Unitarian Universalism is committed to religious pluralism, embracing the perspectives of many world faiths. But does this religious breadth come at the cost of religious depth?
Yes, argues retired UU minister and religious educator Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar in her new book Fluent in Faith: A Unitarian Universalist Embrace of Religious Language. But not because there’s anything wrong with pluralism.
The problem lies in one of the approaches that Unitarian Universalists have taken in being more “inclusive.” Many UU congregations avoid using words that are part of the mainstream religious lexicon: words like God, faith, sacrament, sanctuary, sin, prayer, atonement, grace, and salvation.
The reasons for this avoidance are understandable:
- These words are loaded with negative baggage that has been imposed on them, especially by Christian conservatives who have used them to foster religious bigotry and exclusion. Many Unitarian Universalists have been hurt deeply by the oppressive use of these words.
- Because of their roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, these words could undermine the pluralism that UUs want to foster.
However, Nieuwejaar argues, simply avoiding traditional religious language comes with a cost:
- It’s an impediment to interfaith dialogue. These words resonate in the collective human consciousness, and in many different faiths. The language of reverence can build bridges of common understanding between religions. People who visit UU congregations, and never hear these words, feel that something is missing. Ironically, by avoiding mainstream religious terminology in an attempt to be inclusive, we are actually being insular.
- We miss out on the opportunity to engage with the language of reverence and its power. “To discard language from mainstream religions. . .is to treat a symptom, not the disease,” Nieuwejaar writes. “It is a shortcut that bypasses opportunities for growth and healing. It ignores the reality that there is value and beauty in the Christian tradition, much of which can enrich our lives and the lives of our children.”
Nieuwejaar invites us to engage creatively with religious language in ways that are transformative and healing. “Too often we put traditional religious words into tiny boxes of meaning instead of allowing them to breathe and expand in a nuanced way,” she writes.
“We know, or think we know, what salvation means in most Christian circles and want no part of it. But these words really aren’t so small. Historically, and even today in most other religious spheres, their meanings are varied and nuanced.”