"GAdding About" Day 2

Thursday, June 21: Emerging Themes

Maybe it's me, or maybe I'm just over-generalizing from two events, but I'm hearing a more forceful theological message than I expected. I'm not protesting—forceful beats the heck out of bland, and the particular messages I heard are ones I happen to (mostly) agree with. But anybody who came here with a "Unitarian Universalists-believe-anything-they-want" misconception may be getting a shock.

It started first thing, with the Reverend Rob Eller-Isaacs (president of the UU Ministers' Association) speaking at the morning worship service. He laid out two visions of the purpose of the church, and then he picked one . No we-have-to-hold-this-in-balance or this-is-something-we-have-to-work-out or anything. He picked a direction.

The two visions were "the church is in the world to foster pluralism or enable dialog or even encourage community" and "the church is in the world to engender the experience of the Holy in order to awaken compassion and foster a life of loving service." Rev. Eller-Isaacs went with the experience of the Holy and the life of loving service, not pluralism. "Pluralism is a way to be together in community, not the purpose for which we come together."

He traced the roots of the UU movement through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, liberal Christianity, and Transcendentalism. "And now," he said with a deliberate cadence that telegraphed the approach of a controversial term, "having survived the rise and fall of fundamentalist Humanism, we are finding our balance again."

The Spiritual Writing workshop I was involved in (more about that in a later post) took up most of the center of the day for me. But in the afternoon I went to the annual John Murray Lecture, given this year by Paul Rasor. His innocuous and professorial title "Universalism and the Sectarian Element in Liberal Religion" didn't prepare me for what I was about to hear. Far from using "sectarian" in the negative sense that is so common, Rasor's talk led up to a discussion of how the sectarian heritage of Universalism could help UUism today.

Rasor believes that recognizing our history as a sect—encouraging a sense that we come from somewhere and have particular traditions, rather than being a generalized meta-religion (my term, not his), could give UUism a more solid identity, and (paradoxically) make us more accepting of others. "We want to be inclusive," Rasor said, "but we too often think we need to leave out the particulars—the things that make us unique—in order to get there. We may avoid offending someone this way, but we also avoid truly knowing anyone."

"We claim to be comfortable with difference and particularity, but we are not. …We still too often complain when someone speaks in their own language, if it is not our language. We want speakers to translate everything into some sort of lowest common denominator language." Instead, Rasor proposed creating dialogues in which each speaker spoke the truth in his or her own language, and it was the responsibility of the listener to translate.

So let me translate now: If someone thinks in words like "God" or "the Holy" they should just say them and let anyone who doesn't think in those words do what they need to do. The onus should be on the listener to hear the speaker's intention, not on the speaker to say something the listener will be comfortable hearing.

Two speakers don't necessarily make a trend, or even represent one. But even at the Spiritual Writing workshop I was surprised by the strength of the audience's approval when I pointed out that UU writers are challenged by "our impoverished religious language." I had expected that to be controversial, not a crowd-pleaser.

Taking strong stands, challenging the status quo of our congregations and their mode of discourse, worrying less about whom you offend and more about speaking to the world the truth you hear in your heart—I heard those themes twice from different speakers on the first day of the conference, and spoke some of them myself. I wonder if I'll keep hearing them for the next three days.