UUA, Why Aren't You Nurturing My Spirit?

I laughed out loud yesterday when I got to the bottom of the stairs at the Oregon Convention Center for General Assembly and I saw the giant pendulum swinging in the foyer. Pendulums come up often when I'm discussing the place of humanism in the UUA with the people who come by the UU Humanists' booth in the exhibit hall. In the past, I'm told (since I am a new Unitarian Universalist and wasn't there to see for myself) the pendulum swung toward humanism, and now I'm told (and I see for myself) that it is swinging toward theism. The slow, relentless swing of the gold ball in the foyer is mesmerizing and the force must be tremendous, but I say it's time to stop the pendulum's swing entirely.

I just came from the Service of the Living Tradition celebration where the wonderful Marlin Lavanhar gave the sermon. Through the also wonderful power of YouTube, I feel like I know Marlin since I have watched him speak many times in the videos put up by All Souls Tulsa, where he is the senior minister. He also was one of our speakers last year for the UUHA GA program on how to create Sunday services that embrace the diversity of religious thought in our congregations. All Souls Tulsa has weekly services in three different styles to create the right nurturing environment for its humanist UUs, more traditionally religious UUs, and newly integrated Pentecostal UUs, while realizing that people don't fit into boxes and encouraging participation across and between.

The major message of the Service of the Living Tradition sermon was that we need to allow our people to be authentic and express their sincerely held beliefs. Yes, I said to myself as I applauded with the rest. This is only my third General Assembly, and I've gotten this message loud and clear many, many times in GA sessions and services. I've read this message in UU World, and UUA blogs, and on The VUU, the UUA/Church of the Larger Fellowship's on-line talk show. I've heard this message directly from senior UU staffers in Boston when we've met to talk about outreach to nontheists. Yes, we need to allow people to bring their authentic selves to their Unitarian Universalist community. Yes, feeling the need to hide part of your identity is being in the closet, and that is oppression.

Being a nontheist in America, I've used that analogy to LGBTQ experience many times. I've pointed to public opinion surveys that show that atheists are now the most distrusted minority, surpassing gays and lesbians, Muslims, and sometimes even rapists in polls. Fearing and hating atheists is irrational but it is socially acceptable. While I point out that this distrust does not generally result in the level of discrimination and oppression faced by many other minorities, it is still very real. This causes many, if not most atheists to hide their identity and stay in the closet. In some conservative parts of the country this is necessary to keep your job, your apartment, or sometimes even your family relationships. Think about that; sometimes people value their need for others to share their religious faith more than they value their relationship with their spouses or their children. Or put another way, sometimes people are so tribalistic and uncomfortable with difference that it can dissolve love itself, usually the most powerful force in human nature.

But wait! In Marlin's story and the UUA's story, I am the oppressor. I am his oppressor because he did not feel comfortable being open about his authentic self. What is wrong with Unitarian Universalism and what is holding us back from growth is our failure to embrace those who embrace God. Wow! I've heard second hand of ministers saying, "If we just wait for all those old humanist dinosaurs to die off, Unitarian Universalism will be free at last," but I never gave much credence to those stories or I dismissed them as the easily-ignored opinion of a small minority who are outside of the true spirit of UUA inclusivity. I know, with certainty, that Marlin Lavanhar does not feel that way, but yet I've heard both humanists and theists describe the other as "the problem" with the obvious implied solution.

When I discovered Unitarian Universalism after decades of being a "None", I was amazed and happy. It truly was amazing to this former Catholic -- a place where I could take my authentic self and my Humanist family and be loved and supported in ways that I thought were only available to theists or others who could accept the supernatural. I was indignant that I had lived so close to my current congregation for a decade but had been unaware that we would be welcomed there, to the extent that now I work for the UU Humanists trying to get other congregations to be better at communicating that welcome. Unitarian Universalist congregations are the only places in most parts of the country where that is true. But by celebrating that and seeking to broaden and communicate that, I am the problem with Unitarian Universalism!

UUA, where is the nurturing of my spirit? How do you help me deal with those fears that Marlin enumerated so well last night? I don't have belief in a higher power that is going to right the wrongs and wash away the pain using superpowers. I wish I did and I can fully understand why people do because life is hard for everyone, as the sermon pointed out. Grief touches everyone eventually, even the white, middle class, NPR-listening, privileged UUs. So, where are the GA sessions on Grief Beyond Belief? Where are the services that take their inspiration from our creation story, the universe story, and the truth that we are star stuff and part of a grand, magnificent, messy, wondrous, interconnected world? Where is the advice for what to tell my son when he can't sleep because he's afraid that he is going to die some day, or that I might die and leave him alone? Where is the training in UU seminaries of how to minister to people like me who need to rely on human hands and human love to find hope and purpose? Where is the sense of mission to reach out to people like me who have nowhere else to turn for solace and inspiration and community because we don't fit the religious norm? Where is the joy, and the celebration of life and love from a humanist perspective?

