Friday, February 24, 2012

Why It Is Hard Being a UU

Anyone who knows me knows I'm very involved in our church, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady. Recently, a friend, who is looking for a new place of worship, asked about our church. It is always a sticky situation for Unitarian Universalists, or UUs, to define what we believe. We are much more inclined to outline what we don't believe. 

I grew up exposed to the Catholic Church and Southern Baptists through my grandparents. Except for major holidays, my parents had no affiliation or desire to attend church, so any religious upbringing I had was provided by my grandparents. Both churches were very dogmatic. Both have rules and rituals. If you are Catholic, you know what you can and can't do, and if you make a mistake, as humans do, you go to confession and your sins are absolved. If you're a Baptist, again, the rules are clear. Jesus is your savior and you don't drink or dance. At least, these were my perceptions as a child and from hearing my parents' stories. While those are childish simplifications, there is some truth to those perceptions. Both churches, like many world religions, follow a document: the Bible, Quran, Torah or the Upanishad to name a few. Each religion has clearly defined "rules" and rites: confession, Rosary, Bar Mitzvah, Confirmation, and more. Each service is conducted in the same manner each week. The theme may be different, but the format doesn't vary. There is a comfort in that. And, most world religions are pretty sure where we end up in the end. 

As a religion, Unitarian Universalists have no set dogma. Our services look different from week to week, though there are a few things that are standard, such as sharing our joys and sorrows or speaking our Bond of Union in community. We take wisdom from all the aforementioned texts, as well as Buddhist, secular, Native American, and more. We even garner wisdom from our fellow members. As a group, we have no single idea about an afterlife, and, therefore, we concern ourselves with the here and now. That doesn't mean there is consensus on how we should live our lives. So what connects us and guides us? We have seven principles that we follow. They are:
  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

These principles guide us on our journey through this life. They ask that we constantly look at our actions and assess if we are living these principles. They ask us to examine our thoughts and beliefs continually. One might come to our church a confirmed atheist and, while attending, find he does believe in a higher purpose or being. Conversely, one might come to believe there is no god, but only the here and now. Either way, there is a constant evolution of thought and belief. There is no fixed idea of how to behave or how to put these principles in action. But, there is a belief that trying to follow these, as we see them, brings us peace on this earth and helps us leave it a better place. We believe following these principles helps us evolve and come to know some higher truths. There are no easy answers and it is a path that requires much work and effort.

Each week we say our bond of union. Each UU church has their own bond of union: a congregational covenant. This is not a static document. In fact, a few years ago, we added a line to ours after much congregational debate and input. It reads:

Love is the spirit of this church,
the quest for truth is its sacrament,
and service is its prayer. 

To dwell together to in peace,
to seek knowledge in freedom,
to serve humanity in fellowship
to care for the earth in stewardship
that all may grow in harmony with the good.

Thus do we covenant with one another.

And here is the crux of the difference between being a Unitarian and any other denomination. Our bond of union is written in the active voice: to dwell, to seek, to serve, and to care. We are called to actively live our principles on a daily basis. We are involved in covenant circles, groups that explore our personal beliefs. We participate in campaigns for marriage equality, clean-up efforts for disaster victims, Crop Walks, service trips to New Orleans or Guatemala, and other forms of social action. We have a Green Sanctuary that promotes efforts to improve the environment. This is not to say that other religious groups don't do some of these things. They often do. But, it is more passive. They aren't reminded of it on a weekly basis. The height of a Catholic service is the Eucharist: Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. The congregation is passive and it is the job of Jesus to save them and the world. Jesus sacrificed himself for Christians. While they may be called to serve by following Jesus's example, they are not called to question their beliefs or text. Metaphorically, other religions are sitting on the ship of life, following a map to a known destination. Unitarians are fighting the current, turning where they think they should, not sure where they'll end up, calling on those seven principles and the wisdom of the ages to help them steer a course. 

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