Unitarian Universalism

On Logos and Symbols, and Marketing Our Faith

It's been about a week now since the UUA announced its new logo, resulting in many opinions shared and some hurt feelings. I've questioned whether the UU universe needs yet another blog post on the matter, but it's been a week and I am realizing that regardless of the answer to that question, I need to share one.

While I worked for the Unitarian Universalist Association I was constantly surprised that proposed initiatives were so often met with assumptions of ill-will, mockery and ridicule. People seem to forget that the UUA is made up of people, mostly fellow Unitarian Universalists, who work in earnestness for the benefit of our faith community and the larger world. At the time, the explanation that made the most sense was that our UU anti-authoritarian tendencies cause us to react reflexively to any new initiatives with suspicion and hostility.

Now, on the outside for over a year, I also realize how often one can feel blindsided by UUA decisions, and how hard it is to not react in frustration. Obviously, the administration has to make decisions and not every decision can be discussed and voted upon – that is part of leadership. But when these changes are announced in language that suggests that the only possible emotions are excitement and joy, and when many of us don't necessarily feel that way about it, the explanation that makes the most sense is that the UUA is “out of touch.”

Thus, when the UUA announced a new chalice last week, familiar patterns arose. Many who dislike the new chalice dismissively accused the administration (and by extension the staff) of lacking vision. Analogies such as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” spoke to that effect. And those who like the new chalice in turn dismissively accused critics of being resistant to change (ie – standing in the way of progress) and being hostile to leadership. Both of these types of responses absolve us of having to actually listen to the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, because we think we already have an “explanation” for the positions they hold. Of course it is not true that the administration lacks vision. It clearly has a vision and is acting on it. That vision just may be different from our own. Nor is it true that everyone who is upset by the new chalice is resistant to change and/or leadership. No one dislikes change in and of itself; what we dislike is change we don't agree with. Similarly, it's much easier to follow leadership when we agree with the direction it's heading; much harder to follow when it's not. So can we, on both sides, skip these particular kinds of comments and arguments.

One of the main lines of disagreement centers around whether the UUA chalice is a religious symbol or an organizational logo. If it's an organizational logo, then it stands to reason, why shouldn't it be updated every few years? And why shouldn't a marketing firm be hired to design it? And why would the UUA need to confer with UUs about changing the UUA's logo? Indeed, several people have pointed to the fact that other denominations such as the UCC, the UMC (Methodists), and the PCUSA (Presbyterians) all have their own organizational logos that get updated from time to time. They may incorporate versions of, yet are distinct from the Christian cross itself, which has remained a pretty constant symbol for Christianity.

The problem with that argument is that while the distinction between organizational logo and religious symbol works for other religious denominations, that line is blurred in Unitarian Universalsim for a number of reasons. For one thing, unlike Christianity, there aren't several denominations of Unitarian Universalists in the same country. Thus, functionally speaking the UUA is seen as the official voice of UUism in the U.S. Second, the UUA itself blurs that distinction in its own messaging. Look at this image taken from the front page of UUA.org. It uses the symbols for Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Wicca, and in the center is the (old) logo for the UUA. So even the UUA uses its logo as the symbol for UUism. (Would the UCC or PCUSA use their own organizational logos to represent all of Christianity?) Lastly, even though we're told that this is the UUA's logo and congregations don't have to use it, clearly the hope is that congregations will. In fact, the success of the initiative depends in large part upon them doing so, for it would be very confusing to visitors if the UUA were “branding” Unitarian Universalism with its new chalice and yet UU congregations refused to use it. Functionally speaking, the distinction between corporate logo and religious symbol doesn't much exist in UUism.

So my initial reaction to the new UUA chalice, without even taking into account whether I "like" it or not, was to ask whether we would be getting a new one with each administration from now on. I have no doubt that the current administration thinks this new chalice as a vast improvement over the old, and I may even agree so far as corporate "logos" go. Regardless, it's distressing to see the image used to represent my faith to the wider world replaced about every eight years with each new administration. And from the looks of things that's where we're headed. I'm sure that the current administration thinks the new chalice will serve us well for a long time. But I'm equally sure that's what the previous administration thought too. Even if you point to the effectiveness of the iconic Apple or Nike logos in terms of “name brand recognition,” a large part of that is due to their having remained unchanged over the decades regardless of who is the CEO.

My second reaction to the new UUA chalice and particularly the language used to announce it was that the UUA and I are 180 degrees apart in how we view our shared faith. Let me be clear here that this complaint is not only with the current administration but with the last one as well – the latest “new logo” just brought up these issues once again. And it is nothing personal against either administration – I continue to respect both for other ways in which they've led us. Yet the very idea of hiring “a top-notch branding agency” to create a sleek new logo to attract new members, and proudly announcing it as if it was clearly the right thing to do, shakes my confidence in the Association's leadership. (I do not say that lightly; in fact I've wrestled for over a week on whether to say it at all.)

Let us look at the worldview and assumptions that we buy into when we talk about “branding” our faith and when we compare the most publicly recognizable version of our chalice with corporate logos such as McDonald's golden arches. The purpose of so-called “brand recognition” is to create a “story” that is associated with an easily recognizable image (the logo) so that when folks see that logo they automatically associate it with a certain feeling they get from the stories told about the product (advertising). All of which is to convince consumers that one type of sneaker or fast food is cooler than another kind of sneaker or fast food, when really there isn't that much substantive difference between the products. When we approach denominational growth with a marketing mentality, what we're saying is that: 1) Our religion is a “product” to be bought and consumed; 2) We think of potential Unitarian Universalists as consumers; and 2) Our product is really no better than any other product but we're hoping you'll be swayed by our marketing.

