Watered down?

The discussion at Coffeehour.org that Matthew Gatheringwater started has grown like kudzu in a hothouse, and moved in many different directions. For the record, I am neither more nor less encouraged by the verve and tone. But then again, I’ve been doing this for more than half of my thirty-something life.

One term popped out, a definition of an undesirable outcome to the work the UUA might do (or, as I suspect, will talk about but substantively avoid by stonewalling neysayers.) A watered-down UCC.

And I keep wondering if “watered down UCC” is such a useful concept. Does that mean that the UCC, of all Christian churches, is the least Christian? The most dependably liberal? Or reputable but not overwhelming New England vintage? I don’t think any of these is true, or particularly desirable. Ironically, it is probably easier to be a full-bore confessing Christian (if loney) in the UUA than in the UCC, where there are more opportunities to have your faith tested. Hardly a bad things. That’s my impression anyway.

But, Christianity has at root a binary quality that doesn’t survive dilution. There are different kinds of Christian — determined largely by era and place — but Christianity isn’t like vanilla extract where more or less can be added to create a desired taste.

Hymns, stained glass, and hot-button terms do not Christianity make. A particular witness, confession, mode of servanthood, and set of relationships with God and human beings distinguish Christianity from other religions (to greater and lesser degrees) and — more from a mixed and muddled response than opposition proper — these are not shared in Unitarian Universalism. In time, you have to make a decision and stake out a path. In a Christian Unitarian or Universalist church I think it is possible to mature, but barely anywhere else in the fellowship.

By being lukewarm — by being dilute — Unitarian Universalism itself is digging its own grave. At this point I’d rather be written out and written off than be left hanging in the middle.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I was the one who came up with the term.

    What I meant by is was that my perception, right or wrong, of the church that a lot of people are looking for is UCC, but with less of that ickypoo Christianity. Still theistic, still Christian-looking and Christian-sounding, but not explicitly Christian in the sense that the UCC is. We still worship some sort of free-form God and pray and all, and since we can agree on some loose conception of a God, we must have unity, right?

    As a native liberal christian, I am most comfortable in “Christian-like” services that follow a Christianish structure and have Christiany hymns. I like stained glass and organ music and even take communion if my mother is watching. What I grew up with is what I’m comfortable with and used to. When the pagans put up the maypole, I freak out a bit. This isn’t church! It makes me uncomfortable. But while I’m still not crazy about the maypole and the stares it gets from passersby, I do know what’s comfortable for me isn’t necessarily what’s best. And when I see former evangelicals reaching out for the charismatic leadership of a UU minister I consider misguided (a real example from several years back IRL, but nobody I post with,) I can see how slipping back into comfortable patterns can undermine the new directions we may be trying to take our lives in.

    I don’t think aping Christianity more and more closely will give us the depth that people are looking for and I think that it speaks to the problem that the very people who are asking for more depth and asking what special gift UUism has to give to the world are the same people who want this. Freedom and Reason and following the holy even if it takes me someplace weird are enough for me.

    And while I don’t mind if they use whatever they consider reverent language themselves, I don’t think they will find that getting everyone else to speak a “language of reverence” or more other trappings will really be enough for them. If they want to seek depth and think they can find it in Christianity, they have my blessing in their search. But I’m kind of working on my own search. And I’d like to use the words that reasonate with me to describe it, even if those words don’t excite their imaginations. I don’t fear Christian language. I use it when I think it is appropriate. But I resent the impliction that if I don’t use the most obviously Christian terminology every time, what I really want is a social club.

    I don’t want a social club. But I don’t want to be a watered-down UCC either. I think as UUism is now, there are good churches and bad churches, people who get it and people who don’t. I want more good churches and more people who get it. I want to spread our good news.

    But I don’t think the path to spreading our good news lies in trying to come off as something we’re not. Even if that something is a romanticized version of what we used to be or a romanticized version of a church we respect, but, you know, without the icky parts.


  2. Dear CC — This whole theme makes me uneasy, becasue I have a growing suspiscion that much of the UU quest for depth won’t work. In my opinion we had depth when we had a Christian witness – even if it was an unorthodox Christian witness. I don’t see this as romanticism, but as history. Witness the wholesale and historical collapse of Universalim from a liberal Christian faith, and into an ecclectic pan-religionism that few people can define, and which speaks to an increasingly narrow post-Christian and sectarian perspective. What we have now strikes me as spiritual vampirism, where we feed off the life-blood of other world religions, while having little life of our own. I fear that the UU community has put itself down a dead-end road.

    My question for you is this. You write of “spreading our good news”. Once upon a time I thought I understood what our UU “good news” was. I understood it as a kind of radical pluralism where people of all faiths would be brought together in peace and harmony. I’m now fairly disillusioned with that view, seeing it as a mirage which inevitably requires people of different faiths to give up beliefs that are important to their experience, so that they can together conform to some lowest common denominator. Today I am not so sure that I understand what good news is left for us in the UUA. How would you explain this “good news”, or how would you define it? Perhaps with more hope and clarity than I have?

