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In her blog piece “Love is More Important than Freedom”, Unitarian-Universalist minister Victoria Weinstein writes...

It has come time for Unitarian Universalists to admit that we have honored free thought over love as an institutional commitment, and to consider the possibility that our obsession with personal freedom of belief has caused our organizations spiritual harm. We have developed a congregational culture that honors intellectual dominance over love and tenderness. We are brilliantly conversant when voicing opinion, but do not know how to engage each other as vulnerable persons in need of hope, grace and healing, leaving it to the self-identified victims in our congregations to motivate and then control most discussion of what it means to love, to welcome and to accept.

There are probably less than 700,000 “UUs” in the United States today (I among them), and not much more than a million in the entire world, and the denomination has soul-searched over the last several decades to find the missing keys to significant growth.  The denomination has particularly struggled to gain adherents beyond its white Anglo-Saxon Protestant roots into communities of color.  UUism is often criticized as a religion of the head rather than the heart, and thus of limited appeal to most people.

From the Wikipedia article on “Unitarian Universalism”...

Unitarian Universalism is a religion characterized by support for a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning". Unitarian Universalists do not share a creed; rather, they are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth and by the understanding that an individual's theology is a result of that search and not obedience to an authoritarian requirement. Unitarian Universalists draw on many different theological sources and have a wide range of beliefs and practices.

Historically, both Unitarianism and Universalism have roots in the Christian faith. Contemporary Unitarian Universalists espouse a pluralist approach to religion, whereby the followers may be atheist, deist, theist, polytheist, or have no label at all.

My Take on the Essence of UUism

As a white male UU who does not believe in deities but believes that consciousness continues from life to life (so not your conventional atheist either) I agree that UUism at its best is a mix of both heart and head. But I disagree with Weinstein that, “Love is more important than freedom”. I see these two concepts together as being at the essence of what UUism is all about, at least for me. My dear friend Toni, who led the service when my partner Sally and I married, embodied that essence in a poem she had written that she read at the conclusion of the service, “Love that holds close with open arms”.

Some of us fall short in our humanity because we fail to embrace our fellow people with love and respect, we fail to hold them close. But then many (if not most of us) who participate in that positive embrace do so with closed rather than open arms.  We expect and even demand that the people we love believe and behave the same as we do.

“Love that holds close with open arms” to me is the best of UUism, and our denomination's “ministry” perhaps to the larger human community.  It is having the love and forbearance to give each other the liberty to be who we are, with the hope, but not the expectation, that we will find common ground and community together.  It represents a true commitment, in both head and heart, to egalitarianism and moving beyond any sort of “us and them” hierarchical thinking.

Not that we UUs always succeed at practicing this egalitarianism, this love with liberty, that we preach!  We  tend to be uncomfortable with people who don't define themselves as political progressives or liberals, at least implicitly creating a “Republican free zone” with our attitudes.  

But to our credit, like the Quakers, UUs are big proponents of democratic process in society at large and in how we run our own congregations.  A longtime joke about UUs in this regard says that when a good Christian dies they go to heaven, but when a good UU dies they go to a discussion about heaven.  Behind this joke is the fact that to a truly observant UU (like the Quakers), a well-run meeting (that encourages the active participation of all participants as a circle of equals) is a sacrament and essentially a sort of worship service.  

UUism at Its Best with Its Older Youth

In my opinion, nowhere is that commitment to egalitarianism and “love that holds close with open arms” more evident than in my own experience of the YRUU older youth camps and conferences that my own kids participated in at the UU deBenneville Pines facility north of Redlands CA and other Southern California UU venues.  (See my piece, “Camps, Cons & Compasses” for more details.)  I cannot think of another older youth program that allows young people such freedom to govern their own events and their own community. I can think of no other denomination that has more egalitarian “right relations” between adults and youth.

Subject to Elitism

But as Reverend Weinstein points out in her piece, UUs can suffer from an intellectual elitism while at the same time championing egalitarian ideals.  

Being a small denomination that many people have never even heard of, we UUs tend perhaps to have a bit of an inferiority complex (the underside of elitism) and are quick to note famous Unitarians include key figures of the white mostly Protestant intelligentsia of Britain and particularly the U.S.  Four U.S. Presidents – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and William Howard Taft – plus America's second First Lady Abigail Adams (a women's rights advocate in her own right) and even our current President's mom, Stanley Ann Dunham.  Great writers and figures in the arts like Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, E.E. Cummings, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Pete Seeger, Rod Serling, Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Newman.  Philosophers and social commentators like John Locke, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, John Dewey and Buckminster Fuller.  Other social activists and scientists like Paul Revere, Horace Mann and Clara Barton, Linus Pauling, Joseph Priestley, and Albert Schweitzer.

