General Assembly 2000 Event 452
Speakers: Liz Jones, Director of Religious Education (DRE), First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of San Diego; Rev. Tom Owen-Towle, Minister, First UU Church of San Diego
Unitarian Universalists may enjoy a good debate amongst themselves, but when it comes to articulating their faith to others, many find difficulties expressing ideas that seem tortuously complex. The well-known joke, "What do you get when you cross a UU with a Jehovah's Witness?—Someone who knocks on your door and has nothing to say", does have some basis.
DRE Liz Jones and the Rev. Tom Owen-Towle are helping to change this norm through offering a four-hour workshop entitled, "CommUUnicating Our Faith", to members of their congregation. The workshops are offered to adult members several times a year and typically held on a Saturday morning. Turn-out has been about 30 people each time.
Owen-Towle began by giving a list of ten statements of who we are which place our message in historical and theological contexts (see below).
Before breaking into groups, Jones went over the guidelines for sharing, which came from "Out of the Sidelines" by Lawrence Peers, published in the book, Salted With Fire:
- Talk with pride and enthusiasm.
- Look for opportunities for dialogue.
- Welcome questions about the Unitarian Universalist faith.
- State beliefs positively.
- Be patient and respectful of differing views.
- Be clear about our core values and demonstrate them in our approach to the conversation about our faith.
- Live our faith. Let our lives speak.
- Listen to the other person; ask probing and thoughtful questions.
- Give a personal testimonial.
- Because experience is a source of our personal religion-making, listen to the other person's experience and also share your own.
For this exercise, participants are divided into groups of 4-5 people, which seems be the ideal size, and are given a basket containing strips of paper each with a question on it. These are typical questions asked by newcomers about Unitarian Universalism. For example:
- What do UUs believe?
- Is there anything that UUs do not believe in?
- What do UUs believe about Jesus?
- How old is UUism and where did it come from?
- Are you the Unity Church?
- Are you part of the Unification Church?
- What kinds of things do you teach in UU Sunday Schools?
- What symbols does UUism use?
- What does the flaming chalice mean?
- What are the sacraments of your church? Baptism, marriage, communion???
- Do UUs believe in the Bible?
- What do UUs believe about the Bible?
- Do UU have a bible?
- Why are you a UU?
- What do you have to do to become a UU?
- Are all UU churches alike?
- What is your worship service like?
- How can you call yourself a church if you don't believe in God?
- Are you a Christian religion?
- Do you believe in Hell and an afterlife?
- What is the UU view of salvation?
- Do you have any required spiritual practices?
- What are your Holy Days?
In the exercise, each person picks a question out of the basket and spends about 30 seconds contemplating the answer(s). There is no right or wrong answer. Participants then go around listening first to one person's answer then offering their own to the same question. This process continues until all the questions are dwelt with, which can take from up to an hour and a half. Usually much lively discussion and energy is generated by these questions and participants learn to articulate about their faith.
The groups then return to the larger circle to reflect on what they had learned from the exercise and what they still needed. Responses from participants have been positive.
Although the facilitators have not yet tried this workshop with youths, it is something they are planning to do.
Notes Toward CommUUnicating Our Faith
I. We Are Unitarian Universalists
As Unitarians we hold that every unit of existence is inherently valuable and to be treated as such. We also contend that the cosmos is unitary , that reality is indivisible and whole, that God/Goddess is one.
As Universalists we contend that wisdom is discoverable in every era and corner of the universe , that the only salvation worth having is communal not individual, and that all creatures are held in the eternal embrace of a loving deity, rest assured.
II. We Are a Confessional Faith
We are confessional in that each of us is ultimately accountable for stating, then embodying, our own bedrock convictions. The individual is prized in our midst. As such, Unitarian Universalists are cardcarrying "heretics," literally choice-makers in all we say and do.
Therefore, if someone asks what does our Church believe, we kindly retort: "Well, congregations don't really believe; people do. So, if you're interested, let me share some of the principles and values to which I give my loyalty ... daily. Then I would gladly learn of yours!"
