Converting to Unitarian Universalism

The Rev. Alison Cornish

Sunday, September 10, 2006 –

“What religious conversion is not: if it serves us a bit too well, if it reinforces all our prejudices and allows us to call ourselves holy at the expense of others whom we can now judge to be unholy, it is probably not the real thing.” – Kathleen Norris

Reading from Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris

God is limitless, and I have been slow to recognize that this has implications for conversion. My confirmation classes in the Congregational church of the 1950s did little to prepare me for the idea of conversion as a lifelong process. The preacher might have been a good model for me – he was an exceptionally kind and gentle man – but mostly our class memorized church teachings that I soon forgot. Despite having loved church as a child, I found it remarkably easy to walk away from it all when I went to college. Not until I encountered the Benedictines in my mid-thirties did I begin to recognize that religious conversion had been alive in me during the years when I would have claimed to have no religion at all.

In living out my conversion as a daily and lifelong process, I treasure most the example of my grandmother Totten, who dwelled in one marriage, one home, one church congregation for over sixty years. Her faith was alive for anyone to see; her life demonstrates that conversion is no more spectacular than learning to love the people we live with and work among. It does not mean seeking out the most exotic spiritual experience, or the ideal religion, the holiest teachers who will give us the greatest return on our investment. Conversion is seeing ourselves, and the ordinary people in our families, our classrooms, and on the job, in a new light. Can it be that these very people – even the most difficult, unbearable ones – are the ones God has given us, so that together we might find salvation?

Converting to Unitarian Universalism The Rev. Alison Cornish

A few weeks ago I was skimming my UU ministers’ online chat list, when a posting jumped out at me. It referenced an article in a periodical that I actually read regularly, but somehow had slipped by me. The writer of the post remembered the article said something like – most people join a UU congregation because 1) they couldn’t believe what other churches taught, and/or 2) the other churches didn’t accept them, because they were divorced, or gay, or otherwise didn’t ‘fit.’ The writer continued:

The article made the critical point, as I remembered it, that joining a Unitarian

Universalist church didn’t require people to change what they already believed

or change how they already act in the world in any way.

Well, those words caused the author of the post, and me, too, to cringe. If they were true, what difference did it make that Unitarian Universalism even existed? The words propelled me back to the original article – and also to ponder the question that logically rises from these notes – how does Unitarian Universalism challenge us to live differently that we would if we attended another church, or if we attended no other church at all?

First, a reality check. What did the article really say? Well, the piece opens with a true statement. Nearly 90% of those who attend UU congregations – that means 9 out of 10 of you sitting here – did find, in the words of the author, a ‘philosophical-ethical home in [our] socially liberal, creedless, gender-inclusive denomination after rejecting the teachings and practices of [your] previous religious traditions’ – or, I would add, no tradition at all.

But the source of my and my colleague’s discomfort about UU belief and action is a convoluted and not entirely coherent sentence. James Casebolt surveyed several UU congregations in preparation for a paper he delivered to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. He wrote, ‘more so than for any other religious tradition, a person can become a Unitarian Universalist because of what he [or she] already believes rather than believing what he [or she] does because of becoming a UU.’ (Dart) That’s a little better. It affirms that there is no ‘doctrinal test’ for membership in our congregations.

But there’s still a troubling, and important, point lodged in the statement. What does Unitarian Universalism offer in terms of belief? And what difference does it make to become a Unitarian Universalist – to an individual or to the world? Casebolt’s statement makes it sound like the folks coming through our doors are, well, done with their search once they get here. That our congregations are simply collections of individuals who have rejected certain beliefs, independently come to certain conclusions, and joined a UU congregation that is accepting and inclusive. This would suggest that folks don’t ‘convert’ to Unitarian Universalism so much as affirm the veracity of one of our long running advertising campaigns, which pictured an smiling middle-aged man saying, ‘I was a Unitarian all along and never knew it.’ Not the best strategy, I would venture, to get people up and out of their living rooms and into our sanctuaries! How does ‘knowing it now’ change anything?

Let’s take a good look at this idea of conversion, which certainly comes with some hefty religious baggage. The word comes from the Latin, conversio, meaning ‘to turn around.’ In a religious sense, this turning around involves a radical transformation of one’s mind, heart and will. The traditional view, in Christianity and other traditions, too, is that conversion is a once-in-a-lifetime experience of salvation, a life ‘turned around,’ often from a path of self-destruction toward something better. And, entangled with this traditional view of conversion, of course, is the method of conversion. As Unitarian Universalists, we are not known for staging large-scale revival meetings, or working the congregation into a feverish emotional pitch and calling all sinners forward – though, at times, the thought has crossed my mind – what would happen, I wonder? And, as Unitarian Universalists, we do solidly reject proselytizing, exploitation, manipulation and so on. Not only do we not condone these calculated methods for conversion, we don’t even know how to do them. As Garrison Keillor says, ‘what do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian? Someone who knocks on your door and has no idea why.’

