For the Good of the Community
November 28, 2010
Rev. Douglas Taylor

Last year at this time I was on sabbatical in Chicago. One of the many experiences I had was visiting other churches. A colleague I had been in seminary with was starting a church on the north side of Chicago in which he has been attempting to break out of our dominant UU culture and appeal strongly to young adults: he had no hymnals, no Principles and Purposes, no talk-back or joys-and-sorrows. But the theology was distinctly UU. The faith was clearly UU. It just didn’t look like any UU church I had ever walked into before.

The other interesting experience I had attending church during my sabbatical was after I had returned from Chicago and had a month here in Binghamton while still off-duty. During that month I attended services at an evangelical black church. It was a very spirited experience which I got a lot out of. The theology was different but still valuable for me. The cultural difference was also very different and feed a part of me that is hard to explain.

And with all of that experience there, I assure you I was pleased to be back in the regular worship life of this congregation. I don’t tell you of these experiences because I want us to change and be more like something else. I tell you because they offer an interesting light on our topic of culture and community this morning.

Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal faith. We are not bound by a set of common beliefs, we have no single sacred book we all read or holy founder we all admire or statement of faith to which we all submit. Instead we have a commitment to allow each individual to uncover and declare their understanding of faith and meaning. This steadfast devotion to the freedom of religious conscience is a hallmark of our way of faith. We form a community through covenant – we are covenanted seekers with a wide range of individual beliefs and a share promise to encourage, challenge and support one another in the search of truth and understanding.

But it does lead to some difficulty when it looks like we are saying that at our center is a big question mark and you can fill in the blank with whatever you want. This, of course, is not accurate. But without a central creed or shared belief it can mistakenly be concluded that we have no common theology or anything even vaguely religious at our center. When our non-Unitarian Universalist friends and family wonder what this place is all about and hear that we have no creed and that we in fact have a wide range of theology together, then it can seem confusing.

But then a few years back I stumbled upon a statement that could offer great relief to this conundrum! In his book The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren admits that most people make a decision to participate in a church not based on its theology but on its culture. If people walked in and felt like they fit into the culture of the church then they were likely to stay.

This indicates that the culture of a community is remarkably important. I have a slim handbook in my office that has, as its primary premise, the statement that most people reach a conclusion about if a church is the ‘right fit’ for them within the first 30 seconds of their initial visit. Clearly we’re talking about culture here.

For many people the initial draw to a religious community after they’ve walked in the door is: Do I fit? Are these my people? Is this my culture? And I have to admit it really bugs me that this seems to be the case! I mean, we’re a religious community not a cultural center. Right?

But that’s the trick. Every religious community has a distinctive culture. Teasing out the elements that are cultural from the elements that are religious is sometimes impossible. It should be easy to do, but in reality it is tricky. Consider the jokes that peg different religious communities with questions like how ‘many Baptists does it take to screw in a light bulb’ or what was the response of the Seventh Day Adventists when the building was on fire. The Methodists serve jell-o and the Episcopalians process, the Amish ride in horse buggies and the Lutherans resist change. At least that’s what the jokes tell us. But none of that has anything to do with religion and belief. That is all about the culture of each denomination. Well, it’s a parody about the cultures. I’ve heard the joke we tell about Unitarian Universalists and take a seed of the truth about us along with an healthy exaggeration of our culture.

So what is the UU culture?

That was actually a focusing question for our UU World magazine back in their 2010 Spring and Summer issues. It started with an article in the Spring issue by the Rev. Paul Rasor in which he asked, “Our tradition has always been responsive to the needs of its time, but are we ready to adapt to our increasingly multicultural society?”

In that article, Paul Rasor defined our Unitarian Universalist culture as being inexorably linked to the culture and values of modernity. He writes this:

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.

Rasor offers what I see to be a clear sense of our shared perspective on how we do religion. We are seekers. We are doubters and questioners. We hold our truth-claims tentatively. When we go too far with that we are keeping faith and spirituality dampened and under control. I think that is fairly accurate. We have a tendency to think through our beliefs and our faith, and we can over-think it.

But how much of that is core to our way of being religious and how much of that is just cultural proclivity that is not essential? How much of our focus on intellect and the individual right of conscience is too much? Listen to a blunter listing of our culture from the same UU World magazine issue. It is Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt’s response to Rasor’s remarks. Where Rasor offers a clear sense of our shared UU perspective on religion, McNatt offers a clear sense of our common perspective on the rest of culture.

She writes:

Many of us are the people who brag about not owning televisions because there is nothing worth watching, unless it is PBS. Many of us are the people who refuse to listen to popular music because it is misogynistic and violent, and more than a few of us regard rap music as nothing more than noise and confusion. Many of us change the channel, and listen to NPR and love Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion, and laugh when Keillor makes fun of us. Many of us are unapologetic nature lovers, and the only thing we might love more than hiking in the woods is building our congregations in the woods, complete with tiny elegant signs that blend in well with the natural environment but cannot possibly be seen by a seeker on the highway. Many of us eat locally, we shop at farmer’s markets, and we would never be caught in Wal-Mart, unless it was a dire emergency. Many of us do look ahead in our hymnal to see whether we agree with the words, and forget that the person sitting next to us may need exactly the words we are refusing to sing. Most of all, many of us love our UU congregations because they represent for us places of respite and peace and sanctuary.

This is certainly not all there is to us. We are not wholly described as people who listen to NPR and shop at the local Farmer’s Market. There is more to us than this cultural snapshot that McNatt offers up. But again, how much of this can we tease out as of religious importance and how much is merely cultural?