III. We Are Bound Together in Covenant
In alignment with the Jewish way we covenant together ... focusing on shared vows rather than set creeds. Our lives are ultimately measured by right relations instead of right beliefs. We promise our spiritual kin that we will comfort, celebrate, challenge, and companion one another for better, for worse, ongoingly. Universalist forebear Hosea Ballou caught the kernel of our covenant in 1805:
If we have love, no disagreement can do us any harm; but if we have not love, no agreement can do us any good.
A mature theology is composed of confessions, matured into covenants, and incarnated in community ... where we venture to live the interdependent web upclose and personal. Ours is the path of institutionalized spirituality rather than private piety.
IV. We Are Protesters
We are historically rooted in the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation (16th century). Bona fide protesters resist injustices and counter falsehoods as well as pro-testare "testify on behalf of"-all we cherish. Hence, our faith heritage majors in affirmations and minors in denunciations.
In truth, you might say we are small-p protestants as well as small-c catholics-the latter in the sense of being comprehensive in scope and holistic in approach
V. We Are Called to Converse Not Convert
"Speaking the truth in love" (New Testament) is the litmus test of full-spirited dialogue. Truth without love becomes callous, even cruel. Love without truth is sentimental, even vacuous. We would always convey our religious heritage and identity as if speaking to persons we respect and value.
In pursuing religious conversation over conversion we heed the savvy of English essayist William Hazlitt who refused to argue with people who disagreed with him, since he was never able to change their minds anyway and the only result was anger and frustration. Far better, he paradoxically suggested, to argue with those who were already in your camp.
And, oh yes, wherever you are beckoned to commUUnicate your faith, remember to wear and share your principles lightly ... seriously but never grimly.
VII. We Articulate Our Faith Contextually
Different occasions dictate distinct modes of sharing. An essay is not the same as a letter. A faith-talk with your own child varies markedly from engaging a stranger at the market or comforting a dying friend. Context matters.
Aspire to be succinct yet ready to amplify. Remember that our gospel resides in a mindful heart rather than in any brochure or slogan and hungers to be shared existentially and imaginatively.
People are more inspired by vivid experiences of personal faith than tedious explanations. So spend time being a Unitarian Universalist next to your neighbor rather than defining it for them. The medium is the message, and you remain a principal medium of Unitarian Universalism!
Some suggestive notes for crafting your singular version/vision of UU good news:
- We are freethinking mystics with hands.
- We employ freedom, reason and tolerance as instrumental values toward the vision of creating and sustaining the beloved community.
- In the midst of mystery and the enduring presence of religious community, the creative power of transforming love engages us in the beauty and tragedy of life to awaken compassion, call us to justice and invite us to live in harmony with the earth.
In shaping your own rendition of our communal faith, it helps to read stuff with which you disagree, voice your truths outland while alone, make notes in your journal, meditate deeply, smile visibly.
VIII. We Are a Humble and Proud Heritage
Assuming a humble posture places our religious quest in proper perspective-rooting us in the soil (humus), keeping us compassionate (humane), goading us to laughter (humor).
We must also bask in sincere self-esteem—knowing we are a proud and worthy religious tradition, however unorthodox. We are not a fringe movement, however small. People may not have previously heard about UUism, but after they've met us, they will surely have encountered a spirited Unitarian Universalist by our words and deeds.
IX. We Are Bearers of Good News
Evangel literally means "good news," and Unitarian Universalism constitutes a hopeful (albeit, relentlessly realistic) message-upbeat news about human nature and life's possibilities. Our shining light needs to emerge from under the proverbial bushel. The world hankers for our life-affirming vision.
We belong to the heritage of Isaiah (61:1-2) who wrote:
God has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted, he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, and to comfort all who mourn...
May we dare to become low-key evangelists. That means: "If you were on trial for being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"
X. We Are Ever-Evolving
As Unitarian Universalists we know that we will be measured not only by our achievements but moreover by our aspirations. So we keep stretching our souls, semper reformanda ("always reforming") to use our forebears' 16th-century phrase—evolving all the days and nights of our sojourn.
Not perfection but integrity is the goal in our commUUnication. We may reach plateaus of confidence, but, if growing and wakeful, we will seldom rest secure. Our faith-path leads ahead, all the way to our graves.
Reported by Kok Heong McNaughton.