There are hundreds of thousands of Christian churches in America and plenty of other houses of worship for every imaginable form of religious thought. Some of them, like our friends at the United Church of Christ, are almost as liberal as we are and will welcome you even in your doubt or disbelief. They see the changes in society too and they know they need to broaden their perspective or fade into irrelevancy. They are making spaces without organs and pews, hymns and sermons, where people who do not respond to traditional religious forms and norms can still get their human needs met. We are not unique in embracing people where they are. But we are unique in embracing people where they are not, or at least we were.

There are new nontheistic "un-churches" springing up like wildflowers: Sunday Assemblies and Oases and Humanist Hubs that are joining the Ethical Societies and Humanistic Jewish communities that already dot the landscape. There is a new awakening in the secular movement that you need in-person community to become more fully human and to effectively serve the world. There's a hunger for experiences of celebration of life and ceremonies to add meaning to important life milestones in ways that used to be provided by religious institutions. The place that Unitarian Universalism used to play in the secular movement is being replaced by these new institutions because the UUA does not communicate that we want to be that anymore and when it tries, it does not do it well; it still feels like church. And when it doesn't feel like church it is too cerebral which makes modern nontheists still feel like they don't belong.

You are not serving my needs, UUA, by having the only two options be gospel or classical, speaking in tongues or reading a science journal, listening to a sermon or listening to NPR. Where is the nurturing of my spirit that is in my language of poetry and nature and human relation that isn't based on traditional religious words and symbols that have no meaning for me? Don't tell me that it is my issue or my millennial children's that we can't use God language metaphorically. That does not do it for me or for them. I resonate with Marlin's story of losing a child and how that universal, primal, human feeling of grief unites us across our mere differences in belief about natural vs. supernatural. But how do you help me deal with that when I can't turn to the solace of the hope that they may be "on the other side" where I might meet them again? Even most "believers" in our UU congregations remain at best agnostic about that possibility, so how do you help us deal with big questions when you know there are no absolute answers?

It is difficult to be all things to all people and our focus on Humanism and reason has, in the past, truly made theists feel they don't belong -- and that is not right. If embracing our religious, churchy side solves that problem and that is the problem you want to solve, then do it and do it well. If you wish to be the church for theists who are not necessarily Christians, then be that fully and stop blaming me and my fellow Humanists for keeping you in the closet. Better yet, and I don't mean this snarkily because I really love and admire them, merge with the United Church of Christ and broaden their liberal religious mission even further. Let theists breathe a sigh of relief and fully express themselves. But be honest about that and let me go find my community elsewhere. My authentic self is different from Marlin's authentic self. My authentic self says my creation story is the universe story; my authentic self says the only "super" power is love and it is not supernatural, it is woven through and embedded in human nature; my authentic self says embracing reality doesn't mean sacrificing meaning and beauty. But if the Unitarian Univeralist Association as an institution is not interested in developing the kinds of communities that meet the needs of people like me then clear the dance floor and let someone else dance. I promise to not step on your toes anymore.

Now, I could leave it at that because that seems like a good concluding paragraph, but that would be wrong because it reads like an ultimatum and the fact is that humanism and humanists are too fully embedded in the DNA of Unitarian Universalism to have us step away. And Unitarian Universalism is not just the UUA institution, it is an association of congregations full of people in relationship with one another across their diversity, with a deep sense of shared ownership and shared history. And we are not going away. The ones that have not already left are the flexible ones or the ones with deep roots. One solution to the problem of fully meeting the needs of a diverse group of people is modeled by Marlin himself and his All Souls Unitarian Church Tulsa: make space for one another. Don't try to be all things to all people all the time. Be open, honest, and respectful about our differences and don't try to do away with them or ignore them. Engage with our diversity and try new ways to serve those diverse people.

