16 August 2008

"Postchristianity" and the Future of Unitarian Universalism in North America (Part II)

I understand that folks are upset by the recent use of the "p-word" by a Unitarian Universalist Association spokesperson after the recent Knoxville shooting. I've got several comments about this in my last blog article ("'Postchristianity' and the Future of Unitarian Universalism in North America").

But I'm going to post this question to see if we can get folks to focus on the long-term demographic trends in North America that point towards a postchristian society:

If we end up with a postchristian society similar to Western European societies where religion fulfills at most a cultural, symbolic, and ceremonial role, what is our future as a Unitarian Universalist movement in this postchristian society?

I would like to focus on this question and how it might affect future Unitarian Universalist growth and survival.

Any thoughts?


The Eclectic Cleric said...

"A Post-Christian Protestant faith inspired by the wisdom and insights of all the world's great religions" has long been one of my four working definitions of contemporary Unitarian Universalism (and one that I believe I originally lifted from Scott Wells). The others are "a contemporary expression of liberal Christian humanism," "a radically individualistic Christian heresy grounded in the experience and authority of a reasoned mysticism" and "its own New Religion." I don't think any of these really sums UUs up though, while "All of the Above" leaves much to be desired as well.

But you raise the much more interesting question, for me at least, of the relationship of our faith community to the surrounding dominant culture. It seems to me that increasingly we are defining ourselves as radical cultural critics, rather than "America's Real Religion," and that this movement to the fringe and margins of society has also in some ways marginalized UUs in ways we don't fully understand or appreciate. Likewise, as so-called Western Civilization itself becomes more post-Christian, UUs potentially find themselves in odd alliances with other faith-based cultural critics around issues of consumerism, violence and pornography, home-schooling, etc. To the extent that the post-Christian world is pluralistic, it can also be morally relativistic to a degree that seems to stretch the boundaries of ordinary understanding and tolerance.

And then, of course, there's this wonderful question from "Self-Reliance:" "For every Stoic was a Stoic but in Christendom where is the Christian?" Gotta love that Emerson. Just love him....

Scott Wells said...

Oof, now Steve, that's a question.

I think Unitarian Universalism is going to have a terrible time of it in coming, increasingly-secular generations.

A kind of congregated and institutionalized pluralism, yet with particular sectarian traditions and customs, is going to make less and less sense. I'll try to write more about this at my blog.

Steve Caldwell said...

The eclectic cleric wrote:
"Likewise, as so-called Western Civilization itself becomes more post-Christian, UUs potentially find themselves in odd alliances with other faith-based cultural critics around issues of consumerism, violence and pornography, home-schooling, etc."

This is totally unrelated to the question I asked but I wanted to bring it up for clarification.

As Unitarian Universalists, we often take the role of counter-cultural critic with respect to issues surrounding consumerism, violence, and education.

I don't think we've done so with pornography. This is based on my examination of our sexuality education materials.

The "Our Whole Lives" program mentions very little about pornography and erotica at the younger age/grade levels. This discussion happens in the adult and young adult curricula.

The curricula present a wide range of viewpoints and simply let the participants talk about the topic with some questions to guide the conversation.

This isn't a "pro-porn" or "anti-porn" position.

We now resume your regular programming.

Anonymous said...

First, are Western European societies really post-Christian?

In the UK church attendances may well be down, but 72% still self-identify as Christian - and still refer primarily to the Christian churches for marriage, birth rites, memorials and funerals. Many of our schools are also linked to churches. This may well all be viewed as symbolic, but it has also been argued that even the most affluent, comfortable citizens still refer to Christianity for guidance - particularly so in times of need / distress.

Also look at the state - we are still headed by a Christian monarchy, we still have an established church, church leaders still have a influential presence in politics and the media.

And then we also look to our history which by and large has been continually shaped by aspects of Christianity. Even our current 'socialist' / 'social democratic' government can trace some of its party founders directly back to Christianity.

Yes, we are now an increasingly secular, mult-faith society - we are less overtly Christian but the close ties are still clearly there.

The same could also be said of other Western European countries - and with the increasing unity and intermingling with less secular minded East Europeans under the EU, I don't expect post-Christendom to be declared just yet. Indeed, I would go as far to argue that to trumpet the start of post-Christendom in Western Europe is wishful thinking on the part of some, and doomsaying on the part of others.

