The San Diego cycle: First UU Church of San Diego

This is part two in my series on UU congregations in San Diego county. The first, on UU Fellowship of San Dieguito, is located here. Please note that this is a personal reflection, and I seek to be honest here.

Wooden chalice on wall of meeting house, First UU of San Diego
Wooden chalice on wall of meeting house, First UU of San Diego

What are the core elements that make a congregation the right fit for you? Is it solely the people who attend alongside you? Is it convenience within your other commitments? Is it the theological flavor of that particular minister? Maybe some, maybe all, and maybe it’s just a deep, innate feeling of belonging. When you move into a new house or apartment, there is an invisible line when it stops being a place to live and becomes a home. How that comes to be is not quantifiable, but it emerges. Well, hopefully.

First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego (website here) is the sixth congregation I have attended services at. What constitutes right for me has become clearer. Three of the congregations were mid-sized or smaller, while three, including First UU, were quite large. Some were very modern and neutral in their language, while another used quite a lot of Christian language. I encourage those who have the geographical fortune to live next to multiple UU congregations to explore and find out what they are about. As one should expect from a liberal, noncreedal religion, each congregation has their own strain of radical individualism.

Meeting house, First UU of San Diego
Meeting house, First UU of San Diego

First UU is a gorgeous campus. The chalice pictured first in this article is one of several carved wood pieces of art, with the component pieces engraved with donors. In their parlance, the ‘meeting house’ has lots of natural light from the back and with one wall stage-left being a giant window. The organ is a spectacle unto itself. Everything fits into a rich wood-tone landscape. Outside are grey and sand tones, mixed with desert landscaping. No visitor can doubt that First UU has been built on love and communal sacrifice to make it a reality.

Perhaps the greatest effort the church has made is not its aesthetics, but accessibility. The 11:30 service has a sign-language interpreter. Song lyrics and benedictions are projected on large, easy to read screens. The church maintains a separate branch to the south where the same sermons are given (on different Sundays) with simultaneous Spanish translation. One of the continual struggles UUs address is diversity, and moving towards new types of inclusion. This kind of outreach is very forward, and appreciated.

Order of Service for October 5th, 2014.
Order of Service for October 5th, 2014.

The amount of programs offered is overwhelming. Each part of the website is overflowing with tabs and sub-pages explaining the different parts of their youth program, the various fellowships for Buddhism, Hinduism, and earth-centered spirituality. Social action, community work- even without attending a service I could tell that this was a very large and ambitious congregation by standards of Unitarian Universalism.

So we reach the point where my personal preference ran up against First UU. Large meeting halls and huge arrays of programs don’t gel well with me. My previous visit in August to the First Unitarian Church of Portland gave me an initial inkling, but I did not have enough information to figure out what precisely gave me a bad feeling. Despite being very different in many ways, the Portland and San Diego churches share a sense of scale and spectacle. As unfair as it is, anytime I enter a church of a certain size I get very negative associations flowing in. Megachurches powered by money and consumerism. Those vast gilded cathedrals in Peru, side-by-side with crippling poverty on the streets of Cuzco.

Size is weird to me. I don’t seek large groups by nature. I am happy being in the political or social minority. When I enter large gatherings like protests, I do so with a firm individual (or small group) identity. On May Day I was in a San Jose immigration march, but when an organizer yelled at me for not being the right portion of the march, I left. A flaw, perhaps, is that I associate large institutions with conformity. In the end, I did not like my experience at this church.

Pulpit and chalice, meeting house, First UU of San Diego
Pulpit and chalice, meeting house, First UU of San Diego

Such a visit allows me to do serious personal reflection. It also allows me to dispense a bit of advice: one cannot think that a bad experience in one congregation means that Unitarian Universalism is just not right for them. If you know someone who was discouraged by their first visit to a UU church, or are yourself discouraged, please seek opportunities in your own area, or perhaps seek out the Church of the Larger Fellowship that can provide another perspective no matter where you live.

