Two Unitarian-Universalisms

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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5 responses to “Two Unitarian-Universalisms

  1. What an interesting and useful post! You have expressed what I have long felt is a fundamental difference between East Coast UUs and West Coast UUs. I think this describes a fundamental difference between the Eastern US and the Western US, as well. I have lived in the West all my life and find the difference between these two American cultures to be vast. You have expressed it in religious terms but I think the description applies to culture generally.

  2. I would also recommend looking at the following resource that looks at this dichotomy from a different perspective:

    Children of a Different Tribe: UU Young Adult Developmental Issues

    Sharon Hwang Colligan (the author of this resource) was raised UU and lived in Boston. She sugests that the traditional Protestant churchiness exhibited in most UU congregations is a “front” to convince newcomers that we really are a church and a religion.

    What Sharon suggests as the more “authentic” tradition in Unitarian Universalism is how our faith is practiced in our RE classrooms, youth conferences, and youth camps. Here’s a quote from her resource:

    “UUism, at least in the form it takes in our camps, conferences, and Sunday Schools– which I believe are the heart of our spiritual community– is in my perception a Pagan religion. It is circle-based, earth-honoring, and present rather than distant in spirit. It honors human sexuality, and female leadership. It seeks harmony rather than domination.

    In a cross-cultural context, that is pretty much the definition of Paganism.

    The boring, overly rational, Protestant style Sunday morning services for which we are famous? They’re a front.

    They exist primarily to convince outsiders that we are really a Christian Church, or almost, just like one. To introduce them gently to our ways, in a framework they can understand.

    The same is true of our divinity schools. They exist primarily to train a class of leaders who can talk to the Christians, who are trained to argue with them in their own terms.”

    Plus the advantage of being in the RE wing on Sunday is you get a snack during the class. I haven’t seen any Sunday morning worship that provided a snack other than the symbolic Communion meal.

    This “circle worship” style of church is a part of our heritage just as much as a liturgical tradition in a New England church that was a part of the original “Standing Order” churches.

  3. Patrick McLaughlin

    I’d have to say that this seems to assume what I think is flatly false–that the American culture is essentially homogeneous, and that the differences in UUism are peculiar to us, rather than reflective of cultural differences.

    Yet my own experience suggests that the East/West cultural divide is substantial and real. Just as a for example, my East Coast born and raised brother-in-law moved here–to the West Coast–and married. They moved back to Maryland… and jointly found that they were culturally uncomfortable. He’d gone native, and liked it. His wife was Californian, and found the culture… alien and not embracing. They moved back.

    I’ve heard Canadians affirm the same thing. The East and West are different places.

    UUism overlays that, and certainly there are distinct UU subtraditions. But the truth is that there’s a UUism that is rooted in New England and reaches back to the Standing Order Churches. The rest of us don’t, save at second hand. The Midwestern congregations are the result of the first great wave of church plantings from our root traditions, and my observation is that many of the older UU congregations on the West Coast are too. Then there’s the second wave of church plantings from the fellowship movement. And they’re a product of their time, more than their place. A fellowship in Ohio or Kansas or California turns out to share quite a bit in terms of experience and outlook, on average.

    Some of that is because they are–or were until relatively recently–small, lay led, and familial in nature (and in this, they probably are better reflective of the experience of the Puritan rootstock of the Standing Order Churches). Many of them still have founding members around–some of them still active, an certainly major features on the psycho-social terrain of their congregations. It’s true that those folks are typically more Humanist than Christian, but theological details aside, they really do resemble the folks who founded those early churches.

    Where those early churches formed, they were as rabidly concerned with local control and keeping the Church of England out of their affairs and beliefs as many of our fellowship elders were–and often are–about not being pushed around “by Boston,” or told what to do, or how to do it, or even to consider more reverent language.

    In short, I think that the differences are more superficial than not, or are generalizations drawn and overdrawn on the cultures of individual congregations and on the differences in regional culture. You can’t plausibly expect Texan UUs to resemble Mass Bay UUs any more than you can expect Southwestern Hispanic Catholics to resemble New York Irish-American Catholics. The cultures are different. The expectations and behaviors are different. But you know what? Somehow it’s possible to see that the religion is still the same.

    I’m one of those who grew up UU. But I attend a fellowship founded in 1959. Our building screams “early mid 1960s.” …

    I think that the lines you’ve drawn are… arbitrary. Not meaningless, but they categorize too distinctly. The truth is that I see a third category of UU. The in-comer you describe as normal is less common now than 20 years ago, and more and more of our newcomers are people who aren’t in reaction to the faith of their childhood. They either didn’t have one, or they did but it had no deep impression… their families wandered away from it, or they experienced shifting from denomination to denomination–and as a result, they’re not bitter towards a particular faith. Instead, they tend to identify things that didn’t work for them, and are aware of what works so well for them as UUs.

    But it’s a subject worthy of more thought, consideration and exploration.

  4. The Eclectic Cleric

    Originally posted this over at Ms Kitty’s (since I couldn’t find your comments link), but now that I have here it is where it belongs.

    A lot of this is just old news, on the one hand so obvious that it scarcely bears repeating, and on the other so simplistic that it isn’t worth listening to.

    Two “Unitarian Universalisms?”

    I would say “at least.”

    Notwithstanding the underlying issue of whether “Unitarian-Universalism TM” would be better off redefining itself as “The Universalist & Unitarian Association” and reclaiming a little of its historical integrity, I can identify at least FOUR different “UUisms:”

    1) ultra-liberal Christianity.

    2) a “post-Christian” Protestant denomination accepting of the wisdom and insights of ALL the world’s religions. (thanks to Scott Wells for the seed of this definition)

    3) Its own “New Religion.”

    4) Secularism in religious clothing….(or as more than one wit has put it, “the Democratic Party at prayer”)

    I actually think the more compelling question is whether or not it is important to establish Unitarian Universalism TM as a distinct (and distinctive) “brand,” or if we are better off practicing the principle that “all ministry is local,” and learning how to create better and more relevant congregational experiences in our local churches.

    My own prejudice is for the latter, and is based on the insight that most of our growth as a denomination has come in a handful of high-functioning churches lead by visionary clergy and blessed with committed and creative laity.

    And it likewise seems to me that a congregation’s specific “pedigee” is far less important than the fact that it is true to its identity, takes its mission seriously, and has a vision of what the world will look like if it is successful in its endeavor to accomplish its mission and make that vision real.

  5. One of the things I note here in the comments (and elsewhere) is the implication that UUs are solid Congregational descendants. But that’s only one side of the family. The side we don’t hear much about, has an awful lot of Baptist origins (the most obvious being Ballou), ya know the side that had the unpaid missionaries out there preaching in the wilderness? The one that by the 1870s had more members in NY than in Mass (this per E.Manford doing the math in the 1870s).

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