The religion of the 21st century?

I am back in Northern Virginia after having spent nearly a week in Salt Lake City attending the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I am glad I went. Never have I packed so much learning and fellowship into so short a time a time. I probably cannot afford to attend every year, but I suspect I will be back periodically.

One recurring theme I heard during my five days was that Unitarian Universalism (UUism) might be the religion of the 21st century. UUism is hardly new. The Unitarian aspects of the faith go back to the Apostic Age of Christianity. Unitarians asserted that there was only one God, rather than God manifested in a Trinity. While I do not think UUism is very likely to be the major growth faith of the 21st century, its time could finally be right to grow rapidly here in the United States. UUs comprise no more than half a million people, making us a minor religion. However, the United States is becoming more educated and increasingly secular. For those secular Americans who yearn for a sense of community (which is increasingly hard to find in our wired and impersonal world) and yet need to embrace a faith, UUism may be an answer.

For many, you cannot be both rational and have faith. UUs overall are a very left brained lot, but most are still comfortable with the notion of faith, and do not necessarily see a conflict between the two. Reason and science do not answer all questions. Science will probably never fully reveal our universe, simply because there are realms too small or too large for us to plumb.

Emotion is certainly part of being a human. Faith may also be hardwired into us. Faith does not necessarily have to be about accepting whole cloth teachings passed down by a particular religion. As the Rev. Galen Guengerich pointed out at his excellent seminar I attended called “Theology for a Secular Age”, one does not have to move from belief to an understanding of reality based on that belief. Rather it can work the other way around. We can learn a lot about the world through education and experience and then decide what we want to believe. This is the essence of UUism. With no creed to anchor the faith, the faith we find is revealed increasingly to us individually over time as we learn and as science reveals. Faith becomes a journey of the soul, rather than an anchor for a soul.

Some months back, I railed about the failure of Objectivism as manifested in the economic policies of libertarians like Alan Greenspan. Objectivism is an allegedly rational philosophy that glorifies individuality and always puts “me first”. UUs understand that the truth of its opposite: all things are interconnected. It is one of our principles and purposes. As Rev. Guengerich pointed out, we are all utterly dependent on each other. You would not long survive if you could not drink water or eat the food provided by nature. Those who try to glorify utter independence and disconnect themselves from society grow up abnormal. Theodore Kaczynski, the Unibomber who will spend the rest of his life in a Supermax prison, shows how twisted and destructive a human can become trying to deny this reality. Interdependence is our reality and is manifested in our need to be social. To the extent that we try to assert otherwise, we become self-destructive.

Unfortunately, because we are all interdependent, when one of us becomes self-destructive, it affects all of us. This is borne out in among other things global warming. By looking out for our selfish needs first (such as the freedom to drive a car) we implicitly affect all other living things. To a UU, Einstein’s theories of general and specific relativity are not at all surprising. This is not just because they reveal the natural world, but also because it proves that we really are all naturally interconnected in this very real matrix called space-time. We are all glued together whether we choose to be or not. Many of us cannot see the glue that connects us, but it is always there. Perhaps string theory, to the extent that it can be revealed, with add more evidence of this interconnectedness.

In Rev. Guengerich’s view (and mine), faith is a leap of moral imagination, which looks at the world as it is, imagines how it can be and asserts that even though achieving it seems impossible, by the force of our actions we will evolve the world to the way it should be for our mutual interconnectedness to flourish. In doing so we will bring about a world where love truly is at the center of all things. In his view, the purpose of religion is to sustain us in this seemingly impossible quest. This is facilitated by the regular practice of coming together in worship services. During services, we use the established communal forms and forces of words, song, stories and symbols to move us toward that reality. By coming together in worship and working through the church on areas like social outreach, we find not only inspiration but the means to demonstrate the necessary commitment in what would otherwise seem a hopeless fight. In moving forward through an act of what seems like crazy faith, we actually manifest the change needed in the world. By doing things like feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless and fixing the environment, we slowly turn society into the way it should be rather than the messy and discordant way it is now.

President Obama seems to understand this. Faith and hope are necessary not only to realize a better future, but also to sustain the soul in this life. Perhaps President Obama is a Unitarian Universalist in spirit and does not know it yet. Since he is still shopping for a church, he should check us out. Maybe in doing so he will inspire many other Americans shopping for a faith to check out this religion ready for the 21st century. He can find ready fellowship and kindred souls by venturing up 16th Street N.W. and attending services at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church. There he will find plenty of people like him willing to be a positive force for change.

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