Transforming Fellowship

Bart Simpson is playing a video game called “Billy Graham’s Bible Busters,” in which you shoot crosses at heathens to convert them to Christianity. Rod and Todd, the neighbour kids, observe his progress. “I got one!” Bart cries. “No, you just winged him,” Replies Rod, “Now he’s a Unitarian.”

baddeck-1I remember chuckling at this gag, but mostly I was surprised and delighted to hear a pop cultural reference to Unitarianism. It didn’t matter that the joke misleadingly classified us as agnostics (though some of us are), or as fence-sitters (though LOTS of us are). It was just so refreshing to be acknowledged at all.

People would poke more fun at Unitarian Universalists if they understood the first thing about us. As it is, we fall into a blurry gap somewhere between Quakers (about whom most humour boils down to “Aren’t they weird and backwards?”) and Baha’i (“Ba-who??”). And that’s a shame, because even though UUs sometimes lack a sense of humour about the injustices in the world, we are pretty good at laughing at ourselves.

UUism is on my mind because this weekend, I attended my first UU event in about five years. I was raised UU, attended “lifelong learning” (ie. Church school) and youth group events (the Canadian annual Youth Ministry event is called “CanUUdle.” See? Sense of humour). I got married in the Unitarian Church of Edmonton, in a ceremony that discombobulated my more traditional relatives. I sometimes even led summer Sunday lay-services—usually just reading plays or poems, but always to an accepting audience. My first tattoo is a Unitarian chalice inside a maple leaf—the Canadian Unitarian Council logo. So clearly, UU is important to me. But there is no congregation on Cape Breton Island, and I knew when I moved here that I’d be losing that community.

Shortly because moving east, I became interested in Buddhism. Anyone who isn’t familiar with UU might take that as a step towards conversion, but that’s one of the greatest things about the faith: like good improvisation, UU is a “Yes, and” experience. Another UU joke: the Jewish God is called YHWH, but our god is YMMV. I can sit in a circle with a UU Christian, a UU Jew, a UU Wiccan, a UU atheist, etc., and we’d have lots to talk about—and probably lots to argue about, except our shared ideals and values form the safety net for acrobatic conversations that don’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

What values? I balked at transcribing them here—Unitarians shrink from proselytizing, partly because we respect others’ beliefs, but mostly because it’s like explaining calculus—but at this weekend’s meeting, I felt such a thrill as the Seven Principles were read aloud, I can’t resist the urge to share. To make them more palatable, I’ve converted them into Twitter-worthy rhyming couplets, but you can find the full version here:

If you’re human, you have worth;
Since you live here, love the Earth;
Let’s be free to search for meaning,
Democratic, liberal-leaning;
Let’s be fair and let’s be nice
And let’s be just (that one comes twice);
Forever growing—all directions—
Joy is in diverse reflections.

If that sounds less like a religious creed and more like Liberal Humanism for Dummies, you’re not wrong. And if you read that and thought, “That’s not a religion, that’s just being a person in the world”—congratulations! You’ve just been winged by Bart Simpson’s Bible Busters. UUs can be deeply religious, or deeply spiritual, but the bedrock of our faith is usually not in God or in anything ineffable; it’s in humanity’s own potential for good (so, an alternate version of the last line in that ditty: “People make their own perfections”).

When I was a kid, I didn’t grasp most of this. Church school was like a more disorganized version of normal school, and I spent most of my time running amuck through the building, which we shared with a Montessori. The UCE has moved since then, but that original building is part of my mental architecture. I dream about it often, and sometimes I use its floorplan as a visual aid when memorizing lines for plays.

Yet despite my dismissive attitude, UU sunk in somehow. Consider that I grew up male, white, straight, cis, and upper-middle-class, yet I consider myself a socialist and a feminist who’d rather spend time at an LGBTQ coffee house than a sports bar. Consider that I absorbed so much ecumenical religious education through osmosis that, when I took Comparative Religious Studies in university, my classmates couldn’t decide if I was a Muslim, a Jew, or both. The Seven Principles are hard-wired into me, and they determine not only how I vote or who I ally myself with, but also where I am most likely to find joy and fulfilment—in the thick of complex human questioning and celebrations of diversity.

This weekend’s gathering had all the hallmarks of a classic UU event, including some members actively resisting the UU umbrella, on account of long-standing suspicions about any sort of organized religion. When those gripes came up, I wanted to hug the dubious newcomers and say, “Welcome to the world’s most disorganized organized religion.” There were twelve of us, seated in a circle in the choir room of the Baddeck United Church (X made a baker’s dozen, patiently playing on his tablet in the adjoining room). It wasn’t quintessentially diverse—lots of white faces, although one fellow claimed Native heritage, and had even brought along his talking stick—but there was definitely a broad mixture of perspectives, backgrounds, and outlooks, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I’m hopeful that the group, which dubbed itself the “Vegetable Soup Group” in lieu of embracing UUism outright, will stick around until we’re back from France. I’m sad I won’t be able to join in the growing pains. But at the end of the meeting, N&J, the organizers, whipped out five freshly minted “UU Aspirations” for me to mull while I’m away: “As Canadian Unitarian Universalists, we are Deeply Connected, Radically Inclusive, Actively Engaged, Theologically Alive, and Spiritually Grounded.”

Seriously, in what other faith would I feel so excited to receive new rules?

“Unitarian Universalism—where all your answers are questioned.”

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