Thursday, October 12, 2006

Evolving Denomination

I wrote the following back in 2004 (or earlier) before I had a blog. Seems appropriate to bring it up again. A post on the hanif blog reminded me of it.

I listened to a interesting "sermon" given by a lay person at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston. According to the person giving the sermon the natural evolution of organisms was as follows (and I believe this is simplified):
  • The development of the systems necessary to sustain life and provide energy (respiratory, digestive, etc.)
  • Next, was the immune system. The organism needed to be able to differentiate between what was the organism and what was not the organism.
  • More complex systems were able to be formed like the nervous system, brain, etc. as well as the basic sustaining systems becoming more complex.

Cells which formed into more complex organisms followed this pattern (there are of course probably exceptions). Plant cells sustained by light, Carbon Dioxide, etc. formed into more complex plants, and animal cells sustained by Oxygen, protein, etc. formed more complex animals. And in order to evolve those systems needed to "organize" around the same purpose to sustain themselves. Adaptations in the kingdoms created varieties of plants and animals that could only survive in particular climates. Organisms became specialized and basically "experts" at what they did best.

How then does this relate to human systems, and in particular to religious systems. Do religious systems need to follow a similar evolution. If yes the evolution should follow these lines:

  • The determination of that which nourishes or sustains the individuals.
  • If a group of individuals want to flourish as a group it is necessary to be able to determine who should be in the group and who should not be in the group. The group needs an immune system.
  • When the group is defined then at this point it should have common goals, and from that point it should be able to develop more complex systems that will allow it to give the members what they strive for with more efficiency. The nervous system, the brain of the organization can develop.

I do believe that most world religions follow this evolution. Christianity had its roots in people who were nourished by the message attributed to Jesus. From there they developed a system for identifying who was and was not Christian, churches were organized with leadership and hierarchies tasked with the further development of the church. Christianity further evolved into multiple organisms with more defined immune systems: belief in Jesus, acceptance of Jesus as savior, confirmation, etc. And further development of the leadership or the churches.

Judaism is interesting in that to me it seems that the immune system is part of what nourishes the members. The identity of members as "the chosen" is a large part of what nourishes the members in their relationship to "their God". So if anything I would say this is particularly interesting because steps one and two (discovering that which nourishes and self identity) are combined.

It is in this sense that I wonder about UUs. Have Unitarian Universalists followed such an evolution, is it necessary to follow such an evolution.

In particular I have seen members of churches leave because the church does not meet their spiritual needs. And I have to wonder about the ability for a church to meet the needs of those who wish to feel the connection with spirit and those who seek nourishment from a religious community that does not require the existence of any sort of spirit. Now, I know humanists and pagans who sit side by side, some even happily. But I have to wonder if the nourishment provided by the church is less than what could be obtained by multiple groups of members who had more in common. Is there truly a common thread that nourishes all Unitarian Universalists?

However, I think it is the second aspect that UUs lack the most. In my experience UUs strive for a sense of inclusiveness to the point of a lack of identity. Sure we have principles and purposes, but that is not a litmus test for membership. The UUA affirms and promotes them, but no church which is a member of the UUA nor any individual member of a church or fellowship is required to affirm or promote any of the principles and purposes. I think the reason that I like the metaphor of a faith movement needing an immune system is because I believe that it is healthy and indeed necessary to be able to define who is and who is not a member of an organization. If these types of boundaries are not defined then you will have people who feel that there are others who claim membership that should not, for example the humanist/pagan/Christian struggle.

Now, don't get me wrong. I believe it is very important for a church or fellowship to strive to be inclusive. However, I also believe that the church must scrutinize what it means to be inclusive and not lose focus on the need to nourish the members of the church. Further I think if the church wishes to retain its membership it must also realize that this identity, this sense of belonging is a need that must be filled in order for people to feel "safe" in their community.

In rereading this I feel I should note that I would not propose the principles and purposes become a litmus test. But I did not want to rewrite this in it's entirety. For me the main point is the question of nourishment and discernment. Who is a UU? Who is not a UU? What does a UU find value in? If we can't identify who we are and what we want how do we move forward? If someone says they are a UU does it make it true? If not a creed, then what?

If truly anyone is welcome, then there is no sense of belonging. I think the question is related to looking for a UU core, that which nourishes "us".

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