The Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (SUUSI) in
Before I explain my point, let me clarify that I really attended an Institute within an Institute. For many people, the week was spent primarily dancing and listening to music. For others, it was spent largely in nature – and there’s certainly some beautiful scenery in southwest
Many a theologian will tell you that spirituality begins with the emotions of awe and wonder. Well, that may be so, but those emotions won’t sustain spirituality, at least not by themselves. When I reflect on the spiritual climate I encountered in
I learned at SUUSI that two ideas above all else link members of the UU denomination. First, they consider themselves humanists. As a Jew, I’ve come to associate that word with atheism, since the so called “Jewish Humanists” have come together to affirm their Jewish heritage while rejecting the belief in God. In the UU context, however, humanism has nothing to do with atheism. It strictly concerns the extent of our confidence in people – our inherent worth; our capacity for such gifts as autonomy, wisdom and compassion; and our ultimate interdependence. That last concept brings me to the second idea that links UUs. They are connected not merely by what they affirm, but also by what they deny – the notion that what transpires on this earth is determined by divine intervention. It’s precisely because of their lack of faith in such intervention that they care so deeply about human interdependence. If we and we alone control the fate of the planet, we had better get to work. We need to embrace people from different cultures, closely follow international affairs, and stop thinking of ourselves – whether Jews, UUs, Christians, or Americans – as God’s “chosen people.”
I share the same perspective. Our fate lies in the hands of one another, not in some Cosmic Santa Claus. So yes, we should all consider ourselves humanists with a small “h.” But does that mean we have to reject God with a capital “G”?
That, my friends, was the main question of the week. In whatever form it was verbalized, the inquiry was essentially the same:
-- Should we affirm the word “God” or reject it in all its forms?
-- Should we affirm a god with a small g – not as the being of beings, but rather as a particularly beloved concept, such as the “sum of human ideals”?
-- Dare we possibly posit a God with a capital “G” – one who rivals in power that of the traditional, Providential God?
It was my privilege to be surrounded by people who, frankly, gave a damn about those questions. I spoke to ministers, most of whom wanted to affirm divinity in some form but were more comfortable with the small “g” god than any alternative. I spoke to laypeople who were determined to kill the belief in God, which they viewed as antithetical to humanism in all its forms. And I spoke to still other laypeople who believed that UUs need a passion for God – capital G God – to ground their spirituality, even if that God is largely different from the anthropomorphic Biblical deity. Perhaps the one thing we all had in common was that we cared about the issue. In some respects, it was as close to a “creed room” environment as I’ve experienced since I came up with that idea several years back.
If you think I’m describing what sounds like the basis for a healthy denomination, you might find it fascinating that in
Why is that? In a society with so many disaffected, unaffiliated people, why wouldn’t more turn to a denomination that is as open-minded, intellectual, and affirming as the UUs? That was the second most commonly asked question at the Institute. And this time, it would appear that the answer was easier to find.
The UUs are making plenty of mistakes, it would appear. They don’t do a good job of building up a pantheon of great historical figures to serve as role models. And they’re so busy practicing tolerance that they don’t do a good job of defining what they do believe in. Just as Gertrude Stein once said of
Still, the main reason for the failure of the denomination to grow, in my view, has less to do with its own inadequacies than with those of society. When I left