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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Are We a Cult?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 6, 2008


It all began with Bruce.

Some of you might not know this, but I am something of a Bruce Springsteen fan. You might have noticed that I even mention him, occasionally, in my sermons.

On Sunday, October 28 of last year, I preached a sermon on Mr. Springsteen’s most recent record album, Magic. I’m sure many of you recall it in its entirety.

A little less than a week before that sermon, I decided, being the helpful and friendly sort of guy that I am (as well as, on occasion, a shameless self-promoter and personal horn-blower), to put out a small announcement of that upcoming sermon on the most popular Bruce Springsteen website, which is called Backstreets.com. I thought to myself: Perhaps some of the other fans out there in Bruceland might like to hear what the Rev. here has to say… maybe they will even come to church, and fill up a couple more pews, and put a couple more dollars in the collection plate… maybe it will lead to some good discussions and deeper sharing of insights… maybe they will buy my book

So even though I generally have little time for things like online blogs and discussion boards and newfangled things like that, I figured out how to post a message on the main discussion forum at Backstreets (which is called “The Promised Land”, after another one of Bruce’s songs).

I wrote:

“For anyone interested, the topic of discussion at the First Parish Universalist Church in Stoughton, Massachusetts on Sunday, October 28 will be "Springsteen's Magic". Come on down and listen to some of Bruce's music (and a thoughtful consideration thereof) in a far-from-usual setting. All are welcome. The service starts at 10:30 (that's AM), and the church is located at 790 Washington Street in beautiful Stoughton Square (at the intersection of Rt. 138, 139 & 27). Free coffee and goodies afterwards, too. And good conversation. Thanks!”

That seemed innocent enough, I though, Maybe a couple of people would drop in. Or more likely, I really thought, my posting would probably just sit there unnoticed and ignored.

But soon, there had actually been a couple of replies—encouraging ones, too, at first. Comments like “How interesting.” or “Church wasn’t like that when I was growing up.” or “I’d love to go, but Stoughton is too far from Minnesota.” Stuff like that.
These were followed an hour or so later by a post from a post from someone calling himself (I assume it was a “himself”—you can’t be sure online) “Managermister” (a reference to a line from Springsteen’s first song, “Blinded by the Light”), which read:

“The last thing Bruce fans need is another cult to join,” and then telling readers that they should check out the website www.uua.org (which is, of course, the official website of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston). Apparently, a visit there would confirm the cult-like nature of the Unitarian Universalist “church”.

Then, the next two postings seemed to agree with this Managermister person. This church was using “Bruce bait” to lure unsuspecting Springsteen fans into its fold, someone named Johnny Fun wrote. He then offered this “brief overview” of Unitarian Universalism:

“Unitarianism Universalism is an unusual religious organization,” the overview began, and it continued: “Unlike most religions in North America, it does not require its adherents to adhere to a specific set of beliefs. Its membership includes individuals who identify themselves as Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Humanists, Wiccans, or other religious traditions. Many inter-faith couples find it to be a comfortable religious home. UUs view the main function of the congregation as facilitating the spiritual quest of its members.”

That was very “scary” agreed someone called “Jersey Tramp”, who lived in… uh… New Jersey. Followed by a post from someone named Morpheus, from “north of Boston”, who pointed back to the reference about UU congregations “facilitating the spiritual quest of [their] members”, and asked (the voice of reason at last!): “Um, how is this bad?”

Thereupon opening the flood gates to a theological argument on the subject “Is Unitarian Universalism a cult?” which went on for another four or five days (and which was, in the main—though not entirely-- quite supportive of our particular household of faith, our tolerance, open-mindedness, and so on).

But apparently, there are people out there who think that we Unitarian Universalists are a cult. Babe in the woods that I am (apparently), I had never known this. So, we need to ask, are we a cult?

In one sense, actually, we are. The original meaning of the word “cult” refers to any religious group. In this sense, then, all religions are cults—from Anglicans through Zoroastrians, with Catholics and Hari Krishnas and Hindus and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Methodists in between.

But when we use the term “cult” today, aimed at this or that particular religious group (usually one we don’t like all that much, or one that we think is “weird” or “scary”, usually one that differs in some significant way from the one to which we belong), the word takes on a decidedly negative connotation. As one observer puts it:

“The word ‘cult’ in this context is often a pejorative term that is used to describe a group or organization that attempts to exert coercive control over the thinking and lives of its members, requires adherence to a specific creed, unquestioning obedience to a prophet or leader, avoidance of non-members, surrender of personal property or finances to the group, disregard of physical or emotional health, or some combination of the above.”

By that most thorough definition, I don’t think Unitarian Universalism makes the cut as a cult. You can call off the deprogrammers; we’re safe; I guess we’re just another church after all. (I especially like the part about “unquestioning obedience to a prophet or leader.” Maybe that “cult-like behavior” might be worth a try? Only kidding! No, I’m afraid I wouldn’t wear the robes of the never-to-be-questioned “charismatic leader” very well. Just humble and loveable Rev. Jeff will do just fine.)

But it does seem to me almost laughable that someone might confuse us for a cult, if you accept the definition we just read, Indeed, all that verbiage seems so antithetical to who we are, we Unitarian Universalists. It’s almost as though we’re the anti-cult:

“A group or organization that attempts to exert coercive control over the thinking and lives of its members”—Is that why, on any given Sunday morning, in most Unitarian Universalist churches, by our own figures, approximately 30 to 40 percent of our members will be in attendance at worship or church school? So much for coercive control! If that’s coercion, then it’s pretty darned ineffective!