But there are certainly other ways that people convert that are not coercive, or even dramatic, or mystical in nature. Sociologists point to several ‘motifs’ of conversion, some of which certainly sound more UU-friendly than a revivalist’s altar-call. (Johnstone) Many folks come to us after a conscious investigation of religious alternatives – sometimes quite a few; others use the experiential route, trying us out, a gradual learning of what we’re about; and still others come because the people they like are here, and it feels good to follow in their footsteps. These are all very real ways of ‘turning around,’ from disbelief, or no belief, to calling oneself ‘Unitarian Universalist.’

I have met enough devoted Unitarian Universalists who did actually have a once-in-a-lifetime moment when they first encountered our tradition – at a worship service, or a wedding, or a memorial service – to know that our tradition can be that stunningly different and important to cause such a turning. But what if conversion is not something that begins and ends in a single moment – or even in the stroke of a pen, when someone does sign the membership book? What if conversion were a much longer – and complex – process?

I return to Kathleen Norris, author of the words at the top of your order of service, as well as today’s reading. Norris sees the phrase ‘to turn around,’ to mean ‘a change of perspective, but not of essence; a change of view, but not location.’ It is in this way that we can begin to understand conversion as a life-long process, not a once-in-a-lifetime event. Norris writes:

Conversion is a process, it is not a goal, not a product we consume. And it’s a

bodily process, not only an emotional or intellectual one. The very cells in our

body are busy changing, renewing themselves every few days. Yet we remain

recognizably ourselves.

This, I think, might be what James Casebolt was trying to say in his article – that people who join our congregations remain recognizably themselves. We don’t have the hurdles of creeds or doctrines that new members must believe before they become a part of our community. But that doesn’t mean that we remain unchanged, either – like the cells in our body, the change we undergo to convert to Unitarian Universalism may be subtle, slow and ongoing.

There are many avenues into a Unitarian Universalist life. By the time someone joins us, they know it’s not about doctrine, or creeds, or rituals or rites. Instead, it’s about what I call the 3 B’s – belonging, believing and behaving. Each of these is an entry point, a way in, to our tradition. How so? Here are a few profiles of people, in whose stories perhaps you might hear echoes of your own journey.

I met Marty when I served as a ministerial intern at the Huntington congregation, up the island. He and his wife Sylvia were very active members. Because they both volunteered in the office, I saw one or both of them on weekdays, as well as on weekends. They were both musicians, and played their oboes for Sunday services. They went to UU conferences, and were on multiple committees. Marty was part of a team that visited a member with a debilitating chronic disease, and advocated for his care. Marty and Sylvia were, in short, consummate Unitarian Universalists. So it was with great surprise that I learned, while painting a bathroom with Marty one Saturday morning, they had not been Unitarian Universalists very long at all – less than 7 years, I think. How had they come to the fellowship, I asked. Well, Marty said, he had attended the memorial service of an old and dear friend which was held in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Marty said that the way that memorial service was conducted – with such loving care for his friend – touched him deeply. People laughed and cried, they told stories, they really talked about this person they had known and loved. He learned things he had never known about his friend. It was how these folks behaved, about how a life was truly celebrated, that touched Marty. He and Sylvia started attending services, and never stopped. In fact, once Marty retired, they sold their house, their home for more than 20 years, and moved so they could be closer to the fellowship.

Then there’s the story of Chris McMahon, which some of you may know. Chris served us here as minister for seven years. Chris was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, and when he left that church because he couldn’t believe what they believed, he stayed away from formal religion. As he traveled the world as a merchant marine, he learned a lot about religions near and far. But he stayed away from joining any of them. That is, until he attended his sister’s wedding, officiated by a Unitarian Universalist minister. Speaking of that day, Chris said he was bowled over – here was a religious tradition that he had never even heard of that held all the same beliefs that he had independently come to on his own. It was like looking in a mirror, he said. Soon after the wedding, he went searching for a local UU congregation, and found one, less than 10 miles away from where he lived. He joined, and not long after responded to the call to ministry. His studies took him to Berkeley, a long, long way from piloting freighters around the high seas. Once Chris found a place to support and sustain his journey from disbelief to belief, he went all the way.

