Saturday, August 11, 2007


The Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (SUUSI) in Blacksburg, Virginia hosts roughly 900 men, women and children for one week each year. I went there this summer as a non-UU, not having a clue what to expect. But I simply couldn’t turn down the invitation to teach a workshop about my favorite philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. It turned out that I was to learn at least as much as I was to teach.

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 Virginia. But for me and about 100 others, the week was an opportunity to think great thoughts -- thoughts about God, community, and the place of religion in our society.

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 Blacksburg, what I found above all else was a hunger. The gang was dissatisfied -- both with a life consumed by materialistic concerns and by the conventional religious alternatives to that life. You don’t normally think about people being inspired by frustration, and yet that might be an apt description in this case. When someone expressed their frustration, the other UUs rallied around them. That frustration signified above all else how much the UUs value the potential that religiosity – true religiosity – has to offer. And it reflected the tremendous faith that they have in human beings and human existence, which ideally Could have so much more to offer than the typical modern life of self-obsession.

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 America today, only 250,000 men, women and children are affiliated with the UU movement. That’s less than 1/10 of one percent – and probably fewer than the number who believe that Eric Clapton really is God.

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 Oakland, “there’s nothing there, there,” the same has surely been said about the UUs – it can be all things to all people.

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 Blacksburg and returned home to the D.C. area, I left the realm of intellectuality and spirituality behind. To live in a modern American city is to go from the office meeting, to the television set, to the golf course, to the hardware store without ever encountering any semblance of hunger about our failures to reclaim divinity. Here in affluent Bethesda, Maryland, people seem satisfied enough with their lot … too satisfied, if you ask me. When the day is done and it’s time to reflect, what really have we accomplished? Have we adequately confronted eternal ideas? Built interpersonal bridges? Contributed to the sum total of empathic love? That is how we should we spending our time. If you’re not doing so, and if it frustrates you, that only means you’re on the right track.

1 comment:

Daniel Spiro said...

Note -- From mid-morning on Sunday through Tuesday afternoon or evening, I will not be able to approve any comments.

Sorry about that.