Go Your Own Way

I’m remembering a scene in the movie THX 1138 — I don’t have the movie, so I’m working from memory here — where a line of people in drab clothing is shuffling along a corridor. The movie is about regimentation. So are other classics, such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.

That’s the direction Unitarian Universalism is headed. Of course I’m exaggerating for rhetorical effect. You’ll still be allowed to wear colorful shirts. But the trend is clear.

I’ve been editing books by a couple of UU dissenters. The books aren’t out yet, so I can’t tell you where to buy them, but when they appear you’ll find links here. I’m not even sure I’m supposed to reveal what’s in them. Suffice it to say, one of them is by Todd Eklof, whose previous book The Gadfly Papers caused such an uproar at the 2019 UU General Assembly.

To say that Todd has been treated despicably by the thought police in the upper echelons of the UU Association would be putting it mildly. The shocking behavior by literally hundreds of his fellow ministers is, by itself, enough to make me wonder why I don’t just wash my hands of UUism and get on with my life.

I’m still here for two reasons: First, I hate like hell to see someone mistreated for writing and publishing a book. Second, I like the people in my local UU congregation. They’re my friends!

In the course of his upcoming book, Todd devotes a couple of pages to a speech given in 2012 by Rev. Fredric J. Muir, apparently to a UU ministerial conference of some kind. Being a curious sort, I located the speech online. It’s on the website of the Unitarian Universalist Minsters Association (UUMA). You can find it by googling its title, “From iChurch to Beloved Community.”

This speech sets out a program of fundamental changes that Muir advocates be undertaken in order to revivify and transform Unitarian Universalism. It’s a remarkable document, and not in a good way, but it’s difficult to summarize. A few bullet points will have to do.

Muir is alarmed by UUism’s failure to grow, but he never bothers to explain why lack of growth is a problem. Isn’t a small church okay? The Quakers seem to think so. He then turns to the fact that the U.S. population is growing less white and more multi-racial. In order to grow in the way that he envisions, UUism will need (this is his thesis) to attract people of color into our congregations in greater numbers.

This is not a bad idea. The question he does not address is, is there anything in UUism that would attract them, and if so, what is it? He refers to “sharing the good news” of UUism, but never says what the good news is. This is not his only nod in the direction of traditional Christianity; toward the end of the speech he’s openly advocating evangelism, and he quotes someone named Howard Thurman as asking, “Why has the church been such a tragic witness to its own Gospel?”

That’s right — “Gospel” with a capital G. A lot of UUs have joined the church specifically because we don’t want shit to do with no Gospel. Muir seems not to have noticed this fact. Or maybe he just thinks we’re the heretics.

He then sets out to tear down the fundamental strengths of Unitarian Universalism. He has nothing to replace them with, but he seems not to have noticed that. The strengths of UUism, which he identifies as “a trinity of errors,” are individualism, exceptionalism, and “our allergy to power and authority.” However, he never tells us what sort of problem any of these errors might be causing. Maybe he thinks it’s just obvious, or maybe he couldn’t come up with any examples.

He never explains how he sees exceptionalism manifesting in UUism, but he does say that it “is often insulting to others and undermines our good news.” To define UU exceptionalism he paraphrases someone who was talking about the exceptionalism that is part of the political culture of the United States. Nobody who is smarter than an Airedale denies that U.S. exceptionalism is a horrible mistake, but drawing a parallel between it and the alleged exceptionalism in Unitarian Universalism is just a dodge. It’s the Catholics who claim to be exceptional. And the Lutherans, and the Mormons, and the Jews….

His discussion of authority as an error is thoroughly muddled; he starts out by suggesting, quite correctly, that individual UUs prefer not to knuckle under to authority, but by the end of the speech the ground has shifted. Now he’s asserting that today’s individually minded UUs “misuse” authority. How one could misuse something while avoiding it is not something he troubles to explain.

He attempts to contrast individualism (which he sees as an error) with individuality (which he thinks is okay). He doesn’t bother to explain the difference, or what he sees as the difference, so I had to consult the dictionary and wikipedia. Individualism, I learned, is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, and social outlook that emphasizes the moral worth of the individual. Individuality, in contrast, is not a philosophy, it’s just a word that refers to the differences between one individual and another.

Inferentially, then, Rev. Muir will let you wear whatever color shirt you want, as long as you don’t claim you have a moral right to do so. Perhaps this isn’t a fair characterization of his view, but he hasn’t given us anything more concrete.

He uses the term “good news” three times (once in the same sentence as “gospel”), yet he never bothers to tell his audience what the good news is. If the good news is that Unitarian Universalism is a denomination in which a beloved community practices justice … well, so art the Methodists and the Presbyterians, and probably other denominations too. If his goal is to grow the UU community, as it plainly is, why emphasize or rely on characteristics that are widespread among Protestant denominations? Is the good news, perhaps, that you can have those things without needing to accept the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth? That would be a purely negative form of good news.

As I see it, the good news of UUism is that in our church you can retain your individuality. That is, we fervently believe in the value of individualism! But that’s precisely what Muir is trying to tear down.

Color me baffled.

This speech, which seems to have struck a chord with the UU leadership (else why would it be ensconced on the UUMA website?) is, frankly, nothing more than a farrago of bad reasoning, hand-waving, and thinly disguised advocacy of religious conservatism. He keeps hammering on the theme of covenant and Beloved Community (the caps are his), to the point where he claims they are “embraced in our Principles.” But these terms are never used in the Seven Principles. He’s doing somersaults and handsprings and hoping we won’t notice.

Here’s a sample: “Beloved Community is an ecclesiology. It needs no redefining. It is a doctrine of church shaped by justice. Beloved Community holds at its core ‘the promise to one another of our mutual support and trust,’ without which it could not be beloved.” One might well wonder, has the UUMA shown any support or trust of Todd Eklof? Not that I’ve noticed. Apparently, this “mutual” support is going to flow in only one direction. We peons will be expected to support and trust our leadership. That is Fredric Muir’s real agenda.

It would be tedious to go on listing the bizarre claims with which this speech is riddled. It’s a gigantic turd floating in the punch bowl of Unitarian Universalism.

I’m still hanging on as a UU, but in a kind of morbid fascination. I don’t expect the UU leadership to pull its collective head out of its collective butt. The next sucking sound you hear will be good people leaving in droves. The whole denomination is over. It’s dead.

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