UU as Buddhist-Christianity

So since we engaged in a very Buddhist way of approaching worship in this historical Unitarian church, I wanted to talk about something I actually think a lot about.  And that something is the situation facing Unitarian-Universalism and what I think offers a lot of wisdom when it comes to how to thrive and not just survive in the changing religious landscape.

I speak as a semi-outsider. I indeed consider myself part of the UU tradition and was locally ordained by a UU congregation, the Second Universalist Society in Orange, which is part of the Community Church of North Orange & Tully. However, in culture and persuasion I am a Buddhist-Christian – a Christian Universalist with Buddhist leanings. My faith means I am not exactly in the mainstream when it comes to the average UU. That said, I think UU offers me a great deal of hope when it comes to the survival and thriving of the liberal American church.

But I feel things need to be reimagined. This is my attempt at such a reimagining.

Here is the dilemma facing organized religion – the highest growing group of people when it comes to religious affiliation is the group who claim no affiliation, a group of people that have been labeled the “nones.”When answered their religious affiliation, they answer “none.” The nones have grown by a whopping 10% in the past 25 years, and 4% in just the past 5 years.

At the same time, mainline denominations have been declining precipitously and exponentially. And UU is now beginning to feel that decline as well.

That UU is declining when there are more nones might seem odd to some UUs. If there were a religious organization suited to the nones, it would be UU. We are liberal, pluralistic, and welcoming of even atheists and agnostics.

But here is the problem. In a recent survey of the nones, it was found that only 12% of them are looking for a religious home. 88% are happy with no religious community. What’s more, from some important qualitative research done by Elizabeth Drescher, research that includes actual interviews and engagement and dialogue with the nones, there is a clear sentiment that counters UUs current culture. These nones, well, would sing with the Doobie Brothers and mean it, “Jesus is just alright with me.”

In a terrific article in the online religious journal Religious Dispatches titled “No to Church, Yes to Jesus,” Elizabeth Drescher discusses her qualitative research of the “nones.” Drescher’s research has made it clear that for the Nones, Jesus is a figure still very much admired and looked to. She states:

…the Christian idiom—its narratives, rituals, symbols, professed ethics, and so on—remains a significant resource for [the Nones], whether they’re arguing against it or adapting it to alternative spiritualities. This was certainly the case for the majority of the Nones I interviewed across the country. Regardless of where they stood with regard to religious belief or unbelief, or attendant practices, the people I interviewed told me repeatedly how much they admired the Jesus of the Christian Gospel, radical defender of the poor and outcast.

What’s more, a survey by the Harris Interactive Company shows that Jesus “by a large margin holds the top rank on the list of individual heroes.” This is extra true, interestingly, for those of the Millenial generation, who are more likely to claim Jesus as individual hero than any other generation.

A Gallup poll from several years ago confirmed this: “survey findings suggest that Jesus' impact extends beyond those Americans who call themselves Christians. When Americans of all religious backgrounds, or none, were asked what impact Jesus has had on their lives as a moral and ethical leader, only 7% of the total sample said, ‘hardly any’ or ‘none.’”

As Drescher further shows in her research, this sentiment of rejecting Christianity but sensing meaning and importance in Jesus is not uncommon. Drescher points to the 2008 Pew Religious Landscape Survey and states, “seven-in-ten Nones emerge into Noneness from Christian backgrounds. So, it makes sense that” the language of Jesus and his teaching would hold great influence still.

So there is a deeply engrained affinity with Jesus and his teaching amongst the nones. 7 in 10 nones are coming from Christian backgrounds but are not affiliating with another religious organization. In other words, 7 in 10 are leaving Christianity and not becoming UU. I personally think because they are looking for a new way to approach Jesus.

Regardless of this, of the generally Jesus-friendly, and mostly Christian in background nones, only 12% say they are looking for organized religion. The only other people for UU to draw from are those who are religiously affiliated now but are soon to leave. The vast, vast majority of the religiously affiliated are Christian.

All of this is to say the nones and would-be nones would seem to agree with Gandhi and his famous statement: I like your Christ but not your Christians. 