The UUA is focused on "Finding a New Way" (beyond that just being the theme of this year's GA) and experimenting with new models. Unitarian Universalism's uniqueness is no longer just its non-creedalism which is being adopted as the next step beyond nondenominationalism by many liberal religions. Unitarian Universalism's true uniqueness is in its longstanding embrace of nontheism. But our old ways of expressing that are no longer effective; we don't just want additional services where the God language is crossed out and replaced with fuzzier religious language. We want the UUA to recruit and encourage humanist ministers. We want them to train all religious professionals, including ministers, religious educators, and musicians, to consider the needs of nontheists. We want them to partner with us in thinking more creatively about in-person groups and on-line associations that can be spaces for humanists (and theists) to be our authentic selves. We want GA programs, outreach programs like CLF and others to sincerely reach out to nontheists and try to meet their needs, not convert them to our ways. The UU Humanist Association is too small and too outside the spheres of influence in the UUA to be the only engine of movement in the direction of authentic humanist community. We can't halt the swing of the pendulum ourselves and we are wasting too much of our energy trying to do so. The pendulum really needs to stop swinging.


About Maria Greene

Maria Greene's picture

Maria Greene is the UU Humanist Association's former part-time Executive Director. (Maria has stepped down at the end of 2017 to attend to some extended family health issues.) Maria is also a professional web developer who lives in Massachusetts with her husband, their three busy kids and assorted pets. Maria's home congregation is the First Parish Church of Stow & Acton, she helps coordinate the Concord Area Humanists, a UUHA local group and chapter of the American Humanist Association that meets in Concord, MA, she is a volunteer with the Secular Coalition for Massachusetts, and with the Boston Coalition of Reason.


This post made me so sad. I'm a UU minister and have a strong humanist orientation, but it has been an uphill battle since the moment I began seminary. Taking polity with a former president of the UUA, there were several occasions I had to leave the classroom mid lesson because of the incessant jabs at the "crusty, cranky Humanists."
I received question after question throughout the process about how I could provide pastoral care to theists and Christians in my congregation, but never heard the same question being asked of my theistic colleagues.
I spent time in seminary working with a strictly humanist community and ultimately found it didn't nurture my emotional side. I longed for the ritual and depth of compassion. I longed to be moved to tears, to share in the delight of poetry and join others in songs. I missed the wonder and awe. So I moved forward and was ordained. Watching the Service of the Living Tradition- I felt hugely uncomfortable, like being chastised for who I am back in seminary. I worry about that pendulum on a daily basis and if there will still be a place for me in ten years in this movement that I love so much.

I find the "who is being served" question to be old and tired -- and yet it is has truth. As one who has been serving congregations for almost 30 years, I have reached the point where I am beyond patience at having to be cautious what I say (OMG she said Amen!!). I am well schooled in sustaining the "big umbrella" in terms of theology/atheology - whether it is at the bedside or the sermon or the memorial service, part of what we DO is serve people of different theologies and atheologies and the role of the minister is to pay attention to the congregant's needs and speak from that authentic place. It's like juggling plates, and being able to bring down the right one at the right time. Done well, it is a gift to the congregation and the world. And, over time, it is exhausting and I am out of patience. I do not agree with the previous commentator -- or, probably, with most of the readers of this post -- that non-theism is where UU needs to be. Nor do I agree with the assumptions one read here, that foo-foo fairy lights in the sky and the belief in a literal mystical afterlife are the only alternatives. But I do believe that, unless we learn to hear one another into speech, and stop struggling over whether or not "I" am "being served," we will get what we deserve - increasing irrelevancy and ultimate demise.

I'm a UU Humanist and a theist. I grew up a Humanist UU and am deeply grateful for the life UU Humanism nurtured in me. I need Humanism and Humanists. But as a minister, I feel Maria Greene puts me in a bind: I'm supposed to nurture her spirit, although she doesn't believe in it. It make ministry impossible -- how in reason am I supposed to minister to that? If I do, I'm assaulting reason, if I don't, I'm not nurturing. It's so frustrating! What in reason am I supposed to do?!!?

Thank you both for your thoughtful replies.

I recognize the juggling act that is required of UU ministers and I am deeply sympathetic. I did not say that non-theism is the only place where UU needs to be. I am UU because I enjoy our diversity and our history, otherwise I would be spending my energy on the new Sunday Assembly movement, or Oasis Network, or Ethical Culture, or... But I need non-theism to be one of the respected options and I too am tired of being schooled -- in my case being schooled that my need for inclusive language and my desire for a place to discuss how to answer the big questions in non-theistic ways is harmful to the UU movement.

I believe being able to provide that space is essential to our future. As I said in the article, dozens of liberal denominations are opening their hearts and doors to doubters. We cannot compete with them on "Christianity light". We have the history of respecting humanists and we were the birthplace of organized humanism. But we no longer care about providing a space that starts from a naturalistic assumption. It can be one of many such spaces and I would love to have the discussion about how to do that. We've developed some suggestions and noted some excellent models over the years, like separate services in the different styles (for large enough congregations), encouraging (and not feeling threatened by) strong humanist groups in congregations, partnering with local secular groups that want to provide non-theistic services (like Sunday Assemblies, or Ethical Culture Societies) that could use a place to meet and could provide that space for your members without any work on your part...

