June 8, 2009

MSG Religion

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 11:46 am by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

Appearing back to back, two articles in the Summer 2009 UU World Magazine caught my attention[ http://www.uuworld.org/currentissue.shtml .] Both echoed (for me) the closing quote in the “Blog Roundup” from Joel Monka: “UU itself is still like monosodium glutamate in my life – a flavor enhancer for what I already had, rather than a stand-alone religion in its own right.” Wow,” when I read that I thought, “The purpose of  my life, as a UU Minister, is to improve the flavor of various religions.”  In “Natural Aptitude” Laura Pedersen tells us it is hard to distinguish UUs from Hippies and says, “… UUs believe that there is truth to be found in all religions, but no one relgion holds all truth.”On the next page, Ken Collier tells us that “Religion is about the healing of brokenness,” which is a powerful purpose but, though he speaks of the religions of Buddha and Christ, he says nothing about UUism being “a religion.”  He ends with the idea that religions are just different cultural methods of achieving the same goal of wholeness and healing.   Furthermore Pedersen notes that UUism is not so much a choice as a found quality, “Finding that one is UU is “… like discovering that one is gay or has a natural aptitude for clog dancing.”

The point for me is that even if a candidate for the UUA Presidency tells us “We are the religion for our time,” the fact is that most of us do not think we are a religion, but either a smorgasboard of religions, or something that enhances the flavor of religion cooked up somewhere else.  To be sure, there are many who think we are a particular religion, such as the religion of Existential Humanism, or the religion of  “God is love,” or the religion of “be reasonable and openmided,”  or the religion of  particular liberal causes.  But each of these are minorities who favor one cooking style over others and ultimately see the UU movement as a flavor enhancer for their own particular dish.  There are those who think of UUism as “an approach to religion” but certainly not a religion of its own. 

Maybe that is just fine, and we should accept our place as a “liberalizer of religions” or something like “fusion cooking,” an approach with endless variations.  However, when I meet Unitarians from the Kasi hills, or people in North America who’s lives have been utterly transformed by finding a UU congregation I think we can be something more.  I think our best churches are offering not just MSG but the substance of universal truth, prepared as religion that feeds the hungry soul.  I can’t say my church is “one of the best” but we do struggle to make each worship service not just a sampler of all the good spiritual food in the world, or a place to get something to suppliment your own spiritual cooking, but full meals that have real integrity and their own unique flavor.


  1. Robin Edgar said,

    It is not very likely that any UUA President will be able to assert that say –

    “We are the religion for our time,”

    with any credibility any time soon.

    UUA Presidential candidate Rev. Peter Morales’ campaign slogan is –

    “We *can* be the religion of our time.”

    In other words, in Rev. Morales’ estimation, Unitarian*Universalism has the potential to be “the religion of our time” (whatever that actually means. . .) but has not yet achieved that goal. Indeed one wonders if U*Uism is even close to achieving that goal or realistically capable of reaching that aspiration. In that Rev. Morales currently assesses U*Uism as “a tiny, declining, fringe religion” it would seem that he has his work cut out for him if he wants to transform U*Uism into “the religion of our time” in *our* time. Let’s say 25 to 30 years at the outside.

    Of course, to paraphrase former U.S. President Bill Clinton, just how realistic and credible Rev. Morales’ UUA Presidential election campaign slogan is depends very much on what the meaning of the phrase “the religion of our time” is. . . To my knowledge Rev. Peter Morales has never clearly defined exactly what he means when he suggests that U*Uism can be “the religion of our time”, nor has he laid out a legible and credible “road map” for how he intends to move U*Uism from Point A of currently being “a tiny, declining, fringe religion” to Point B of “the religion of our time” within *our* time. . . I have repeatedly requested that Rev. Morales provide this information in comments on his apparently moribund ‘Along The Campaign Trail’ blog and in comments on other pertinent blog posts but so far he has declined to answer these legitimate and quite straightforward questions.

    One or two of Rev. Morales’ supporters have suggested that “radical hospitality” is all that is needed to achieve that goal but “radical hospitality”, in and of itself, cannot “grow” U*Uism into “the religion of our time”. To use your own analogy, without spiritually nourishing “full meals that have real integrity and their own unique flavor” being served at the figurative “table” of the Unitarian*Universalist religious community, no amount of “radical hospitality” will retain new members. If people are invited to a “feast” and find the fare being served to be little more than thin spiritual porridge sprinkled with dollops of MSG, to say nothing of saccharine. . . they will seek their spiritual nourishment elsewhere.

  2. Ron said,

    Tom, I think that to some extent we UU’s are stuck in a state of inertia and confusion over whether we represent (what Duncan Howlett in his books described as) “modifying” or “thoroughgoing” religious liberalism. Modifying liberalism just seeks to alter, repackage and refine what is already available, while thoroughgoing liberalism is far more radical and assumes that ultimately nothing is beyond critical questioning and reforming…even the most fundamental teachings of the religious traditions in which they are rooted.