    In the meantime I deeply sympathize with Scott’s desire not to be left hanging in the middle. I sympathize with Humanists who find their positions being softly denegrated for an artificial feeling universal middle. And I find myself deeply questioning God about where I’ve been, and where I should be going.

    with the utmost respect — Derek

  3. (Caveat: Professionally, I am a party planner.)

    To me, the good news of UUism is that we are a voice of integrity of the mind and spirit in a world where integrity of any sort is talked about a lot more than it is practiced. To be a UU is to live an examined life.

    I said things like “I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” for years without thinking through what those words meant.

    One of the finer things about UUism is not just that you have the freedom not to say things like that. It is that when you do say them you will mean them and you will believe them because your life has served as evidence that nothing else can be true. We are a community who ideally keep one another morally honest. To be a UU is to reject the notion that justice will be provided in heaven so seeking it on earth is of relative unimportance. And to be a UU is do understand that, God or no God, humanity’s duty is to take care of one another.

    UUism’s good news is that religion wants to be free and that freedom and reason functioning together can bring one a spirituality nourishing to the intellect and the soul that lets you function as a whole. For me, relieving the tension of “God both universally loving and universally powerful, despite the evidence you see in your life that both could not possibly be the case” was a wonderful thing.

    If UUism has bad news, it’s that we have work ahead of us. We can’t go to church every Sunday, “punch the God clock” and go home.

    But the good news silver lining is that it is work ahead of US. We together form a loving, thoughtful community who approach these questions with together, keeping one another honest and sharing the insights that work for us.

    Heard any better news recently?


  4. Thanks CC, I appreciate your thoughtfullness. And I can see how you find things compelling “good news”. But, as a Moravian once told me, “es tut mir nicht so” (it is not so to me).

    I have increasingly found my integrity challenged in hurtfull ways in UU contexts, as I have been presured to keep quiet, and not speak the things I believe in, which people might not agree with or hold in common. I feel silenced about the Bible. I feel silenced about God. I feel silenced about Jesus. And I wonder how a liberal Christian can maintain his/her integrity in a UU context where the cultural post-Christianity presumes that the Word should not be preached, the sacraments should not be celebrated, and Christ is no longer worth following. All 3 are seen as “old news”, “bad news”, or “too limiting”. And the irony is that once I cleared the age of 30, I now find the mainstream UU context where I made my home from 18 onward to be “old news”, “bad news”, and “too limiting”. I find that mainstream UUism is a bond that increasingly gags and silences me.

    Have I heard better news? Yes. I’ve heard it among Universalist Christians who told me that in following Jesus, God can be discovered as love, and that love will ultimately triumph. But that community of that witness seems to me to be trending to extinction. I can not be religious on my own, but need a community of shared practice and tradition. And I am hard pressed to find a community dedicated to Universalist Christianity. Its next best cousin, which I haven’t fully appreciated yet, is the declaration of Quaker founder George Fox. “There is one, Christ Jesus, who can speak to my condition.” I find that news promising news indeed. Because as I walk thought the world, honoring the Light in both Christian and non-Christian, atheist and theist, Christ has spoken to my condition better than anyone else ever has.

    Thank you for listening to me. — Derek

  5. Derek-

    While I’m not Christian, I think you make some excellent points about the current state of UUism, and the challenges it will face probably sooner than later.

  6. gee, I guess I should mention that I too am NOT a preacher (I am however a counselor – which means that here in the south, I too have to not be caught in a liquor store).
    Ive also never been to an UCC church, as the nearest one is 2 1/2 hours away, and I have three historic Universalist Churches closer to me than that. So I have no idea what a watered down UCC Church would be.

    Ive also had the privledge of hearing Derek give sermons — and if he was preaching around here, there is no question that I would sign up.
    so if he is discouraged, then it is very troubling.

    I suspect that I am more toward the vampire range than he might prefer his congregation to be -although maybe i could be the eccentric uncle that all big families need — although, if everybody in the congregation are the eccentrics – then what about the fringe?
    More seriously, many in the UU have had troubles with Christianity for a long time – its not recent, but still some UUChristians remain. But even as a partial vampire, I see great and wonderful use in the Bible, and wonder why someone would want to throw all of it out…. and yeah they do, dont they? while Universalist Christians may be dying, but its been dying for over 80 years (my theory), 120 years (the prevailing theory), but it aint dead yet. As long as the UUA remains more congregation driven than Staff driven, then it will continue to live.
    — so says optimism, pessimism says that the Swedborgians and Shakers are alive too, if you call that living….
    Derek, if you feel the Spirit calling you elsewhere, then you have to heed it; but man, that will certainly be a loss for the UU

