Rieux (dr_rieux ) wrote,

Choosing to Wound: Why "A Chosen Faith" Harms Unitarian Universalism

[Originally written 2004, posted on LiveJournal 2007]

I contend that the extreme and uniform negativity toward atheism, skepticism, rationalism, secularism and insufficiently “spiritual” humanism contained in A Chosen Faith does deep damage to Unitarian Universalism. It convinces curious nonbelievers[1] that this can never be a home for them—while at the same time emboldening people on the other end of the theological spectrum who are only too happy to see us attacked. I would like to see the greater community of UUs convince Revs. Buehrens and Church to revise their work drastically—or, failing that, to pull it from publication. At the very least, UUs need to realize how cruel this book is to nonbelievers, and what an ugly picture it paints of our communal ability to deal with theologies that differ from our individual ones. I submit that this cannot stand as the way Unitarian Universalism presents itself to the world.


Many thousands of Unitarian Universalists, yours truly included, have noticed that our tradition is a fiendishly difficult thing to describe to newcomers. The diversity of our viewpoints, the differences we have with much of the religious (and non-religious) population of the world, and our complex and varied history all conspire against any attempt to describe what and who we are simply and briefly. The “elevator speech” process seems to me a bit like a Zen koan, a riddle that has no real answer but whose contemplation, one hopes, serves better understanding.

Neophytes who are thirsty to find out what UUism is about, though, are rarely satisfied with coy half-answers. At that point, plenty of UUs resort to our literary better lights—we seek out one of the UUA’s pamphlets on the subject, such as “We Are Unitarian Universalists,” or we reach for the bookshelf, where selections like 100 Questions That Non-Members Ask About Unitarian Universalism and Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age may await.

Over the past fifteen years, the best-selling solution to the introduction problem has been a book co-written by two prominent UU ministers—one of them a former president (1993-2001) of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the other the senior minister of the largest UU congregation in New York City. This book was originally published in 1989 as Our Chosen Faith and then updated in 1998 and retitled A Chosen Faith.

The authors, UU Revs. John A. Buehrens and Forrest Church, structured their book upon the officially-recognized Sources of “our living tradition.” (The 1998 second edition was necessitated by the addition of an earth-spirituality Source to the official list.) The book itself has twelve chapters—one from each author based upon each of the (now) six Sources.

From beginning (the subtitle is “An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism”) to end, A Chosen Faith uniformly packages itself as an authoritative statement of what UUism is. “If you want to have better answers to your questions about our chosen faith,” writes Robert Fulghum in the Foreword to the 1998 edition, “read further in this book.” Former UUA Moderator Denise Davidoff chimes in in her Preface:
If you are not (or not yet) a Unitarian Universalist, you will learn more about who we are, and why we are, from these pages. And you may even learn more about yourself and your own religious journey.

Enjoy, enjoy!
The publisher’s blurb on the book jacket concurs:
For those contemplating religious choices, Unitarian Universalism offers an appealing alternative to religious denominations that stress theological creeds over individual conviction and belief. In this new edition of the classic introductory text on Unitarian Universalism, ... John Buehrens and Forrest Church explore the many sources of the living tradition of their chosen faith.
The message to newcomers is clear: this is the source you should consult to find out what Unitarian Universalism is. This is our depiction—through our association’s president, and one of our most prominent ministers—of who we are. Come check us out.


I am one of the thousands of people who can count A Chosen Faith as our introduction to Unitarian Universalism. I’m afraid, however, that my experience was not quite the “Enjoy, enjoy!” delight that Davidoff forecasted. Though I opened the front cover having heard it rumored that UUism was a place that welcomes skeptics, atheists, rationalists and other people for whom “God,” “faith” and “religion” are not necessarily meaningful ideas, what I learned from the book is that I was very seriously mistaken. I found a picture of a group of people who had little regard for any negative take on “God,” the Bible, Jesus, or several other elements of traditional religion. The book treated skeptical viewpoints like my own unfairly, dishonestly and disrespectfully. Worse, that treatment was entirely uniform: I couldn’t find a single word that conceded any value whatever to the way I viewed the world. I came to UUism in search of a place I could call my own, and A Chosen Faith informed me that nothing but disrespect awaited me here. Chastened, I decided that I wanted no part of this place.

Later, UU friends of mine convinced me to give my local church a try, and I did. But five years after my initial, frightening experience with A Chosen Faith, I resolved to try again—to determine whether a considerable amount of real-life experience in UUism would make me feel any differently about the book.

