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How we break the rules

Rule breaking just might be right up our alley.
By Jane Rzepka
Fall 2011 8.15.11

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(©2010 Amanda Rohde/iStockphoto)

We can wear stripes with plaids now, and socks with open-toed shoes. I know, because I read it in a magazine. “Break the rules,” it said. “It’s time.”

I hate to say it, but rule breaking just might be right up our alley. Maybe it’s not the positive tone we try to strike in describing our religion, but I’m going to say right out loud that Unitarian Univer­salists don’t believe in a lot of the rules that our religious neighbors take for granted. Here are nine rules to break regarding religion, just as the magazine did regarding fashion. I’ll leave it to you to dream up the tenth.

Religious Rule Number 1: You have to sign on to a list of beliefs.

How UUs break the rule: We don’t have a list of beliefs—no creed; no dogma.

Ultimately, you need to do the work of creating your religious beliefs yourself. You can grow them. You can change them. You can doubt your beliefs, talk about them, try others on for size. Each of us has a unique spirituality, and Unitarian Universalists have a long history of thinking differently as we walk together.

Religious Rule Number 2: Obey the hierarchy.

How UUs break the rule: We ourselves are the powers that be; there is no hierarchy.

Unitarian Universalism is a democratic religion. The members of the congregation are the boss. You can vote to hold services on Thursday at the zoo instead of Sunday in the regular place; you can criticize the minister—heck, you can fire the minister; you can donate the entire congregational budget to . . . well, the mind boggles. Lay people are powerful, and they’re where the buck stops.

Religious Rule Number 3: You must perform the rituals.

How UUs break the rule: We have no prescribed rituals.

Some Unitarian Universalists appreciate ritual, some do not. It’s as simple as that. You decide. If you want to welcome your baby into the world with a service, that’s great. If you always take a moment for gratitude before eating, or begin each day with music, a poem, or tea and the Times, you may feel the better for it. If a regular practice enlivens you and urges you toward the good, you have found your ritual.

Religious Rule Number 4: You have to believe in God to be religious.

How UUs break the rule: No, you don’t.

We all know people who think that a person cannot be religious—or even behave—without believing in a god or gods. Unitarian Universalists are free to live their experience of both heart and mind, welcoming the atheists, humanists, agnostics, and those beyond categorizing among us, as well as those who find meaning in a personal or impersonal god.

Religious Rule Number 5: Your religious beliefs should be based on faith.

How UUs break the rule: Our religious beliefs are based on reason and experience. Faith is optional.

If you’re inclined toward the empirical and experiential, Unitarian Universalism will work fine for you. If faith provides you with a spiritual strategy, and it doesn’t contradict what we know to be true, then faith is yours. There’s room for us all.

Religious Rule Number 6: Some objects, spaces, and events are inherently sacred.

How UUs break the rule: Nothing—or everything—is inherently sacred.

Surely we feel grateful, respectful, appreciative, even wowed at times, but we aren’t accustomed by history or tradition to set spaces, objects, or events apart from our ordinary lives. We’d rather they were close at hand.

Religious Rule Number 7: Heresy is bad.

How UUs break the rule: Heresy can be heroic.

Throughout our history, we have often identified with theological heresies. Are human beings depraved at birth? Unitarian Universalists say no. Are events predetermined? We say no. Do people go to hell? No. Is Jesus God? Again, no. Are scriptures infallible? We say no.

I have heard that when the late Dana McLean Greeley, then president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, met with Pope John XXIII at the Second Vatican Council, the Pope said, with a twinkle in his eye, “You made a religion of all our heresies.” The Pope was right.

Religious Rule Number 8: Religion is not fun.

How UUs break the rule: Religion runs the gamut, and for us the gamut includes fundamental joy, bemusement, and the frequent hearty laugh.

We live a positive religion that embraces what is good in the world, including simple pleasures that remind us how wonderful it can be to be alive. We find no particular merit in the stuffy. To chuckle over a good-natured story during a memorial service, to emerge from meditation with a smile, to erupt with happiness at news of a new baby, to glory in the fun of a job well done—it’s all religious.

Religious Rule Number 9: Religion is stifling.

How UUs break the rule: Well, we rock.

If I do say so myself. In our diversity, we embrace more diversity still. We stand for freedom. We nourish one another. We look forward to scientific breakthroughs; creative social justice initiatives; new ways of peace, both inner and outer; and the adventures and styles and contributions of those who are younger. We try, anyway. Revelation is not sealed.


This essay appears in From Zip Lines to Hosaphones: Dispatches from the Search for Truth and Meaning, ©2011 by Jane Ranney Rzepka (Skinner House Books), and is reprinted with permission.

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