This morning, I began my day by reading a Huffington Post article about the “mass resignation” of at least 500 members from the LDS church (see the Facebook page here.) I think this caught my eye because I was speaking with a dear friend just this weekend who grew up Mormon and enlightened me to the fact that the Mormon church is shrinking drastically; that like other denominations of organized religion in the United States, the LDS church is having trouble not only keeping members, but growing new ones as a result. I was surprised by this personal report because there is a good deal of information out there (mostly generated by the Mormons) that says quite to the contrary (here is an interesting article on the disconnect between some of the reported numbers.) But whether or not the LDS church is growing, doesn’t concern me as much as whether or not Unitarian Universalism has a place for them if they do leave their home church.
I love engaging people who come to the UU faith from other traditions. In fact, these have been some of my richest interactions. Frequently, the conversations are prompted by some statement that someone who self identifies themselves as a spiritual “refugee” has made when I invite them to tell me what brought them to a UU church or to explain or dive deeper into why they carry bitterness, or dismissal or outright hatred for their birth faith. I have encountered Mormons in our circles as well, who are challenged not so much by negative feelings about the church they left or by UU free thinking, but more by what can sometimes feel like a lack of spiritual and theological discipline and rigor in UU spaces. It is that ever reverberating question “what do you believe?”
My friend and fellow UU blogger, Andrew Hidas, this week posted about “The Difference Between Faith and Belief” which has me thinking about this question as well. Not everyone who comes to UU churches from other faith traditions is coming damaged, or as a “refugee.” Some (and I would even argue most) are coming because they believe in “both/and.” They still believe in their faith tradition (or would like to), but they also want to be in authentic community with others who may not share that faith; they also come with genuine questions about faith in general. This is my personal predicament. I identify as a Christian. In fact, I’m about to embark on a deeper exploration of my Christian faith, specifically as a part of my Unitarian Universalist journey and to deepen my understanding as to how to bridge the gap between Unitarian Universalists and historically Christian communities of color. As a seminarian, I am often asked, why then don’t I just seek ordination from the UCC or Episcopal church? My reply is twofold: a) I believe in a religiously pluralistic community and b) am I not welcome as a Christian? Much like the children’s hand game, I often wonder if Unitarian Universalists are distracted by the monolithic organizations (the church and the steeple) before they are able to see the individual people inside of other churches.
The larger percentage of religious people that I encounter, regard their religion as a framework. Whether taken literally or figuratively, the texts, practices, creeds, and even dogma etc. serve as a reference point that allows them to move through their everyday life with a feeling of security that gives them perspective on what is frequently a turbulent ride (here is a Gallup poll on the numbers of people who interpret the Bible literally as one example.) Also, I don’t believe that most people consider themselves intellectuals. They are not primarily concerned with the more esoteric and broad societal implications of a doctrine that speaks to a greater, less tangible good. They are concerned with putting food on the table. More plainly put, most folks just want some help, either in the form of kindness or by being told that someone once suffered more than they did and it came out okay. On a basic level, this is what organized religion does for many “believers.” I look at some of the Mormons I’ve known over the years and I see this. On the most basic of levels, they are a close community that believes in family and generosity and life with a purpose. I am not for one minute ignoring or excusing the fact that the same church organization banned blacks until the 1970s, and created Proposition 8, but I have to believe that there is a middle ground between a belief structure that inspires one toward rich relationships with humanity and political mind control and abuse of power and privilege. Religion cannot be all or nothing.
Unitarian Universalists have a unique calling. As we have evolved (and specifically as a non-creedal faith where “all are welcome”) we must find a way to actually support people in their various beliefs and non-beliefs. It would do us no good to say to the Hindu, “you are welcome in our church, but leave your belief in Dharma outside.” Just as it would be equally problematic to say to a Mormon “come on in…but don’t bring Joseph Smith.” If we are truly “multi religious” we can’t just paste up the symbols of multiple religions in the back of the pulpit and say “we’ve got it covered”…Clarence Skinner and the Universalists who founded the Community Church of Boston discovered the challenges with multi religious community first hand, and in fact, reflecting on our Universalist history in particular might be a good starting point to get us closer to fulfilling our modern calling. Unitarian Universalists’ greatest and most challenging task is still ahead of us: reconciling the relationship between the “non believing” and the “believing.” Creating a space that celebrates faith, belief and non belief while offering a connection to them all through our shared, common existence. Only then, will we be able to call ourselves truly multi-religious and be able to give a genuine shout out to everyone, including the Mormons, in the house.