And ultimately I have the luxury of joining UU social action and community work even if I ultimately choose not to spend my Sunday mornings alongside its congregants. Each community is much more than a meeting house, a preaching style, a sociopolitical focus. We have much available to enrich ourselves, as long as we create a niche that is right for us.

Vista from First UU of San Diego
Vista from First UU of San Diego

What do religious institutions provide in the 21st century?

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Yesterday, an article in The Atlantic was published on “mix-and-match spirituality.” Recounting a Saturday panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the thrust of the article is that individualized spiritual experiences may be a bad thing. Certainly the two panelists quoted, Leon Wieseltier and Molly Worthen, find the crumbling of firm institutions as harmful. Unitarian Universalists  can certainly be accused of mix-and-match religious practice; the criticism in the article is worth reading, if only to get a feeling of what others think about 21st century religion.

Two major issues I have:

  1. the depiction of religious institutions as being places of diversity, in people and in doctrine. This is from Worthen.
  2. invoking tradition, perhaps in an uncritical light. This is from Wieseltier.

The first shows up in the subtitle of the article, “Religious institutions force members to grapple with hard ideas, to interact with different kinds of people, and to receive the wisdom of the ages.”

That sentence is a minefield of dubious claims. Religious bodies don’t always force members to grapple with difficult topics, they often shield the membership from outside doctrine and the diversity of ideas. There are plenty of churches and temples where having a radical new idea leads to ostracism, if not outright sanction.

Continuing, Worthen states that religious institutions “[force] you into conversation with people you might not agree with.” This is just as problematic as the previous quote. Any group with rigid criteria will filter out a large portion of the total population. If you go to a conservative Baptist congregation, where will the serious differences be? Are there a lot of people there who don’t think Jesus is the Son of God, or propose there’s nothing wrong with LGBT individuals?

Finally, people are forced to receive the “wisdom of the ages.” This doesn’t hold up if the point is that individualized or non-traditional spiritual choices are a bad thing. Going to a Catholic Mass, you will get one take on the wisdom of the ages. If you are confined by that institution, that means other groups with hundreds if not thousands of years of accrued wisdom- Jews, Muslims, Hindus, freethinkers, and all the different flavors and denominations within- will not factor in. If one has read A Chosen Faith, you may remember Forrest Church’s allegory of the infinite Church. Each institution and individual sees the light of truth a bit differently. Each has their own window with different characteristics. A good way to get the most out of truth (the wisdom of the ages) is to look through many different windows.

This idea of tradition leads into Wieseltier, who states about 21st century takes on Judaism, “What worries me is that the new forms will be so disconnected from the traditions that something called Judaism will survive but that the tradition in its richness may not.” Now this is a very real concern. Ditching the past has led to some very serious crises, both political and personal. At the same time, sects that claim to be the most “traditional” have serious issues with gender equality and free speech. Though Wieseltier is right that there is much to appreciate and keep alive, it should be viewed through a frame where tradition is not inherently a good thing. Tradition is practice plus time, with a little magic that keeps it going over many years. The practice may not have been good even then, and time has done it no favors. And of course new traditions are being made each year, a process that “mix-and-match” worshippers are a part of.

Passions flare in the debate over the current state of religion, and its trajectory in future decades. That’s not unique to religion, far from it. But is this article fair to liberal religion and the nebulous “mix-and-match spirituality”? Related, does it accurately describe what a traditional religious institution provides? It would seem that if a diversity of opinion is sought, one would be more likely to find it in the liberal branches of mainstream religions. Any denomination that places a high value on creed is not going to have a wide diversity of ideas and congregants. Are the new generation of believers, non-believers, and sorta-believers perverting vital tradition, or dismantling ideas that have reached their expiration date?

