Boston Magazine did a feature about the organizing entity of my faith, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and how they chose to market my religion to others. It is a discussion about branding and the changing role of religion in everyone’s lives. They call it “Selling God.”
In other contexts, “selling God” is called “evangelizing,” or “proselytizing.” It is more akin to what activists do, in trying to persuade others to a common cause. It is the pursuit of people who feel the message they are pushing is so compelling, that they must share it. A good friend of mine often references Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Sermon” below as an example as a truth that isn’t necessarily God-related, but still conveys the same awe and wonder. Describing the realization that the elements that make up our body have a common kinship in the cosmos, “It makes me want to grab people in the street and ask, ‘Have you heard this?!'”
There are many marketers in my social circles, the consequence of an abundance of social science students. Marketers are culture-makers and so those who study people for a living tend to get culture. Marketers know how to sell anything. They know how to craft their messages and what parts of the human experience to appeal to in order to get a point across. Activists generally rely on the strength of the message, hoping what they see as the inherent truth will be so evident that others will come to their side. Incidentally, that is not necessarily the most effective rhetorical strategy.
The religious are culture-makers too. Like marketers, they craft stories and images that become part of our world and ways of relating to each other. Religions are meaning-makers. They structure lives, add rituals, and give people reasons to gather. They can inspire us to strive to be better, structure our values and beliefs, and remind us to look beyond our selves. The texts of the world’s religions contain many human truths. The Lord’s Prayer asks God to “Forgive us our trespasses” because so many of the wrongs we commit against each other are various forms of boundary violations. Nearly all of them have some commentary about the importance of letting go, or of being present. These are facets of human life. We created this meaning.
I have not found the UUA’s re-branding efforts compelling thus far. I know many people have; they must be in the target audience. I know that some of it is my weariness with capitalism. Some of it is my desire to belong to something that is not simply responding to the zeitgeist; I want to be part of something beyond me. Beyond me in era, beyond me in geography, or beyond me in planetary existence: I am reaching for something greater than my immediate surroundings and proximate ideas. I fear that we have a substance problem: we are spread to wide, and thus too thin. Religion is not meant to be a threadbare cloak, letting you look beautiful as all the cold air passes through. At least, that is not what I seek in my faith.
Lately I experience more spirituality staring into the sky than in a Unitarian Universalist Church. This is ironic. It was Unitarian Universalism which helped teach me to be spiritual in that way! Unitarian Universalism, whose ideas opened my mind to the many varieties of spirituality, feels like it is trying to hard to be appealing that it forgot that the foundation of charisma is confidence in yourself. Yet it is not Unitarian Universalism doing this. It is just the UUA’s efforts that feel that way.
I am far more active in online UU communities than I am in the brick-and-mortar ones at the moment. I have only good things to say about the UU communities in Western New York – they are wonderful. This is the consequence of spending weekends with my kin, making up for my absent years in Seattle. Brick and Mortar churches require a specific time-commitment. Online communities exist when I am nursing my daughter late at night. My non-affiliation makes me a free-range UU right now. I have not received the paper version of UU World in months. With that said, it seems there is a divide between how UUism is portrayed by the UUA and how I have experienced it in congregations, and among others online. The UUA seems very corporate. Corporations are concerned with success and image. Corporations have different goals than those who consume their products. For instance, I have never been to any of the head quarters. As far as I perceive, the offices moved from one might-as-well-be-fictional place to another might-as-well-be-fictional place. That controversy went over my head. Online communities seem to have more grassroots passion to them, and more of a focus on the substance of UUism, because that is what compelled them.
My struggle with Unitarian Universalism is that at some point, I hit a wall. I had a problem that no UUs ever really spoke about, partially because the topic was one that folks were hesitant to make strong comments on, or even endorse. It was a stigmatizing issue, or else I’d be describing it to you. I needed wisdom that was not being provided within the UU community; I went elsewhere. UUism presumes that you will do it – the Sources include virtually anything. UUism is trying so hard to be inclusive, it misses potential meaning-making moments for fear of drawing boundaries around something and excluding others. Sometimes when I am seeking depth, I find only platitudes. I travel elsewhere again.
I see that as UUism’s problem. People don’t stay because we provide a great framework and struggle with the depth. I suspect that I will always consider myself a UU, but being part of a church does not facilitate my spiritual development more than reading wise words, or playing with my daughter, or staring at the sun setting over Lake Erie. Every moment is holy; what will Unitarian Universalism contribute beyond that?
How does this re-branding effort assist that?