Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ethnic UUs and Lapsed Unitarians

I had an experience last October that I've been meaning to write about -- a post by the Rev. Thomas Perchlik made me take the time.

My parents, my brother, and my sister, are all ethnic UUs.  If you ask them their religion, they will say, "Unitarian."  My parents raised them in this religion, and then me, when I came along.

Other than a handful of times to see me preach, none of them have been in a UU church in the last 30 years.

Last October, my parents, my brother and I, were sitting around talking about going to church.  "Well, I see no need to go to church," said my bro, "Because the older I get, the less important it is to hear about what'll happen when you die."

My parents and I looked at him as if he had sprouted three heads.  "I can't think of the last time I heard a sermon that addressed that," I said.

"No, no, that's not why you go to church," said my parents.  "You go because of the community, all the people you'll meet and talk to."

If you're thinking about the blind men and the elephant, you're not alone.  Well, blind man #3:

"As the only person who actually attends a UU church," sez I, "and the one working toward being a minister, let me tell you that the reason you go to church is because it helps you become a better person."

And they all looked at me like I had sprouted three heads.

None of them go to a UU church.  But I happen to know that in the last year, all three have told someone about Unitarian Universalism.  And urged someone to check it out.

So, we can say, Oh, they're not really UUs, but here's the deal:  they're probably representing UU out there.

Rev. Perchlik asks:
What does our connection to those people mean? What duty or responsibility do we have towards those persons? How do they change our own self-image?
My answers, which I don't claim are any good, since I've got a whole nest of the vampires, I mean, ethnic UUs, in my family:

Connection (religiously) ... well, I think of them as "lapsed UUs."  Duty/responsibility:  if they show up in church, kill the fatted calf and rejoice.  And invite them to attend a new UU class.  And become a member.  (And smile patiently when they say, "Hey, this isn't what Unitarian Universalism is supposed to be!")  How do they change our own self-image?:  My first response was "Sorry, not at all."  Once I got over my grouse about people who think if that sat in a garage once thirty years ago, they're a car ...

Yes, um, once I got through that moment of pique, I got pragmatic.  These folks are out there, with good intentions, probably mentioning every once in a while something about this cool religion that someone should go check out.

They're Lapsed Unitarians.  Their thoughts about Unitarian Universalism may be a bit out-dated.  They call themselves "Unitarians" when the hospital chaplain ask their religion.  And they know that a UU church "is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

Let's have a feast and celebrate.


Transient and Permanent said...

Being a scholar of religion, rather than a ministerial aspirant, I come at this from a different point of view. In my discipline, we often don't define people by whether they go to church, but by what their basic orientation and "religious disposition" is, for lack of a better term. Christians are people who agree with and are shaped by many of the tenets of Christianity, and have some organic connection with the tradition (i.e. raised in and/or go to church occasionally and/or self-identify as Christian and/or are involved in some other Christian practices such as private prayer or Bible-reading, etc). If such people don't go to church, we don't consider them lapsed Christians, we consider them Christians with a non-church-oriented approach to Christianity.

That's how I look at UUs too. UUs who don't go to UU churches are not lapsed UUs, they are UUs whose free conscience has not led them to follow a church-oriented form of personal practice. Such behaviors are perfectly normal in all religions, from Buddhism to Islam. Human beings come in enough inherent variety that church cannot begin to meet the needs all types, no matter how fervent or stale their actual religious feelings may be. Such non-attenders, however, may well continue to be notably shaped by their religious traditions and operate as perfectly legitimate members and representatives of their faiths.

I know a future-minister may not share this perspective, since such folks are by definition community (and specifically church) oriented, for both religious and purely practical economic reasons.

fausto said...

I am now very curious to hear you define, and distinguish between, the characteristics of the "Unitarian" religious identity that they apply to themselves and the "Unitarian Universalism" of the denomination today.

Lizard Eater said...

@Transient and Permanent: no, I can dig that view of it, too. But I think there's a difference between the unaffiliated UU who still is connected in some way to Unitarian Universalism (books, blogs, UU world, etc) and one who belonged to a UU church 40 years ago, but has no interest in any of that -- or religious study in an manner -- now. They are "done."

So, maybe I'll steal terms from both Judaism and Catholicism. Unaffiliated UU and Lapsed UU.

Lizard Eater said...


From my experience, purely anecdotal:

Their self-identity as Unitarians --
* Tolerant to all
* "Reason" is everything
* Their religion is one where "you can believe whatever you want to believe"
* genuinely don't understand how you can claim to be a Christian and a Unitarian

... and their beliefs about what Unitarian church should be (or not)
* Never evangelical
* Low commitment
* Finite period of time needed til you're "done"
* very humanist; "God" is an unhelpful term and should always be avoided.

I think that Christine Robinson hit the nail right on the head. A lot of this is the issue of modernism vs. postmodernism rather than humanist/theist.

Disclaimer to anyone besides fausto reading this: This is based purely on the people I know and love. I do not attempt to describe every lapsed Unitarian. And even the people I describe are lovely people, making the world a better place.