I do agree with Wieseltier: religion in recent times has sometimes merged with consumerism. There is always the threat of belief becoming a fashion statement, nothing in the modern capitalist system is immune from hype and fads. Mobility in the spiritual realm should not be viewed as intrinsically bad though- those that move from faith to faith, read books on the Dalai Lama one week and the Dead Sea Scrolls the next, are exercising a freedom of religion that vast populations across the world do not have. The dynamic behavior of the newest generation may be a move past the sense of obligation and communal pressure to conform and stay in one religious institution.

To end, it is important to not oversell traditional religious practice, and to dismiss 21st century spirituality. The two have much to teach each other, if they will listen. And if this article believes that religious institutions force difficult conversations, then such institutions must be active in engaging those that hold radical and unorthodox views.

Go big, or go home: where do the answers lie?

My earlier post about the state of Unitarian Universalism in 2014 has found an audience I didn’t expect, getting shared by UU PlanetI Am UU, and ministers and congregations all over the country. Typically, my blog gets a couple dozen hits a day. It’s spiked like never before. The best moment for me was when my congregation shared the story, even though I hadn’t told anyone there about it.

The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association
The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The one recurring bit of response: yeah, but what should we do? It’s a valid critique, as my piece focuses mostly on the nature and structure of the problem, rather than what solution could be. If I had easy solutions I would have written the Unitarian Universalist Association a letter with them spread out. Instead I cast some thoughts into the void of the Internet and found many people with the same concerns.

While the cliché is that youth will save us, that’s not true. Youth are the vessel by which the faith survives in the 21st century. But the people with the lived experience are the grey-haired generation. They have seen UUism go through its previous evolutions, and their perspective will inform the next evolution. Also, the struggles of the faith predate my involvement with it. A dialogue must mix youth voices with those that sat in pews in 2004, 1994, 1984, and 1974. UUism, as a decentralized institution, changes slowly and deliberately. Those that have seen the long arc have much experience that is needed, though they may be too entrenched to fully use it. That’s why growth is an exchange between the new, the old, and those in the middle.

One thing I floated, and some congregations may already do this, is the concept of exit interviews. People arriving for the first time fill out information about themselves and how they came to know about the local church. But those that stop going, or go rarely, aren’t asked why their habits changed. UUism has low social pressure- members don’t try to shame others into attending. That openness should allow us to ask departing members frankly about why the faith wasn’t working for them anymore. Only though data can we understand the problem of retention. If you’re an active UU member and absolutely love it, it’s hard to understand why others don’t. There isn’t the luxury of perspective.

The options for freethinkers, humanists, and unorthodox believers are growing rapidly. I can’t stress how quickly this process is picking up. Sunday Assembly, the new option for ‘churchgoing atheists’, isn’t even a year-and-a-half old. It has three assemblies in the Bay Area where I live. Once upon a time UUism was an oddball, clearly distinct from other gatherings. It was the political and spiritual renegade- endorsing gay equality decades before the issue broached the mainstream. It put scripture, literature, and science on equal footing and used them in conjunction rather than having Sunday service be purely religious.

It’s not an oddball anymore. The demographics are shifting. The traditional UU political stances are more mainstream, and humanists and atheists are starting their own alternatives to religious practice. On one hand, the country is moving in a direction where the Seven Principles and Six Sources sounds more reasonable. On the other hand, that movement is spawning other institutions. The political and social sands are shifting, but that doesn’t mean thousands of people are falling right into UU congregations.

I don’t want to paint Sunday Assembly and its kin as some kind of foe. It looks hella fun, and I hope to get there in the next couple months. But its existence presses Unitarian Universalists to answer key questions: what makes us different? why does UUism need to exist today and in the future? in a 2014 where the church’s signature stance on marriage equality is being accepted socially and in the legal system, how do we capitalize when we are on the right side of history? All of these ‘competitors’ allow for self-reflection. If questions like these can’t be answered with conviction and power, then we may be on the path from concern to crisis.

These discussions have electrified me, and many others have been part of this ongoing path towards finding the place of Unitarian Universalism in the second decade of the 21st century. Every congregation is full of incredibly bright and dynamic individuals; in conjunction, they are capable of incredible things.