We acknowledge in our churches that religious affiliation is only part of who we are, as men and women and children. We are also realistic enough, and grounded in the real world enough, to understand the time pressures which people of all walks of life (families, especially, perhaps) experience in this modern (often frenetic) culture. The last thing we want to peddle is a guilt trip on people who are already stressed out about the choices they have to make as to how they spend their time.

We believe, fundamentally, in individual freedom of choice, in all aspects of life. We have faith in the ability of our members to choose for themselves. That means, sometimes, that our people will choose not to come to church. That’s something that we ministers might not like sometimes; it’s a challenge with which this church—and all churches—have to deal. But it’s the way the world is—and even more, perhaps, it’s the way the religious world should be, as we see it anyway.

As for requiring “adherence to a specific creed” (another characteristic of a cult, by the definition we’re using), I think we dealt pretty well with that subject last week, in our sermon on atheism.

We have no creed, so how can we “demand” universal adherence to one? There’s a big difference, though, between not having a creed, and not believing in anything. “Ours is a non-creedal church,” Wallace Robbins, perhaps one of the most conservative Unitarians of the past century, wrote several decades ago, “not because we have no beliefs, but because we will not be restrained in our beliefs.”

We don’t have a creed—a one-size fits all statement of belief to which all of us subscribe. But we do have credos (from the Latin for “I believe”)—individual statements of our beliefs, right now—spiritual snapshots, as it were, reflecting the particular takes of each one of us on the religious world.

It’s true that if you ask eleven Unitarian Universalists their beliefs on the existence of God—or life after death-- or the Resurrection—you’ll probably receive twelve different answers.

That can be very confusing to someone looking for one answer.

It’s one of the reasons we’re not everyone’s religious cup of tea.

It can be downright confusing for some people not to know the answer: to know for certain whether there is something waiting for us on the other side of sleep’s dark and silent gate; to know for certain that there is a personal God out there in the universe, whose “eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”

But if we have no final answers, then we Unitarian Universalists are willing, at least, to have the courage of our confusion. We have courage enough, and honesty enough, to stand humbly before the Great Mystery; to acknowledge that, in the realm of human endeavors and human thought, the moment of absolute certainty never arrives; to cling eagerly to the fellow human hands offered us on our search, as we make our way, together, through the darkness.

No, our anti-cult has no specific creed which we demand you accept—or else. (Or else… what? We offer neither real estate in heaven, nor fire insurance against the torments of hell—so with what can we threaten you, even if we wanted to, which we don’t?)

A cult tells its adherents: “My way—or the highway.”

We tell one another (we tell all people): We are each on a journey. We each take a different road to our ultimate truth. But even more, we sing to one another:

You stand before this open door
And you must now go through
My precious friend,
my own my sweet companion
Bless the road that carries you ...

Unitarian Universalism fails in its calling if we merely cling to our own individual road, and refuse to acknowledge the gifts which the insights of others bring to our search. Unitarian Universalism fails in its calling if we each insist on our own way, and storm off in protest every time we don’t get our own way.

The reason we are in this church of all faiths is precisely because we don’t want to be around only people who see the world the way we do. We would not have beliefs imposed upon us, so we will not impose our beliefs on others. There needs to be a certain gentleness in the way we do religion, in the way we deal with one another, and with the world. A gentleness which the eyes of the world sometimes mistakes for weakness. But which we know, truly, is a deeper, more profound strength.

Cults also demand that their adherent surrender their “personal property or finances to the group.” Not us, obviously.

We are a democratic church that manages its own affairs, hires its own staff, calls its own minister, pays its own bills, and is freely supported through the pledges and contributions of its members and friends. No one can tell you how much to give, or whether you should pledge or give at all. As in everything else around here, it all comes down to each individual and his or her conscience.

How much of your wealth you share—how much of your income—how much of your time—how much commitment you make—is up to you. Period.

The future of this church—the future of our Unitarian Universalist movement—will be the sum of a whole series of individual decisions that you and me and all of us UUs are making, right now. No more; no less. Out of our calculations—our choices—the future of this church will emerge.

A cult is about subsuming one’s selfhood in the overarching façade of “the Group”.

This church—this dear faith of ours—is about nurturing selfhood—cultivating individuality—not in isolation, but in relationship; not in a vacuum, but in community.

“The creative life force, the Spirit of Life, the Divine essence, cannot be fully engaged in solitary confinement,” Nancy Irish once said. Nor can it be imposed from on high from those who supposedly “know better”.

Spirituality is caught and not taught, we like to say.

And religion is about deeds and not creeds.

And we like to say that “to question is the answer”, and we put bumper stickers on our cars that say “Honk if you’re not sure.”

Our peculiar way of doing religion confuses many people (maybe some of us, sometimes). Someone I know once called it “religious Jello”, and it can seem awfully vapid at times and too amorphous and hard to nail down. It is not a perfect faith, and we are not a perfect church.

But it is, for us, our religious home. It is a faith we love and to which we are committed. It has brought a whole host of marvelous people into our lives. It has blessed us with its beauty and humor and insight.

It is, for us, not a cult, but family. It is the treasure chest of our memories; the custodian of our dreams; and the harbinger of better days that lie ahead.


 


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