On January 3rd, First Parish held a live Zoom Sunday service called Ask Me Anything. It was a “Question Box Sunday.” First, members of the congregation submitted questions to our interim religious educator Roberta Altamari and our ministerial intern Jenna Crawford. Then, during the service, Roberta asked Rev. Catie questions from our kids and Jenna questions from our adults, and Rev. Catie answered them off the top of her head. If you missed that service, you can watch the recording on YouTube.
We couldn’t get to all of the questions within the time of our Sunday morning together, and Rev. Catie has written short answers to those questions:
- Unitarian Universalism’s roots are in the liberal Christian tradition. Are we still a Christian denomination, and if not, when did we stop?
I find this to be a complex question to answer, because the boundaries of who is “Christian” led to terrible (and deadly) persecution of our spiritual ancestors and so many other “heretics.” As this questioner obviously knows, Universalism and Unitarianism prior to the modern era were unquestionably Christian (though didn’t believe in eternal damnation nor the Trinity, respectively). Today, some international Unitarian/Universalist communities are still Christian (such as in Romania-Hungary and Indonesia).
In the United States and at First Parish, I would say that we still act like a Christian denomination — our governance (nationally and locally) and the structure of our weekly faith life are still very similar to our Christian ancestors — but theologically we are far from even our heretical Christian ancestors. Some elder born-in UUs among us can remember when crosses were still in our sanctuaries, and then disappeared! Our American Unitarian ancestors diverged from a Christian-centered faith first, with some in the 1800’s beginning to draw from non-Christian religious sources and others moving into religious humanism which was often (but not exclusively) atheistic. The Universalists had a stronger Christian center leading up to the merger in 1960. Personally, I understand modern American Unitarian Universalism as theologically pluralist with Christian roots and a shared ethical framework for spiritual growth and moral living.
- How do you reconcile faith in democracy with democracy’s inconsistency, both to sustain our values and to sustain itself? In other words, how does democracy allow evil to exist?
Our UU Fifth Principle says that we “affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” So, I would say that it’s not so much a faith in democracy as a noun, but the democratic process as a verb. The democratic process demands that we remain in conversation with our neighbors and our officials, exercising our right of conscience through voting and civic engagement. Democracy as a noun is only sustained by democracy as a verb. I have faith — or at least an abiding optimism — that by honoring our Unitarian Universalist democratic principles, we can implement our values in the public sphere ever more so.
As for the second question, I wrote my entire Master’s thesis on historic and modern Unitarian Universalist understandings of evil, so it’s difficult for me to answer with brevity! Democracy allows evil to exist because evil exists everywhere, sprung from generations upon generations of moral evils of racism, colonialism, heteropatriarchy, economic exploitation, anthropocentrism, and religious supremacy. This systemic evil is embedded in the dominant culture, and it takes enormous effort to remove it from ourselves, our communities, and our systems of law and governance. Some UUs describe evil and oppression like viruses, and accurately say it will take a long healing process to overcome them. Democracy includes everyone (or, at least is supposed to!), and because we all live in this society infected with evil, evil will be “allowed” in the democratic process.
- Sigmund Freud wrote that “religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis.” He also said “religious teachings, [are] neurotic relics, and we may now argue that the time has probably come, as it does in an analytic treatment, for replacing the effects of repression by the results of the rational operation of the intellect.” Would he have found UUism in the 21st century more attractive than what he found in early 20th century Europe?
I feel like I can only answer this question after I note that I strongly disagree with Freud’s characterization of religion and its teachings as “neurotic.” Freud used the term “neurotic” to describe the use of old (and unhealthy) coping mechanisms to manage childhood traumas and repression. To lump all expressions of religiosity into neuroticism is, frankly, ridiculous, when so many faith traditions effectively bring communities together, encourage spiritual and ethical growth, and support healthy socio-emotional development in children, youth, and adults. I certainly don’t believe that my Unitarian Universalist faith is simply a coping mechanism for childhood troubles (though I am a convert to our tradition — so maybe I’m still lost in my own unconscious repressions!).
I have much more I could say about Freud — both his great contributions to the field of psychology and his prejudices and errors that still negatively impact the field and popular culture — but this is meant to be a short response!
Perhaps Freud would have found 21st century Unitarian Universalism an attractive alternative to the religions he was acquainted with in his lifetime. Freud may have been interested in our non-creedal, ethics-based faith, perhaps especially the way we engage with religious scripture as inspirational but not infallible. But, even if he wouldn’t join one of our congregations, I would hope that the way our members engage with the faith and how our congregations operate would change his opinion of religion broadly writ.
Many thanks to everyone who submitted questions and participated in our Zoom worship on January 3rd!