being part of Christendom, pragmatically speaking.

30 Jul

This is part 2 of a blog exploring Unitarian Universalism’s location in relationship to Christendom (that is, the world of Christianity).  Tom Schade graciously hosted the first part at his blog “The Lively Tradition“.  Since I wrote that first part, I’ve been thinking about the next logical question: So what?  So what if UUs are a part of Christendom?

Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship

One way to address the “So what?” question is to look at what it means internally.  Does being a part of Christendom affect our congregations, our people, our mission?  I believe it does.  I have sometimes heard people describe UU congregations as places where “We welcome people with all sorts of theological beliefs…except Christians.”  Indeed, many of our congregations are hostile places for UU Christians.  This closes these congregations off to religiously liberal people for whom the definition of Christian may be quite broad and inclusive; people who are looking for what we uniquely offer.  Since we have not disassociated ourselves from Christendom, the hypocrisy of these congregations is glaring, and irrational. It is hampering our ability to live our mission. It is hampering our ability to get our saving message to those who so desperately need it.

As an aside: I am sure someone will correct me if I mistaken, but it seems to me that our congregations in the South are a little bit better (on the whole) at welcoming a liberal Christian.  Perhaps it is because of the deeply religious culture that they are surrounded by.  I think this is especially notable, as it is in the South and the Bible Belt in which our congregations are experiencing the most growth…

Getting back to the issue at hand: There are also external ramifications to being a part of Christendom.  For one, it gives us not only the power to critique others who reside in Christendom, it also gives us the authority.  Let me explain with an example.  First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans recently had an encounter with Operation Save America, wherein OSA disrupted First UU’s worship service and harassed the church members.  There is a wonderful interfaith letter written to the New Orleans Advocate about the event.

An OSA member briefly put a YouTube video online, with footage he had shot during the encounter and his rationale for what/why they were doing it.  In it, he shared that they were disturbed that the UU “church” (their quotes, not mine) was actually a cult and was leading children astray, etc, etc.

Now, if we had disassociated ourselves from Christendom, then we could critique their actions and subsequent justification, but it would be coming from an outsider position, speaking mostly to our own experience of the encounter and the pain it caused. It might have power, but it would not have authority. But becuase we have not disassociated ourselves from Christendom, we can stand with both power and authority and firmly say “You do not hold the monopoly on what it means to be Christian. And you behaved in a manner that was decidedly not Christian.”  We can pull rank, as it were, as our faith tradition is older than the belief in the rapture, a hallmark belief of Christian Fundamentalists.

The “So what?” question also leads me to reconsider how our congregations relate to other religious organizations when working for social justice.  I was moved by this year’s Ware Lecturer  Sister Simone Campbell to reconsider my response to an ecumenical organization that had contacted me wondering if the church I serve would be interested in joining with them.  I responded then that since they were not an interfaith organization, I could not in good conscious recommend this to the congregation.  I have since reconsidered and hope to start a conversation with the congregation I serve about joining this organization as soon as I return from my sabbatical.  This ecumenical organization is doing amazingly good work. It is our loss for not participating.  And…

This leads to a final “So what?” So we might be able to change the conversation, provided we stay in it!  Perhaps we can help that ecumenical organization become an interfaith one, but that is not going to happen if we continue to absent ourselves from the conversation.  Unitarian Universalists are notoriously uncomfortable with our  collective privilege.  Being a part of Christendom is a privileged position in this country, so it is not surprising that we have tried to distance ourselves from it. Especially with Christianity becoming synonymous with fundamentalism (something that is driving many Christians crazy).

Those of us who are in places of privilege (or perceived privilege) in our individual lives are learning to use that privilege to be better allies, as is demonstrated in the video below. As a faith tradition, Unitarian Universalists can collectively use our privileged location within Christendom (no matter our personal theological bend) to become a force that cannot help but impact the future of Christendom, and beyond.

That is why it matters.

7 Responses to “being part of Christendom, pragmatically speaking.”

  1. kingstboy August 1, 2014 at 5:55 am #

    As a UU lay leader for 30 years, a minister for 20, and a Christian, I agree with and welcome this analysis. Some years ago, while signing one of his books for me at the annual convocation of my (late, lamented) Bangor Theological Seminary, process theologian John Cobb shook his head sadly when I identified myself as a UU cleric. “The UUs have been on the sidelines for so many years,” he said. “They would have so much contribute if they could get over their anti-Christian bias.” Couldn’t agree more.

    • Rev. Dawn August 20, 2014 at 6:01 pm #

      Wow, what a powerful story. That is one I will carry with me. Thank you for sharing it!

  2. Paul Sprecher August 1, 2014 at 10:06 am #

    I have advocated for the use of “interfaith” in clergy organitions because of the critical importance of including Jewish colleagues (or Muslim or Buddhist…..) who cannot accept “ecumenical.” However, your poont is well taken that we have an “in” and can therefore be advocates for such a broadening. We can in conscience join with any faith group that shares our values. Theological language is always “pointing” language, and it’s frankly over-rated. What matters is what it means in the ways we lead our lives.

  3. Richard E. Hurst August 2, 2014 at 11:50 am #

    Perhaps the most “Christian” thing about Unitarian Universalism is lack of interest in grasping at the term so intensely. All the same, of course, the outbreaks of occasional anti-Christian bias more often than not represent the need for pastoral response. Thank you for putting these questions into a different and useful context.

