Confessions of a Reluctant Unitarian

I’m a member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard. We have part-time minister and members of the society are regually recruited to fill in & give talks on Sundays. I was shanghai’d a while ago and finally gave my talk last Sunday.

The minister had originally suggested that I talk about “creativity” and “being a writer” or similar. Which is precisely the kind of crap I hate about Unitarianism: navel-gazing passed off as meaningful spiritual activity. So instead I delivered a rant about everything I don’t like about my own so-called religion.

Text below the fold. A few notes follow.

Confessions of a reluctant Unitarian

January 2, 2005

My name is John Sundman. I’m a member of this society and have been for about ten years.

On the back wall of this building there’s a mission statement for our fellowship. Several years ago we worked on that statement as our church emerged from “extension ministry” into a settled church. Writing the mission statement was a group effort that marked our committment to make a real, self-sustaning Unitarian-Universalist church here without the financial and ministerial training wheels that UU central had provided until then. My signature is on that document, as are those of my wife and children.

I’ve been a Sunday school teacher here and was acting Religious Education coordinator for about two years. Before coming to Martha’s Vineyard I was a member of the Unitarian Church of Fitchburg, Massachusetts for seven years, and a member of the UU church in Gardner Massachusetts for 3 years, and before that I attended the UU churches in Westboro and Northboro.

I’m telling you this because today I’m going to talk about everything I don’t like about Unitarian Universalism. So I want to make it clear that when I say “Unitarians” I mean “WE Unitarians” not “YOU Unitarians.” I’m a Unitarian. I’m a reluctant Unitarian, but I’m a Unitarian.

I say I’m a reluctant Unitarian because this religion exasperates me. It exasperates me because, at its worst, it’s bland, lifeless, and phony.

A few years ago Holly Nadler gave a talk here about growing up Unitarian in Hollywood. She said — I’m paraphrasing from memory–“We had a Sunday school book that had all the usual religious symbols on it — the cross, the star of David, — and the name of the book was ”People who believe in Stuff.“ We used to go on field trips to churches and temples and synagogues,” Holly said, “Because as Unitarians, of course, we don’t actually believe in anything. But we are endlessly fascinated by people who do believe in things. We find religious belief almost unbearably quaint.”

Holly hit the nail on the head.

For example, every year at our big December service we appropriate the Christian hymn Silent Night. Now, that hymn is a concise and beautiful statement about the significance, to Christians, of birth of the Christ child.

Glories stream from heaven afar

Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!

Christ, the Saviour, is born

Son of God, love’s pure light

Radiant beams from Thy holy face

With the dawn of redeeming grace

Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

This is elegant, powerful poetry. But of course it implies that Jesus is God, and since we’re Unitarians we can’t have any of that. So we water the hymn down; we vandalize it. Instead of singing “Christ the Saviour is born” we sing “sleep in heavenly peace” Instead of singing “Jesus, Lord at thy birth”, we sing “sleep in heavenly peace.”

It’s insipid.

We find this Christian thing quaint, so we rip it off. Lacking any forceful hymn of our own we take one of theirs and dilute it. But if we’re willing to look at the religious significance of Christmas–and we certainly pretend to– then why don’t we really look at it– and sing the real words? And if we’re NOT willing to really look at it, why are we singing the damn song? Why don’t we sing about Santa Claus or Tom Brady and the New England Patriots? They’re seasonal too!

To me this watering down of “Silent Night” is an abomination akin to adding water to beer. Drink it or don’t drink it, but for Pete’s sake respect its integrity, can’t we?

This is the essence of my problem with Unitarianism. We’re not authentically religious; rather we’re religious tourists. We’re like passengers on those busses that used to go through Haight Ashbury during the sixties with a guy up front pointing out all the quaint hippies on the street. Out there on the hot, smelly street are the People who Believe in Stuff. We’re in here on the Unitarian bus with the air conditioning on. Every once in a while we get off the bus and pretend to act like hippies. One word for this is “slumming.” A less harsh term would be “playing dress up.”

