A Unitarian Universalist church proudly stands between a YMCA and a housing development a few scant miles from my home. It's a modern looking building, with perfectly manicured lawns and polite, non-representational statues surrounding the edifice. I had heard people speak of Unitarians and UU in the past; all remarks made it seem like a Westernized, slightly wussier form of Hinduism. Nonetheless, a Western faith that didn't teach a strict doctrine of monotheism and punishment intrigued me.
There is something about the traditional Western mindset that views religion and faith as a zero sum game. You cannot be a Christian and a Muslim: that will only lead to your condemnation to two separate Hells. Now, given that the average person doesn't even want one cockroach with his mother's face stabbing him in the genitals for all eternity, much less two, you rarely see someone pushing his luck by professing two different creeds. UU seemed to break this mold by holding all faiths to be valid and equal methods of approaching the Divine. What brilliance, I thought to myself, these people have found the grand truth that unites all of existence. That damned optimism is going to get me into trouble one day.
I resolved to attend a UU ceremony, but not being the type to rush headlong into the lion's den, I began a cursory examination of UU belief, doctrine, and dogma.
A Little Background
UU is actually the synthesis of two different beliefs: Unitarianism and Universalism. Unitarianism rejects the trinity, and states that the Father, the Son, and the Holy ghost are all manifestations, or "modes" of the same divine entity, while Universalism states that all people will go to heaven through God's Everlasting Love. Apparently the UU's think that God liked that particular Robert Knight single, too.
A Pilgrim in an Unholy Land
As is not uncommon for me, I spent most of Sunday morning suffering from one of my frequent bouts of insomnia, and had kept me awake since three a.m. After about six hours of wakefulness on my day off, I decided that being cranky, bored, and angry at my neighbors goats put me in the perfect churchgoing mood. I hopped in my trusty Subaru and sped to the services.
I reached the church in short order and began crossing the asphalt to the main doors. Those of you who know me realize that I tend to look at the ground ahead of me when I walk, so it will surprise none of you when I note that my first experience with Unitarianism was a pair of Birkenstock sandles and knee-high tube socks. Quickly realizing that it was impolite to stare at someone's feet without a proper introduction, I quickly worked my way up past the plaid shorts towards the gentleman's face. I would have made it, too, if the giant unicorn-and-rainbow motif on his nametag hadn't stopped me. When I finally recovered from my fond memories of melting my sister's My Little Ponies with a magnifying glass I finally looked the fellow in the face. He was in his sixties and had no hair on the top of his head, but had a luxuriant growth of mad-scientist locks around the sides that could make Don King run screaming for his mother.
He grinned at me for a bit.
I grinned back.
He continued to grin.
I started getting a little spooked.
Right before the cowboy standoff music started the gentleman asked the question that must have plagued him for the whole time in which I crossed from car to door. Most of you are thinking that he would ask "hello." Some might even hazard that he would say "are you new here." Instead, what he said was.
Do you like Board Games?
Do you like Board Games?
Some of you must be rather confused right now, but remember that we are now entering into the land of faith, in which the strange and wondrous power of faith makes logic its bitch. How do you respond to something like that, anyway? I began to respond with a polite and non-committal answer, but before I could choke out the first syllable this good man continued to discuss his one true passion.
If you like Board Games you should really come down here on Wednesday nights for the Board Game nights because we have Board Games and Board Games are Where It's At!
It dawned on me that anyone who can speak in capital letters is obviously in the service of some greater power. I suddenly realized that the UU houses within it a dark army of holy knights who spend their days training for the end times with grueling sessions of Parcheesi and Risk, and that this harmless looking man was in fact the high commander of the 81st "Rainbow Unicorn" division.
Sometimes you need to know when to stand your ground. Other times you need to know when to gracefully turn away from a situation and take a different path. This wasn't either of those situations. This time I needed to know when to tuck my tail between my legs and run like a frightened chipmunk when nobody was looking. I waited until a church principle distracted Commander Boardgame and bolted for the main doors. I was a pilgrim in an unholy land.
Unitarians: 1, Dan: 0
A Shining Beacon of What I Wasn't Expecting
The UU sanctuary is a testament to effective architectural design. My first thought was wow, this place makes excellent use of the space available.
My second thought was I really like how they use multiple reflective surfaces to enhance the natural light of the room.
My third thought was in the name of all that is holy those "reflective surfaces" are the bald, geriatric heads of the churchgoers.
I often joke about being an old man; when you live in a college town hitting twenty three places you well outside of the average age. The sanctuary, however, reaffirmed my youth like nothing that I have ever experienced. It was a little disturbing, but I perservered. I made a mental note not to try to "pick up chicks" at the UU and took a seat. I sat for several minutes examining the trying-to-be-edgy-but-only-succeeding-in-looking-like-a-school-DARE-program posters on the walls while I waited. I didn't see any unicorns, but the posters did run heavily to Rainbow related themes. Nothing makes you contemplate your own mortality and inexperience more than old people and posters that hadn't seen "new" since bellbottoms and cocaine-fueled promiscuous sex went out of style. I began to wonder if this was an intended effect on the church's part when the sermon began.