Certainly there is a great value here for education, for curiosity, for a willingness to ‘have all the answers questioned.’ The part of that we can hook onto our way of being religious is seen in the Unitarian Universalist emphasis on the search for truth and meaning, the freedom and the responsibility to uncover and articulate what you know of faith and meaning. The part of that we can hook onto our culture is the way we tend to be highly educated, the way many of us are professionals with a predominance of teachers and social workers, and the way many of us are middle-class.

Our particular UU congregation has a certain flavor, to be sure. Our particular culture shows through in some ways amplifying the general theme of Unitarian Universalism and in other ways contradicting it. When I go to the mall I don’t find a lot of people I recognize from the church. But when I’m in Wegman’s my kids and I will sometimes compete to see who can spot the most people from the congregation. I know there are people in this congregation who shop at Aldi’s and at the rescue mission’s Thrifty Shopper used clothing store. But I also know I am more likely to bump into someone from the congregation when I’m at Barnes & Noble or the farmers market at Otsiningo Park. That’s part of the culture of this congregation.

In the Binghamton community I have heard us referred to as the Gay church, the old hippies’ church, and the pagan church. We’re also seen as the church for the activists and the intellectuals. (And it doesn’t escape me that today’s sermon is more like a ‘lecture’ than a ‘sermon.’) Interestingly, in some contrast to that, other UU churches in the district see us as not nearly intellectual enough; we’re the warm-fuzzy church, the touchy-feely church, and more recently the spirituality church. In some ways the answer depends on who you’re asking.

I’m not even talking about race and ethnicity here. And even though this conversation is often aimed in that direction, I believe there is so much to understand and to be gained just by exploring our own UU culture without getting hung up on trying to explain what it means to be white.

When I tell you about my visits to the church of a good colleague and I want to highlight the differences, I am less interested in the differences of skin color and more interested in other cultural differences. For example, both this congregation and my friend’s congregation have an organ – but we each play that organ very differently. Our worship is one hour long, theirs is three hours. I wear a suit and tie here and am usually the only one. I wore a suit and tie at my friend’s church and I fit right in because 50 to 75 percent of the men were wearing suits and ties. We have an order of service, they don’t. I have a Masters Degree from a seminary; my colleague felt the call and started preaching.

Theologically there are a lot of differences between us, but so far these are just the cultural differences I’m listing now. Theologically, my friend’s church is evangelical: they believe that through Christ all are saved – and they mean “all.” Now, with a little translating, I think most of us could get behind such a message. But I think the cultural differences are a bigger gap than the theological ones.

I don’t mean to down play the theological differences. The theological distinctions of a community are the core of the community; they are the permanent elements of the community. The cultural distinctions are the transient overlays that should not be that important, but in practice they are very important. I wish it were otherwise. I think one of the distinctive theological elements of both this church and my friend’s church is the call to become the beloved community, the universalist and evangelical inclusion of everyone.

A Unitarian Universalist colleague I admire greatly, Marilyn Sewell has said of our faith that “What distinguishes us, if anything, is our fervent wish to become better than we are and to heal a broken and suffering world.” Surely that is a wish many religious people – though clearly that is our wish. Theologically, there should be a great many congregations that share our principles and would in sympathy with our covenant. And yet my colleague Marilyn Sewell goes on to explore the cultural differences in a letter she wrote in response to Rasor’s and McNatt’s articles.

She writes:

A growing body of research shows, for example, that higher diversity results in less interaction and cooperation among people.
Robert D. Putnam, the Harvard political scientist and author of Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, completed another significant study in 2001, this one regarding the impact of diversity on trust and community-building. Interviewing 30,000 subjects, he found that “in ethnically diverse neighborhoods, residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down.’ Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.”
Putnam did not like the results of his study—and neither did his colleagues. It was an inconvenient truth. So colleagues suggested to Putnam that he look again, retest, reconsider. And Putnam did, for five years, and found that his original conclusions were confirmed. Finally in 2007 he published his paper, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century” (PDF; 38 pages). A sense of community can grow amid diversity, he argued, but it takes a long time and requires extended interaction between groups.
Racial and cultural integration comes when people actually get to know one another, and the built-in fear of “the other” is dissipated through experience. It will come, as it has already, when people are brought together by institutional necessity, as in our armed services, in sports, in integrated schools where young people learn and play together. In these settings, people find themselves engaged in common tasks where they encounter more than surface skin color and unfamiliar traditions, settings where they can observe their common humanity.

What I hear in Sewell’s words is an appeal to relax about the angst we have around racial and ethnic diversity. Diversity is still a good and noble goal that we shall continue to strive towards. But it is more important to lean into the really important theological distinctions first.

In the mid-1800’s Unitarian preacher and activist Theodore Parker wrote a landmark sermon called “The Transient and the Permanent in Liberal Christianity.” He was trying to cull the transient cultural elements from Christianity so as to develop a pure religion. It is my considered opinion that we need our transient cultural elements because they help us engage with the lofty important theological pieces.

So go ahead and laugh when someone says UUs are bad singers because we are busy reading ahead to see if we agree with the words; or that when you cross and Jehovah’s Witness with a UU you get someone who knocks on your door but has nothing to say. That’s our culture. We actually are very good singers and we certainly do have a message to share. But it is also true that we tend to read ahead because we believe that words matter; and that we don’t force our religion on others because we believe faith cannot be coerced.

But at the root of it, we are not working to preserve a particular culture from going extinct. We are working to offer a message to the world. It is a message about trusting your own inner knowing and your own curiosity. It is a message calling us to help heal a broken and suffering world. It is a message that every soul has an innate worth and dignity. To be sure, community has its own hang-ups and foibles, its own particular practices and culture. But the ultimate common bond we have is our shared promise to encourage one another in faith and to share in the work of building a better tomorrow.

In a world without end,
May it be so.