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"Values" are overrated

This is the second of my "heretical" Unitarian thoughts.

I think what might be the most unhelpful of the orthodoxies of modern Unitarianism is that what really matters is "values."

As we have become more doctrinally diverse we have seen "values" as the only thing that can unite us. So we can agree on nothing religious, so we decide we will just agree on basically liberal values of tolerance, gay rights, the environment, etc. We have begun to think this is what matters most in our religious community.

You can see this in the language that has been coming out of the leadership of the American UUs recently. This statement from UUA President Peter Morales has caused a lot of discussion. In it he notes some interesting points including the fact that a lot more people in America identify as UU than actually go to congregations, and a lot of people who grew up in UU congregations don't continue to attend as adults. This, in a sense, is the inevitable consequence of defining Unitarianism in terms of values. People have got the values, so they no longer see the need for congregations. You don't really need a congregation to maintain your liberal values, except, perhaps, in a very conservative environment.

I'm not entirely clear what "congregations and beyond" means but it is interesting to note this concluding statement, "The central conviction driving this proposal is that our core values appeal to far more people than are attracted to (or likely to be attracted to) our congregations." (emphasis added). There is also a lot of talk about the increasing number of "nones" in America i.e. those who are not affiliated to any religion. The argument seems to be that these "nones" share the values of Unitarianism therefore this is a great opportunity to appeal to the "nones" and to attract them to Unitarianism. Peter Morales has said "they are us."

I like and respect Peter Morales, but I think there's a mistake in the thinking here. Here in the UK there are many more "nones" than in the US. The majority of the "nones" share the values of Unitarianism. Indeed I'd say that a good proportion of the British public share the values of Unitarianism, and yet British Unitarianism continues to decline. Why is this?

Because (if you'll excuse the sexist language) man does not live by values alone. Although people want a religion that does connect with their values, values are not the "product" that they want to buy (if you'll excuse the marketing language). What actually transforms people religiously are stories, rituals and practices, not values and principles.

That's why I think its a mistake when we think in Britain that what we really need are "principles" like the seven principles of the UUA. We don't need principles; we need stories. No religion is built on principles alone, they're primarily built on stories. The life of Moses, the life of Jesus, the life of Mohammad, the life of the Buddha, the myriad stories of Hinduism, these are the real building blocks of a religion. That and practices: communion, confession, meditation, prayer, worship, devotion, study.

There is nothing wrong with trying to reach out to the "nones." Indeed I would agree it is missionally vital. But I think talk of values is not going to do that. "Come here to hang out with people who share you values" is not an attractive invitation, because it doesn't offer anything.

More powerful is "come here to find liberation from your fears" "come here to find a deeper joy" "come here to find salvation" "come here to find God" and even "come here to have your values challenged, to be freed from the sin of your materialism, narrow-mindedness, anger and selfishness and re-orientate your values to a radical way of compassion, peace, non-violence, simplicity and love."

In other words evangelism should not be "come here to remain the same" but "come here to be changed." And yes, this might put some people off, but the religious path is a challenging one of personal growth, but that path must be our ultimate goal, otherwise, what's the point in what we're doing anyway? And even if you are measuring by a purely pragmatic church-growth outcome, the evidence is that the "come here and be changed" message does attract a lot more people than the "come here to remain the same."

Sharing the basic values of the liberal majority is a helpful bridge to our outreach. But it's not enough on its own. We also need to show what is distinct about the religious path, about belonging to a Unitarian community as opposed to not belonging to anything. We need to offer religious practices, rituals and stories that create human meaning and transformation. Until we do that, I don't believe the "nones" are going to be bashing our doors down to come and share in our values.


Matt said…
I think you are spot on again, Stephen, in your analysis of where Unitarianism has gone adrift. It is a question of where the prophetic voice has gone, that which emerges from powerful narrative and worship. This trend is also evident with the Quakers, but I think only less so because they started with a stronger prophetic voice and narrative via George Fox et al.