My Yard Isn't Holy Enough
One thing that I did not expect was a lay sermon. Each Summer the minister apparently takes a sabbatical and leaves the church in the hands of its members. Those of you who have read Lord of the Flies may doubt the wisdom of such an action, but it does give you a deeper insight into the daily workings of the church.
UU Services open with a cermonial bell chime; the minister rings a bell and says something that sounds lovely but really doesn't mean anything. Honestly, I have heard more spiritual and rousing invocations from a Burger King drive through. Of course, unlike most BK employees I have met, the church principle was not wildly tripping on a combination of Weed and Fryer grease fumes.
After the bell chime another church principle lit the Flaming Chalice of Unitarianism that resides within the circle of Universalism. I'm not sure what those symbols are supposed to mean, but I do know that they probably have Sigmund Freud rolling in his grave quickly enough to unbalance the rotation of the earth. That's right, subliminal UU sexual imagery will be responsible for the fiery death of all mankind.
This particular sermon was divided into two parts. The first covered why churches are especially holy places. The logic mainly drew from the fact that we spend a lot of time inside, and that churches have a lot of open space. They get an "A" for effort, but for me at least, Religion is like sex: you can do it indoors, but it's 10,000 times better out in the open.
On the whole, this part of the sermon felt strangely domesticated. I couldn't tie the theme into my daily life. It contained no spiritual or moral guidance on how to live. I might have well been sitting in a tea room listening to a crowd of yuppies brag about their new hardwood floors. I repeatedly thought to myself these are 45 minutes of my life that I will never, ever get back. I was very disappointed and almost left early, but the second half of the sermon more than made up for first.
Have you ever had a premonition? I know that I have. When I was sitting in my pew waiting for the second piece of the sermon I saw the titanic personification of Faith, resplendant in flowing robes enter the sanctuary leading Reason before her. She then proceeded to bend Reason over the pulpit and spank Reason repeatedly, screaming "Say my name, Bitch!" until another church principle stepped forward to begin reading, thus dispelling the vision.
This sermon was presented by the Unitarian Church Building Expansion Committee. Much like the Christian taking the Eucharist and the Muslim professing the Shahada, Unitarians constantly reaffirm their faith by taking part in a ritual known as the Forming of the Committee. In this ritual, UU members join together in a holy communion and discuss important theological matters such as the location of the coffee machine.
There isn't much to say about the presentation other than what happened after the principles opened the floor for discussion. Several church members asked questions about the details of the new structure and received vague, ineffectual answers. Then came the moment we were all waiting for. An aged British gentleman stood up and rambled on for a number of minutes. After careful listening, I deduced that he was arguing that alternative energy sources violated the Seven Guiding Principles of Unitarian Universalism. Of course, you can't leave such a grievous charge unanswered. But who would rise to the challenge and defend the sanctity of the Committee? The champion rose of the form of a University engineering professor.
As all good sermons should, this sermon ended in a fifteen minute long screaming match over the relative holiness of different sources of alternative energy. These men hurled equations, reasoned arguments, and quotes from scripture like the missiles of King David's sling, each the other's Goliath. We mere mortals merely watched in awe, and by "awe" I mean abject boredom.
After the service I was carried like a piece of jetsam to the "social room," where I learned that Unitarians really, really like muffins. In fact, I had no less than four people line up and ask me "do you like muffins?" I politely declined the first offer, but the muffin exclusion field generated by the social area prevented the others from hearing my answer. I mean, muffins are good, but I had seen a book with a unicorn on the spine in a nearby bookshelf. Thinking that I had found the hidden codex of the 81st "rainbow unicorn" division, I hastened to drink of its strategic insight. I had almost reached it when Supreme Commander Boardgame materialized on my right flank with a squad of his gamenistas. Shit, I wasn't in uniform and would probably be condemned as a spy. My first impulse was to throw the coffee maker at him and hope that I could execute a formal retreat in the ensuing glass shrapnel, boiling coffee, and general confusion. It would have been a good idea, too, if it weren't for the strictures presented in that damned Geneva convention. I stood, hoping to make one Valiant stand in the face of withering Parchesi ranting before succumbing. Luckily the currents of battle carried us apart and I found myself face to face with a young lady.
Note that when I say "a young lady" I do not mean a relatively young lady: I mean someone about my age. She smiled and said "hello, I'm some name that you can't hear or understand but sounds really cool with the cool Irish accent that I have." I started to say hello when I heard Kum-Ba-Ya, the rallying cry of yuppie wusses everywhere. At this point I took her hand and said "I'm sure that you're a wonderful person, and your accent is amazing, but I really must get outdoors." I walked out, took my shoes off, and bolted for my car.
Then I got plums, which made everything worth it.
- Unitarian Universalism is great if you want to fill out the religion field on census forms, but you don't want to have to worry about those pesky beliefs.
- Screw the British dude. Wind power is way holier than solar panels.
- You should probably rehearse your sermon before you give it.
- DARE posters are not spiritually fulfilling.
- Oh, and come the Revelation, don't fuck with the 'corns.