We As Unitarian Universalists
Please read the following excerpt from “Can Unitarian Universalism Change?” by Paul Rasor.
“Nearly a century ago, the Rev. Lewis B. Fisher, the dean of the Universalist seminary at St. Lawrence University, memorably described religious liberalism’s flexibility. “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand,” he wrote. “The only true answer . . . is that we do not stand at all, we move.”
We could say the same thing for Unitarian Universalism today. Our commitment to religious freedom, our openness to new ideas, our insistence that religion should live in the present and not in the past, our healthy theological pluralism — all of these, the very theology that makes us liberal, mean that our collective religious identity will inevitably be difficult to pin down at any particular moment in our history.
Yet there are times when the opposite is true, when the realities are so daunting that we freeze up, playing out Dean Fisher’s aphorism in reverse: we do not move, we stand.
We face a major turning point in Unitarian Universalism, and our decision whether to stand or move will shape the identity and set the course of our religious movement for the twenty-first century. In a word, our turning point can be summed up in the term multiculturalism.
The context of our challenge is familiar but worth saying. American society is now undergoing the most radical demographic shift in its history. These changes are forcing us to reexamine everything we thought we knew about ourselves, both as a society and as a religious movement…. And yet, despite our efforts to become a truly multiracial, multicultural religious movement, we are changing much more slowly than the society around us, if we are changing at all….
In adapting to modern culture, Unitarian Universalism has for the most part adopted the core values of modernity, including its emphasis on human reason, the autonomous authority of the individual, and the critical evaluation of all religious truth claims. We want our religious beliefs and commitments to make sense, so we examine them and reexamine them, taking nothing for granted, and especially taking nothing on someone else’s say-so. These are important values, and we rightfully treasure them.
Yet this legacy encourages us to keep our religious commitments largely in our heads, where we can hold them at a comfortable arm’s length. This gives us a sense of control; it allows us to feel spiritually safe.
Multiculturalism threatens this sense of safety… At one level it is the fear of change, and the fear of difference that change always represents. At a deeper level, it is a fear of losing control.
I am not talking here about political or social control… Instead, the real fear is the loss of intellectual control. Our move toward becoming a multiracial and multicultural faith challenges our safe and tidy way of being religious. In this sense, multiculturalism might represent for some a threat not simply to our illusion of control, but to our very identity.
[But] we cannot reason our way into multiculturalism.
The reality of lived multiracial and multicultural communities cannot be grasped through analysis, statistical or otherwise. We will have to embrace it bodily, not just intellectually. We will have to wade into the new cultural waters up to our necks, and even risk getting in over our heads, without first being able to measure the currents or predict the storm cycles….”
[Source: “Can Unitarian Universalism Change?” Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor, UU World, Spring 2010. Italics added.]
Rasor suggests that a cross-cultural encounter can represent not only a cultural divide, but can also threaten our sense of intellectual and spiritual authority, our ability to “think” our way toward a reasonable understanding. Consider the following scenarios and how they might threaten such a cultural assumption:
- Your trip to Haiti takes you into a rural area in which people displaced from Port-au-Prince are being resettled. Your group is here to assist with construction of some new houses for the resettlement village. In the morning as some of the local workers begin to mix cement for the foundation, you realize that the proportions of water to cement powder and sand are different from what you’ve used in your own experience. Helpfully you step forward, stop the process, and tell them the proper proportions to use.
- You are in a corner store in an economically depressed neighborhood in the American South. You’ve been waiting in line to get supplies for the group house where you’re staying. As your turn approaches and you step toward the counter, people from behind push forward, engage the shop owner in banter, and get served before you. When you speak up about this rudeness, you are ridiculed.
- You are looking forward to a community meeting with the director of a local partner organization. Scheduling has been tight, and there is limited time for this important meeting. At the appointed time the director is nowhere in sight. After twenty minutes you ask about the delay and are told vaguely that he will “be here soon”. He finally arrives nearly 40 minutes late and begins the meeting without apology or explanation. You find yourself so annoyed that much of the conversation passes you by, as you prepare for a chance to state your complaint.
- You are visiting a partner community organization in the United States, run by people of color, and you notice that they are using Styrofoam cups and plates. You also observe they are using incandescent lightbulbs. Having studied economic and environmental systems of sustainability, you have a strong preference for the re-use of materials. You decide to speak out to the program guide, but your suggestions are met with an uncomfortable silence.
Questions for Reflection
- How does the sense of intellectual superiority feed each of the responses?
- What is the role of fear and loss of control in each situation? What pieces of information may be missing from the scenarios that could change the emotional reaction?
- What kinds of questions could be asked in each scenario, instead of advice or complaint?