December 16, 2006

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens

Starting this summer I've tried to learn about the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens. A lot of people are skeptical of UU congregations, and I found that many (though of course not all) of the concerns are unfounded.

First of all, why am I interested in the place? Amy and I have never joined a church, so I have wondered if I can make some of the normal sorts of community connections that many people have. Next I have seen that my wider social circle already has connections there, and members of the congregation are active and involved with charities, causes, and politics. I've met a professor, an elected official, and a political candidate who were members.

The Unitarian Universalist history is complex. The current system was a recent merger of two systems of liberal religion, and some of the traditional doctrine goes back many centuries. The Unitarians and Universalists were Christians, but the current system embraces all kinds of religious thought. Of course, that is the main objection to the UUs held by many people, that Christianity is not central. To that I can only say that you might respect the beliefs of others as you want yours to be respected. The UUs do not have a creed, but their official principles reflect positive values, including spiritual growth, equality, justice, peace, and respect for the environment.

It is true that they do not hold the Bible as their central text. Rather than being a "people of the book," they see themselves as a "people of the library." However, tradition is still important, and UUs have rituals and rites like anyone else. UUs are known for having less formality, but the minister in Athens is a former Methodist minister and says she appreciates the "bells and smells" of more formal church traditions. Each congregation designs its own services because they are supposed to be independent and democratic (a congregational polity), so I guess there are no generalizations to be made about services and traditions.

I have heard the Unitarian Universalist system called a "cult." That really doesn't make any sense when you consider that the common elements of what you normally call a cult involve a set of dogmatic beliefs, a charismatic leader who controls those beliefs, and a zealous devotion that puts the organization above all other priorities in life and requires an unreasonable sacrifice of independence and resources. Could the UUs really be hiding dogmatic thinking behind a facade of open-mindedness?

No. I have seen no cult-like elements in the very least. There is no creed, so that makes most any other religious organization closer to the definition of a cult. There is no singular way of thinking that is imposed; in fact, one Sunday service that we visited had debate break out during a talkback session after a lay-led service. There is no pressure to give a particular amount of money or type of support. I think the "cult" label gets applied by devout Christians who truly believe that the choice to not affirm a Christian creed after being exposed to the Gospel is a moral failing made even worse by the further choice to continue talking about religion. Again, not everyone shares the same beliefs, and some people respect the reasoned choices by others to believe different things. To call something a cult when it is the antithesis of a cult is just misleading and unfair.

I was a bit worried about the politics of the fellowship in Athens after we visited a few services because I got a sense that the political thought was extremely liberal. Politically, I see myself as a centrist, and I don't think that the polar way of analyzing values and ideas is very useful, though clearly I agree with a number of so-called liberal ideas as a matter of preference rather than a matter of preaching. Anyway, after more inspection, the liberal atmosphere there seems to be more an aggregation and not a unified way of thinking. Apparently many members of the congregation disagree with each other on political issues. There are many members involved with the Democratic party or in favor of that party, and there are some Republicans (blending conservative politics with liberal religion), but the congregation has formally chosen to prohibit discussion of partisan politics inside the sanctuary. So there is no actual creed for political thought, but UUs are known for supporting civil rights and social justice, and I am quite comfortable with that. There are churches out there that do preach politics in a big way, but this is not one of them.

This, then, is what I have learned about the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens. I am slow to get involved with anything "churchy," but I may visit more often.

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