But the UUA doesn't seem interested in having that conversation and defensiveness seems to be the most common reaction I have gotten. Or I get a lecture on what people mean by their panentheism or process theology (the extremely condescending, "tell me about this God you don't believe in, I probably don't believe in him either.") I recognize that "foo-foo fairy lights in the sky and the belief in a literal mystical afterlife" are not the only alternatives to non-theism, but any conception that references forces that are outside of nature doesn't apply to us.

I'm sorry if it is tiresome, but the mission of the UUA is to minister to each other, not just ordained ministers serving lay folks. As the UU Humanist Association, we try to be very deliberate in our call for respectful dialog from our members to their congregations and the Association. We want the same in return. 

Thank you for engaging, jmilleruuma, I really appreciate it. I feel your frustration and I am not demanding the unreasonable of our professionals. I do not expect you to be the solution to my problems, I am in community with you and the other members of my congregation and the wider UU family, it is not all on you.

I have to ask though, do you think I, and my children do not have any emotional life? Are we automata because we do not believe in God? 

We need connection and kindness and opportunities to work with others in the pursuit of our shared values (those seven UU principles that are wonderfully humanistic). My children need to explore ideas of spirituality that are different from my own because they are real people and may come to different conclusions than me -- they will decide for themselves.

When life gets difficult, when one of my parents dies, or ("reason forbid", love that) one of my family gets seriously ill, won't I need other people just as much as the next person? Maybe even more so because some sources of solace are cut off from me? Is the only way of nurturing a person using theistic spiritual solutions? Love, connection, and welcome is not an assault on reason and that is all I am asking for.

I'm grateful for the conversation, Maria Greene.

It'd be pretty unreasonable of me to expect us Humanists to somehow dissociate ourselves from our emotions (not that I didn't try a long time ago...). Yesterday I helped a family celebrate the life of their 31-year old Humanist son/brother/husband who suddenly died this week, and it was emotion-filled -- laughter, tears, and some ornery language (of course! He was a Humanist who love the Wu Tang Clan!).

I also agree that UU has a unique place in American culture and can serve millions of people in ways that Liberal Christianity cannot. I *think* (not sure, yet) that what hold us back from that ministry is our emphasis on "belief" -- in whatever, not-in whatever.

And, yet, something happens when we create a religious community based on deep relationship -- something transcends us, there are patterns of emergence that defy our ability to fully understand them. So we find metaphors, sometimes Christian, sometimes Humanist, always somehow located in some unique perspective. Some of us, sometimes all of us, are uncomfortable with the language and the symbols in our varieties of ritual (and then some of us are uncomfortable with ritual).

Well, to put this more directly: reason itself is sometimes an assault on itself. How can we, as Humanists, live with the infuriating failure of reason to always be reasonable? Especially when we need it, like when a child dies. And that unreasonable love of community and connection that you and I turn to is the only grounding we can reasonably claim in that moment?


UUA, why didn't you tolerate my spirit? I and several others were forced to leave a UU congregation because we defended one of us who produced a wonderful winter solstice program. The inclusion of other contemporary and ancient faiths seemed to many to be too critical of those who might be believers among us. It is clear that the ministers in the area have deliberately adopted a plan to introduce more and more "spirituality" oriented "worship" in the past few years, all of which seems to be to be anti-humanist and very un-Unitarian.

Joel, this says it all for me, "And that unreasonable love of community and connection that you and I turn to is the only grounding we can reasonably claim in that moment." Except I don't find it unreasonable. No tradition claims to have all the answers. Reason is not an answer, it's just a tool for approaching the questions in a certain way. And it's not the be-all-and-end-all of humanism, it's just a part, along with compassion and community. I don't need a reason to love, I just love.

ReverendSax, I have no idea of the curcumstances, but nobody should be forced to leave a UU congregation. Maybe there were procedural or communication issues that could have been handled differently on both sides? At GA, everyone I spoke to agreed that living in convenental community (though I admit freely to disliking that term) is essential and that dealing with difference, whether it is faith or race or class or any other identity, is important work we're willing to do. That gave me encouragement, even though I also observed failure to live up to that ideal many times. The solution is to stay in conversation.

