“Things Commonly Believed Among Us” Revisited…

For me, one of the most touching documents in the Unitarian movement (now the UU movement) is William Channing Gannett’s “Things Commonly Believed Among Us”  [follow the link: http://www.famousuus.com/writings/things_commonly_believed.htm to see the document itself] — a position statement proposed at the 1887 conference of the Western Unitarian Conference.  Before the greater consolidation of the Unitarian Church, and the merger and consolidation of the movement, the Western Unitarian Conference, HQ in Chicago, was focused on spreading the “gospel” of Unitarianism to the West (which was everything from Western PA westward — the Meadville Theological Seminary, originally in Meadville, PA, was originally the seminary for Unitarianism in the West).  Removed from Boston by a great distance, Unitarianism in the West had to make its own way.  Where the Unitarian movement on the East Coast was seen as radical by Christian dominations, it retained a certain cohesiveness, and even orthodoxy — consider the treatment that Theodore Parker and Emerson got when they began to push the envelope.  As I understand it (and I am certainly no expert), Unitarianism in the West was a much more free-wheeling enterprise.  Unable to depend on the organizational support of the HQ in Boston, it was also freed from the restrictions on thought and religious expression there.  At the time of Gannett’s statement, Unitarianism in the West was still in the Judaeo-Christian fold, but there was great diversity of belief.  And Gannett and those who helped in the crafting of this document were quite insistent that this may be what is “most commonly believed,” but not universally believed, nor mandated. 

Of course, in the early 20th c., it was in the West that the new gospel of humanism really developed — John Dietrich at the Unitarian Church in Spokane, and later at 1st Unitarian in Minneapolis and other like-minded invididuals following their own paths to the truths they saw joined Dietrich in crafting the Humanist Manifesto in the 1930s.  Members of All Souls know quite a bit about that document and its history, and the part that our own Ray Bragg played in it.  Some, I imagine, see this as the triumph of humanism — that all of the forces of superstition and false belief have been definitively answered once and for all. 

I don’t see it that way.  I see Gannett’s statement, and the Humanist Manifesto, as triumphs, not because either “won.”  Winning implies a losing side.  Rather I see both as reflecting the triumph of Unitarianism (Universalism too), as a non-credal movement.  I have a friend who is a philosophy professor at St.Thomas University in St. Paul, MN — he is a conservative Catholic.  In the first talk we had after I had declared myself a UU, I remember he expressed a certain skepticism about how a non-credal church could work.  I recall that he spoke of how difficult it was even when there was a clear creed to which one could assent, but felt that without that compass, how tough it would be to direct one’s life — too amorphous, and not clear enough.

For me, our not having a creed, and refusing to adopt a creed, is our greatest strength.  The position of the Unitarian movement consciously to be non-credal frees up the human heart to search for its truth without blinders (well, without institutional blinders).  Having to build our own theology, each of us must wrestle with these big questions.  We must write our own poem, sing our own song, do our own dance.  That can be a frightening prospect, but I think it offers tremendous rewards. 

What are the effects of this?  1) We each become responsible for our own truths — for discovering them, for testing them, and for speaking them.  2) We get to see a tremendous variety of religious expression, each of which has tremendous beauty and power.  I do not believe that exposure to other traditions hurts our development, but furthers it.  3) If one lives in an area where there are not multiple UU churches, where one can shop and find a comfortable fit, one can (and at the risk of sounding dogmatic — should) be open and welcoming to all seekers who come.  We have the chance to live the life of the Good Samaritan — looking beyond labels and seeing other souls — like us, and different.  4) Such openness can, and sometimes does, terrify us.  What happens to us, if we don’t keep our guard up against them?  I don’t know how to answer such fear, other than with a hope that we don’t let fear define us.  Worse still, perhaps, in giving in to such fear, we may find ourselves committing the same mistake (offense) our former religious homes may have committed.  Many of us left traditions that didn’t recognize our dreams and yearnings, couldn’t see our truest selves,  made it clear their path could not be ours.  Let us not be(come) such a tradition.  5) The truth of humanism, or Christianity, or Islam, or paganism, is not diminished or erased by other traditions unless we participate in that erasure ourselves.  6) Improvisation and openness are key — in improvisational practice, beginners often make the mistake of getting a direction in their mind, and then trying to force their way on the scene.  So, a person will begin a scene by turning to fellow performer and saying “Hello, Uncle Fred.”  Beginners often will freeze at this moment, and respond by saying something like “I’m not Uncle Fred, I’m Rutherford B. Hayes.” In so doing, they close the first performer’s avenue down and redirect.  They haven’t learned to listen to their fellows, nor how to trust them, and play with them.  Let us be open and trust others in the path they follow — let us assist as we can, and try not to shut down what may be fruitful paths for some, because such paths didn’t work for us.  7) Let it be a dance — dance is largely a communal (certainly a reciprocal) activity.  Great dancers have developed their own selves;  they work with and not against their partners;  they have great and generous hearts. 

Who are we, at All Souls Church?  We are great-hearted if we will;  we are thoughtful and imaginative if we stop and think;  we are a loving community if we dare.  I think, though, we cannot be All Souls if we build barriers instead of bridges.  Gannett, in composing “Things Commonly Believed Among Us,” was trying to define Unitarianism in a way that kept the door open to the new, to define something without boxing “us” in and “them” out, to define something that calls us to constantly revisit our world and reassess our assumptions and preconceptions, to define something that is ineffable.  That is what poetry tries to do.  Let us all be poets.

2 Responses to ““Things Commonly Believed Among Us” Revisited…”

  1. January 8, 2015 at 7:42 am

    Lately I’ve been wrestling with something related: religion as a source of identity.

    One thing a creed does is provide a focus for identity: “We are the people who believe X.” That kind of identity plays an important role in many people’s lives. But UUs are intentionally swearing it off.

    Mostly, I like that, because a lot of bad things are motivated by the need for identity. But those needs don’t go away just because we swear off a popular method of satisfying them. So I see a couple of possible unintended consequences.

    1. We appeal mainly to people whose identity needs are being satisfied elsewhere, through their careers, their avocations, their positions in society, or something else. This factor would bias our congregations in the direction of “successful” people, which is an effect we can observe.

    2. We meet our identity needs in less obvious ways; “under the table” you might say. So a UU congregation might have an unstated political creed, or restrict its outreach to “our type of people” defined some other way. This also is observable in some congregations.

    I’m not sure what to do about this, but I wish more people were thinking about it.

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