Friday, June 28, 2019

Unbaking a Cake

Dave baked a cake following a new recipe he had seen online. With one bite he knew he didn't like it. He regretted using his last few eggs to make it, and so decided to extract them to use for another purpose. He tried liquifying the cake and running it through a centrifuge, to no useful effect. He then worked through the night doing this, that, and the other thing to retrieve his eggs. One night became two, and then stretched out over weeks, months, and years. Every spare hour was used in his ovular quest. He obtained advanced degrees in biology and chemistry to inform his research. He tinkered with every piece of technology he could find that he thought might help. Finally, nearly two decades after that fateful day of the unpleasant cake, he excitedly called his young niece into the garage, proudly showing off his machine.

The size of a refrigerator, the egg reclaimer was covered in wires and gauges, and looked very complicated. He set a cake identical to the original (which was long gone) inside, but not before his niece managed to grab a piece. Securely locking the panel, he turned some knobs. The lights dimmed to near-darkness both in his house and across the neighborhood as the machine rumbled, whirred, and buzzed. Finally, he sat a bowl under a spigot at the side and twisted it open. Out dribbled a dense, yellowish fluid, which he triumphantly presented to his niece. Looking into the bowl, munching on the last bits of her piece of cake, she said, "that's pretty cool, uncle Dave, but how are you going to get the yolks separated from the whites, and everything back in the eggshell? Dumbfounded, Dave watched her walk back into the house. She paused, turned, and said sweetly, "by the way, that was really good cake...do you have any more?"

"The union of the Stone churches with the Campbell churches was a terrible mistake."

The older man sitting across from me at his desk was a long-time preacher with the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. In fact, he ran his own unaccredited seminary from which he taught a particularly conservative brand of Stone-Campbell doctrine. He would say he was teaching the pure and simple truth of the Bible, of course. His objection to the union of the two major early branches of this movement in the 1800s was due to the tendency among the churches connected to Barton Stone for being a bit loose with doctrine and high on emotion, at least in comparison with the churches affiliated with Alexander Campbell's wing of the Restoration Movement. Barton Stone's churches found their beginnings on the early American frontier in revival meetings, most notable of which was the massive Cane Ridge Revival. The churches that formed referred to themselves simply as 'Christian,' and faith in Christ was the only real requirement for membership. They practiced immersion baptism, like the Campbellite churches, but for the most part didn't make that the point of salvation. After the union, preachers from both fellowships swapped pulpits and planted new churches, spreading the Campbellite doctrines among established churches and in new territories. 

Still, this old preacher saw it all as a big mistake. He believed that the fuzzy-headedness and emotionalism of the Stoneite churches were the cause of the eventual split in the 20th century, which left us with three major branches of the formerly united movement. 

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the most progressive group, though it dwindles in number as do the other, more well-known mainline denominations. The Church of Christ is the most fundamentalist division, one that emphasizes the necessity of explicit authorization of specific acts, such as using musical instruments in worship. They are further subdivided regarding whether or not to offer Sunday School, support charity and foreign missions with church funds, use one cup or multiple cups in communion, and much more. Finally, the independent Christian Churches, of which the preacher in question was a representative, is a mixed bag. Go to one such church and you might not be able to distinguish it from the trendy evangelical church down the road. Go to another, perhaps even in the same town, and you would think you were in an ultra-conservative Church of Christ, were it not for the piano.

The trouble is, you can't unbake the cake. Try as you might, separating the eggs, flour, and sugar are well-nigh impossible. The eggs certainly won't be recoverable, and if you do manage to centrifuge it all apart somehow, the yokes are forever undone, and good luck gluing the shells back together.

And so, when I read recently about the union of Unitarians and Universalists being a grand error, I sighed and wondered yet again why humanity is so predictable and unoriginal. The argument generally goes along the lines that the Unitarians were a reasonable folk who appreciated science and eschewed belief in gods, while the Universalists were soft-headed liberal Christians. Further, after their union, the whole enterprise of both was undermined, with not even members able to explain what Unitarian Universalism is or stands for. The fact that UUs feel free to identify themselves as UU Christians, UU Humanists, UU Pagans, and so forth is a sign of weakness, we're told. This diversity keeps us from having a single, shared identity.

First of all, that sounds suspiciously like the arguments used against immigrants. In the 1800s the Irish were said to be 'un-American' in their customs and fidelity to the pope, and in the present century we're told that people from majority Muslim countries are a threat and Hispanic people don't 'blend in' sufficiently. All this diversity is confusing and leads to a weakened identity as a nation.

