So I said recently that we’d been thinking of visiting a Unitarian Church. Last Sunday morning we went ahead and attended a service of the Fourth Universalist Society, a Unitarian Universalist congregation that meets on the Upper West Side.
We enjoyed it, and the found the congregation extremely welcoming. The building, which was built as a Universalist Church in the nineteenth century, is also rather more impressive than I’d expected. It also shows its Christian roots rather strongly—for example, there’s an altar with crosses built into it, and a mural of Jesus above it—but no one’s ever pretended that these roots aren’t there, and apparently they even cover these things up on occasion to give a more secular feel.
The service started with a welcome address, followed by the lighting of a chalice, while everyone read out the following:
May the light we now kindle inspire us,
To use our power to heal with love, to help with compassion,
To bless with joy, to serve the spirit of freedom,
In the fullness of community.
I think the tone of that is a fair indication of the tone of the whole “service”, and I believe of the movement in general.
Then there were some secular hymns and some communal meditation (basically communal prayer with the God taken out: an expression of what we hope for and what we are grateful for). There was also a reading—this time from Buddhist philosophy—and a sermon, entitled “Life is Not a Body”. I found the sermon the hardest thing to take. Although the communal meditation felt very like praying, I thought it made more sense than praying. If there’s a benign god who knows everything already and will (presumably) always do what’s right regardless of human intervention, what’s the point of praying to him? Indeed, if there isn’t such a being, believing there is and praying to him may make it less likely that you’ll get what you pray for, because you shift the responsibility of achieving it from your own shoulders (I recommend reading Dan Dennett’s take on this). But if you’re not praying to anyone, then simply expressing communally what matters to you may not be such a bad exercise: it focuses your mind on goals without this encouragement to shift responsibility, which may be useful. And, of course, it’s a bonding exercise. So I had no real problem with that. And although I don’t see much evidence to support many of the metaphysical claims of Buddhism, there’s nothing wrong with having readings from a variety of sources every week: at the very least you learn something about other people and cultures.
As I say, it was the sermon I found the hardest to take. The reverend was essentially arguing in favour of a mind-body distinction (and she threw in the word “spirit” a few times). She claimed that, while our childhood bodies are different from our adult bodies, there is something that remains the same. She also invited us to imagine how easy it is to raise our arms, and then to consider how it must feel for people who have lost control over their bodies to the extent that they might want to raise their arms, but can’t: the body is broken, but the mind intact. I wasn’t convinced. Would she draw the same distinction between minds and brains? We are all familiar with brain damage that alters the mind. While this doesn’t decisively contradict the claim that the mind is something other than a brain-secretion (or however you want to visualise it), it shows immediately that the relationship between physical change and mental change is not a very good basis for drawing a strong line between the mental and the physical. Philosophers of embodied cognition would point out that even her example of raising one’s arm is problematic: that the shape of one’s mind is in fact intimately bound up with the shape of one’s body. Nor, incidentally, am I at all convinced that there’s any more “spiritual” or mental continuity between my 10-year-old self and my current self than there is between my body then and my body now.
But then I’ve heard similarly problematic views expressed at Humanist society gatherings (such as rather odd ideas of what discoveries in quantum mechanics mean for science), and it’s not as if there are not very interesting philosophical questions to be asked about the relationship between mind and body. The good thing about Unitarian-Universalism is that this sermon could not be taken as a statement of what the audience should believe, because there’s not much that Unitarian Universalists do expect you to believe. Sure, they have principles, like the “inherent worth and dignity of every person”, or “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations” (which are hard to disagree with), and they claim to be working towards the “goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all”, which is not something I’m going to start campaigning against. And one of those principles is a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”, drawing partly from “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and results of science”. Which leaves empirical claims entirely open to challenge.
So I think we’ll go again.