Well, it did: the book was even worse the second time through. This time I was Church and Buehrens’ client, not the jury—I was reading as an insider, as someone on whose behalf the authors claimed to be arguing. This time I knew about our covenant to affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, a Principle I find entirely impossible to square with several demeaning attacks that the authors level. This time I was able to keep a careful eye out for any positive or negative treatment the authors gave nonbelieving perspectives—and I found that, indeed, they say not a single nice word about any atheist or irreligious way of seeing the world. Not one word balances their savage criticism—their constant resort to derogatory and insulting depictions of nonbelievers. Chapter after chapter demeans and vilifies anyone whose piety does not meet the authors’ standards. This second encounter, from my new position of experience within UUism, was worse because it was my Unitarian Universalism that John Buehrens and Forrest Church were defaming, rather than another entry on a laundry list of religions I knew I wasn’t suited for. This book tarnishes a tradition I love.

I contend that the extreme and uniform negativity toward atheism, skepticism, rationalism, secularism and insufficiently “spiritual” humanism contained in A Chosen Faith does deep damage to Unitarian Universalism. It convinces curious nonbelievers[1] that this can never be a home for them—while at the same time emboldening people on the other end of the theological spectrum who are only too happy to see us attacked. I would like to see the greater community of UUs convince Revs. Buehrens and Church to revise their work drastically—or, failing that, to pull it from publication. At the very least, UUs need to realize how cruel this book is to nonbelievers, and what an ugly picture it paints of our communal ability to deal with theologies that differ from our individual ones. I submit that this cannot stand as the way Unitarian Universalism presents itself to the world.


In an attempt to explain what it is about this book that I believe is so offensive, I have chosen thirty-nine passages from A Chosen Faith to critique here. (All page numbers cited in the following essay are from the 1998 edition of A Chosen Faith.) Slightly fewer than half of the passages tend more toward “troubling” than “offensive”—frequently these are passages in the book where the authors use traditional religious terminology without mentioning that plenty of UUs see the terms used in very different lights. (This observation is something Church and Buehrens seem seriously disinterested in.) Were these the low point of the distressing material in A Chosen Faith, nonbelievers would have ample reason to be uneasy and suspicious—given that our viewpoint is never described in positive terms—but the book would still not inflict serious injury. These seventeen troubling passages I have given yellow flags in the essay that follows.

The remaining twenty-two passages, however, constitute the core of the problem. These passages, marked with red flags, are seriously offensive; they communicate a deep and abiding antipathy toward persons whose piety fails to meet the authors’ standards.

Why the authors treat nonbelief and nonbelievers this way I cannot say, and indeed I do not wish to speculate. Regardless, I submit that the red-flagged material has no place in any “Introduction to Unitarian Universalism.” We cannot afford to deliver to anyone the cruel and dehumanizing message that this book does to nonbelievers.


There are two general points that I think deserve repetition: First, this book is promoted as, introduced as, sold as, understood as, used as and subtitled “An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism.” It is emphatically not billed as two ministers’ idiosyncratic takes on the worlds of fact and value—or as a description of one theologically narrow slice of UUism. Most of what is criticized below would be nonetheless inappropriate even if A Chosen Faith were subtitled “John and Forrest Discuss Their Worldviews,” given the prominence of the men involved—but it is centrally important that that is not how a reader with little to no UU experience could possibly understand it. This is the most popular literary description—“the classic introductory text,” as the cover blurb puts it—of UUism entire, and no honest evaluation of the book can avoid that fact.


Second, though Christianity, Judaism and other mainstream religious perspectives get frequent positive treatment (and rightfully so) in A Chosen Faith, there is not a single nice word in this entire book about atheism or any other secular way of seeing the world. Criticism both mild and brutal there is in profuse quantities, as I will document below. But evidence of absence being a difficult thing to produce, I’m forced into blanket statements: this book never has a single kind word to say about nonbelief—about the sort of worldview that I share with thousands of other UU nonbelievers (and millions of non-UUs). Not one word. Any contention that the authors are tolerant of some school of nonbelief other than the (allegedly) extreme ones that they attack in the pages of A Chosen Faith must come to terms with the fact that neither author ever identifies a single variety of nonbelief as worthy of any respect. Not one, not any, not ever.


On to the book itself.







1: I use “nonbelief” and “nonbelievers” in this essay as catch-all terms for the skeptical points of view that Buehrens and Church attack in A Chosen Faith. Certainly my terms do not include absolutely everything that could possibly be termed “nonbelief” or “skepticism”—for example, Church does state his doubts about a literal Resurrection, which constitute a non-belief and skepticism of a sort. What I mean by “nonbelief” is mainly the list of ideas I provided above: atheism, agnosticism, skepticism (in the particular sense meant by Church in Chapter 5), secularism (à la Buehrens, Chapter 6), rationalism, and non-“spiritual” (some would say “secular”) humanism.
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