Of course, that's complete bullshit. I work in New York. I've joked that every type of human can be found in the city, and that if you look hard enough you can probably find Hobbits. And yet, New Yorkers know who they are. There have been racial, ethnic, and religious tensions over the years, but overall the city is incredibly cohesive for the number of cultures and languages represented. Children who grow up in the school system and play in the streets and playgrounds know the background of their families, but they also know that they are New Yorkers and Americans.

Those of us who are UUs and identify with one or more perspectives are not suffering from an identity crisis. We're engaging in a free and responsible search for meaning, and not getting dogmatic about it with others.

Second, I have yet to encounter UUs in a normal congregational context who sit around talking about specific religious beliefs. You'll find this in RE, book clubs, and small group discussions where the topic is comparative religion or a specific belief system, but you'll be hard-pressed at coffee hour to find someone who wants to compare navel-gazing ideas about the divine. This is a stark contrast from what I experienced among evangelicals, among whom it is common to ask "what's your position on the correct form of baptism" or "how do you feel about churches that have the Lord's Supper every week?" The more conservative the church, the more important the details of doctrine. What you will hear in UU conversations is immigration reform, environmental concerns, and chatter about where the kids go to summer camp or where to buy knitting supplies. We care about this world and the life we are living right now, as well as what we will leave for future generations. Heaven and hell can wait.

When I tell a fellow UU that I'm an atheist (and it rarely comes up), they don't usually so much as bat an eye. It's really not a very interesting topic, after all. Sure, I've encountered a crank who tried to convince me that since I accept evolutionary science, that therefore evolution is a 'higher power' than myself that fits the category of 'god.' Aside from such irrational babbling, I've had very little trouble as a non-theistic Unitarian Universalist.

Now, I do know that UU Christians and UU Pagans have experienced a certain level of othering from UUs who have no particular use even for symbolic, metaphorical theism. For that reason we need to intentionally create space for such people in our midst, ensuring that they know they are valued and fully included in the life of our religious tradition. There is work to be done, for sure, but overall what comes after 'UU' in one's self-description generally has little bearing on what we uphold communally as our shared progressive values.

When Unitarianism and Universalism united in the 1960s, it seemed like the fulfillment of an inevitability. Unitarian and Universalist churches had been calling ministers from each other's fellowships for quite some time already, and doctrinally they were on a very similar wavelength. Unitarians were key in founding contemporary Humanism, and yet they never were the majority within the American Unitarian Association. Travel New England to this day and you will find UU congregations that were always Congregationalist and then Unitarian and which maintain a Christian style of worship. Universalists held on to many of the elements from the Christian tradition, but in 1961 you would have been hard-pressed to find a trinitarian among them, and many had already set aside the idea of a personal, interventionist god at that point. To equate pre-merger Unitarians with Humanism and Universalists with Christianity would be a gross oversimplification that ignores the historical record.

We are diverse as we want to be, and we seek to maintain our union through covenantal relationships. This is a different way of thinking from most religions, which hold that beliefs shared in common are what unite people. The truth is that no group of people is always on the same page about anything, no matter how many debates you hold or creeds you compose. I was raised Catholic, so I know a thing or two about faithfully practicing a religion without agreeing with all of the ideas. Among UUs our covenants, together with an established process of dialog and reconciliation, are what can keep us together. We admit that people will always diverge on specifics of belief, and value people over doctrine, without denying the need for some consensus. When covenant is broken, it will only stay broken so long as one of the parties involved refuses to come to the table to listen and talk things out with an open heart and empathetic mindset. The flavor might not be to everyone's liking, and that's okay. Whatever else happens, the cake will never be truly unbaked.



Resources:

"Should The Unitarians and Universalists Merge?"
Carl A. Storm - http://www.firstunitarian.org/FUSArchives/files/original/cbae423bf221036fffc5b6a1b5f92f73.pdf

Why Unitarians and Universalists Belong Together: A Fifty-year Recollection
Marilyn Sewell-Marilyn Sewell - https://www.huffpost.com/entry/unitarians-and-universalists_b_873972

Fifty Years After the Vote To Form the UUA

Surveys: 'UUism' unique / Churchgoers from elsewhere
John Dart - https://web.archive.org/web/20081122075528/http://www.uua.org/news/011205.html

Essay 1: Debates To Dialogue
https://www.igneousquill.net/2019/06/debates-to-dialogue.html

Essay 2: Speak Plainly
https://www.igneousquill.net/2019/06/speak-plainly.html