What’s the Problem? (With UU…)

I had a comment exchange about the nature of Unitarian Universalism with the blog author Alex over at his blog, Slithy Toves and Borogoves a little bit ago. (Note: as of Jan. 10, 2019, the original post and comment exchange is still available. -SM)

His central claim was that the problem with UUism is that it’s too open, too welcoming, and too accepting. I’m not the only UU to respond to Alex; magpie and agenova did as well. What Alex seemed to mean about being too open is that UUism does not try to pin down the nature of God on, it seems, the idea that the nature (or existence) of God is something that can be determined with precision, articulated, and made into explicit beliefs.

In case someday Alex’s blog goes down, I’m copying my comments here. I’ll probably change my mind about what I’ve said in them as time goes on, but at least they’ll be here as markers for where I’ve been.

First Comment

Shannon McMaster said…
Hi Alex,

There’s a lot to tease apart in this post. Unitarian Universalism is an association of congregations, meaning that each congregation is a religious community with local control over both mundane matters (location, building operations, board and member relations and so on) and religious matters (form of service, type of worship, and so on–including the ability to determine for itself the validity–truth value–of things like assertions about god).

Some congregations are Christian, many are not. Some congregations stress the Unitarian side of our history, while others stress the Universalist side. Many stress our humanist heritage. Many others would be hard pressed to position themselves on a Christianity spectrum, and many (not just humanist ones) would actively resist such an exercise.

This is because, religiously, Unitarian Universalism is covenantal, and non-creedal. Our religion is not focused on an individual’s theistic beliefs (or lack of). That’s the non-creedal part.

The covenantal part is where Unitarian Universalism’s reputation for being open and accepting gets its start. Only one of our principles is theological, and it is about acceptance. The best place to begin to get a handle on this part is here: http://www.uua.org/beliefs/6798.shtml.

But the short of it is this: as a religion, the religious questions UUism addresses are more likely to be horizontal–directed to improving human existence, human society, human systems–than to be vertical–directed at figuring out the truth about god.

This is because, while we often use the blind men and elephant parable, we also–and maybe more often–use the image of the cathedral of the world.


In brief, “Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of dust, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines.”

In the US, many find UU congregations feeling betrayed by other major religions, and we can spend a lot of time, as congregations, finding ways to talk about religious matters in ways that don’t offend or push buttons. This, too often, seems to keep congregations from doing our religious work in the world in a way that says, “this is a UU religious duty.” But, at our best, as we live our principles in the world we quietly ground ourselves in our deepening faith that the world can be made better, and that it is a religious duty to do that work, regardless of how we get motivated, be it this conception of god, or that conception of god, or no conception of god.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011 10:34:00 AM EDT

Second Comment

Shannon McMaster said…
There is an essential difference between the elephant metaphor and the windows metaphor.
As you say, in the elephant metaphor, there is a possibility of comparing observations, experiencing the different viewpoints, and then thinking they’ve found a unified elephant. Of course, odds are they’ll get the color wrong, or misapprehend the concept of the color, or have it never even occur to them that there might be a color. Not to mention what an elephant eats. After all, they’re blind, and this is their first encounter with an elephant.

The window metaphor holds as central that no matter how many windows we look through, we’ll never really be able to say what it all is we’re looking at. The cathedral is just a part of it all, and we exist only within the cathedral. We’re limited from the fullness of reality by the world we live in, and we’re limited by the bodies we occupy.

UUism holds that each individual can find a facet of truth, and can find it in community, but that the meaning of that truth is variable. Not because the truth is variable, but because the individual is limited. To the degree that UUism is centrally concerned with extra-materialism, it is to help the individual discover that facet of the truth that is meaningful for that individual, rather than to tell the person what the truth is.