And then there’s the story of Carl. This story begins on Boston Common, on a Sunday morning. Carl was headed down the stairs into the subway, and was met by a boisterous group of folks headed up into the morning sun. They were laughing, and happy, and jovially called to him – ‘hey, you’re going the wrong way.’ As they made their way across the park, Carl watched where they were going. And as they headed up the steps to the front doors of Arlington Street (Unitarian) Church, he decided to follow them. And he stayed, for the service, and then for coffee hour. And the next week, he came back. He kept coming back. Soon he was on committees, and attending small groups. And only after becoming known and involved and a part of the community did he tell his story – on that Sunday morning, when he was headed down the stairs to the subway, he had planned to step in front of a moving train – to end his life. Instead, on that morning, he discovered a place where he could belong.

Behaving – believing – belonging – each of these is an avenue, an entry point, to our tradition. But they are also entwined with one another, and with the ongoing process of growth, change – of conversion. The way people behaved at a memorial service drew in Marty, but then came the longing to belong, to even move closer. Chris was drawn in by like-beliefs, but those lead him to change the way he lived his life, leaving one vocation and taking on another. And Carl? Belonging to a community changed the beliefs he had about his own life enough that he not only didn’t end his life, he could tell the people who surrounded him how close he had been to despair and tragedy. We enter new religious options by different avenues. Conversion comes slowly, but surely. As new kinship and friendship connections are established, the way we interpret life changes. We see things from a different perspective. We even see ourselves with new eyes.

Yet, there’s something else about conversion, something perhaps more challenging, less cheerful. Kathleen Norris points to this with her words printed in the order of service when she speaks of what religious conversion is not: She writes, ‘if it serves us a bit too well, if it reinforces all our prejudices and allows us to call ourselves holy at the expense of others whom we can now judge to be unholy, it is probably not the real thing.’ We may want to reserve her words for ‘real converts,’ those people who claim to have a radical turning in life. But if we are honest, we will see that her words are cause for pause for us all. More than one UU has wryly quipped that ‘UUs claim to be seekers at the same time we act like we have the answers.’

There’s something else that is part-and-parcel of religious conversion. It’s well described by William James in his seminal work, the Varieties of Religious Experience. (James) He suggests that to be ‘converted’ means that religious ideas, the ideas that might have been previously on the edge of one’s consciousness, now take a central place, and that religious aims form the ‘habitual center of one’s energy.’ He talks about this as a ‘yielding,’ a giving of one self over to a new life. I might suggest the word ‘inhabit.’ What is it to inhabit life as a Unitarian Universalist? Speaking as a life-long Unitarian Universalist, I would say it is to actively live an ongoing process of search and discovery – of giving up certainty, and embracing a quest. It’s about being willing to change both beliefs and behaviors as I understand more about myself and the world in which I live. And because the center of the religious life for me is love, it means to have love guide that quest and journey.

Conversion, for Unitarian Universalists, involves more than the individual. Yes, it’s individuals who sign our membership book, and as individuals that we engage in a responsible search for truth and meaning, and spiritual growth. But we join a congregation in order to do this in community. And this is important in a great many ways. Sure, it’s good to support and love one another along the path. But the path isn’t always smooth and clear. A colleague writes: you aren’t really a member until the congregation (or the faith or the UUA) has done something that you think is really wrong, and you stay anyway. It’s about disillusionment. We have to have our illusions peeled off before living in this world as a Unitarian Universalist can become real.

Are you on the road to converting to Unitarian Universalism? You’re on that road, I would venture, once you let those gathered here change you – as well as you changing the community by being here. You’re on the road to conversion once you inhabit Unitarian Universalism enough so that your life journey is guided by something other than the secular and consumer, by some larger claim on your life – your deeper values or your faith. You’re on that road as a convert to Unitarian Universalism once you are hurt, or disappointed, or disillusioned by something done here – and yet return again.

Sounds like a lot of work, this conversion business. It may even make you entertain the question, can you be a good person without belonging to a church? Sure you can. But in closing I offer these words by Coleridge as sustenance for the journey of conversion:

Both [religion and poetry] prevent us from remaining in our narrow spheres of

action, and our individual circumstances. They bid us, while we are sitting in

the dark at our little fire struggling with darkness [to announce] that light

which shall be common to all.


John Dart, ‘Surveys: ëUUism unique Churchgoers from elsewhere,’ Christian Century, January, 2005. Available at

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, New York: New American Library, 1958.

Ronald L. Johnstone, Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentiss Hall, 2001.

Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

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