Critical Issues Facing Unitarian-Universalism

Crisis? What Crisis?

It is appropriate to start with a definition, and one from the world's most important living social theorist, Jurgen Habermas (who is, incidentally, published in English through Beacon Press, under the auspices of the Unitarian-Univeralist Association). In his important and pithy study of modern society, "Legitimation Crisis", Habermas gives a clear and unambigious definitions of a crisis. In medicine it represents a point where, regardless of individual will, the physiological system of an individual is tested to capacity in its ability to heal. In literature, it is the point of the narrative where the protagonist either successfully confronts their antagonist, be that the setting, circumstances or another character or, in the case of tragedy, confronts their own weaknesses. In the environment, or social systems, it is also sensible to speak of crises, points in time and place where the capacity of the system is faced with a "life or death" test in its abilities to continue.

Related terms to crisis, such as "critical" and "critique" also demand definition. It is a tragedy of conventional wisdom that the term "critical" is invariably assumed to be a synomyn of the negative: "Don't be so critical", they say. To be sure, the most important negative characteristics of a subject are discussed when one is doing a critical evaluation, but that is the entire point. Those subjects, topics and themes that can kill the system are elucidated and - as critique - an assesment in made of the capacity of their threat is made, and hopefully, a pathway to survival and continued growth is mapped.

Having provided these definitions, it is important to recognise the most important symptom that suggests that the Unitarian-Universalist religion and churches is facing a crisis, a critical situation. In 2005, David Loehr wrote an important article in The Journal of Liberal Religion with the rather blunt title "Why Unitarian-Universalism is Dying". He points out that the UUA has declined by 7% in real numbers over the thirty years between 1970 and 2000, and when compared to population increases in the United States, has declined by 44% since 1970. More locally, the situation is similar and indeed worse; the early 1970s the voting membership of this Church was close to one hundred but in 2008 it is less than fifty; one certainly does not need to remark on the figures of the strength of Unitarianism and attendance at this Church made explicit in the historical study "The Half-Way House To Infidelity", by Dorothy Scott. If one does the maths, the situation does not look good at all; the very life-force of the Church and of our religion - membership - is declining at a rate that can quite honestly be described as terminal.

It could be argued that this is a feature of all traditional Churches in contemporary society, and indeed, despite being an association of heretics, there is little doubt that the Unitarians and their Universalist allies, do belong to this category. However, their decline has not been as serious or as rapid as ours, they still can generate a critical mass (pardon the pun) of people to attend their churches, and they have engaged in some expansion among developing nations. Further, the mainstream theistic religions have been challenged by the growth of various fundamentalist cults, who have grown very significantly in this time period, both in numbers and in influence. In doing so, they are capturing the debate of what it means to be religious, with the more secular-orientated, humanist-orientated, liberal and tolerant version - the one that we espouse, becoming almost a voice in the wilderness during a time where it is most important that such a alternative is known. What is to be done about this condition? Recognition of the symptoms is, of course, very different from recognising the causes. With some due consideration, one can argue that the causes of our decline can be summarised in three general themes. Firstly, an exclusive and negative approach to proselytisation; secondly, somewhat particular to our local circumstances, an antipathy for religious subjects, and finally, again relating locally, a practical and aesthetic conservatism which gives an impression of stasis to the point of paralyzation, or, as paraphrasing Ralph Waldo-Emerson, Unitarianism as a cold corpse.

Proselytize! Proselytize!

On the first point, Unitarians have long disapproved of active recruitment to their religion, partially due to a disdain for evangelicalism and, I suspect, the lack of contemplative rationality that often goes with such preaching (the Universalists, with their salvation through benevolence orientation and emphasis towards the dispossessed, never suffered this problem). However this disdain has been taken too far; the lack of advocacy of our religion has led to the circumstances where few know of our existence in these highly secular times. Once upon a time every household was aware of the various denominational alternatives, but that's when three-quarters of the populations attended church every week. Those days are well and truly past and as such, it is requisite for our survival that significant public promotion occurs. Some efforts are being made to counter this old problem. Last year in October, the UUA submitted a full-page advertisment in Time magazine. As one blogger commented succinctly: "It's a good advert. It gets your attention, and, while telling only one small part of the story, it doesn't misrepresent the product." It reads:


Nurture Your Spirit. Help Heal Our World.

Maybe you’re uncomfortable with the idea of God - or at least someone else’s idea of God. Yet maybe you yearn for a loving, spiritual community where you can be inspired and encouraged as you search for your own truth and meaning.