UU Roots in the Life and Work of Michael Servetus

Perhaps there is no better embodiment of the strengths and weaknesses of UUism, than in the life and work of the man credited as the progenitor of the Unitarian side of UUism, Michael Servetus.  He was a brilliant scholar, Renaissance man and challenger of conventional wisdom about God and religious authority.  Here is a paragraph from his extensive biography in Wikipedia...

Michael Servetus (also Miguel Servet or Miguel Serveto also Miguel De Villanueva or Michel De Villeneuve; 29 September 1511 – 27 October 1553) was a Spanish theologian, physician, cartographer, and humanist. He was the first European to correctly describe the function of pulmonary circulation. His interests included many sciences: mathematics, astronomy and meteorology, geography, human anatomy, medicine and pharmacology, as well as jurisprudence, and the scholarly study of the Bible in its original languages. He is renowned in the history of several of these fields, particularly medicine and theology. He participated in the Protestant Reformation, and later developed a nontrinitarian Christology. Condemned by Catholics and Protestants alike, he was arrested in Geneva and burnt at the stake as a heretic by order of the Protestant Geneva governing council.

Apparently, Servetus was as insufferable as he was brilliant.  From what I've read he felt that no one was his intellectual equal, including his theological nemesis John Calvin.  Calvin's theology is arguably one of the key threads of American culture.  (See my piece “American Calvin”.)

A great book on Servetus' life (that reads at times like a Dan Brown novel) is Out of the Flames.  Episodes from his life included talking his way of a guilty plea in his first trial for heresy.  The second time he was caught, tried and convicted, but he end up escaping from prison, going underground, and reemerging with a completely new identity to become a renowned cartographer and doctor under that new identity.  Finally, tempting fate with his usual chutzpah, he decided to drop in on a service being led by his arch nemesis.  Calvin recognized him, had him arrested, tried and burned at the stake, with the heretical text he had written tied to his leg.

In the simplest terms, Servetus challenged the conventional Christian belief that Jesus Christ was an aspect of God and essentially believed that he was a regular human being like the rest of us.  Jesus was not our “lord” in some hierarchical sense, but more an egalitarian exemplar of what all human beings could aspire to be.  Even today, such a belief would be considered by many Christians to be very heretical.

Here's Wikipedia on Servetus' legacy...

In recent years Michael Servetus has also been credited with being one of the modern forerunners of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience in the Western world. A renowned Spanish scholar on Servetus' work, Ángel Alcalá, identified the radical search for truth and the right for freedom of conscience as Servetus' main legacies, rather than his theology. The Polish-American scholar, Marian Hillar, has studied the evolution of freedom of conscience, from Servetus and the Polish Socinians, to John Locke and to Thomas Jefferson and the American Declaration of Independence. According to Hillar: "Historically speaking, Servetus died so that freedom of conscience could become a civil right in modern society."

That freedom of conscience is what I see as the synergy of love and liberty embodied in “love that holds close with open arms” and the ministry of Unitarian-Universalism at its best.

Originally posted to leftyparent on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 11:20 AM PST.

Also republished by Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  i Was raised UU (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Debby

    and often participated in youth camp at deBenneville Pines and even as an adult went back as a counselor. Though i dont attend a UU church anymore it is the organized religion that i most identify with and i think it helped shaped me and gave me a strong spiritual foundation. i went to the UU church in long beach, california. anyway, thanks for the diary.

    liberal pragmatist. artist. obama supporter.

    by hardart on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 11:28:35 AM PST

  •  Republished to Street Prophets (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    EclecticCrafter

    Thanks for posting this.

    •  Thank you for the repost!... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ojibwa

      I will enjoy any comments that might come from that group!

      Ojibwa... are you familiar with UU?

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles http://www.leftyparent.com

      by leftyparent on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 12:28:49 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  My familiarity comes (0+ / 0-)

        from having made some presentations to them--mostly to the children--about Native American spirituality.

        •  Very cool... always like to hear that UU youth... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Ojibwa

          are getting a wide range of spiritual thought and practice.  

