Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I'll Have What (S)he's Having!

A minister I respect deeply has written his third blog post expressing his disquiet about the "Whose Are We" training.  I share his misgivings and more.

"Whose Are We" is a training taking place during UU Ministerial Association (UUMA) chapter retreats around the country, starting in the Fall of 2010.  The training starts with a sermon by Sarah Lammert (now Director of Ministries and Faith Development at the UUA), followed by a series of exercises. 

The Introduction
Rev. Lammert tells of attending a UU summit meeting focused on lay and professional ministerial formation.

We started with a worship service, and the very first words uttered were those of Rev. Jon Luopo, the minister of the University Unitarian Church of Seattle. He told this story:

It seems that in Seattle the interfaith clergy organization has a tradition of asking senior colleagues to share their life odysseys. On this particular occasion, a Roman Catholic Priest was telling his story, and he said that his life had been in large measure a failure. He remembered the heady days of Vatican II and how hopeful he and his generation of liberal priests had been that real change was coming to the church he loved so dearly. And yet; these many years later he felt that the church had if anything become hardened and deeply conservative, and his dreams had not been realized.

Now, this priest was someone who was valued among his interfaith colleagues, and they were somewhat hurt and stunned by his revelation. And yet; one colleague noted, despite the severity of his words, his demeanor seemed quite peaceful and content. “How can you claim that your life was a failure, and yet appear so calm and serene?” “I know whose I am.” replied the priest. “I know whose I am.”

The priest knows the ground of his faith - even though the institution of the church has let him down, his God is still there, permanent, reliable, and certain.  Most UUs don't share the God of the priest.  Even among UU theists, few pray to a personal God.  And no UUs inhabit the certainty conferred by two thousand years of tradition.

The UU ministers are like the woman at the next table in When Harry Met Sally:  "I'll have what she's having!"  In an attempt to find the priest's spiritual peace, they have taken a shortcut.  Skip the path common to many faith traditions -- years of religious practice and submission to God and Church.  More importantly, skip the Certainty.

The certainty that underlies the priest's response is fundamentally inconsistent with Unitarian Universalism.  Inherent to liberal religion is humility with respect to the certainty of our beliefs, our experience, and our conclusions.  Whether willingly or not, we left the comfort of certainty behind in the Enlightenment.  Certainty is the price we paid when we turned away from revealed truth to accept religious plurality -- and gained the freedom to find and follow our own spiritual path.

The First Exercise:  "Whose are You"
The participants split into pairs, and sit facing each other.  They take the role of Questioner and Responder.

Questioner:  "Whose are you?”
Responder:  a short phrase or word that comes to mind
Questioner:  “God be merciful. Whose are you?”
Responder:  another short phrase or word that comes to mind
Questioner:  “God be merciful. Whose are you?”

They continue in this way until bell rings, after about five minutes.  (If you have every done an exercise like this, five minutes can be a long time.)

When I read this, my immediate reaction was "Oh no - I know this exercise!"  This is straight out of various Mind Dynamics trainings.  I have been in it.  To sit across from someone and focus on them for an extended period of time evokes a powerful emotional response.  It is not something we normally do.  Depending on your perspective, it is a powerful method for getting deep inside the participants, or a cheap psychological parlor trick.  You can evoke the emotional response, but you don't get deep answers out of cheap parlor tricks.  This exercise is fundamentally manipulative.  I'm not sure if it has any appropriate use.

Then I recognized the words of the Responder.  It is the Kyrie!  Kýrie, eléison:  Lord have mercy.  These words have power - so powerful that they have been used for over a millennium in the Catholic Mass.  Like the exercise, the Mass uses the Kyrie in a repetitive fashion.  So the UU ministers have reached out to an ancient liturgy and put it in a training exercise.  (Talk about cultural and religious misappropriation.)  After a few repetitions of "God be merciful," where is the Responder's mind expected to go?

Take note - I do not have problem with God language.  But I think the story and the exercise go way beyond God language - it's hard to work with the story and exercise without evoking theism - which is a different thing entirely.  And there's the problem.  Unitarian Universalism, as understood by a great many of its congregants, allows for a non-theistic stance.  But this training does not.  It comprehends spirituality in a dualistic theistic fashion - God as an entity not identical with the world, who acts in the world.

This training has chosen a cheap answer.  The broader culture understands a deity.  Many who have come in to Unitarian Universalism also understand a deity; they just don't like the one in their old religion.  "Whose are We" takes the approach, to bring back spirituality, let's bring back a deity.  A personal, dualistic God is a short path to spirituality - but it is not the only path.  And it is a path that Unitarian Universalists left with Theodore Parker's search for the Transient and Permanent.

Liberal skepticism was not totally absent.  In some trainings, the participants revolted - they resisted the "God be merciful" response, and chose their own less theistic response.
After the Training (1)
The ministers were encouraged to write sermons relating to the Whose Are We training.  Many did so. 

One esteemed minister here the in Bay Area gave such a sermon.  She named who she belonged to - her family, her partner, her parents, her ministerial colleagues; the body of the earth, whales, dolphins, and her watershed.

Missing from the list was her congregation.  Later that year she left her church for a fund-raising job at the UUA.  I guess we know whose she wasn't.

After the Training (2)
The Pacific Central District of the UUMA held their training in Fall 2010.  During the same three day retreat the ministers "heard each other's pain" about their relationship with Cilla Raughley, the District Executive, and wrote a letter effectively requesting her firing.  I question the professional wisdom of mixing a training session designed to evoke emotional response with what should have been a thoughtful discussion about a covenantal relationship with District staff and lay leadership. 

God be merciful, indeed.


  1. I am struck that these sorts of manipulative and political events are not specific to any particular sort of religious organization. It is odd that they occur in a church with such reportedly high education level. Apparenly, intelligence is not the fatal flaw.

    Is there a connection between the dysfunction in our churches and the dysfunction in our government?


  2. My theology includes the idea of the immanent divine, but I am very uncomfortable with any approach that implies serving a being rather than a principle. I serve love, justice and that sort of thing, but not personified as a being or beings.