A Unitarian Generation Gap

No collection of religious humor would be complete without some Unitarian jokes featuring punch lines about this elite flock's love of esoteric seminars, stodgy foreign sedans, left-wing causes and wine-and-cheese parties.

Above all, Unitarians cherish their reputation as open-minded, tolerant souls. Still, the Rev. Forrest Church knows that sometimes even a Unitarian minister can go too far.

The senior minister of New York City's historic Church of All Souls ends his services with a benediction that begins with: "And now, in our going, may God bless and keep us. May the light of God shine upon us, and out from within us, and be gracious unto us, and bring us peace." While his church has grown accustomed to hearing the word "God," he has heard negative feedback in other Unitarian settings.

"I used to get booed when I would visit other churches," said Church. "That doesn't happen much, these days. The idea of using the word 'God' in a benediction isn't as radical as it used to be. ... I get away with God language with impunity, now."

Yes, spirituality is so hot in America today that even the Unitarians are talking about God and some even advocate talking to God. This has created interesting tensions in a denomination that has, for generations, served as the official left border of mainline religion in America.

The Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association was born in 1961 when the Unitarians, who reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, merged with the Universalists, who believe God saves all people, no matter what they believe or do. The association currently has 210,000 members and more than 1000 churches. While much has been written about the decline of liberal Protestantism, Unitarian Universalists have enjoyed 15 years of modest growth. There have been growing pains.

"The Unitarians of the '50s and '60s were people who turned to us as a way of escaping other churches," said Church. "It was like they were deep-sea divers trying to swim up out of the depths of traditional religion. The Unitarian Church was like a decompression chamber where they could stop -- half way to the surface -- to keep from getting the bends."

Asked to describe their beliefs, these Unitarians defiantly testify about the doctrines they no longer believe. Thus, this entrenched older generation tends to shun rites, symbols and most religious language. In a strange twist of fate, these older Unitarians have become -- relatively speaking -- the conservatives who fidget with sweaty palms as a new generation of seekers enters the pews and pulpits, eager to explore new spiritual frontiers.

"What we are seeing today is an influx of people who are escaping from secularism," said Church. "These are people who are coming to us because they want to be more religious than they were before -- not less religious. ... That's a switch."

The newcomers often bring with them religious trends from mass media and the mall. Many want to experience the presence of God, the goddess or some other god to be named later. Meanwhile, the old guard distrusts talk-TV mystics almost as much as Christian televangelists. It's hard for iconoclasts who fled the supernatural worldview of evangelicalism or Catholicism to say "amen" when youngsters launch into sermons about the supernatural powers of Mother Earth.

Church said he isn't worried about the advent of a "Unitarian paganism," but does reject many assumptions of the modern human-potential movements. In his most recent book, "Life Lines: Holding on (and Letting Go)," he argues that much of the New Age movement is rooted in an ancient gnosticism that tells believers to deny their pain, tap their inner powers, ignore the needs of others and, thus, achieve liberation.

"There are people out there who are suckers for anything that advertises itself as a source of ultimate religious truth -- so long as it isn't attached to a traditional religion," said Church. "They end up denying the reality of evil and suffering and death. Ironically, these subjects are at the heart of the questions that Unitarians want to encourage people to keep asking."