In reference to the question on the future of Unitarian-Universalism - I think regardless of societal conditions, there will always be seekers of 'higher truth'. People are not going to simply give up on a search that has gone on throughout the ages, but they may well give up completely on 'doing church' (in terms of attending on sundays, participating in worship etc).

In the UK, it is this (in my personal opinion) which has lead to decline - it is not that people don't have a thirst for 'higher truth', they have grown out of sync with how the church typically seeks to quench this thirst.

People no longer seem to connect with the Sunday sermon / hymn / direct prayer format. And they are generally more educated, and so don't necessarily simply accept theology handed down to them.

I think my point is that there is a constituency of people in our societies (regardless of whether we classify them as post-Christian or not), to whom Unitarian-Universalism could appeal.

It may well be too late for British Unitarianism as a nationally organised church to gain the momentum for an internal renewal movement which could eventually reach out to them. It has been reported in the press that it will be the first denomination to become extinct - due to dwindling elderly congregations, financial issues and a lack of minister. It will probably only exist in scattered fragments in the future.

In the US, I think UUs are going to have two options.

The first is to move together towards renewal. To do this they will need to seek some resolution to the identity crisis and gain some form of unity - to at arrive at some sort of coherent message and practice that they can offer to seekers.

I don't think simply being liberal and attempting to offer a bit of every other faith will appeal. Simply put, liberal networks now exist within most of the major faiths - and the Bahais are much better placed in providing a prophetic, global 'religion of religions'.

If Unitarian-Universalism could develop some sort of path or course of personal self-discovery - as Stephen Lingwood and other UK Unitarians seem to be doing (see http://unitarianpath.blogspot.com/) then this maybe a start. But again, for this you need consensus and a shared sense of direction, purpose etc.

The alternative to renewal as a unified movement could instead be a further move towards radical congregationalism - and for UUism to exist more as an umbrella group of various congregations and movements. Maybe a move forward by referring back to the Free Religious Association idea?

Of course, I accept these 'ideas' are really just ramblings of one individual - one who has been drifting away from Unitarian-Universalism for some time now. It would be interesting to see how other more committed and involved UUs envision the future.

fausto said...

Religion is not demography, and demography is not predestination. As for predestination, that's the stop where we UUs first got off the bus -- but we didn't do so because we thought it would appeal to the shifting winds of popular culture.

I don't know what changing trends in demography and popular culture portend for us, but I know that it would be folly to try to redefine our religion in expectation of them. A religion that redefines itself to appeal to fickle cultural preferences is a house built on sand.

Mystical Seeker said...

Allow me as a non-UU to make a comment. Europeans are more religious than they might let on, and Europeans are more like Americans on the subject of religion than the stereotypes suggest.

I was in Denmark a year and a half ago, and I blogged about my difficulties in finding anything resembling the sort of progressive Christianity there that you can find in pockets of Protestant Christianity in the US--the churches that are exploring theologians like Borg, Spong, Crossan, and others. At about that same time, the New York Times published an article which mentioned an article that found that people in the US and Europe tend to lie about their religious feelings. The article quoted a researcher who said, “In America, people exaggerate how religious they are, and in Europe, it’s the other way around. That has to do with the situation of religion in both places. Americans think religion is a good thing and tend to feel guilty that they aren’t religious enough. In Europe, they think being religious is bad, and they actually feel guilty about being too religious.”

All of which suggests that the real issue is how Christianity or other faiths are perceived in the culture. The best thing that religious progessives can do is to resist the inaccurate stereotypes about religion and to show how religion need not be, as it is in Europe, something to be embarassed about, that religion can be a progressive, enlightened, tolerant experience.

Maybe the real problem is not that a lot of Europeans are not religious, but that they don't care much for the dogmas they are fed in Christian churches, and the pablum that is passed to them by the clergy who learn about modern biblical scholarship in divinity school but never bother to tell their congregants about it in their sermons. This results in what John Shelby Spong calls the "church alumni society"--religious people who are unchurched. People want to be able to go to church without being expected to believe the unbelievable, without having to roll their eyes and say, "You've got to be kidding me."

This poses a real challenge for progressive Christians in particular and religious liberals like UUs in particular. The solution, I think, lies not in taking a smug position towards Christianity as if smart people have moved beyond it (which is what those who object to the term "post-Christian" believe that the term implies), but rather to show how it is possible for a progressive, thinking, inquuisitive faith is possible within the context of any religion, including Christianity.