          When I was a young teen my mom joined a Unitarian church in my hometown of Ann Arbor.  I was in the religious education program and one year we spent practically every other weekend attending the worship service of some other denomination, in our case including Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Quaker, etc.  It gave me a real sense of the diversity of human values and expression.

          The more broadly we share our various cultures and ideas with each other the more human development is facilitated!

          Cooper Zale Los Angeles http://www.leftyparent.com

          by leftyparent on Sat Jan 14, 2012 at 09:02:17 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  I'm a UU who not happy with some of the (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan from 29

    touchy feely "everything is wonderful and everything has to be tolerated" direction that some are going to in UU. I revel in the fact that UUs were the pushers for social change, that UU's were involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements.
    I'm really not comfortable at all with the re-infusion of magical bullshit into UU- reikie or however it's spelled, homeopathy, that kind of non intellectual clap trap.

    WTF!?!?!?! When did I move to the Republic of Gilead?!

    by IARXPHD on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 12:37:10 PM PST

    •  Then you may like Rev Weinstein's piece... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      IARXPHD

      it calls for some more "theological" discipline.  I would recommend that you read it plus the one she wrote previously.  I have some issues with her take which I tried to lay out in my piece.

      So would you say you'd like UU to be more about the head than the heart?

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles http://www.leftyparent.com

      by leftyparent on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 01:09:45 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Fellow UU - former homeschool parent here (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Debby, jennifree2bme

    love your writing.

    Did you follow Rev. Morales' presentation on Servetus at a recent gathering in Spain? (I think it was Spain).  

    Gotta go catch a plane, but couldn't let such a good UU diary go without T, R, & comment.

    •  Not familiar with Rev Morales & their work!... (0+ / 0-)

      But I'll try to check it out!  Have you read Out of the Flames?

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles http://www.leftyparent.com

      by leftyparent on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 01:11:21 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Rev Morales is the current UUA pres (0+ / 0-)

        and travels a lot.  Including a recent conference where he talked about Servetus.  His FB update on the conf. was the first time I'd heard of S.

        •  My bad... I'll definitely check it out... (0+ / 0-)

          I know the UUA like any denominational organization is doing whatever they can to promote congregational growth.  Morales I'm sure is continuing that agenda taking over the denominational presidency.

          I kind of equate UU more with Buddhism rather than Protestant Christian sects.  Do Buddhists have some governing body worrying about the growth of their "denominations"?  Understand the need to grow but wrestling with some ambivalence about these more "religious" reframings!

          Cooper Zale Los Angeles http://www.leftyparent.com

          by leftyparent on Wed Jan 18, 2012 at 12:12:56 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  In UU RE class, my daughter learned (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Debby, amyzex

    that UUs have open minds, loving hearts, and caring hands.  That nicely sums up my UU experience-- and I was born into a historically UU family.

    •  And I'm talking about the egalitarian... (0+ / 0-)

      "right relations" that we apply those things.

      IMO all religions strive at least for the "loving hearts" and "caring hands" and most of the most positive ones include the "open minds".  Good UU practice really expands on what having an open mind really looks like, in terms of walking that walk.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles http://www.leftyparent.com

      by leftyparent on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 01:20:04 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I agree. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        August7, ogre

        My experience has been one of love and community and Weinstein's piece didn't resonate with me (your diary did), which is why I made the comment.  

        One of the major variables (probably far more for UUs than other denominations) is congregation.  When I lived in the Bay Area, I tried two different congregations and was disappointed in both.  They were both very inward looking and focused on self-improvement.  I now live in Salt Lake City, where the congregation is vibrant and outward focused.  I think that is not just related to the congregation but to the context of the congregation.  In the Bay Area, you didn't have to go to a UU congregation to get freedom of belief.  In Salt Lake City, we are clearly in the minority and that bonds us together in a different way.  It may also just be that we have a remarkable minister and that makes all the difference.

        •  I think you've hit the key to growth... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          hdwh

          of a congregation in particular or a denomination in general!  It is effective "ministry" (however that's defined" to a larger community that motivates people to join your cause!

          Cooper Zale Los Angeles http://www.leftyparent.com

          by leftyparent on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 01:43:04 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Longtime UU here. . . (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan from 29

    I've recently found myself re-exploring my Christian roots.

    The sad thing is that if I were exploring Buddhism, Wicca or some other "exotic" spiritual path, I could talk about it with my UU friends.