Now, you may be thinking, “Well, what is John talking about? It’s true that we’re a non-credal relgion. We don’t have an Apostle’s Creed or Unitarian Pledge of Allegiance. But that doesn’t mean we don’t believe in Stuff! I resent that remark! Who is he to stand up there and say I don’t believe in Stuff! Why off course I believe in Stuff! We all here believe in Stuff. We just don’t happen to all believe in the same Stuff. Except the Unitarian Stuff like on the mission statement. Or something.”

In other words, each of us, individually, may indeed have an authentic religious experience. We just don’t have a SHARED religious experience. But if we don’t have a shared religious experience, why do we have a church?

I don’t think not having a creed is the problem. Judaism is non credal, but Jews don’t go looking to Moslems and Hindus for inspiration. They’re off the bus. But our Unitarian experience seems designed to avoid discussion of serious religious matters. Frankly, I think we like that glass that keeps us protected from the real religious experience out on the street.

Let me give three examples to illustrate what I’m talking about. The first two stories come from my experience in High School. I went to Xavier High School in New York City, a Jesuit military school.

The Father Murphy Story

Father Murphy was a short little guy, about seventy years old, who taught the old testament to my ninth grade class. He was disorganized and dishevelled and always had chalk on his cassock. He usually looked bewildered and often had spittle at the corners of his mouth. He could never remember any of our names, and we made fun of him and we used to do things like put signs on his back that said “kick me.” We thought he was a joke.

One day he came into class and said,

“Gentlemen! A lot of you don’t know this, but in addition to my duties giving you religious instruction, I am also a chaplain at Bellvue Hospital, where the City of New York sends its unwanted refuse to rot. Last night I was at the hospital, and when I got off the elevator on one of the upper floors an orderly said to me, ‘Father, would you escort this to the basement, please?’ All the orderlies there know me.

“What he wanted me to escort was one of those laundry baskets on wheels, and in the basket was the body of a man, about thirty years old, who had recently died; the orderly wanted me to take the body to the mogue in the basement. Which I did.

“That man who died had been born with horrible physical and mental deformities. Abandoned by his parents he had become a ward of the state and had been shuffled from one cold state institution to another, finally ending up at Bellvue hospital.

“In his whole life he had never had a friend, never had a birthday party; he had known nothing but pain. He lived his life alone and unloved; he died unloved and alone in Bellvue Hospital where his body was escorted to a basement morgue by a priest he had never met, from whence it was taken to be burried in a pauper’s grave.

“GENTLMEN!” Father Murray spat out.




“Let us turn to the scriptures.”

The Father Hessburg Story

A few years later on Father Hessburg, a wild German with an accent, gave a sermon in the great church at the school on Sixteenth Street. Imagine a high pulpit in a giant cathedral. Imagine something out of Kafka.

Father Hessberg told how in one of his first assignements as a priest, in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, he had been called to perform last rights for a woman who had killed herself. Technically it isn’t kosher to give last rights to a suicide but he bent the rules—as is usually done. Anyway, he was twenty-three and she was twenty-one. Her body was naked when she was found, and she held a rosary in her hand. He said she was quite beautiful.

He said that she had had a special relationship with the Blessed Virgin, what some Catholics call a “devotion.” But it had done her no good. The rosary had not been able to save her life.

I’ll never forget how Father Hessberg hollered out from the white marble pulpit, “I HATE devotional religion!”

In a church of that size, with ceilings five stories high and lots of old statues up there that probably haven’t been dusted in two hundred years, it’s quite dramatic when somebody hollers from the pulpit at the top of his lungs. The echoes last about a minute.

And then he said, “but I love sacramental religion.” And he went on to give a sermon on the difference between devotional and sacramental religion and why sacramental religion was necessary but devotional religion was bullshit.

