Friday, September 5, 2014

Sacred Cow Tipping - a review of "Regaining Balance"

I give Regaining Balance – the Evolution of the UUA, by Michael Werner, two stars out of five.  The first star doesn’t count.  To submit a rating on Amazon or Goodreads the first star is just a way to ante into the system. 

The book deserves the second star for presenting a perspective on the movement of Unitarian Universalism from a denomination which was predominantly a humanist tradition to one that lacks a theological majority and is pluralistic.  The way Werner sees it, reason was the leading value for Unitarians in the middle of the 20th Century and membership was growing at the time of the merger and beyond.  Membership reached a peak of 177,431 members in 1968 with a “focus on humanism”.  Since that time reason has become less valued in favor of a radical tolerance which has led to increasing numbers of theists and other non-humanist views.  This set up the conditions where he claims that, “It is unequivocal that Humanism was deliberately and purposely pushed out of the UUA.”  Since that time membership has been declining. 

The book argues that Unitarian Universalism is headed for extinction and that a return to a focus on humanism is the best hope of reviving our tradition. The perspective, which is too polemic to be taken for a history, does illuminate how frustrating and maddening it must have been for humanists to see control and success slip from their grasp.

The book does not receive a star for charitable treatment of non-humanistic views.  New Age beliefs are summarily dismissed as “fanciful optimism based on ungrounded feelings” and the “ugliness of a toxic retreat to a neo-romantic utopianism.”  The contribution of Feminism to Unitarian Universalist theology, according to Werner is an open disparagement and hostility to reason. Process Theology is characterized as a “muddle of words and enigmatic distinctions.”   Even a theistic approach which acknowledges the importance of scientific knowledge is ridiculed as “intellectually untenable” “God of the Gaps” or just plain “fuzzy theism.”  The argumentative technique of the book is to push any competing worldview to extremes and then ridicule it.  In an ironically narrow-minded claim, he says, “Frankly, today there is no credible, open-minded intellectual position other than Humanism.” 

Reason is presented as the sole evaluative tool for assessing beliefs.  Werner does not ask how various beliefs support the congregant, how the belief adds coherency to meaning or which behaviors manifest from the belief. 

Then there is the question of what really happened in the UUA.  While there is no denying that UUA leadership, Meadville Lombard and Starr King each influence the language and theology within the congregations, those congregations are non-creedal and have, through polity, the authority to call or not call ministers.  Regaining Balance would have us believe that the UUA made congregational life for humanists unbearable and they left to be replaced by theistic immigrants from other denominations.  While it is true that membership in UU congregations turns over, I do not recall some kind of wholesale replacement of members.  While Werner argues that Humanism was the victim of UUA leadership energized by trendy waves of cultural vacuity, a perspective that deserves equal time would ask why Humanism failed.  The people in the pews must have drifted away from Humanism because it failed to satisfy in some significant way.  The book blames intellectual laziness, but there may be a better answer and the book does not even raise the question.

The book does not receive a star for political acumen.   Based primarily on personal anecdotes, Werner ridicules the clergy.  Even though I have found sermons in which a minister recounts some personal struggle to be among the most moving, the book mocks the idea of the “wounded healer” as a therapeutic rather than a religious model.  He paints a portrait of the minister as a worship leader lacking religious and intellectual integrity, lacking the nerve and courage to speak with a prophetic voice, lacking “critical intelligence” and using “emotionally manipulative” modalities to placate parishioners.  “Critical thinking skills largely have been lost,” he says.  He further claims to have seen “far too many toxic personalities” in the ministry.  Finally, with his repeated refrain, “Follow the Money,” he implies that the theology of UU ministers is shaped by financial concerns, including the prospect of winning the Templeton Prize. 

When Werner claims that he “saw a number [of ministers] pass through our church in quick succession,” it is hard not to feel compassion for those religious professionals who were called into such an anti-clerical atmosphere.   

If Regaining Balance were written by an unknown humanist, it could be taken as just another rant.  But since Michael Werner is a past president of the American Humanist Association and a former board member of HUUmanists he speaks with apparent authority.  From a political perspective, if the congregations in the UUA are to become more welcoming to humanists and other non-theists, then it will be important to have ministerial buy-in.  Humanists will want clergy as allies.  The book alienates clergy in the name of humanism.  As a result the relationship between clergy and humanists will suffer.  As a non-theist with a naturalistic worldview, I am concerned that this book reads as a contemptuous breach of covenant and threatens my standing in the community. 

The book does not receive a star for its conclusion.  There is the recitation of the three historical values attributed to Unitarianism: Freedom, Reason and Tolerance.  Freedom is ignored.  Then Reason and Tolerance are ideally presented as being balanced.  With a tipped scale on the book cover as an illustration, Werner argues that the value of reason has diminished while the value of tolerance has gone overboard reaching organizational dysfunction with “radical pluralism.”  If the UUA is to be revived, the book argues, then we need to collectively assign greater value to reason and to become less tolerant of views which are irrational.  Of course, Werner argues, the only credible worldview is humanism.

The Principle behind Regaining Balance is the 4th, which affirms a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  The conjunct “free” is ignored and the only responsible way to search for truth turns out to be the scientific method.  Ironically, given the title of the book, the result is a disproportionate or unbalanced priority of the 4th Principle at the expense of the first three.  The 1st Principle honors the autonomy and ultimate authority of the individual. The 2nd asks us to regard each other with compassion.  And the 3rd doesn’t ask us to tolerate each other; rather we covenant to accept each other.  We tolerate someone when we “put up with them.”  When we accept one another we commit to our relationship and association. 

This polemic does raise issues only to shortcut a balanced discussion.  We are told that the lack of an articulated identity of our faith is a weakness.  And while there are many voices expressing concern about a missing UU identity statement, in our non-creedal tradition the description of our commonality should recite our deepest values, such as those expressed in the Principles, rather than a particular belief or non-belief in some divinity.

The book also alleges that the theology of members is left unchallenged by clergy who lack the skills of critical reasoning.  The image rising out of the text is a preacher pointing an accusatory finger from the pulpit at the pews saying, “The God you believe in is not supported by the evidence.”  (I further imagine Werner rising in applause and exclaiming, “Finally!”)  On the other hand, and despite my caricature, the 3rd Principle not only asks us to accept one another, but also to encourage one another into spiritual growth.  I agree with the author when he objects to the statement, “You can believe anything you want.”  While undoubtedly true, unbounded permission is essentially unhelpful and an abdication of 3rd Principle responsibility.

There is no real limit to the views one might hold on important and wide-ranging religious questions.  But every belief that matters has psychological and behavioral implications.  Every worldview carries assumptions and priorities. Every worldview has strengths and weaknesses in the way it informs meaning.  What would be both helpful and encouraging, in my opinion, would be more effort toward helping members discover and articulate their beliefs and then providing parishioners with the tools for self-critique. 

If you can get past the diatribe, this is a story of grief and sadness over opportunities lost.  Unfortunately the text is filled with anger, bitterness, contempt and ridicule.  Instead of pointing out the gifts humanists have brought and continue to bring to Unitarian Universalism and asking that our place at the table be treated with respect, Werner upsets the table and calls for intolerance of others.  As someone with a similar worldview I am disappointed that Mike Werner decided to go “All-In” as a stereotypical “Angry Humanist.”



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