Why do you think UUism should be trying to figure out god, rather than being the religion it is?
Wednesday, July 27, 2011 10:54:00 PM EDT

Third Comment

Shannon McMaster said…
Hi, Alex,
There actually is a difference of type at play. Religion isn’t science, it’s meaning. It’s the social tool humans have developed/evolved(?), at any rate, it’s the tool we have for making meaning of the profoundly subjective experience where the individual senses in a flash that there’s a unity to reality, and that the self we experience in the mundane day-by-day life is simultaneously insignificant and profoundly crucial to that unity, and… well, it’s the experience ‘ineffable’ was developed to name.

Religions give us a social construct to make (or) express how that experience means in our lives, and a framework for action to translate that experience into our lives. Religions like orthodox Christianity, especially in some forms like Roman Catholicism, give individuals a fully-formed framework for translating that subjective experience into a meaningful life. Including the answers about God. And it works for some people. But much of the history of post-Jesus western religion is actually one of ever increasing divergence about what god is (though a lot of it can be found in proto-form in the debates of the early Church), and this is particularly true in the last 500 or so years–the scientific era, though I think this is not a causal relationship.

In other religions, like Unitarian Universalism, we believe that the objective reality of the experience gives the individual the opportunity to find the meaning for herself. The framework we provide is to accept and encourage the individual to find that meaning. We also provide congregants a social framework for focusing other aspects of the religious impulse (births, weddings, deaths, to name a few of the classics).

In your initial post you gave an accurate, but extremely trivialized, description of Unitarian Universalism, then provided a prescriptivist assessment of what you think our religion ought to be… something like, but different from, science. What you see as a flaw of our religion, the fact that we’re not centered on “getting at the truth” by figuring out the prime mover (god x or god y in your initial post), and rather are centered on the here and now of the individual’s experience of the religious/ineffable, is actually a top-tier feature.
Thursday, July 28, 2011 6:15:00 PM EDT

Fourth Comment

Shannon McMaster said…
Not necessarily. (In reply to Alex’s suggestion that, “If someone thinks their life is given meaning by a god, surely the existence or non-existence of that god affects how valid that meaning is.”)
Firstly because I’d resist accepting the idea of a ‘valid meaning’ especially if it’s in opposition to ‘invalid meaning.’

Secondly, if people think they have meaning in their lives, then they do. You or I might think that meaning is strange, or narrow, or frivolous, but that’s their meaning, not yours or mine.

We might even think their meaning is predicated on falsities, and want to change their minds. And if they want to engage that, then we should have at it. Also, we should stand and engage when meanings of other people actually impinge on us living out our own meanings. (Like the creationism in public schools example that’s come up a couple of times in this discussion.)

Finally, there are some other facets of the idea of relativism/subjectivity that are in the mix. Each person’s experience affects how they can comprehend facts, and what meaning they experience as a result. Children, young adults, single people, parents, sick people, old people, to name just a few, can each face the same fact, but take different meaning from it; and the same person, as his experience changes over his life, can find different meaning in life while still facing essentially the same fact. Also, some Christians become atheists, and some atheists have become Christians. Whatever the actual facts are, their beliefs about them and–more crucially–their meanings from them have changed.

And this happens all the time. Not because the facts change, but because each individual can make meaning only for herself. Here’s the thing about beliefs–people don’t actually get argued into changing their beliefs, they discover what they believe by serious and responsible reflection on what arguments have been made to them, and how it comports with their experience, and how it affects their meaning. Sometimes they find they actually believe different things than they thought they did. And sometimes, no matter how hard we argue, they persist in holding onto strange ideas.
Friday, July 29, 2011 9:11:00 AM EDT

(Note on old UU posts.)

One thought on “What’s the Problem? (With UU…)

  1. Shannon, thanks for checking out the Terminal and my blog regarding my Unitarian Church experience. Part three goes up tomorrow and I would really dig getting your feedback on my experience and thoughts at TerminalPodcast.org. Also, saw that you dig Neil Gaiman and his Season of Mists storyline. That's one of my favorites too! Would dig doing some dialogue on the nature of hell and whether it can be redeemed, especially since “…if hell is a place, you don't have to stay there forever…”


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