I think Admiral Stockdale’s question is beautiful.
So, here we are, you and I, together at the end (for now) of an exploration of What Does it Mean to be a Unitarian Universalist, and the final stage is for me to fess up a bit. Earlier, I decided that I’m not a classical unitarian, and that I’m probably some form of universalist (show me the flavor, and I’ll tell you if I like it).
I’ve talked a bit about congregational polity, and a kind of a lot about the UUA as a thingy. So here’s what I think: I think to be a Unitarian Universalist, you have to be affiliated with a congregation acknowledged by the UUA. That’s a pretty broad standard, but it is exclusive–you are either in or out. To be clear, I’m pretty skeptical about the possibility of free-range UUs. Here’s why:
The Unitarian Universalist Association is the UU club. Think of fraternal orders, like the Eagles. You’re an Eagle because you’ve joined your local Eagles Aerie. You have a local Eagles Aerie because the FOE has acknowledged your local group as an Eagles Aerie. Similarly with being a Unitarian Universalist.
This perspective of mine is nothing to do with anyone’s beliefs–I’m not making any claims about what one has to believe to be a UU. The 7s and 6s address that. Except they don’t. Not really. Not totally, anyway.
The 7s and 6s, particularly the 7s, bind congregations rather than individuals (directly). It’s this assent to the 7s and 6s that turn a congregation into a Unitarian Universalist congregation. It’s the UUA’s assent to a congregation’s adoption of the 7s and 6s that brings the congregation into the club. (Very roughly.) It’s affiliation with the congregation that connects the individual to the Unitarian Universalist movement.
You can, as an individual, agree with and live by the 7s and 6s, and that’s a great way to be free-range, but it’s only in congregation that one is actually a Unitarian Universalist. It’s not a high hurdle to clear–be affiliated with a congregation acknowledged by the UUA. Emerging congregations, the Church of the Larger Fellowship, full-on All Souls book-signing committee-sitting. Any of that is enough, and other types of affiliation would be enough, too, if I could think of them. Outside of congregation I just don’t see how someone can be a Unitarian Universalist. What, other than congregation, could the marker of being a Unitarian Universalist possibly be? There’s no creed, there’s no dogma, there’s no individual profession that marks one as a Unitarian Universalist.
And that’s the point of Unitarian Universalism. And, maybe (I don’t know), maybe that’s why the word “association” is in the UUA’s name. (Of course, maybe “association” is just one of those mid-century words the professional class liked at the time, and there were bigger fish to fry at the time of consolidation. This seems more likely.)
The point of the 7s and 6s, it seems, is to provide a framework for the individual to discover her beliefs (through the 6s) within a community (as supplied by the 7s). The individual’s value and search are central to Unitarian Universalism, yes, but the individual’s Unitarian Universalist experience can only happen within the Unitarian Universalist framework, which is congregational.
So, yeah, I’m a Unitarian Universalist–I’m affiliated with a UU congregation. I have a pretty clear idea of my beliefs. But I want more in my religious life than knowing what I believe. I want a community where I can share what I believe, refine my beliefs in the face of life’s events and the world’s conditions, and a place where others can do the same, where we (others and I) can come together to address the sacred. That’s a congregation.
This post wraps up this series for the time being. I might (will probably) come back to this series in the future. Upcoming posts will take a closer look at my own beliefs (probably), and I’ll take a closer look at the 7s and 6s (certainly) as I see about putting all this highfalutin folderol about congregation into practice.