This is a church, you ask? Welcome to Unitarian Universalism.

Over 1,000 congregations nationwide. We invite you to join us.

As the 'blogger implied, the story of Unitarian-Universalism is certainly a story worth telling and it is another matter which we don't promote with sufficient strength. In this very hall, the most evocative advertisement for our religion is the panels of the life and activities of famous Unitarians that adorn these walls, and they're hardly elaborate by any stretch of the imagination. We certainly are paying insufficient attention to contemporary Unitarians. Some of you here may be aware that the inventor of the World Wide-Web, Tim Berners-Lee, is a Unitarian-Universalist. Indeed, he goes so far to describe the web itself as being like the UU congregational system. But how many of us are aware that there is a Unitarian-Universalist who has nominated for Democrat endorsement for President? The Alaskan Senator Mike Gravel, famous for his attempts to end the draft in the Viet Nam war, and for putting the Pentagon Papers into the public record despite enormous risk to himself. Are we aware of the recently departed Kurt Vonnegut Jnr, one of the most famous American authors of the 1960s and 70s, honorary President of the American Humanist Association, and lifelong member of the American Civil Liberties Union? What about the fact that it was a Unitarian, Professor Geoff Levermore, who shared winner of the Nobel Peace Prize last year?

Avoiding Religious Content: Relevant and Redundant?

This avoidance of our most important contemporary figures is only matched by a general avoidance of religious matters. In 2007, of the 89 pages of content (that is, not including the letters and back cover) of The Beacon, a mere 13 pages dealt with religious matters, including none of the editorials. In terms of speaker topics, we fared a little better, thanks to a rush in November and December close to a third were directly related to religious matters. This minority does seem at odds for an organisation whose primary objective, at least according to its constitution, is "the cultivation of the religious life". Now in a sense this is understandable, for the reasons that Peter Abrehart pointed out in his address to the ANZUA Conference on "The existing and future relevance or redundancy of Unitarianism". The concerns expressed there included the necessity to concentrate on issues of outward-looking issues of social relevance and not do so would condemn one to redundancy. Whilst I disagree with the axiomatic consideration of personal and reflective issues, in my opinion another important consideration is an inappropriate use of the word; when one fails to be relevant they become irrelevant, not redundant. Redundancy is the unnecessary repitition of ideas, and unfortunately, much of our treatment of social issues falls under that category, that is, we end up being relevant AND redundant.

By this I mean many of the social issues addressed are presented in a manner that is indistinguishable from those presented by community organisations, political parties, lobby groups and so forth. While the issues that they raise are indeed relevant, we fail at putting a particular religious and Unitarian-Universalist perspective on them. For example, it is both relevant and redundant merely to oppose the war in Iraq. To transform the issue into something which is both relevant AND necessary is to show how various religious traditions contain both the contradiction of advocating both war and peace, and how a Unitarian-Universalist opposition to the war is built on recognising the inherent rights of all people. This is certainly the method that one finds in, for example, that excellent book aimed at adolescents by Rev. Stephen Fritchman, "Men of Liberty", where personal struggle, social issues and Unitarian perspectives are combined in each and every story.

Aesthetic Appeal

Finally, active promotion of our religion and addressing topics which combine both relevance and necessity perspectives can certainly increase interest in Unitarianism. But being the sort of animals that humans are with our quests are for meaning and beauty, so not only is it necessary to promote interesting topics of relevance, but it must be done with a certain aesthetic dynamic as well. Our approach here is Spartan, and I don't mean in the sense of scantily-clad Hellenic warriors either. The environment and presentation here is not conducive to generating a sense of wonder with the world; we could shame the Calvinists with their excesses. We are saved from such dour grimness at times by the acapella efforts by Therese Virtue's singers during our concerts, and also somewhat by our modest gardens, but in all honesty, we're a long way from the vigour of the Black gospel churches or the baroque or neoclassical art of the Catholics.

In summary, I am very concerned of the long-term survival of the Unitarian-Universalist religion. To be sure, it has the potential to be not only a religion that "holds its ground", but actually makes great advances in a day and age where 'religion' has become a synomyn for irrational and reactionary beliefs. Yet this survival is utterly dependent on us getting our message to the general public and ensuring that the message that we give both works with our historic strengths and in a style that is exciting and dynamic. Ultimately it is up to us to do this; n no one else is going to do it for us, no one is going to promote a liberal and rational approach to religious and spiritual matters on issues of contemporary importance. If we do not, our great contribution will become merely a footnote to history and we will simply fade into the mists of time.

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church January 13, 2008