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UU Theologies, Take One

During this second half of my sabbatical, I have been working to turn a series of sermons I did in 2007 and 2008 on the major theological strands within Unitarian Universalism into a book.  I'm starting with the last chapter/sermon.  In this chapter I'm seeking to define what makes us all uniquely UU despite the diversity of our beliefs. 

In Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones, there is a character by the apt name of Parson Thwackum. Fielding has the cleric declaim on religion at a luncheon. He says, “When I speak of religion, of course I mean the Christian religion. And by the Christian religion, of course I mean the Protestant religion. And by the Protestant religion, of course I mean the Church Of England!”

Parson Thwackum represents the view of religion most common in the Western world. By this definition, a religion is defined by a unique set of beliefs in certain intellectual propositions, for example, a belief that God is one but also in three persons. As this book has explained, Unitarian Universalists don’t have just one belief. We have many beliefs and many different ways of spiritual practice.

This makes things interesting for us and makes us different for any other religion I know of. Surveys of theological beliefs by Unitarian Universalists, whether they are conducted from time to time by the Unitarian Universalist Association, or by individual congregations, find that there is no majority theological position among Unitarian Universalists. Whether Humanist, Liberal Christian, Nature Mystic, Buddhist or Earth Centered, no one way of belief and practice defines religion for anything greater than a plurality of us. In fact, in almost all surveys, the responses add up to well over 100%, suggesting that people have checked more than one box. Perhaps ‘eclectic’ describes the theology of most UUs! In my experience, those who do find themselves firmly in one theological camp often experience themselves as a beleaguered minority. But every theological position within Unitarian Universalism is a minority position.

So how do we deal with this diversity in our congregational life? What language do we use in worship? How do we talk with each other about the things that matter most to us in life? I would suggest that there are good ways and bad ways to do this. I thought about some of the bad ways we do this when I was standing in line at Starbucks one morning. I realized that the main secret of the success of a place like Starbucks is that it allows consumer preferences to run wild. People were ordering things like an extra hot skinny latte with one Splenda, or a sugar free macchiato with an extra shot. Everybody got exactly the drink that they wanted. I realized that many of us approach our Unitarian Universalism from this hyper-consumerist mindset, expecting our worship services to reflect unique personal preferences for theological language, and sometimes being offended when they don’t. I wrote a skit based on this Starbucks insight that had people ordering sermons based on their personal theological whims. It had people ordering an Earth Centered sermon but with a Transcendentalist and not a neo-pagan sensibility. Or a straight-up Humanist service, hold the God. This presents preachers with the ever present temptation to preach from the lowest common denominator, saying only things that are general and un-controversial, and hence bland.

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