding our world to safety.