There have recently been a number of interesting attempts to define Unitarian-Universalist theological boundaries. Perhaps it would be useful for us to consider whether there are (at least) two types of Unitarian-Universalism, for whom there are different senses of what the boundaries are (and perhaps should be). One retains some of the classical Unitarian and Universalist theology and is more overtly Protestant-ish in worship style and language, and often architecture, art, and other aspects as well. The other is more experimental and protean, with no clear theology and less consistency in terms of worship. The latter seems more widespread than the former at this point, but there isn’t any real hard data here to draw on.
The two UUisms occur at both the corporate and individual levels. There are many historic churches, especially in New England and parts of New York State, that lean toward the first category. They have been around for a long time. Their architecture hails from earlier eras, and the artwork on and in the church is often more overtly Protestant. There is a higher incidence of white steeples, rows of pews, and Christian imagery in these churches. With a far longer local tradition, they are likely to retain some liturgical elements from the past. Although impacted by new denominational developments, the past expresses itself and helps to keep members anchored to the ideas and values of those who have come before them. Membership at such churches is relatively stable, not inclined toward rapid growth or sudden exodus.
On the other hand, there are churches that have little connection to the past. Most are relatively new, part of the Fellowship movement from the mid-20th century or at least located beyond the Northeast stronghold of old Unitarianism. Their architecture is often not overtly churchly; alternately, they may inhabit small churches bought from sects that have outgrown them, such that there is no sense of historical continuity between the building and the congregation. Liturgy here is more fluid, as is the worship style, not only between churches but from week to week at the same church (or, at least, from minister to minister). There is less sense of standing in a great tradition and more interest in exploring untapped possibilities; there is more vulnerability to current denominational fads and also a higher likelihood of generating new developments that may be carried to other churches. Membership can fluctuate widely over the decades and experience a precipitous rise or drop from factors like the popularity of the leadership, internal scandals, or if mutually-antagonistic sub-groups (often theological, but sometimes merely cliquish) develop.
People differ as well. Many of the first category are so-called birthright UUs, people whose families have a historic connection with UUism or at least began taking them to UU churches when they were still young. Often Unitarian-Universalism is the only religion they’ve really known, though, on the average, they have a better sense of the various other religions of their non-UU peers than their peers do of religions not their own. UUism provides them a positive sense of identity, developed from ideas of who they are and what they value, with an identification with historic Unitarianism and Universalism and an appreciation for that past, whether or not they hold to strong versions of classic Unitarian or Universalist theological positions. Unitarian-Universalism is about what “we” believe and do, without direct reference to out-groups. Newly available theologies, such as Neo-paganism or Buddhism, may be adopted, but they are assimilated to an established core UU identity, expanding one’s personal identity and understanding without fundamentally re-shaping it. If they do leave UUism it is typically a gradual process, a drift that often has no clear break and is frequently motived by lack of time, marriage to non-UUs, or other factors that are not directly tied to feelings pro- or con- toward UUism itself.
The second group of people are often newcomers to UUism, though it should be should stressed that these are only generalities, with some people from one or the other backgrounds fitting in the opposite category. These people usually come to UUism as adults, in conscious rejection of their upbringings, whether as members of a specific religion or in families with little or no overt religiosity. They are ignorant of the tradition and unclear as to how it might relate to them personally. Unitarianism and Universalism as theological orientations have little meaning to them, and the label “Unitarian-Universalist” is mainly the product of inertia, non-descriptive of their actual beliefs. They have few family members in the church and pursue an individualistic course of spirituality. Entrance into UUism is often a liberating experience that produces a “high” or relief unknown to the birthright UUs; it also frequently carries with it some degree of bitterness toward the abandoned religion, which in some cases may persist for years, even a lifetime. In other cases, however, the old religion is eventually re-evaluated and sometimes even re-appropriated, though selectively and with a decidedly UU tint. Where we’ve come from is of less or even no importance to this group; where we’re going, and especially where they themselves as individuals are going is the paramount concern. This group is less likely to seek to pass traditions on to its children, who aren’t necessarily present at the church anyway. They are more informed by a sense of “not-themness” than a sense of “usness,” at least in comparison to the first group. The church traditions and trappings which form a vital part of the first category’s sense of UUism are often puzzling or even anathema to this second group. If they delve deeply into something like Neo-paganism or Buddhism they often end up leaving UUism completely for full-time membership in the other religion, but a more common pattern is to combine a wide range of ideas and materials from various religions into a personal mini-religion, typically informed by an underlying pattern (i.e. broadly theist, polytheist, or humanist). This is not to say that they have no denominational concerns. Indeed, some people of this type try to actively impress their idea of what UUism should be or become onto their local congregations or even denominationally; when thwarted by lack of interest or other factors such individuals may become disenchanted and quit UUism.
These are only possible trends that are being spoken of here–ideal types in the classic sociology of religion sense. Few people or churches would be expected to fit into such neat categories entirely, nor are hard value judgments on either intended. At any rate these are largely due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control–no one can help that they were or were not born into UUism or that they find value in the traditions or find them uncompelling.
The orientation of these two is very different. The first category has actual traditions (that span generations), and while not fundamentally oriented toward the past, does carry forward values and concepts from previous generations of Unitarians and Universalists. The second category has little historical sense of self and a greater orientation toward adventure; preservation is not a value. These two types don’t necessarily result in overt conflict but friction can arise, as much because of differences in style and preference than from any substantive theological or ideological divergences. People used to one category often feel out of place when attending churches from another category, and may even have a hard time feeling solidarity with the other type of Unitarian-Universalism.
This idea of two different UUisms isn’t necessarily novel, nor are these brief sketches really all that accurate. It just seems interesting that the UUism some hold to seems so foreign to others, and worth exploring. We spend a lot of time talking about conflicts between theists and humanists and pagans, when it seems that even more fundamental dynamics of difference might be at operation within and between churches.
10/3/07 Update: A number of comments at this and other blogs have made for some interesting discussion. A little clarification may be in order, since some commenters may not have read the post very closely (and it is, frankly, long and windy, so that’s hardly surprising). First, although we all love a good East vs. West rumble, and that distinction may well figure in this discussion, the original point that is strived for here isn’t to distinguish these two, but to point to two more general orientations within UUism, orientations that do sometimes overlap with regionalisms, but not always, as stated above. It is more of an orientation toward our heritage, or lack thereof; or, perhaps, differing ideas of what that heritage is in the first place. There may be specific sociological reasons for these orientations, regionalism being one contributing factor. Second, as stated above, this distinction between two UUisms isn’t novel, nor does it in any way suggest that other categories within UUisms couldn’t be drawn, perhaps more fruitfully. If people see value in drawing additional distinctions then by all means please share, there are probably many (perhaps a great many) ways to slice the UU pie. Which is interesting when you consider how small numerically UUism and how diverse it is theologically. Add in our cultural, regional, and other divergences, and the question arises, what holds us all together? What is it that actually unites us?
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