Easter. A day that would strike a little fear in my heart every year that I had to lead a service on this particular Sunday. It never seemed to fail that no matter how small or large the congregation, we would be visited on Easter Sunday by someone who had decided “to give church a try today.” As with any time a new comer entered a UU church, they came with expectations that would almost certainly be dispelled by the time they either left the building shaking their heads or they were smiling over a cup of coffee talking to their new friends about this amazing faith that did not preach that God had to die in order for mankind to be saved.
But, perhaps the greater difference between Unitarian-Universalists and more mainstream Christian denominations isn’t that you’re highly unlikely to hear a passion sermon on Easter, but that you’re likely to be just as surprised by what you hear the second time you decide to give our services a try. Even though most ministers do tend to preach a similar message week after week, it takes more than one eye-opening experiences to “get it” about what any of our churches, or our larger denomination is trying to accomplish.
Perhaps that’s why our faith is in so much trouble. We are trying to grow in a society where the attention spanning is waning. We are trying to define ourselves in a society that can’t focus on factual evidence enough to have a reasonable and intellectual debate about who our next president should be. Is it any wonder that those looking for a church experience are hoping for simple answers or familiar stories they can relate to?
Try getting a Unitarian-Universalist to answer any of these questions, and you’ll likely get be rewarded with an off-the-cuff joke or a response so convoluted you won’t know whether to laugh or cry:
What is God like?
What do you need to do to go to heaven?
What makes someone “good”?
Meanwhile, according to Time Magazine, there has been an interesting development on the other side of the American religious landscape. This week’s cover story asked the question that first divided our Universalist forebearers from their Christian brethren: “What if there’s no Hell?” The article’s author, Jon Meacham, highlights Rob Bell, a pastor whose book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” has conservative Christians in an uproar. I will disclose up-front that I’ve only read Time’s article, and cannot therefore offer a review of Pastor Bell’s book. But, it sound like one that is definitely worth reading. I was heartened that there is a voice preaching about a truly all-loving god that is getting some national attention.
But, I was disheartened that Bell was met with such harsh criticism by those who still believe a child who dies before being baptized will be punished by the Creator they chose to worship. And, on a more selfish level, I was dismayed that an article that described such theological questions as universal salvation and traced the history of “the church’s” relationship with hell did not once mention Universalists or Unitarians. I kept waiting for the merest mention of John Murray’s arrival to our shores, or even an aside about the UUA. But, there was nothing. I can only gather that the author felt the context of evangelicals was so assumed, he did not need to mention that there are others who believe god is good and would not punish any human for choosing one religion over another.
I applaud Pastor Bell for challenging his own denomination’s rigidity, but I couldn’t help wondering what might have happened if this apparently smart, well-spoken, and challenging pastor had started in our faith. Would he be getting any attention at all for these “radical ideas”? Or, is our current fate Pastor Bell’s future? After his time on the cover of national magazines and the best-seller lists for his book, will he too will fade into a relative oblivion, either within his current denomination or without?
All this makes me question the assumption I made before the election of our current UUA president. While comparing candidates Laurel Hallman and Peter Morales, I came to the conclusion that I wanted the UUA president to be an organizational leader, not a religious leader. After all, we count on the individuals and congregations and ministers for spiritual guidance. What we need from the national organization is support when things go wrong within those congregations, for communication and educational tools between the various churches and regions of the country, and for public relations to show the broader world what we are all about.
Is that the only way for a denomination to get any attention these days to either: a. ensconce itself in a divisive political debate, or b. engage in an all-out fight within our own ranks to redefine ourselves?
Option a has been done, of course, but it only seemed to get people outside our denomination to notice for a little while. I, personally, was proud of the job Rev. Sinkford had done on this regard. I was especially proud when Rev. Sinkford appeared in photographs with the first same-sex couples to be legally married in Massachusetts. And, it had the perhaps negative side-affect of making religious UU synonymous with political liberal. Even if statistically our members do lean to the left, this label can scare away potential new members and doesn’t do much to help us spiritually. It gives us some basic guidelines on how to live our lives (which explains why UU’s seem to be identified by their choice of hybrid vehicles and organic food stores), but doesn’t tell us anything about why we should make those choices.
Does that mean we have to resort to option b? Do we need a minister to write a best-selling book, with a message outside the ranks of UUism to get us all fired up and willing to say what it is we do or do not believe? If so, that minister would have to be willing to offend some people, maybe even members of his or her own congregation. He or she would also have to be meticulously clear about their message, and be willing to stand behind their own convictions and beliefs. They’d have to be willing and able to say, “I’m right about this, listen to me.”
In other words, they’d have to be decisive and divisive. I’ve yet to meet a Unitarian-Universalist who is willing to do this without adding the umbrella caveat apology “Of course, you are free to believe whatever you want to believe. That’s what makes our faith so special.” Is that the real problem?
After hundreds of years believing that all people are good, do we no longer have the ability to tell someone they’re wrong?