As we begin this journey together, you are entitled to some explanations about how this book came to be, what its intent is and how to understand its conventions.
As I look at the UU movement today, I am concerned. Despite our heritage of faith and social witness and action, we seem to have lost our way. Outwardly we are a loose, non-hierarchical confederation of congregations with a shared albeit weakly defined system of beliefs and values. But we are in constant conflict with other traditions: some of this is natural, and welcome, as we are the most liberal of what is still a fairly conservative American religious establishment. Some however openly question our values and motives, ask what we believe in and, even, refuse to recognize us as a church.
I would be perhaps gentler but equally as critical: we talk the talk but rarely walk the walk. Internally there is a fight underway for the heart and mind of our liberal religion. Within one movement we have for nearly half a century of post-Christian community life tried, with greater or lesser degrees of success, to contain as widely differing elements as ethical culture, paganism and dream work. This has produced great tension within our community which is seen in many ways, including low levels of financial support and the short tenure of many professional ministers
As a result we are severely challenged, from both outside and within. Although our American Unitarian and Universalist experience is well over two centuries long, the Unitarian Universalist Association today comprises barely 1000 congregations and shows little or no growth. The American Catholic church, despite its internal troubles, each year adds several times the total number of adherents as identify with UUA congregations.
With this background in mind and with more than a decade’s experience as preacher and teacher in UU contexts, I set out to write this work. The title, Belief and Practice, serves two functions: first, it deliberately echoes the well-known Society of Friends’ phrase “faith and practice,” thus presenting itself as a guide, or rather a set of guideposts, in matters of belief and of life lived reflectively. Second, it incorporates my view that there are really only two important questions for us each to answer during our life:
That of Credo, of Belief: Where did we come from?, where do we go from here? And what is the meaning of it all?
That of Praxis, of Practice; How can we live a good enough life?
These questions are dealt with at greater length elsewhere. This work begins by addressing questions of belief; what is it reasonable for modern UUs to believe in. The latter sections deal with reduction to practice, the application of these beliefs in our life and the implications, personal, community and in the larger world, of such attempts. This work is a summation of my efforts to date to address, if not to answer, them.
This is neither a work of fiction nor of non-fiction. It is what I choose to call “faction.” There are facts within it and where that is important, you may find the sources in the notes at the back. Where allusions are made or quotations used, authors are given credit. There are also many stories, many of which are true, but most have been adjusted and altered to suit my needs and ideas.
You will encounter four “factional” nouns:
“Congregation” stands for all the congregations, meetings and workshops and for their members and friends in whose presence I have had the privilege being over the years, magically blended into one virtual community.
“Man” stands for any member of the human species, and mankind for the species as a whole. While it has become popular and politically correct to claim that all men are male, I prefer the older idea that we are all equal in rights and in our inherent worth and dignity. Where I refer to men or women, old or young, etc., I will indicate my intention; otherwise, please read this word in its most general meaning.
“Clare” and “Paul” are respectively female and male personas into whose mouths I have put the words of others, but without attribution. This is done for two reasons: first, I report what I think was said, what I remember was said, even what should have been said but may not actually have been said. Second, even if I were a fair and accurate reporter, I don’t wish to impose on the many, many colleagues, teachers and friends I have had over the years by connecting them, with or without their permission, to this work and thus place them in a context they might be uncomfortable with. Ideas, once born, have a life of their own; in this case, they have taken up residence with Paul and with Clare.
Many times in reading this book, you will hear the echoes of others. This is the curse of being both a reader and a writer. The words are passed through the mind and phrases linger. To all those unnamed, even you, who are reminded of others’ words, I give credit and thanks for your revelations.
In the notes you will occasionally find what would elsewhere be footnotes: excursions and side trips which, though perhaps of interest, would diverge from the main path.
I write directly and with intent. I have always been interested in change with consequence and this work, as much of my life, is directed towards that goal. These essays are meant as guideposts, perhaps as episodes in a conversation which we might have if we were to walk together down the years. Here are many questions and some of my present answers. My answers and your answers will never be the same, since we are different people. But perhaps we can agree, in the best UU spirit, that the trip is worthwhile even if arrival is uncertain. My hope is that the ideas and surmises here will cause you to reflect on belief and practice as they affect your life path.
Come, let us be off.