I believe UU’s post-Christian and sometimes anti-Christian face is a drawback when you consider “the religious market,” if you will.  Those in the market are at least friendly to Jesus or coming from a Christian context. Building a religion on the negative “I don’t like your Christians” does not serve us well, and certainly not as well as building upon the positive statement of “I like your Christ.”

I think UU would do well to somehow embrace Jesus again. No, not in an evangelical sense or even in a mainline sense. I mean embracing Jesus in a completely heretical sense, embracing Jesus as Teacher and Poet of the way of Love.

On one level, this shouldn’t be that hard. UU’s already feel an affinity and a connection with Jesus, more so than anyone else. I recently did a word search on the UUA website’s custom Google search which scans the whole UUA webstie. I searched religious figures’ names – Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and religious approaches – humanism – and the results may be surprising.

“Lao Tzu”, 1.4 million results
“humanism,” 1.5 million
“Confucius”, 2.8 million results
“Moses”, 14.3 million
“Krishna”, 17 million
“Buddha”, 18.1 million results
“Abraham”, 27.6 million
“Muhammad”, 33.3 million results
“Jesus”, 110 million results

Searching for the names of actual religions shows a similar result – Christianity is by far the most searched for religion name.

This shows UU’s great, great deal of interest in Jesus, far more than any other religious figure. 
This is understandable. Jesus has been with both Unitarianism and Universalism since the beginning. When you’ve been with someone that long, you cannot simply walk away.
Still, the question remains - how does UU build upon the positive sentiment an incredible number of Americans feel about Jesus?

This is where Buddhism comes in.

In many ways, UU already offers a Buddhist-Christian way of being. We talk about Jesus all the time. We attempt to live out Jesus’ radically exclusive way of Love. Yet, like Buddhism, we do not have a traditional view of God as personal being and creator. And like Buddhism, we see that what we do is more important than what we believe.  The sum of this is we see Love as essential to the universe and we see Love as the nurturing force in that universe and we see examples of how to apply Love in the universe and nurture that universe into being. The example we most use, the example of applying Love and nurturing our universe into being we use is Jesus. The second example we use, I’d say, is the Buddha.

What would an intentionally Buddhist-Christian UU congregation look like? Well, most obvious it might resemble the kind of worship we are doing this morning.

Such a congregation would focus on mindfulness practice. As for study and contemplation, as for dharma, there’d be a focus on Jesus’ core teaching, the Sermon on the Mount. Important Buddhist monk Buddhasa Bhikku from Thailand once remarked that if the Sermon on the Mount were contemplated and understood, awakening would be a natural result. I agree. There’d also be a focus on the Buddha’s core teaching, the Dhammapada.

And if we really wanted to get Buddhisty, the sanctuary would more resemble the ones I saw everywhere in Korea. There’d be an icon of the Buddha. However, like Thich Nhat Hanh’s hermitage at Plum Village, there’d be an icon of Jesus alongside, the Bodhisattva for this society.

Combining the Jesus-based and Buddhist approach would mean a Buddhist-Christian way of being in the world. We’d attempt to see Jesus the man, the teacher, and see him through a Buddhist lens. We’d see the Buddha the same way from our Western lens. We incorporate a meditation practice, and live out the way of Love that Jesus and the Buddha did. And we’d practice together as a sangha. That is UU Buddhist-Christianity.

Let me say, finally, if you can’t do this for yourself, do this for our society. I think it is important to remember where we live, the society in which we live. Jesus is still the figure Americans look to when they think of religion. We need to save Jesus from the church, as UCC minister Robin Meyers puts it. And we need to do this for the sake of a society that has got him all wrong, a society struggling to find its way.   

Jesus does not equal the Christian tradition. What’s more, a tradition can be built around Jesus as merely teacher, as the guru that offered us the revolutionary Sermon on the Mount and the ethics that says love neighbor and love even our enemies.

If we want to offer a spiritual home to people looking for belonging, we better not ignore or simply give lip-service to the figure of Jesus. If we want to build the Beloved Community in a society where Jesus is the most beloved religious figure, we better find a way to make peace with Jesus and welcome him home. The Buddha is waiting.

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