Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

General Assembly Day 5: Passionate Arguments for Our Faith’s Center

I want to say on Celestial Lands what I said in person to many people about the overall “theme” for this General Assembly.  In my most humble opinion, the overall theme was not the 50th Anniversary of the UUA.  It was not where we will be as a religion in another 50 years.  It was not even the movement toward Spirit in our tradition, nor the movement towards more energetic worship.

Nope… I’m convinced the actual theme of this year’s General Assembly was… “Escalators!”  Not quite certain what the theological implications of this theme were intended to be… perhaps something like “that which goes up, must come down”… or perhaps “you must move, up or down, when the spirit says move!”

All I know is that it is impossible to go anywhere in the Charlotte Convention Center without riding at least one escalator… and when an escalator quit working, it was a mess!  Now, I know that for many of our differently abled persons, the theme was actually “Elevators!”, though I think the same theological messaging applies…

As General Assembly 2011 came to a close, the theme I found in the day were a series of calls for what was of ultimate importance to us as a liberal religious faith movement.  And, as might have been expected, each of these calls identified something different as our center… and none of them matched exactly with my own.

I know, predictable, right?

In the Sunday morning worship, the Rev. Kaaren Anderson presented a sermon naming connection with “self, others, and life” as the center of our living faith tradition.  She was bold enough to say that this has been our center for awhile, we just have not gotten around to naming it as such yet.  She specifically states that the long-running dichotomy between atheists and theists, or humanists and spiritualists as I would put it, has actually been detrimental to our naming an actual center for ourselves.

I found this sermon moving, and there were more than a few “amens” from me during it… and yet what I found missing in her message were two things.  First,  I did not find anything in her call to connection that was inherently Unitarian Universalist, and not found in many other religious traditions across the world.  It was a profound message to us… but not really about us.  Second, I wondered if what she was describing was not a center, but rather a part of our uniting practice or method.

Kaaren said that when people come to visit her and her husband Scott’s church in Rochester, they come with the question of whether or not the church is going to help them make meaning from and cope with the pains, the sorrows, the tragedies of life.  I agree this is the question that many come with… and also realize that we are not the only tradition that can have a salvific message in light of that question.  She is right that few who walk in our doors now are seeking to “Build their own Theology” or to have help in discovering a label for their beliefs.  No, people take the risk of walking into the doors of a scary new place because they are in need, and often those needs are out of a place of pain and hurt.

And yet, I have long thought that the idea of building connection, or building “beloved community” (or to quote Mark Morrison Reed, a Community of Beloveds”) is indeed a communal task… but it is not the task for those new to the faith.  It takes a while to work up to being part of, and taking part in building beloved community.  Being in and building beloved community takes a skill set quite opposite what is found in most of the world, and people need the space to learn that skill set in an intentional way.

Connection, or beloved community should not be the center of our faith imitrex generic pill identifier tradition… it should be the natural result of learning and growing in a practice of Unitarian Universalism.

After a few contentious votes during the plenary sessions (including the vote on the Action of Immediate Witness (AIW) on the withdrawal from Afghanistan that failed after I moved to call the question), and after the close run but failed attempt to let the AIW process die so it could be reborn in a new way some later time, it came time for the annual Moderator’s Report from Gini Courter.

The Moderator’s Report is always my favorite event from General Assembly.  I know that Gini will bring humor, passion, snark, and her ancient, wise, and generous soul to her message for us… her annual sermon to our faith.  I have never known it to be a report of events through the year, rather a view of our faith from the particular and unique perspective she has, not just because of her position as Moderator but because of the particular and unique person she is.  If you don’t believe me, just look at the picture of her in the Tiara…

Some things money can buy… but Gini Courter in a Tiara holding a banana?  Priceless.

I had a preview to this year’s moderator’s report, when Gini spoke at the Heartland District Assembly back in April.  Though I don’t believe she directly called it our center (I could be wrong), Gini very clearly and passionately articulated her belief that how we govern ourselves is a primary part of what makes us who we are as Unitarian Universalists.  She gave me a new phrase I did not have before, when she stated that our tradition does not go from Top Down, it goes “Deeper Down”.

After her passionate argument on congregational polity, Gini kept her passion going with a reminder to us of the difficult task we had laid on the GA Planning Committee in asking them to develop an entirely new kind of GA for 2012 in Phoenix… and that we have the responsibility to “step up” and give them the support and leadership they need from us to make that happen.  May the military chaplain just say, “Orders received and acknowledged, Ma’am!”

Yet I want to come back to the issue of Congregational Polity as a possible center for our faith (even if Gini did not go that far in her report herself).  I have certainly heard this idea that it is Congregational Polity that defines us as Unitarian Universalists… and I am somewhat disheartened by it each time I encounter it.  Why?  Because Congregational Polity is a means, not an end.  In fact, it is a part of what I describe as the “commonality” I find among Unitarian Universalists.  I frame that commonality as a Methodology.  What Unitarian Universalists have in common is not a doctrine or a creed, but a Method… a common way of making meaning in our lives, a common way of building religious community, and a common way of seeking to transform the world…

And yet, this Methodology is not the center of Unitarian Universalism… it is the Practice of Unitarian Universalism.  One of the reasons I am not a Zen Buddhist is that I do not believe that practice becomes and end unto itself.  Practice must be for a purpose, or it is another form of narcissism…

No, I believe that the center of Unitarian Universalism is and should be nothing less than the salvation of the world… in this time, for all time, and for us all.  Connection, Polity, and even the Spiritual Practice of Compassion that Karen Armstrong described in her Ware Lecture this GA are all practices that can lead to this center, this vision for our liberal religious faith… but they are only practices… only part of the method.

Our center, our vision must be to save the world.

Yours in faith,

Rev. David


2 Thoughts on “General Assembly Day 5: Passionate Arguments for Our Faith’s Center

  1. Patrick McLaughlin on Monday November 29, 1999 at 18:00 +0000 said:

    … and we cannot do that without community, without practicing caritas and compassion, without building the beloved community. They serve, I think, as the chalice that holds the flame–but are not the flame itself. That, of course, is that vision you hold up (and I agree), of saving the world.

    I hope the escalators help us take that deeper down higher up, where it can be seen and embraced by the many who are in need of it. Perhaps even to places where the signal’s strong enough (the near Faraday Cage quality of the plenary and exhibit halls was annoying).

  2. I still think our core is that we believe God (or that which is greater than us) loves everyone. It is our responsibility to live out that love, which leads to salvation, here and now. All the community, polity, social justice, etc… grows out of that central belief in love.

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