    • Rev. Dawn August 20, 2014 at 6:03 pm #

      A pastoral response – absolutely. Excellent point.

  4. Del Ramey August 8, 2014 at 9:36 pm #


    I need to react to and discuss your two recent blogs on whether UU’s are part of Christendom.

    I don’t disagree with your intent of building a stronger relationship with receptive Christian organizations. But I feel the need to clarify how I see such a relationship.

    I have several points that I will try to bring together.

    Set theory:

    The technical/mathematical side of me is not comfortable with describing UU’s as being a part of Christendom, as that implies that we are a sub-set
    of the Christian set. In our present form, we are an overlapping super-set, a set with a non-null AND sub-set between us and Christendom. The exact
    AND region varies between individual UU’s, but it is a rare UU who does not find some value in some aspects of Christendom.

    But there are aspects of Christendom that we also reject, again with variation between individual UU’s. Of course, there are such variations of overlap and rejection within the Christian community itself. You mention the issues between main stream Christian denominations and fundamentalists.

    And our super-set includes non-Christian and non-deity regions. As an atheist, I try to respect other peoples beliefs and to recognize value in those beliefs where I find it.

    For those who may be reading this with glazed eyes, all I’ve said so far is that we draw our boundaries of respect in ever widening circles. But our circles are really large and typically not enclosed by the circles of any one other religion. And we are, ideally, very comfortable with this.

    Heritage is not identity:

    Clearly our Unitarian and Universalist forebears can trace their lineages to Christian ancestors. But that can also be said for modern chemistry and alchemy. Historians of science can fill books and journal articles with reams of discussion of this rich history.

    But what chemist would want to identify herself as a practitioner of alchemy?

    To acknowledge the historical connection, to acknowledge the learnings of alchemy that developed into scientific practice and modern chemistry is to acknowledge a rich and intriguing heritage. But that does not mean today’s chemists want to identify as alchemists.

    Diversity with Respect and Collaboration:

    We can be different and still respect each other and work together. Look at any successful marriage and you’ll see this statement in action.

    I volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. This is a wonderful organization, with very strong Christian beliefs motivating the people and organizational
    principles. I’m not a Christian. But I value and respect what they do and what motivates them.

    We can be different and still work together. I look forward to hearing more about the ecumenical organization you mention in your second blog. As
    long as we have respect, we can have collaboration.

    Calling Foul:

    The examples of the invasion of the service at First UU of New Orleans and the “Cracking the Code” video in your second blog are both powerful.

    The actions of OSA and AHA are so far outside the acceptable limits of any democratic nation’s social conventions that I don’t see any significant advantage to identifying myself as “part of Christendom” before calling foul on this arrogant bunch of fools and bullies. By the way, a video recorded by one of the OSA/AHA people, with his commentary on the event,
    can be seen at:

    link removed due to minors appearing in the video without parental consent

    The quality of the recording is below terrible, but the insight to the world view of the guy who made the recording is sad.

    Joy DeGruy, the woman in the “Cracking the code” video, clearly appreciated the actions of her “passing as white” sister-in-law in calling into question the actions of the grocery store clerk who was subjecting Joy, clearly African American, to a bad check screening which she did not apply to seemingly white customers. But did the white appearance of the
    sister-in-law make that much difference? Or did just shining a bright light on the unfairness of the clerk make the difference? Hard to know in this specific case.

    But if Christendom only respects questions and criticisms from people and organizations that are part of Christendom, then Christendom has some very
    serious problems. Hopefully Christendom can respect questions and criticisms from members of a super set with a significant AND sub-set overlap between their beliefs and ours.

    In the case of OSA/AHA, the arrogance, ignorance and scorn for our UU values displayed in the above video make it clear that we have nothing to gain by saying that we are a part of their Christendom. They reject such a claim and belittle us, our beliefs and our rituals. We can and should continue to talk with anyone WHEN IT IS A RESPECTFUL CONVERSATION. But under no conditions can I identify myself as part of their belief system. I can try my best to respect their right to their beliefs, I can try to make my circle as large as possible. But if they reject everything I hold sacred, I gain nothing by claiming to be part of their “-dom”, part of their set of beliefs, regardless of any shared heritage in the history of their and my belief systems.


    UU’s are UU’s. We share heritage, values, cultural elements, with other religions. Certainly our specific developmental history has resulted in very strong bonds with both Judaism and Christianity. We can and often do draw upon this heritage in our expressions of religion and participate in
    the religious services of other religions. But I value my experience attending the memorial service at the Louisville Sikh Gurdwara for the vicitims of the 5-Aug-2012 murders in Oak Creek, Wisconsin as much as any Christian service I can recall.

    I attended graduate school with Sikh’s and people of other religions and nationalities. I still wear a Sikh metal bracelet, because of how it symbolizes a very important part of my life. I also attended a UU church,
    starting a 42 year long trend. I am as much a “part” of the Sikh’s as I am of the Christians.

    Delvan A. Ramey, PhD
    Member First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY

    • Rev. Dawn August 20, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

      Hi Del – Thank you for your comment and I am sorry I have taken so long to respond. Yes, a Venn Diagram would be, perhaps, a more apt description than a totally enclosed subset. Metaphors have their limitations! Please understand, though, that none of what I am saying should be construed as saying that individuals should believe a particular way. I know that other people feel as though we have started a new religion, and I don’t necessarily disagree with that but I do not believe we are as far along in separating from our parent religion as many UUs seem to want to believe.

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