The Stephen Wylen Story

Stephen Wylen is a Rabbi in Wayne, New Jersey, whose writing I like.

He wrote one story about being on a tour bus full of Jews in Jordan. It came to the middle of the day, and there ensued a two hour heated discussion about when and where to stop for lunch. Finally the tour guide, an Arab, hollered, “No wonder nobody can make peace with you! You can’t even decide to have lunch without starting a war!”

And this got Rabbi Wylen to thinking about how Jews love to argue, and how this trait is related to their religion. In religious schools pupils sit at tables facing each other, he said, not facing the front of the classroom. Because God reveals himself through earnest discussion with the person opposite you. God is not in the Book, God is in the discussion of the Book. And Wylen told the story of Russian jews imprisoned in a horrible work camp who engaged in a heated argument one day when a watch was dropped by prisoner in the top bunk. Did it belong to him or to the person who picked it up? Everybody took a side! They argued for hours! They were starved for something to argue about! Of course you argue if you’re a Jew, Wylen said. It’s a religious duty! By earnest, honest argument you arrive at Truth, and thereby you cause God to come into the world.

What do these three stories have in common? Two things come to mind.

1) Religious inquiry is about things of consequence. How are we to live in a world full of sorrow, despair, injustice? How are we to know what’s important and what’s not important?

Fr. Hessburg’s point about the distinction between devotional and sacramental religion may seem inaccessible to non Catholics, but it’s really pretty universal. According to Catholic theology, it is through the seven sacraments — baptism, pennance, communion, confirmation, matrimony, holy orders, last rights — that a person can come to know God. Anything else — for example mindlessly saying a rosary – is, potentially, a distraction and a roadblock. Fr. Hessberg was furious because he believed that an authentic religious experience of God, through the sacraments, could have saved that woman’s life. The rosary had condemned her to death. To be or not to be, that was her question. Why should one not kill oneself? It’s a religious question.

2) Religious inquiry is not easy.

It certainly was not easy for Fr. Murphy. “Gentlemen! What the hell is going on? “ He needed to know:

Tell me how does God choose

Whose prayers to refuse?

It tore him up.

Questions of life and death, right and wrong, committment and freedom, these are hard questions.

So let’s take a look at Unitarians :

1) Do we talk about things of consequence? Generally speaking, we do not. In my various churches I’ve been to services themed on Winnie Mandela, Island history, why it’s OK to turn down requests for your time, stories from childhood in Oak Bluffs. Any of these things may be interesting in their own rights — but they’re hardly religious topics. So, we don’t talk about matters of consequence. What about difficulty?

2) Do we seek or do we avoid hard questions? Generally, we avoid them. Unitarian Universalism is a religion predicated on individual inquiry. That sounds good in principle, but what that means in actual fact is that we’ve become a consumerist religion in a consumerist society where the goal of religion is to make people feel better about themselves. But when individuals are free to find their own theology, narcissism is always a danger. Unitarianism is a religion that demands nothing of its adherents. This is an invitation to moral laziness and incoherence.

Religious trappings — churches, rituals, services, traditions, clothing, titles — can hinder as well as help serious religious inquiry.

I am a great curmudgeon on this point. I know that many people love our services. But I find Unitarian Sunday services just as stale and formulaic as any other church’s. We don’t have, for example, the sacrament of the Eucharist which gives a central purpose to the Catholic mass. Because we have no central creed, there is no central motivation behind our hymns. To me they all seem forced and watered down. They’re musty. I swear, I smell mildew every time I open a Unitarian hymnal.

If I feel so strongly about all this, you may be asking yourself, then why am I Unitarian at all? The answer is that

— I agree with Unitarian principles; politically — not religiously, politically– I’m in sync with most of what Unitarianin-Universalism stands for;

— Secondly, I like Unitarians, and the people in this church. As the Firesign theatre said, we’re all bozos on this bus. You’re my bozos.