  7. Steve – I value your praise (especially about my preaching). This is getting off thread, but is related to vampirism………. I do find that I value inter-faith dialog far more than most mainline Christians. And that still is an attraction between me and the UUA, and one of the few strong bonds that remain between me and the wider UU community. Without Zen Buddhism exposing me to the power of living with paradox, I’m not sure how I would deal with the story of Christ’s resurection. But by vampirism, I mean a kind of low-grade interfaith dialog that often leads to cultural theft or abuse. This has been most blatant in the way Native American religious rites have sometimes been mis-used in UU circles; but I would also throw into that boat (1) shallow use of Buddhist sacred images without real devotion to the sangha and dharma, (2) insensitive mutations of the Christian communion meal (eg. the cookies and milk communion used at a nearby UU church), and (3) the mish-mashing of Hannukah, Christmas, the Winter Solstice, and Kwanza into a generic holiday (as if the stories and experiences of these 4 traditions were not unique and precious in their own right).

    This is becoming more my forum than Scott’s blog, and I need to get my wordy head out of here and leave more of this place to its rightfull patron. To my friends and critics I can only say that I’m not completely out of the UU universe (I retain my membership at a UU church and still preach at UU churches), but my own sanity requires I keep my other foot in the wider ecumenical world of liberal Christianity. And perhaps in the long-run that two-fold existence is where I belong, with one foot in and one foot out. It’s certainly one way to not only think outside the liberal box, but to also live creatively.


  8. Derek-

    You hit the nail on the head. Indeed, this is one reason why I can’t call myself Christian-anything that I get from Christianity approaches vampirism, and I know that simply liking the communal aspect of communion (for example) is not respectful of its meaning and power as a Christian sacrament (ditto other religious rituals, ceremonies, etc.).

  9. In a way, the good news of Universalism within UU history is part of what I’ve been wrestling with during my series at Transient and Permanent this past week, including today. I feel that we do have a lot of good news to proclaim. It is good news that is possible to be religious without being triumphalistic or exclusive. It is good news that there are people who value love and freedom over book and boundary. It is good news that theists, atheists, non-theists, and polytheists can often cherish each other within a single religious community. It is good news that Christianity can be approached with a belief in universal salvation and metaphorical beauty, that Humanism can be approached with a heart of love, humility, and wonder, and it is good news that Neo-Paganism can be approached with a commitment to reason and even an appreciation of Christians and Atheists. It is good news that personal searches can lead to authentic revelation, and that one can find support from people who disagree and yet wish to nurture your developing soul wherever it leads. I learned all of these things from my experiences as a UU. Other people may have different experiences as UUs, but this is the good news that was revealed to me in churches, lock-ins, cons, retreats, and countless private conversations. I know it’s true because I was there and I saw it. To me, it was very good to learn these things. And I will keep telling other people about where I learned them as long as there are folks who doubt that these things are ever possible.

  10. Derek said >(2) insensitive mutations of the Christian communion meal (eg. the cookies and milk >communion used at a nearby UU church)

    at first hearing, this indeed seems outrageous – and on second hearing it still does — however, now that i am thinking about it, is it that much different that the shot glasses of grape juice and wafers that many churches had in the 50s and 60s (and earlier and later?)? I mean that seems outrageous in a way too — but it certainly was intended to be serious and thoughtful and meaningful. How is this different?

    As I write this (and believe me, this is taking a lot more time to think than the actual words written will indicate); I have to admit that I never found the wafers and shot glasses and “hurry up, next….” type communion very meaniful at all…. I know that however, just because I feel this way doesnt mean that others do…. and of course, one of the differences between the two, is continuity — wine is from grapes, wafers come from wheat (i guess they do); while milk and cookies would have more of a shock value. But I can see a skillfull minister being able to turn that shock into a deeply moving experience dealing with the last supper….
    … but no doubt, that is the point, the first thing you see is the shock, and without skill, that is all there is…….that and the question of is this serious or making light of something sacred?

    sorta like the M&M commericals of a few (gulp) decades back that had Shiva eating candies and making sure all four hands were clean….

    I happen to have a prayer wheel in my house…. I know what its for and how to use it; but if I did in public – since it has limited meaning to me, then it would be a cultural theft and abuse); If I truely believed and found meaning, then sharing it would be evangelizing, right? Or more serious: one is anthropolgy, the other religion. I take it this is what we are meaning by vampirism?

  11. Once at our (Methodist) church, during our charge conference no less, the District Superintendent spontaneously decided to celebrate the Eucharist using cookies. I don’t recall there being a liquid element. The point being that God could use anything, no matter how humble, for His purposes. Being kinda high-church, I was a little taken aback, but everything turned out OK, and it’s certainly one of the few things I remember fondly from years of charge conferences.

    Just to show these things aren’t limited to Unitarians.


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