Other Models for Liberal Religious Evangelism

It has been rightly pointed out that the real problem with the new UU logo is the larger campaign it represents. Some would say “obscures,” since we haven’t been given the larger picture of what the assocation hopes to do. But the theme seems to be that it’s time for us to become an agent for transforming culture in positive ways.

Which is kind of redundant because

a) all religions want to do that, so it’s kinda assumed we already were, and
b) if you are participating in, supporting, working toward same sex marriage equality, you are enjoying a cultural transformation that we ourselves launched, way back in the early 1970s.

So, in other words, the question is not whether we want to be a cultural transformation agent, but toward what transformation next want us to promote?

Whatever that answer might be, I can already tell you that we are going to bump up against other religions, at every level from the neighborhood to the planet, who are also feeling called to work cultural transformation. By which they do not mean, liberal religious cultural transformation.

If the association sees this as the moment to gather our strength for the final push to total triumph, let me just say right now, That ain’t gonna happen. There will indeed always be people who see the value of what we offer, or who cherish what we have given them, and some of these folks will definitely step up and step in. 

But no, there is not gonna be Heaven on Earth. We might have a moment — we’re actually having one now, much to my amazement — but it won’t last. I’m a historian. Trust me. Poland had Unitarian kings, and now they have Jesuit control. Massachusetts had the Standing Order, and now it has — religious and cultural diversity. 

So, assuming that religious and cultural diversity actually is our definition of Heaven, how do we evangelize our faith in a religiously competitive marketplace? Here are three strategies which, in a successful religious movement, coexist. They complement each other because they respond to diverse human spiritual conditions, and each of these conditions manifests itself at every level religion is called to serve.

Strategy One: Systematic Theological Evangelism.

Twentieth and twenty-first UUs suppress education about systematic theology the way fundamentalists suppress education about birth control. In each case, the fear is that “to know it is to want to use it.” The result is that UUs believe systematic theology is the evil other religions do. In fact, it used to be the primary tool our religious parents used to reach into people’s souls across racial, cultural, ethnic, age divisions. We had various systematic theologies, which disagreed in details but rested on congruent visions and assumptions. When Unitarians say “we have no creed,” they refer to not requiring people to subscribe to any particular set of details. And when the Standing Order rotated different preachers through the pulpits every Sunday afternoon, it was to provide preaching, praying, and religious education across the continuum of what their people believed.

This, to me, is the key to successful exhumation of the lamented (by me at least) Flaming Chalice: UUs have a right to see the various systematic theologies of our forebears (NOT all of which were Christian, by the way; it was an issue even in 1726), choose the one that works for them, and embrace its clear, careful language in public religious debate about “first causes.”

Strategy Two: Truce with Family Systems with Which We Will Never Agree and Whose Members We Will Never Convert

Family systems are tricky things. But any time a person starts describing right and wrong in terms of what they learned from their forebears, listens to what you have to say, and then says, “That’s not what we do,” you’ve left the realm of theology and entered family systems. Some of us, in fact, are here more from family systems than theological affirmation. I, for instance, am a UU Christian, but I worship among the HUUmanists, because they take such good care of my fiancee and me.

There are family systems whose bottom line is not the ability to persuade, but the power to use force. They do not subscribe to The Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), because they will tell you right off that people do not agree on what they want done to them.

For these folks, there is a different standard. It was taught to me by my father, and based in the premise that the world is full of evil people who will do everything in their power to hurt others. The answer to those people is: “Your rights end where another person’s begin.”

The older I get, the more it seems to me my father was right. We need to quit trying to save the culture, the country, the planet, by appealing to other people’s better natures. We need to give up on the idea that we are going to replace their theology with one of ours, because, frankly, we can’t even explain our theologies to ourselves.

And, ironically, the whole reason equal marriage has succeeded is because it followed Strategy Two. “My marriage doesn’t hurt your marriage, so you have no right to judge, exclude, or demean it.”


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