— And finally, sometimes, once in a while, Unitarian-Universalism actually gives me what I would consider a worthwhile religious experience. For example:

An Old-School UU firebrand named Bob Jones, whom I met in Gardner, gave a sermon about the concept of Grace. Betty and I were so moved by that talk that we chose “Grace” as the name our daughter.

An Emersonian UU preacher named Neal Ferris in Fitchburg gave a sermon on the Christ child that forever changed the way I think of Christmas, and of children.

A Presbyterian-turned UU preacher named Bruce Kennedy gave a sermon in this building about death and mortality that completely shook me up.

I like that. I want that. When I go to the gym, I want to get sweaty. I like to really beat myself up and leave exhausted. When I go to Church I want to be shaken up. I want my assumptions questioned.

People who go to churches that have God go for a complex reasons

— to worship God

— out of fear of God

— for fellowship

— for help with important moral matters for which they have no answer

We’re Unitarians, and we don’t come here to worship God. Some people may come here to worship—but worship what? I certainly don’t come here to worship vague things that are good — like nature, say. Nor do I come to worship things that are vaguely good, like creativity or storytelling. So I don’t come here to worship, and certainly I don’t come here out of fear.

That leaves fellowship and guidance.

Fellowship is great, but fellowship is not in itself religious. I can get fellowship hanging out at the Ritz and having a few beers with the regulars. (I don’t do that, but I could.) But the Ritz doesn’t claim it’s a moral/religious institution worthy of tax-exempt status. We do. So what is there, then, that makes us a religious group and not merely a Sunday morning discussion group that mimics religious groups? I would hope that I could find help with important moral matters. I would hope that I would find some kind of guideposts to moral coherency.

If we had that, moral coherency, that would make us a religious group. In general I don’t find enough of that here. I find it, of course; there is a moral dimension to many aspects of what we do here. But not enough; at least not enough for me.

By “here” I want to emphasize, I mean in Unitarian Universalism. I’m not criticizing our minister or local society. In preparing for this lecture I read several issues of the Unitarian magazine The World and the book Our Chosen Faith and there too I found the things I don’t like (as well as the things I like) about our religion. As far as I can tell the problem is endemic.

And I’m not naive about other religions and other churches. Obviously if I thought the Catholics or the Bahaiis or whoever had a better thing going on, a better, more true religious experience, then I would be in their church, not ours. From what I can tell they’re even more messed up than we are. In any event those religions are not my concern.

What would I do, then, to fix the Unitarian experience? Actually I do have some answers to that question, but my time today is just about up. Maybe If you don’t excommunicate me for this sermon I’ll come back and give part two some other time. But in the meantime let me tell you one little thing we could do that would please me enormously. Next year at Christmas, when we sing Silent Night, let’s find our courage and sing the real lyrics.


Rabbi Stephen Wylen is the brother of my friend Eli Wylen. He wrote “Jews in the Time of Jesus” and “Settings of Silver.”

The Ritz is the lowest-rent bar on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs

Apostle’s Creed– for refernce. I’ve got a (perverse?)fascination with early Christian history. For example, I think it’s interesting to compare the Apostle’s Creed with the Nicene Creed to see the subtle theological refinements. Anyway, here’s the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

the Creator of heaven and earth,

and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead.

He ascended into heaven

and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,

whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy *catholic church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and life everlasting.


  1. Wow. Powerful stuff.

    You left out one reason to continue ritual, although you may think of it as simply a continuation of fellowship — continuity. When I go to minyan and say the traditional prayers, I am part of a tradition that extends backward in time thousands of years, and extends forward in time as well.

    Back when I had more time, I used to be a memebr of the chevrah kadisha (“holy society”). The chevra washes and prepares the dead for burial. I always found this a moving experience, not least of which because, someday, some group of strangers that I will never have met and share nothing in common with save our faith will do the same for me.

