Eclectic, Syncretic, or Just a Sieve?


I have three Millennial kids, all raised Unitarian Universalist. Now, as adults, the breakdown of their religions goes like this: One still identifies as UU and lives in a mid-sized American city with two mid-sized congregations on offer. She has attended both but for various reasons finds neither of them appealing. Occasionally, she attends an Episcopal church, just for the “bells and smells.”

The second has converted to a branch of Orthodox Judaism. The rules and rituals and traditions appeal to her.

The third is an artist. Art is his religion. Writing, painting, and sketching are his spiritual practice. He sees no reason to talk about religion, except that the history is kind of interesting.

I’ve seen a good deal of research on why UU kids don’t become UU grownups. I’m not claiming my kids are typical in any statistical way, except in the one stat: They grew up UU but have not joined UU congregations.

In thinking this over, I’ve decided that UUism gets experienced in our various congregations in some combination of three ways — eclectic, syncretic, or just a sieve.

Here’s why: the history of Unitarianism and then Universalism can be summarized something like this:

In the lat eighteenth century, some post-Puritan Massachusetts ministers began to question the Christian theology of the Trinity. These ministers and the congregations that agreed with the theology became known as Unitarian. But this new concept required that people be “Christian.”

In the nineteenth century, some Unitarian ministers and congregations began to question the concept of miracles and the divinity of Jesus. They continued to call themselves “Christian,” but in reality they were “Theist.”

In the twentieth century some Unitarian and Universalist ministers and congregations began to question the idea of theism. After much (and continuing) debate, many Unitarians and Universalists agreed that non-theism, which was conflated with the idea called Humanism, was a valid way to be part of the U and U movement, and then the UU movement.

(It is important to note that many secular Jews found a home in humanist UU congregations after the Second World War, as some congregations moved away from Christian roots.)

The 1961 merger of U and U came at the peak of mainline Protestant religion in the United States. This peak also marked the height of the post-Second World War Baby Boom. In other words, the future looked bright for what has come to be called mainline Protestantism.

It wasn’t. In the case of UUism, the actual number of members has fallen.(UUism hasn’t declined as fast as, say, Presbyterianism, but, that’s cold comfort.)

The 1960s also coincided with the high water mark of US colonial power. Interest in religions from around the world flourished. As Baby Boomers aged, they (we) embraced a wide variety of world religions. For example, Buddhism had initially been brought to the US by WW II vets returning from US-occupied Japan.

Various forms of Hinduism also became popular, as did Daoism, the Baha’i faith, Sufism, and various understandings of shamanism and re-constituted forms of earth-centered religions. These various streams flowed into the larger cultural shift that had led to Vatican 2 and various attempts to revitalize Christianity by “getting back to its roots” both in the form of returning to early church practices — as Pentecostals saw it — or returning to the “pre-ecclesiastical” teachings of Jesus.

Unitarian Universalist followers of all these developments — and more — can be found in various congregations. After the acceptance of Humanism, Unitarian Universalists had very little choice other than acceptance of many religious and philosophical ideas, codified in the fourth of the “Seven Principles” of Unitarian Universalism: “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Eclectic; syncretic; sieve. The eclectic build a personal religion out of various pieces of various religious and philosophical traditions, sort of like a mosaic — these are the so-called Boo-Christians, Jewboos, Christa-Yogis and such.

The syncretic blend various pieces — a religious melting pot — “sure there’s the god of love, but karma is the real deal.”

The sieve watches it all go by, but nothing really sticks.

Some UUs are “hyphenated.” That is, we are (mostly) one of something or other. I’m a UU-Humanist. I don’t think religions have any “truth” beyond their social history and psychological insights.

Will the precipitous fall of mainline Protestantism continue, with UUism a slower but inevitable part of the collapse?

One of my Catholic priest friends and his staff have been working with a consultant who claims that just as there was a “Boomer-ring” when Baby Boomers began to age and decided to go back to congregations to find connection and comfort, so there is beginning to be a “Millennial-arang,” with aging Millennials seeing the need for congregating. My priest friend is learning the lingo to be ready for that particular second coming.

Might happen. It really might.

(For a similar decline in US Islam, see Unmosqued http://www.unmosquedfilm.com/)

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