Since my time in seminary, one question has haunted my ministry – what is our saving message?
This question was posed to us by David Bumbaugh, who I consider the wisest teacher I ever learned from. He spoke with sadness that the compelling faith of Universalism died with the merger and that the ensuing new denomination never articulated what he called a “saving message.”
Of course, as seminarians newly inspired to devote our lives to ministry, we found his concern perplexing. Here was someone who devoted nearly 50 years to our vocation, only to find himself wondering whether the faith he dedicated himself to was indeed lost. I worked hard to develop my own statement of faith that expressed such a message for the current generation of Unitarian Universalists. As a newly minted minister, I entered the pulpit confident that I could voice a saving message for our faith in the 21st century.
I was wrong.
I now believe that the problems David Bumbaugh addressed – far more tactfully than I ever could – do exist and have transformed our denomination into something incapable of providing the message of love and hope that Universalism held out in previous centuries. And I have come to the conclusion that barring seismic changes in the way we “do” church, Unitarian Universalism will inexorably devolve into little more than religious justification for much of what ails America – racism, elitism, and classism.
Now, one could easily dismiss my concerns as the disgruntled rumblings of a malcontent – an argument not without merit. But as we deal with a pandemic that will change our society forever, I believe we have received a great gift – the chance to rethink our institutions and how we view our relationships with each other, with the world, and with God.
There, I said it. The “G-word.” This is perhaps our first major step. We must get over our pointless hesitation to use the term that uniquely defines what sets churches apart from other social organizations in this country and elsewhere. Professing a belief in God betrays nothing and brings us to the table of billions of adherents across the world who accept the existence of forces we cannot explain, will likely never completely understand, and may possess some form of consciousness.
On the nature of the divine, the 2004 report Engaging Our Theological Diversity stated, “We agree that the universe is an interdependent web, held together by a force (or forces) that can be understood in a variety of ways. We disagree concerning how that force (or forces) should be named, and whether or not it possesses consciousness.” The fact that this issue exists for us makes me question whether Unitarian Universalism is indeed a religion, or simply a support mechanism for sophists, nonconformists, and lost sheep wishing to reclaim the baby they threw out with the bath water.
In my time serving congregations, I met many amazingly intelligent people. So often, I watched them argue with eloquence and seemingly unassailable logic that belief in God was misguided and threatened the core tenets of our faith. As much as I love and respect these individuals, such academic bullying serves little purpose beyond self-aggrandizement and often hurts people seeking meaning and purpose in their lives beyond soulless polemics and unemotional erudition. Love and logic can co-exist. In the end, however, love must dominate our faith relations, especially because logic cannot provide answers to all our questions – especially our most important questions.
A saving message cannot grow from a pip of pedantry. A saving message must bloom from seeds nurtured in caring, with respect for the power of natural forces that sometimes exceed our human capacity to quantify. In future posts, I will discuss ways that I believe Unitarian Universalism could, and should reform in order to meet the needs of this new post Covid-19 society, starting with this:
Let us resolve to embrace everyone regardless of the name they apply to the forces of all existence and to end, once and for all, our energy draining and valueless debate over using language of reverence.