    We precariously straddle a fence (a rather tall one, it would seem), between those two approaches to liberal religion, unable to muster the resolve to finally jump off and take that full plunge into either one. Dr. Howlett called this hesitance “the fatal flaw of religious liberalism” and suggested that until we, as UU’s, decide to make that final leap and become thoroughgoing religious liberals, we will continue to be seen as minor players along the periphery of religion rather than fully engaged in the process.

    I often describe the core of our particular mode of liberal religion as being more “attitudinal” than doctrinal or ideological…less about what we believe than “how” we come to believe it, and how tightly or dogmatically we hold onto it. It’s that “stubbornly protestant yet never quite settled” streak that defines our way in religion, even to the point of moving beyond the confines of any one established religious tradition…even Christianity. We say that we “dare not fence the spirit,” YET THAT’S PRECISELY what we continue to do, even if unconsciously, by remaining on that fence and refusing to fully grasp (as Schliermacher suggested) that the reformation still continues. Freedom is not just a part of our methodology — to us free-agency (rather than conformity) is a beginning premise. Ours is a legacy, therefore, more of attitude than doctrine. It’s in our very “DNA” to be unlike our cousins of other liberal faiths. In our “faith of the free,” we are meant to engage in that reformation process with fresh and renewed resolve in every new generation.

    I’m quite convinced that there is a legitimate place on the far left end of the religious spectrum for a free-spirited, critically-questioning, doubting, ethically-centered rather than ideologically dogmatic way of looking at religion….and for religious communities and institutions to foster and grow it. In fact, I believe this faster-moving, ever-shrinking, deeply divided world needs it.

    People by the millions the world over, driven by that attitude, are leaving religious orthodoxy and “business as usual,” often heading for a secular waystation…yet the spiritual seeking and personal questing remains. We can have a place in the enabling and sharing of that conversation of the mind and heart, if we’ll just jump off of that fence, stop seeing ourselves as a modifying faith, and take that plunge into a truly free and thoroughgoing mode of religious liberalism.

    Tom, I believe that the conscious decision to engage in a thoroughgoing, no-holds-barred mode of religious liberalism must precede any of our other current priorities, including “radical hospitality.” Only then will we finally begin to throw off that “fatal flaw” that undermines our liberal faith.

  3. Chuck B. said,

    This is an issue that just keeps fascinating me as a UU. What you are describing is what Joel, CC, Diggit, and others who are on the right of our religion constantly hear me call “Libertarian Theology.” Robin has heard it too (sorry you have to again) but I am not sure he is with that group.

    They do not see UUism as a religion per se and for many (not Robin) they argue that being a UU is the right to do “their own thing” and only take up the traditional expectations of a relgion: helping others, reaching out to world and invting them in, etc. when they get around to it.

    I like your position because it mirrored my claim that the conservative position seems to see being a UU as more being part of a philosophy than a religion.

  4. Robin Edgar said,

    There is no need to express any regret that I have to hear what Rev. Perchlik is saying here Chuck. No need to say sorry at all. It is music to my ears when U*U clergy write blog posts that show that they share the same or similar concerns about U*U problems as I do, or otherwise validate my beliefs.

  5. Chuck B. said,

    No,Robin, that you have to read me going on again about Libertarian Theology. That’s what I was apologizing for. You must have read me go on about it at least 3 times, already.

  6. Robin Edgar said,

    Well there’s no need to apologize for that either Chuck. I am no fan of what you call “Libertarian Theology” indeed I believe that I have been fighting against it in my own way for over a decade now. N’est-ce pas?

  7. Mark said,

    Collier’s impressively-titled article addresses what religion is, not sorting out what traditions fall under its tent. “The healing of brokenness” and “the great binding together” are two definitions he gives. I agree with these examples because they describe action, not belief. UU is a community formed around a covenant – about our interactions with each other and the world around us – not the how or the why of belief.

    I think you blazed by an incredibly important statement in your pursuit of the theme of UU as MSG:

    “Lives have been utterly transformed by finding a UU congregation”

    That’s what it’s about. Debating whether UU _is_ a religion avoids this fundamental point _of_ religion. Ask those lives to describe why they are utterly transformed and they will likely not talk about whether they see UU as an approach to religion or an actual religion. They would most likely focus on how they feel in their new UU community and what they can bring to it.

    PS I found you through the interdependent web – Thousand Voices – comment by Robin. Not quite six degrees, but isn’t the Interweb great?

  8. Benito said,

    I think that UU is a common denominator minimum of the principal kinds of the religions in the world. In this sense, I think UU is a minimalist religion it refers to the fundamentals of the universal religions in the world (Buddishm, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.). Theistic religions, I think.

  9. Robin Edgar said,

    Hi Mark,

    Which ‘Thousand Voices’ comment of mine led you here? I do not have all that many comments posted there since Rev. Anthony is a little picky about what he allows to be posted. 😉 Glad he posted the one here though.

    I would like to take this opportunity to thank Rev. Perchlik for allowing pretty much all of the comments that I have posted here to remain readable. It seems that one or two U*U ministers have been trying to persuade U*U bloggers to boycott my comments which are often but not always critical. I am gratified that very few U*U bloggers have actually participated in that boycott which makes a mockery of U*U ideals about freedom of conscience and freedom of speech etc.

    Best Regards,

    Robin Edgar

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