In the Library, with a Lead Pipe

Here’s the scenario… I’m sitting in my local UU congregation, and we have a guest, a Sikh guru, who gives our sermon that week on the history and basic teachings of Sikhism. After the guru has gone home I find I can’t get the ideas out of my head… they’re really speaking to me, and seem to really align with my understanding of Unitarian Universalism. I want to explore this more, so I…

What, exactly?

Over at Irregular Times jclifford made a couple of posts about … failings in Unitarian Universalism’s official channels. (Note: jclifford’s site appears to be defunct as of Jan. 10, 2019. -SM)

The first post notes that there is a definite paucity of books in a particular UU congregation’s library of titles having to do with anything other than Christianity. Indeed, of the 87 titles he noted, only Jewish Days and Holidays,  “12 books on NeoPaganism” and a general dictionary and the phone book offer anything explicitly non-Christian.

On receiving some criticism from post commenters for picking on a single congregation, jclifford expanded the search to the UUA bookstore, and then–I think most usefully–to the UUA website in the next post.

In short, the UUs come up short. Precious little intellectual space is given over to Sources other than those explicitly coming from a Christian background. At least in that one congregation, in the UUA bookstore, and on the UUA’s web site.

In the actual UU services I’ve attended, however (and in the sermons I’ve heard thanks to podcasts), there hasn’t been a lack of exposure to humanism, wisdom expressed in popular song, religious naturalism, Goddess worship, Biblical God talk as non-personalistic, and shamanism–for instance and off the top of my head.

So I think focusing on the books on offer at a given congregation, or the items for sale through the UUA bookstore sort of misses the point of the UU religious experience. I’m also unsure that a strict word-count-based review of the UUA’s web site is a terribly useful a way of critiquing Unitarian Universalism’s level of support for individual Unitarian Universalists’s exploration and spiritual growth of the wisdom from the world’s religions.

Unitarian Universalism is not, after all, the Mall of Religion. Or, slightly more scholarly-ly, it would probably be a mistake for the UUA book store or even the UUA web site to attempt to speak with much authority on religious traditions from around the world–illegitimate appropriation, intellectual imperialism, just plain gettin it wrong, and all like that.

Which puts us in a bind. We say we welcome all religious seekers, and in my experience we do. But we don’t have anywhere near the level of institutional support for non-Christian traditions as we plainly have for our Christian institutional heritage. This makes some sense; we’re only 50 years old, and the AUA and the UCA came together in part because each was pretty much the only Christian organization willing to recognize that the other one was, in fact, Christian.

There are special interest UU groups, such as: CUUPS, HUUmanists, Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship, Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness. Hardly a wide spectrum, but wider than implied by a simple word-count.

The implicit critique of the two posts it a good one, though. What does it actually mean, in the real world of our congregations and our religion, when we “affirm and promote… acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth… [in a] free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and to “draw from many sources” in that search?

What is our responsibility to provide direct access to those sources, and to provide actual (physical and/or digital) space to explore traditions within our congregations and the association for our individuals?

Just as importantly, what is our ability to do so?

I dunno. What have other congregations done when faced with someone whose search lead them in directions the congregation isn’t able to provide for? I mean someone who’s UU, planning to stay UU, but really wants to expand their understanding of the UU religion by digging into and exploring another tradition.

(Note on old UU posts.)

3 thoughts on “In the Library, with a Lead Pipe

  1. Also just as importantly, what is our responsibility in doing so? How do we approach traditions that are not our own in an authentic, respectful manner. I don't think dabbling, taking what we like at will, and then leaving other religious traditions is acceptable. But how do we appreciate wisdom from those sources? I don't really expect an answer, but it's an important thing to think about.


  2. Thanks for stopping by, I'm looking forward to exploring your site. I completely agree that “dabbling, taking what like at will, and then leaving” is unacceptable. I expect someone smarter than I am has a useful frame for this problem, which is at least three-fold. There's the UUA level, and the individual level, as I discussed in the post. Then at the congregational level I can imagine problems with, for instance, aping the ceremonies of other traditions and calling it 'exploration.'Also: I've realized that my first paragraph in the original post might be slightly misleading. The scenario is imaginary. I'd probably like to hear a Sikh guru explaining the religion, but I never have, and don't know anything more than what I turned up in a wikipedia search to make sure I was spelling it right.


  3. Oh, that is interesting. Thanks for wrestling with this. Our past, including appropriating Christian materials (that hymnbook has a lot of Christian hymns that we've changed in ways I don't think are very responsible), has been mixed at best on the ways we relate to other traditions. Taking this issue seriously, as you clearly are, is the first step towards doing better in the future. Christian Schmidt


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