“They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas: A Story”, 1974
You perhaps noticed I stopped writing this blog. I posted in fits and starts—being honest, most often in fits—since I began, but this time it’s over for good.
I stopped attending Unitarian Universalist congregations about two years ago. It wasn’t a conscious decision at first. Work demands, and then a return to graduate school, made me realize I had to spend more time in New York City. That’s where I found myself in an increasing number of Sunday mornings. I would wake up and decide that what I wanted to do was to sleep in, maybe make love to my husband, read in the sunshine. After getting dressed, I wanted to go to one of the only types of places more myriad in America than houses of worship, to drink juice-tinctured champagne and to eat elaborate egg preparations. That, rather than get hurt by another and another casual, personal excoriation by well-meaning bigots cocksure that present company excludes what “rich” categorically means. So that’s what I did, weekend after weekend, and I came to feel I wasn’t missing much. Complacencies of the peignoir and late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair mingled to dissipate the holy hush of ancient sacrifice, as Wallace Stevens put it. I now worship at Saint Benedict of Hollandaise and Our Lady of the Bottomless Cuppa.
(It’s a little ironic. If I had gone up to Lex & 79th, All Souls is one of the least likely places in UUism where I would have confronted classist bigotry. I left it too late. Elsewhere UUs wore me out.)
If You Are UU, Am I UU to You?
I tell people I’m not a UU any more, but it’s not true. I just don’t want to spend time among UUs talking about social “justice” and the anti-isms of the day. I agree with them that racism, misogyny and its vicious stepchild misogynoir, classism, xenophobia, nativism, ethnocentrism, Antisemitism, Islamophobia… that these are pervasive and malign influences in the world, in the country, and within Unitarian Universalism. And I agree with them that something should be done about it. I disagree on what the main thing religion should do about it is.
The reason that I tell people I’m not a UU and go on being one to myself has to do with what religion is and isn’t. UU leadership increasingly appears to disagree with me. Ponder this: could you be a Unitarian Universalist marooned on a desert island, whose only companion is a volleyball? A volleyball that refuses to tell you if he’s also a Unitarian Universalist? Can Unitarian Universalists exist when there is no petition to sign, no protest to attend, no seminar to hold, nor an outrage to voice?
The Deserving Divine
A traditional definition of religion is “the moral virtue by which a person is disposed to render the worship and service deserved by the divine.” (That is a paraphrase of Rev John Hardon, SJ, from his Modern Catholic Dictionary.) A lot flows out of that word “deserve,” even for non-theists: The dignity and worth of people. Justice and kindness for right relationship. Respect for one another. Encouragement to spiritual growth. The goal of a peaceful, free and shared world for everyone. Treating the planet with custodial care.
Our principles are more than good manners. This can not be overstated: our principles are not about good community manners. They are the aspirations of our spirituality. Our congregations are supposed to provide places for people to covenant to their highest selves and to practice and embolden their love. To do those things is hard, personal, life-long work. As we improve ourselves, and to improve ourselves, we express our faith outward into the world through social action.
I don’t think UUism understands that such is what is at the core, indeed the very essence, of our religion. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a UU pulpit sermon on selfishness, or on giving and accepting personal criticism, or on showing respect for people who don’t covenant with us. I’ve heard a lot of sermons on world food insecurity, two on the use of drones by the American military, and many on immigration policy. Those are all good expressions of what to do with UU faith. They aren’t, though, the faith itself.
Piety: It’s Not Just for Theists Any More
Our congregations have something more important to do than organizing for political or social action. I have more to say about class conflict, but it would only add to the side of the balance that does not need more attention. We need a conversation about religious fundamentals and UU piety instead. I’m done with leadership, ministers, and a Board of Trustees so convinced of their rectitude on society’s diseases that they won’t commit to conquering hate and bias in themselves.
Things have gone very wrong. Nana used to say to me that “When things go wrong, see you don’t go with them.” I didn’t leave Unitarian Universalism. It left me. I seem to know where I’m going and I have a straight path on which to walk away. I won’t be coming back. I hope that Unitarian Universalism’s path and my own intersect again.
Image: Detail of a HarperCollins book cover for
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas: A Story”
by Ursula K Le Guin. Artist is unknown to me.