Friday, November 25, 2016

Turning Point: Essays on a New Unitarian Universalism: review


I've just finished this book that I bought at General Assembly this year and thought I would write some of my reactions.

This book is based on the vision of Frederic Muir, who thinks Unitarian Universalism is in serious trouble and will die out unless some big changes are made. In making this point he points to British Unitarianism as a "canary in the coal mine" for what might happen to American UUism in the next few decades. He uses British Unitarianism to make the rhetorical point, saying basically that British Unitarianism is doomed to die out within three generations. British Unitarianism is beyond salvation, he says, but pleads that Americans might learn from this to save American UUism.

His analysis of the problem is that Unitarian Universalism has been dependent on a "trinity of errors": individualism, exceptionalism, and anti-authoritarianism. It seems to me that individualism is the root problem of the others though. He blames Emerson for this emphasis. Perhaps these values have served UUs in the past, but now they are part of the problem. The problem is that UUs create an "iChurch" - a church that we think should only serve the needs of the individual.

To counter this he proposes a "trinity of promises": generosity, pluralism and imagination. However although there is nothing wrong with these values, I'm not sure exactly why they are the particular values that would save UUism. They seem a bit arbitrary to me and it's difficult to see why they would be the solutions to the problems of individualism, exceptionalism and anti-authoritarianism.

More fruitful I believe is Muir's emphasis on Beloved Community as the mission of Unitarian Universalism. This seems like a good emphasis for the mission of UUism, although for me there are limits to its usefulness.

The rest of the essays by other authors sort of expand on these points with varying degrees of success. Some of them seem to say same old same old kind of UU stuff seeing salvation as a matter of being sufficiently up-to-date with the latest trends and earnestly pursuing social justice. One essay says something like "as long as there's fundamentalist religion there'll be a need for liberal religion" which suggests where fundamentalist religion is not dominant (like secular Europe) there is no need for liberal religion. It's the same old counter-dependent relationship of religious liberalism defining itself against conservative religion, and it becomes less and less effective in secular societies such as Britain and increasingly coastal USA.

But some of the essays are really inspiring, particular ones by young leaders doing church planting (this phrase isn't used) of new, radical communities that are doing mission and worship quite differently. There are real signs of hope here, and signs of different kind of UU communities arising.

For me though the book doesn't go far enough in arguing for a coherent theological and spiritual message and practice needed to save Unitarian Universalism. It talks a lot about story but ultimately does not provide a spiritual story but points to vague values like "generosity." Such words do not save. Stories save.

Whether Muir's prophecy is accurate is an interesting question. Will British Unitarianism die, and the US learn from this to bring about a radical change in the way it does things? Perhaps. Perhaps in 50 years British Unitarianism will be dead and American UUs will be down to 10,000 members, or will have learnt the lesson and be doing OK. Perhaps secularisation is an inevitable process and American society is just 50 years behind Britain in this process?

But I think such comparisons are dangerous. Secularisation is a complicated thing happening in very different ways in different countries. I do think secularisation is going to hit UUs more strongly than they currently realise, and decline may well be on the cards, but this is not a simple picture.

But there is another way to look at this. It really depends on how you believe change happens. It may be that American UUism can be persuaded to change while British Unitarianism has stubbornly refused to. Or it may be that the only way change happens is through death and resurrection. It may be that in 50 years British Unitarianism has gone through the process of death and resurrection, while the US UUs are still hanging onto life, but declining. It may be that the changes Muir argues for cannot happen in any other way. If that's true it will happen in Britain before it happens in the US.

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