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Our shadow side

Unitarian Universalism is a religious movement that no longer takes religion seriously.
By Marilyn Sewell
Winter 2011

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In human beings, often there is a shadow side to the qualities we admire the most, and so there is in Unitarian Universalism a shadow side to our most positive qualities. We need to acknowledge that shadow side, reflect upon how it might be holding us back, and decide what changes we need to make if we are to flourish as a movement.

The shadow side to our rich intellectual life is our distrust of the body and of emotion. This fear may be a partial explanation of our lack of diversity, in terms of race and class.

The shadow side to our strong tradition of the word is our reveling in words for their own sake, and never getting around to action.

The shadow side of our humanism, which is grounded in empiricism and the existential virtues of the human spirit, is a fear of the sacred.

The shadow side to our tolerance is our acceptance of inappropriate behavior by immature or destructive individuals. In the name of being “open” or “democratic,” we have created a radical cult of the individual and a concomitant disregard for the health and welfare of the community.

The shadow side of our theology of love and acceptance is that we are reluctant to acknowledge and confront evil in ourselves, in others, and the systemic evil in our society.

The shadow side of our free faith, with its ultimate measure being the individual conscience, is seen when we interpret that freedom as simply “freedom from” and not “freedom for.”

I have come to believe that our core problem, and the problem that must be addressed before other issues will be resolved, is this: We are a religious movement that no longer takes religion seriously.

Our challenges as a religious movement seem to rest in this one core misunderstanding that holds sway in all too many of our churches and fellowships—rather than seeing ourselves as a religious community wishing to mature spiritually, both personally and institutionally, we seem to exist chiefly to meet the needs of the individual. If a search committee asks the congregation what they are looking for in their new minister, most people say they wish to have someone who stimulates them intellectually. If a church board moves to Policy Governance® and asks the congregation what “ends” are important, they are likely to speak in terms of programs: we want good preaching, good music, a fine religious education program. In other words, what’s in it for me, in terms of stimulation, entertainment, education? This is not a mission—this is not a vision.

The final words of Earl Morse Wilbur’s two-volume A History of Unitarianism are telling and should still inform us: “Freedom, reason and tolerance . . . are not the final goals to be aimed at in religion, but only conditions under which the true ends may best be attained. The ultimate ends proper to a religious movement are two: personal and social; the elevation of personal character, and the perfecting of the social organism, and the success of a religious body may be judged by the degree to which it attains these ends. Only if the Unitarian movement, true to its principles of freedom, reason, and tolerance, goes on through them and finds its fulfillment in helping [people] to live worthily as children of God, and to make their institutions worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven, will its mission be accomplished.”

Getting past the language (choose your own metaphors), what would it mean to us today to “live worthily as children of God”? What would our churches and fellowships look like if they were “institutions worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven”?

We are first and foremost a religious movement, and whatever change in society we hope to make should be grounded in our spiritual life.


Adapted from “Unitarian Universalists: Who Are We? What Do We Aspire to Be?,” a presentation at the 2011 Minns Lectures by Marilyn Sewell. See sidebar for links related to this story, including other selections from the Minns Lectures.

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