And that unreasonable love of community and connection that you and I turn to is the only grounding we can reasonably claim in that moment? - See more at: http://huumanists.org/blog/201506/uua-why-arent-you-nurturing-my-spirit#...
And that unreasonable love of community and connection that you and I turn to is the only grounding we can reasonably claim in that moment? - See more at: http://huumanists.org/blog/201506/uua-why-arent-you-nurturing-my-spirit#...
And that unreasonable love of community and connection that you and I turn to is the only grounding we can reasonably claim in that moment? - See more at: http://huumanists.org/blog/201506/uua-why-arent-you-nurturing-my-spirit#...

I am an atheist. I am a PoC. I am also a member of DRUUMM (Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministry). I am also disturbed that I must keep my non-belief to myself because:

...atheists are now the most distrusted minority, surpassing gays and lesbians, Muslims, and sometimes even rapists in polls.

I did not become an atheist because of an irrational belief of some being for which I cannot: see, hear, touch, taste or smell. I lost my faith because the white conference of my former denomination were racists. Allow me to explain.

I was brought up in a Protestant denomination and each group is divided into conferences: Black, Spanish speaking, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and so on. I am of Japanese ancestry and I belonged to the Japanese conference...though we look different, our mission was the same: lead people to Christ and praise God's name...also to have faith that God exist. Fine. I grew up doing the Christian thing, like R.E. (we called it Sunday School Teacher), I did missionary-type work (sort of what UUSC does with dogma attached of course) and a camp counselor. I was happy. I was happy until I saw the true color of my former denomination. When Former President Ronald Reagan signed to law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which paid reparations to more than 60,000 Americans and Japanese immigrants who were interned in the concentration camps and an apology, a former pastor of mine shared in the local magazine of his experience in one of 10 concentration camps and the white members wrote in the letter to the editor, they did not know if they can trust Japanese folks. This made me mad. So the next issue, I wrote:

What happened to Psalms 23 vs. 4?

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff shall comfort me.

Why wasn't the same emphasis placed on German and Italian Americans? I demand an apology. The editor apologized but not one member. They were justified in their fears. This was the last straw. I became an atheist. The other straws were: a family member was beaten up and tortured by Christians, he was called Jap and Little Tojo and was blamed for Pearl Harbor. I too was beaten up by Christians for killing their relatives as they fought against the Imperial soldiers. I was also blamed for the Bataan Death march, even though my uncles and my father's cousin fought in Europe with the 442nd RCT against the Nazis...Jews I love, they were more loving of my people than the Christians were.

So after compounding all this anger, I became an atheist. Again, I became an atheist because of racism and wanted nothing to do with Christianity. Though after meeting U.U, Christians, I am still an atheist but I have a lot more respect for them. After reading your blog and this comment: ...atheists are now the most distrusted minority, surpassing gays and lesbians, Muslims, and sometimes even rapists in polls...I feel that many PoC who are atheists/agnostics/Humanists are up-the-creek without a paddle. Yes, regardless of ethnicity, a nonbeliever is scum, but being a PoC who decided to not follow a belief because the fore-person became a Christian to end being victims of violence, may once be oppressed a lot worse than a Muslim, because, they at least believe in something.

Luckily in live in East Los Angeles. The neighborhood is predominately Latino and folks here tend to not say a word or commit some sort of violent act against me, because, politically, we are an oppressed member of society, but allow me to step outside of my safety zone and say that I am an atheist, it can be dangerous to my health. Imagine that we are worse than Al Qaeda or even the KKK. Though we do not preach or promote hate, we are scum and an antichrist.

Funny thing is, according to the FBI, less than 1/10th of 1 percent of prison inmates are atheist/agnostic/Humanists, yet we are hated regardless. Being a PoC, I am proud of my culture and would share it with others, but I must keep my atheism to myself or if I step out of my safety zone, I may be a victim of (and I will say it) Christian hate. I don't want to be a martyr, because I have nothing to prove to God, god or some invisible being who supposedly created me. Even if there is a God, I choose not to follow him/her/it out of integrity, because, I became a Christian because my people were in fear for their life, but to step away and be my own person, I am a victim of racism as well as become a victim of dogma, because I refused to believe in a religion that promotes hate.

There is some logic when I was growing up as a child that I wish I were white. If I were, I would lie and say: Oh I'm a Christian and be safe. Being a PoC? Well not so much.

This powerful piece inspired me with too much to say in a comment, so I wrote a blog post instead. Thanks for getting done good conversation rolling. And--something I don't touch on in the post--you are a great example of humanism's passion and spirituality. E.g., here: "My authentic self says my creation story is the universe story; my authentic self says the only "super" power is love and it is not supernatural, it is woven through and embedded in human nature; my authentic self says embracing reality doesn't mean sacrificing meaning and beauty." It makes me hopeful of the good things that can happen with you as ED.