Thursday, June 25, 2009

Conference at Berry Street

Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor spoke. He began by pointing out the irony of a belonging to a faith that sees itself as the most expansive in the world both theologically (universalism) and socially (worth and dignity of every person, world community with peace, liberty and justice for all) but is actually so provincial in our small, homogenous congregations. The tile of his essay was Ironic Provincialism.

He used demographic statistics to point out that our congregations have remained at about 90% white for the last ten years, besides there having been intense effort to help our congregations become more racially diverse. And that the diversity we do enjoy in our congregations is often among our children, which doesn't mean we just need to wait until they grow up, because, in fact, they aren't likely to stay in a congregation where they feel out of place.

Rev. Rasor did not suggest solutions to the problem. He said he was a theologian and urged us to attend GA workshops for practical help. Theologically he made the excellent point that the real power of Universalist theology is not that we all individually move toward the same salvation, but that Universalist salvation is undertstood corporately, not individually. It isn't about each of us achieving our own salvation, but that salvation is something that happens to the whole community together. So it isn't about me getting mine and then waiting for you to show up. Universalist salvation depends on all of us striving for it together.

The response from Rosemary Bray McNatt, minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York, was possibly even better than Rev. Rasor's lecture itself. A black woman, she gave a personal example of how our mono-cultural white congregations have affected her family (her teenaged son loves our faith but asked his mother if she would be upset if he found another church when he grew up so he wouldn't feel so alone). And she reminded us that our problem is not the false perception of a racist love for whiteness among UUs, but our love for our culture of NPR, and PBS, and certain kinds of music (not rap) and environmentalism, and so on.

Of course the solution is not to give up the culture that we love but to become multi-cultural. Not to change but to add. To see that just as we've recognized the false dichotomy of theology (the presumption that a congregation has to be either humanist or theist but not both) there is also a false dichotomy in seeing that culture must be one or the other. Rev. McNatt gave me at least a hopeful picture of a way forward.

As usual, the Conference at Berry Street promises to be the high point of General Assembly.


Bill Baar said...

The Southern Baptists feel the doldrums too.

Its research arm LifeWay Research released the following projections this week at the convention’s annual meeting in Kentucky: it said its numbers would fall nearly 50 percent by 2050 “unless the aging and predominantly white denomination reverses a 50-year trend and does more to strengthen evangelism, reach immigrants, and develop a broader ethnic base.”

As for this thought,

Of course the solution is not to give up the culture that we love but to become multi-cultural. Not to change but to add.

We will change. We have changed, and will change again.

We are bound more than most faiths to the culture, and the mission is to voice what it is that's transcended culture since our Churches foundings, and brought folks together despite what was preached. In my Church founded in 1843 --on the surface at least-- what was preached awfully different from what's preached in 2009.

What will be preached in 2029 will seem different too, yet there will be something transcendent that brings people into community; unless we lose sight of transcendent practice; unless we lose ourselves in the culture ...and today's preaching.

Robin Edgar said...

This is an issue close to my heart, and I believe that both Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor and Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt are overlooking one of the primary reasons why the Unitarian*Universalist religious community is overwhelmingly white, and is far from being genuinely multicultural in spite of empty pretense to the contrary. I have to laugh when some U*U congregations claim to be a "multicultural community" yet the photographs of their congregation(s) displayed on their website(s) prove them to be almost 100% white. . .

Here is a comment about this issue that I posted to the Multi Cultural UU: Removing Dissatisfaction post of Rev. Christine Robinson's iminister blog. I felt very validated when Rev. Robinson, who appears to be a staunch Humanist U*U minister, responded to this critical comment by saying -

"Robin's got his finger on one of our major problems."

With any luck the next President of the UUA, who will also be a Humanist U*U, will agree with Rev. Robinson's assessment of my comment and take appropriate and timely steps to correct this major problem of the Unitarian*Universalist religious community. Herewith the pertinent part of the comment with some minor corrections -

If U*U congregations really want to become more ethnically diverse and genuinely multicultural they are going to have to try a lot harder to be genuinely welcoming towards God believing people from all kinds of different cultural and religious backgrounds. I have been telling U*Us for years that one of the reasons the U*U movement has so few "people of color" as members is the anti-religious intolerance of the hard-core atheist faction of "Humanist" U*Us that rears its ugly head in too many U*U "churches". It does not take that many such "obnoxious atheists"* to repel any number of potential U*Us either. A small but vocal minority of "obnoxious atheists" can make a large number of God believing people feel far from welcome in *their* U*U "church" if their anti-religious intolerance is ignored and/or effectively condoned by the proverbial "silent majority" of that unwelcoming congregation's members. Even non-theists who are none-the-less open-minded and tolerant people have been seriously put off U*Uism simply by witnessing the anti-religious intolerance of the "fundamentalist atheist" subset of "Humanist" U*Us when visiting some U*U "churches". I have very reasonable grounds to believe that U*U tolerance of, and even tacit acceptance and approval of, the anti-religious intolerance and bigotry of the minority of outspoken "fundamentalist atheists" is a major contributing factor to not only the lack of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity within the U*U religious community but also to the overall lack of interest of the American public in joining U*U "churches". What God believing person wants to go to "church" on Sunday only to have some obnoxious atheist express condescension, and even outright hostility and contempt, for their theistic religious beliefs?

* To quote former UUA president Rev. Dr. John A. Buehrens

dmiley said...

In reference to Robin Edgar's comment, I wonder if it really is the atheist's fault. Most atheists I know are fairly calm intelligent and reasonable people. Perhaps far more to the point are the escapees from toxic religious experiences who people our pews? Not necessarily atheist or humanist, but deeply hostile towards any number of Christian and Jewish denominations.

My own thought, is that we need to embrace all of the sources without exception, not necessarily the ones that are our touchstones. My own blog entry on Paul Rasor's article is here:

Robin Edgar said...

@ dmiley - I only just saw and read your above comment now, months later than it was posted. Please understand that I am not blaming *all* U*U atheists for the current status of Unitarian*Universalism as " a tiny, declining, fringe religion" but the "less than tolerant" anti-religious "fundamentalist atheist" subset of U*U atheists. Your point about presumably God believing "escapees from toxic religious experiences" who are allegedly "deeply hostile towards any number of Christian and Jewish denominations" may have some validity but I have personally observed the bulk of U*U hostility to other religious groups coming primarily from the dogmatically anti-religious "fundamentalist atheist" U*Us. I do occasionally see "Christian" U*Us, including "Christian" U*U ministers, "lashing out" at the Roman Catholic church.