Thursday, October 04, 2007

UUs, Pagans, and UU Pagans

This post on The Wild Hunt Blog got me thinking, and my response is a bit long for just a comment. The post is about a recent video released by the UUA, and what traditions are or are not mentioned in it.

It sometimes takes newcomers a while to understand the baseline eclecticism inherent in Unitarian-Universalism (UUism). The tone and content of services, and the beliefs of congregations (and clergy) can, and often does, vary widely from church to church and region to region. What gets put forth as official Unitarian-Universalist Association (UUA) materials can also vary significantly, depending on who is currently employed at 25 Beacon Street (the UUA headquarters). While certainly influenced by various national committees and decisions made at GA (the yearly General Assembly of UUs), it's not surprising that groups who often consider themselves part of the UUA might wind up feeling left out when the official materials come out.

Having worked at the UUA in '80-'81, I was bemused when Pagans "discovered" the UUs in the mid '80s. Some Pagans of my acquaintance actually believed they could, and should, "take over" the UUA. Some of them actually believed that the UUs, by showing interest in Paganism and being welcoming to Pagans, were expressing a desire to become Pagans. The thing is, UUs are welcoming of everyone. Basically, if you don't come in firing weapons or raping and pillaging, they'll be happy to see you, pass the coffee, and engage in conversation about what you believe. But UUs are, well, UUs. If they wanted to be Pagans, or Buddhists, or Christians, they'd go and do that. But they don't. So people who expect part of religion to be commitment - commitment to a specific religion - are generally going to be quite disappointed with the UUA.

I have to admit, I'm one of those who wound up disappointed. I was briefly a UU as a teenager, when I got involved in Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) (a group of us who were more often radical than liberal, spiritual than religious, but yes, we were youth). But after a few years of that, I really wanted something more traditional. I became frustrated with the UU blender - the insistence that all religions are basically equal and come down to the same principles. I found it was a happy home for liberal intellectuals who weren't particularly religious, but not for me. And in recent years I've also become dismayed with how the UU omnivorous approach has at times led to cultural appropriation. For instance, while I think it's great if UUs want to sponsor a local Native American elder or group to give a talk about their culture, hiring shameons and white poseurs to present "Native American" ceremonies at UU events is really, really not cool. The thing is, the UUs have an odd paradox going on - there's a general support for social justice (albeit in a Liberal manner), but there's also the omnivorous religious approach that can turn into consumption. So it's ironic to me that when I was with the UUA we marched in anti-racist demos and supported actions called by First Nations activists, yet now it seems so many of them really don't get it when it comes to respecting the wishes of First Nations people to have their ceremonies protected.

While I still have some friends who are UUs, and I think it's great they let everyone from the local AA meeting to the Pagans use space in their churches, I think maybe the Pagans are starting to realize that being a UU is a specific religious approach. It's an approach that may at times include some forms and aspects of Paganism, and other religions, to a certain extent, but it will never be the same as those specific religions. It's not meant to be.


Jason Pitzl-Waters said...

I echo a lot of your feelings about the UUA, and I think you make some excellent points. I think it would be fair to say that I have some mixed emotions about how modern Paganism and the UUA interact.

Hillevi said...

Still thinking about this. I want to go a step in a different, but complementary, direction from the one I took in the feed to LJ.

One of the essentials to remember, I think, is that UU is only about 45 years old. Each of the two traditions which joined together has a longer history, of course. It's my considered and informed opinion that UU is still finding its way toward being able to articulate clearly what it is. Even in the time since you and I met (less than 30 years) it has fairly dramatically re-presented itself, but this is not, in fact, a reinvention although it may look like one.

It's my sense that the inability to clearly say what we are, may mislead some people into thinking that we're not attached to being what we are, and we'd be happy to be something else. Which, generally, isn't true. There are people who find their way to UU as a sort of waystation on a path to something else. I believe that to have been true for many of us in LRY. Those people are welcome in our congregations, but not really welcome to redefine us, to tell us to be something different to suit them. Sometimes that can seem a fine distinction to draw.

The non-creedal thing is tricky, from both within and without.

Jaume said...

Perhaps you already know it, but I can't resist recommending the "Oh My Gods" parody of UUs as spiritual Borgs:
(and following)

Kathryn Price NicDhàna said...

Good comments! Thanks! And of course there's always:

Q: "What are Unitarians?"
A: "Agnostics with children."

Yvonne said...

Speaking from the perspective of a Wiccan who is currently exploring Unitarianism in the UK...

I am doing my own Wiccan ceremonies at home, so it's enough for me if the Unitarian service emphasises the idea that the truth is everywhere; it doesn't have to have explicitly Pagan stuff in the service every week (though it gives me a nice warm squidgy feeling when they do). For those who don't know, UK Unitarianism is different from the UUA.

I am not exactly a monotheist, not exactly a polytheist - my views on the Divine are somewhat Neoplatonist, a bit Hindu, a bit Sufi, even a bit Buddhist - so I fit right in among the creedless!

As to the issue of cultural appropriation, there's a good discussion about it here and here.