It always seemed to be that Unitarianism had become a bit like Bahai Lite...
Yewtree said…
Stories, rituals and practices - yes exactly.

I would also add that a transformative community is a worshipping community (and that doesn't mean it has to believe in the literal existence of God as a person, it just means it needs to be focused beyond itself on something greater, e.g. love). Spiritual depth is, I think, focussing on something beyond (and yet also deep within) ourselves - not the committee, or the curtains, or bums-on-pews, not even the work of transforming ourselves personally, but the fixing of the gaze on the Divine Beloved. The pilgrim in Pilgrim's Progress didn't spend time worrying about his personal spirituality - he fixed his gaze on the Celestial City and got on with it. Well, I don't want to go to the Celestial City because the Earth is my Blue Boat Home, but I do know that fixing one's gaze on the Beloved is the way forward.
RevDan said…
Brilliant Stephen and thank you for articulating so well thoughts and feelings I share...Felt this powerfully this Christmas time as for the first time I've truly connected with the mythos of the season, which as allowed me to connect to the spirit beneath the story and the many stories that have followed since
Paul Oakley said…
What stories do you have in mind, Stephen?
@Paul: I think that's a good question. I would say, partly, as many stories as possible! But at least one that comes to mind is the story of Michael Servetus, which is a story that encompasses many strong Unitarian themes. We should tell that story at least once a year.
Paul Oakley said…
Just to further clarify, are you primarily talking about a Unitarian "Lives of the Saints" approach, delivered, of course, in age-appropriate complexity and ambiguity? As in, "These lives show what it means to be Unitarian"?

If so, I am intrigued by your choice here of Servetus. As a case of unitarian theology arising and being struck down, fine, it shows willingness to stick to one's principled position rather even than save one's own life. But Servetus did not show a life lived in covenanted community and did not show much sense in his interaction with the world around him. Unless I'm forgetting something, he was not an exemplar of standing for social justice. In addition, his theology is not one I find in contemporary UUism.

So I must be missing your point.
@Paul, Servetus exemplifies a principled stand, reasoning, religious freedom and tolerance (and lack of), engaging with other religions (in a limited way - but he was only one generation away from when Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together in relative peace in Spain).

He did not engage with "social justice" as such but he was a medical doctor, so exemplified some values of service to others.

But you're right that the covenanted community is a big missing piece. But it's just one example. Like I said, lots of stories, lots of parables with levels of meaning that can be mined and argued over and rehearsed again and again. That's religion.
Anonymous said…
What this sounds like is that values are theoretical and generalisations, important but they need practical applications suitable to the local culture to create a popular movement. Most people don't want a purely intellectual principle, I can see that. Our diversity give us open access to all spiritual traditions yet we need to create activities suitable for the postmodern 21st century. Nick.
Anonymous said…
Came accross this having just read Alain de Botton's book Religion for Atheists. From a very different direction he makes the same case for structures to help people. His easy read is well worth anyone wishing to offer sensible support to human kind.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for posting my comment. Though it is certainly rambling. New to the blog lark. Anyway my point was that De Botton describes the way religions have used all sorts of ways to "teach" people and help fragile and waywood human kind live good lives. His central point is that humanism and philosophy needs to learn from this if it wants to replace what he sees as fantastical ideas with humanist ethics. In doing so I believe he also helps religions to examine how they turned often difficult and esoteric ideas into something useful in guiding folk to life a good (ish) life. I have long been a Unitarian in the sense of Jesus as a teacher and have myself increasingly baffled by the stuff from the Unitarian "world". As a quite basic level it's quite off putting if any visit to a chapel means a "service" is radically different, it makes it feel like an exclusive club not for the uninitiated. I know this isn't their intention but that's how it feels. Anyway this is a stimulating blog and actually helpful. I'm Nigel I haven't sorted out how I get by being Anonymous yet.

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