I encountered, in the US, a rabbi who was on the staff of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. It may seem like a remarkable oddity, but for a religion that embraces a pluralistic religious ethos it did not seem particularly strange. This rabbi had coined a particular label for Unitarianism - 'the interfaith faith.' [He also spoke of the Jews as the original Unitarians with a wry 'welcome back' sort of look in his eye!] In some ways, that label fits us as we incorporate within our tradition, teachings from many sources - including the great world religions.
And so, we seek out the wisdom and writings of other traditions. We want to find out more about what a Buddhist thinks and feels, what motivates a Sikh, and how powerful it is to pray five times a day as Muslims do. This exploration is very much part of our own work to seek our personal spiritual paths and to grow toward wholeness.
And yet I am puzzled. British Unitarians not only seek interfaith exchange for spiritual exploration, but seem to consider that such contact is also an essential - perhaps even central - part of their mission in the world. And it's not usually the Muslims they want to talk to, but the Christians who have very deliberately and resoundingly rejected them! I don't get it...
In the US, where 50% of people participate in a religious community on a regular basis, to avoid interfaith work means ignoring 150 million people!
In the UK, where only 5-10% are regular participants in traditional religion, what is the rationale?
As I understand it, my mission as a Unitarian minister is to create growing, vital communities of faith that help people transform their lives and join together to transform the world. To do that, surely it is the 'unchurched' 95% of the population with whom we most want to be in conversation.
Yes, there are social action and social justice causes that are important - we should participate in those. I would even call that a moral obligation. But again, if we wish to join forces in such work and such struggles, why focus specifically on religious groups? Shouldn't we join our efforts with those of any group - secular or religious - that has the best hope of making a difference in the important work of peace, justice, and equality?
I am left puzzling over why a movement with so much potential to affect the world for the better - a movement that is more able to speak the language of the contemporary post-modern, secular, world citizen - is so intent on spending limited time and energy talking to the relatively few people who are already part of other faith bodies. Is it that we are afraid we can't relate to secular people? Is it that we are reluctant to try to understand the perspective of those people who don't like the word 'church' or that we dread that we might be harshly rejected by them?
Whatever the reason, our purpose in the world depends on our talking to and engaging with the majority secular portion of our population. The religious minority is a side-show.
And, if my experience is a reliable guide, the secular majority will find in Unitarianism - a religion that encourages thinking for yourself and deliberately welcomes diverse beliefs - a place that feels like the home they have been seeking.