    Christianity, though, seems to be off-limits, at least in the Pacific NW corner of the UU globe.  

    I understand why - a lot of people come to the UU church from bad experiences with Christian churches.  I did that myself - became a UU in my late twenties after leaving my childhood fundamentalist church as a teenager.

    I have come to understand that I do have an abiding faith in God, and a desire to learn from the life and example of Jesus.  This is not my parents' Christianity - it's the emerging liberal religious faith best described in the works of Marcus Borg and Barbara Brown Taylor.

    I'm spending more and more Sunday mornings at an Episcopalian church, or at Catholic mass - my in-laws are Catholic, as are my own roots, and the Christian I respect the most is a Franciscan Sister who defies all expectations about religious women.

    Still, it saddens me that it's not possible to be a Christian UU within my community - at least not an open one.  I feel like I wouldn't have to explain so much if I was a Buddhist UU or even a Jewish UU.

    "He not busy being born is busy dying" -- Bob Dylan

    by Kascade Kat on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 12:59:26 PM PST

  •  This is what love looks like (0+ / 0-)

    At his July 26th 2011 sentencing for civil disobedience, UU Tim DeChristopher made the following  statement to the judge:

    I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience.  If you share those values but think my tactics are mistaken, you have the power to redirect them.  You can sentence me to a wide range of community service efforts that would point my commitment to a healthy and just world down a different path.  You can have me work with troubled teens, as I spent most of my career doing.  You can have me help disadvantaged communities or even just pull weeds for the BLM.  You can steer that commitment if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it.
    This is not going away.   At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like.  In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like.  With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.  The choice you are making today is what side are you on

    I think Tim is right that this is exactly what UU love looks like, and I think the ferocity and moral commitment of this kind of love has infinitely more spiritual power than the kind of generic niceness Ms. Weinstein advocates.

    UU World article including Tim's statement

    •  My concern with DeChristopher's statement... (0+ / 0-)

      is the "us and them" framing I'm hearing between his cadre and the "them", the morally bankrupt government.  I feel like it is hubris to call people morally bankrupt in most cases.  Most people believe they are doing the right thing and operate on what they feel are moral principles, including the Obama administration and Congress.

      Whether they get caught up in failure of vision and failing to understand privilege is another matter!

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles http://www.leftyparent.com

      by leftyparent on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 01:38:24 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Moral bankruptcy (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        leftyparent

        Well, in this case the government was acting in a way that was morally bankrupt, and one reason DeChristopher has gotten so much attention is that he had the courage to expose it.

        The judge in this case said that DeChrisopher had no need for civil disobedience because of the circular logic that  the law already provides a means to protest unjust laws.  

        DeChristopher acted (he says) because he believes that his future has been destroyed by the failure of society to control climate change and that it was necessary to engage in  protest in order to avoid greater harm.

        Religion helps people process big moral decisions like the one Tim DeChristopher made.   It's hard for me  to imagine the  spiritual  usefulness of a UU religious practice that would conclude that he should not have acted because "us and them" framing is morally worse than failure to act.

    •  Also (0+ / 0-)

      Emrys Staton, whose work to keep people from dying in the desert Southwest got him arrested and convicted of littering (a conviction which has since been overturned by the 9th Circuit) for leaving well-marked, frequently tended water....

      "Be just and good." John Adams to Thomas Jefferson

      by ogre on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 04:23:59 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  From one UU to another. . . (0+ / 0-)

    what a great diary!  Thank you for posting it!

    When the United States becomes a low wage country, only bobbleheads shall go forth from American soil.

    by amyzex on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 01:25:12 PM PST

  •  Whatever. You're not fooling me. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ogre

    All that peace and tolerance and freethinking is just a cover for the Unitarian Jihad.

    You may post as "leftyparent" on here, but when you're meeting with your Unitarian Peaceableness Cell they're all calling you Sibling Atom Bomb of Courteous Debate.

    You're gonna have to do better than this diary to pull the wool over this wary Episcopalian's eyes.

    :-)

    "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." --Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife

    by JamesGG on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 02:11:36 PM PST

  •  asdf (0+ / 0-)

    I dragged my kids to the Catholic church I was raised in, just a few times when the kids were young. My eldest declared rather loudly that he didn't believe in God, just before one sermon... The roof, thankfully, did not fall in on us.

    Weathering Michigan's recessions since the '70s.

    by jennifree2bme on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 03:16:25 PM PST

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