As I transfer to a campus UU group this fall, and see how young UUs like myself are organizing their action and their thoughts, I hope to gain more of that perspective. Since the church is so diverse, every new UU (or potential UU) can help us answer the key questions: why are you here? why do you stay here?

Remaking Unitarian Universalism: Go big, or go home.

A recent feature in Boston Magazine addresses the core crisis of Unitarian Universalism – how does the movement keep from dying out? As Alyssa Giacobbe points out, UUism is not a fan of zealous self-promotion:

Yet a marketing endeavor risked alienating members. As part of their ethos of acceptance and “finding your own path,” UUs are very averse to evangelism, or anything that looks like it. “One church’s marketing is another church’s proselytism”

I am part of the problem- the young members who come to the movement yet don’t regularly attend. And it is true- there is a lot of competition on Sundays if you’re a young activist looking to help society out a little bit. Perhaps this is why Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto’s alternative Thursday evening service was so attractive. Most of the regular Sunday attendees are my parent’s age or older. Getting up in the morning is not a huge issue. For twentysomethings, it can be.

The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association
The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The ongoing marketing shift by the UUA is needed, and I do like the new logo and the work on the website. There’s a difference between trying to be hip and trying to be modern. All religion is an interplay between past traditions (going back, at the very least, decades if not centuries, or millennia) and the expectations of modern society. Both sides of UUism date from around the birth of the American republic, and ever since the Constitution was signed there has been a split between the originalists who see things frozen in time, and pragmatists who see ideas and concepts that come to us from the past as alive. Life means change. The rules of evolution apply to institutions as well as living things: adapt or die.

Thankfully, this feature was long enough to deal with the complex nature of UUism. I’m sometimes asked to provide a brief explanation of what the faith is and what its structure is. There are some parts that can be boiled down to the core. Though on the contrary, there exists the need to tack on ‘it’s complicated’ or ‘I can’t really speak for everyone.’ I enjoy that freedom to choose my own spiritual path, and not have the weight of representing a whole faith. Anyone with a marketer’s mind hates that.

Each and every year, another one percent of Americans ditch organized religion and enter the nebulous rank of atheists, agnostics, and none of the aboves. Those that identify with a church may be less active participants than in the past. Only ten percent of that group are actually looking for a replacement. Though the rise of hard-line evangelical Protestantism gets all the press, the trend seems consistent. Members of any faith should assume it to be a given, and know that this one percent a year is coming from somewhere.

In some ways, UUism does not have as much work to do. To get an irreligious or agonistic person to care about all the dogma and rigid rituals of some organized faiths requires a lot of legwork. If I go to a Baptist congregation, the membership will have a lot of convincing to get me on board. That was a beauty when I walked into a Unitarian Universalist church: I didn’t need to change myself to fit in. I slid right in, and my spiritual evolution could start from a natural beginning.

Dave Ruffin, who is the focus of the feature, makes some statements that are both sensible and divisive. I do understand what he means here:

What UU needs to survive, he believes, is a radical rethinking: It needs to stop defending its liberalism and embrace being a religion. “We need permission to be the people of faith that we are,” he says. “We need to actually get religious.”

Having done some Q&As with mainline Christians and the non-religious, the main confusion is why Unitarian Universalism calls itself a religion and not a political or social club. At first I found this belittling and a tad offensive. With perspective it’s not hard to see why the two are hard to distinguish.

What is UUism’s “secret sauce”? Why do you need to get down to the church on Sundays and participate?

What sustains me and my religious community? Social justice and egalitarian mores, yes, but the Human Rights Campaign can say the same thing. A large chunk of congregants came from another faith, sometimes a very aggressive and zealous one. There’s a certain fear of religion built into UU communities, even if it’s not admitted.

Ruffin is right. Quite simply, in the 21st century Unitarian Universalism needs to go big or go home. There are plenty of other Sunday morning activities that can engage people. UUism doesn’t have a monopoly.

Not even close.