  2. Nice piece, John. Thanks for sharing.

    I feel that religion is “about” three things:

    * Feeling good – or at least feeling better. This encompasses fellowship as a means. It also encompasses explanation and structure if that’s important to you.

    * Teaching us how to behave in society.

    * Faith.

    That last one I don’t get at all, but I think that’s what keeps me from participating in religion in ways that I do participate in other things that fill the first two roles. To me, faith is some sort of crappy hocus pocus that’s just a cover for “right makes right” and justifies all sorts of bad stuff in the world. (cf. President Bush.) Anyway, I don’t get it.

    So with that view, and after the two most trying years of our lives, my wife and I were looking for a little something. Mostly it was about feeling better. She decided we were gonna get some churching. We discussed and researched and spoke to folks on and off for a couple of weeks. Here in Madison, WI, we have the biggest UU congregation in the world, or something like that. The building was designed by no less a deep and wonderful and sanctimonious asshole as Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright himself. (Amen.) There was to be a luau after the service, so it was a good day to go. There were balloons and someone teaching hula dancing, and a table for the kids with a tray of soapy water and those really cool bubble wands with the beads in them. Like everyone else, we brought flowers, and at the service every single person received a flower offered by someone else.

    We didn’t have to discuss whether we would be back.

    There was nothing for us there.

    John, I think you hit the nail on the head about needing to be about things that matter. This is true for anything. Even Dave Barry and Erma Bombeck touch me most when they write about things that I care about, or at least things that they care about. (Not too sure about Jerry Sienfeld!) Academic arguments in my fields of engineering and computer science are great for comprehensively defining corner cases, but they only have meaning when informed by the context of real use cases that really matter to someone.

    The trick, I think, is to understand that a church can have a demanding relationship with its congregants, without devolving into faithful devotion. Or can it?

  3. Harold:

    On the subject of tradition I completely contradict myself. On the one hand I kind of envy Jews & Christians & Tibetan Buddhists & similar their comforting rituals and traditions. (Actually I liked a lot of what I saw when I lived in a Moslem village for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer). One of my personal role models is Tevya, from Fiddler on the Roof, who sings “Tradition” and also says, “You ask me: ‘why do you do this?’ and I will tell you: I don’t know.”

    On the other hand I rant against Unitarians for being so unimaginative and hide-bound.

    I ain’t now and ain’t never gonna be a Jew, so that tradition is closed to me. And I ran from Catholicism as soon as I reached the age of independent thought. Most of that tradition seemed like self-imposed mind control, frankly.

    Unitarianism is a newish thing so it does not have a long tradition from which to draw. At least not when compared to Judaism or Catholicism. On the one hand I criticize it for being arbitrary and consumerist and “new-age”, and on the other hand I criticize it for being “musty” and “formulaic.” So I’m really rather full of baloney, probably.

    Growning up in New Jersey & going to high school in Manhattan I knew lots of Catholics from dozens of ethnic backgrounds and of course Jews are all over the place. But I never had much experience with small-church Christianity until I married a girl from southern Indiana from a family full of Baptist preachers. Those guys have a kind of visceral aversion to Catholicism, which they see as full of idolotry and ritualized mumbo-jumbo. But I, as an outsider, see all kinds of very strict formulae that they adhere to. To me they’re the same, only different.

    About burial societies: I had never seen anything Masonic until the Masonic funeral service for my late father-in-law who died about five years ago. This is a rote-ritual that evidently has been around for quite a while. I found it extremely moving. I know that Masons are, or used to be, associated with bigotry against people like you and me, but I saw only something very kind, and obviously deeply felt.


    I hardly go to Unitarian church services. I go whenever Betty specifically asks me to go, for company. And she goes mostly to see her friends. But we do read the chuch bulletin every week, and if the upcoming talk looks really feeble Betty says home and does the laundry or something. Your experience in Madison is a classic!

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