Not only do I disagree with all those assumptions with regards to our faith, but I reject the underlying mindset. Such a mindset reduces everything, even our highest aspirations, to a commodity to be bought and/or consumed. It views humans as consumers rather than co-creators.  In my view, the dominance of capitalism and the destruction it causes underlie many of our most important social justice issues, including environmentalism, immigration, sexism, and racial and economic justice. These are the things that we as a progressive faith community have been trying to engage in active resistance against. And yet we use this same type of thinking in our efforts to bring new people to our cause. 

Some people have asked: What is the difference between evangelism and marketing? (And don't we want to evangelize?) I hope from the previous paragraphs that the differences are obvious. The original idea of evangelism was to "spread the good news." The idea being that we actually have a “good news” to share, and that if we share it other people will recognize it as such and join us. I'm certainly not averse to that. But the most effective way to evangelize has always been by visibly living our values in the world, not by talking at people about what we think we stand for. Thus our Unitarian forbear William Ellery Channing said, “May your life preach more loudly than your lips.”

As I said above, this complaint is not new. I hated the previous “new logo” as well as the “Uncommon Denomination” campaign. But I was never prouder to be a UU than when the UUA took out an ad after the Knoxville shootings announcing “Our doors and our hearts will remain open.” The former is us telling folks how different (ie – special) we think we are. The latter is us demonstrating how we live in this world. Obviously, we do not wish for any more attacks against our churches, but there are any number of ways in which we can show who we are. I have never – not once, ever – met someone who said that they joined a religion because the logo caught their attention. But I have repeatedly heard folks say that they joined a particular congregation because they saw its members marching in a Gay Pride parade, and that's when they knew it shared their values. Or joined because the UU minister happily officiated over their interfaith wedding, and that's when they knew they'd be welcome. Or joined because the UU church hosted a local jazz concert for the wider community, and that's how UUism first picqued their interest.

Ironically, the new campaign of which the logo is a part is supposedly geared towards the Millennial generation. I'm not of that generation, but everything that I've read and personally seen says that the current generation, on the whole, is distrustful of advertising/marketing and relies on word of mouth from their peers. (Witness the popularity of sites like of Yelp.) Everything I've read and seen says that as a whole today's young adults are distrustful of top-down, hierarchical initiatives and value grassroots movements that spring up from local needs. Ironically, this is the very thing that our congregations (and other types of UU groups) should be good at – responding to the particular needs of the communities in which they exist, openly as people of faith. This is the kind of thing that the Standing on the Side of Love campaign was designed to help congregations do, and not-for-nothing that it's been one of our most successful campaigns.

Cultivate the Habit of Being Grateful

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Way of the World -- Dedication to My First Gurus

Om Prakash
The Gurus of This Young Man

Alone in my room with
my 8 track tape playing
click, by click, by click.

A medley.

Earth, Wind,  and Fire tunes spill out
filling the space with possibilities.

A barrier of love between my age of
 innocence and the drumbeat of pushers,
gangs, and guns
on what used to be my favorite corner.

The college kids, in fancy cars,
safari across the bridge that covers the
one railroad
track left over
after the six lane highway dividing the city
between black and white,
opportunity and economic depression
was constructed,
making a smooth,
swooping circle from suburbia
to drugs and back again.

Nothing as serious as crack,
that would come later,
but the same pain and suffering,
guns and gangs,
early deaths of bodies,
hopes, and dreams
that hang around the edges of the perfect
neighborhood for an economy built on the
exchange of street medicine
designed to heal the ills of a poor community,

Or keep it tranquilized enough,
at least, to suck the  blood of the people down to
the marrow
and reinstitute voluntary slavery.

But they say I should keep my head to the sky,
be ever wonderful, stay as you are,
you're a shining star,
and hearts of fire creates loves desire,
take you high and higher to your place on the

The gurus of this young man
shut out of the yoga centers, ashrams, and
Buddhist temples through cultural
and financial segregation,
or by the fear, deeply implanted in my psyche
telling me that anything not included in the
slaver's religion is the devil.

Left to find the Beloved on my own in a city with a
church on every corner

through the magic of songs pointing to the light
that transforms the darkness and awakens the
human soul through rhythm, beat, and lyrics
saturated with living waters.

"We come together on this special day to sing our
 message loud and clear.
Looking back we've touched on sorrowful days,
 future, past they disappear.

You will find peace of mind of you look way down in your heart and soul.
Don't hesitate because the world seems cold.
Stay young at heart because you're never, ever old.  That's the way of the world." 

The way of the world.

"There I was washed upon a shore, crying my heart out, I just can't take no more.
My life had come to an end.  I was ready to give in. 
I closed my eyes for one last silent prayer, only to look up and find you standing there. 
I looked into your eyes and then I realized I'm in love. 
With you my love. 
With all my heart and you can never,
never give up on your dreams."

Om Prakash
© April 14, 2013

Festival of the Ancestors


As the harvest season comes to an end, it is a time of both fruition and death - fruits such as apples lay heavy on the branches and squashes such as pumpkins are at their full weight, but the leaves are turning and falling off baring branches and the vines are whithering.  The days are shorter and there is a chill in the air. It is a time to think of ancestors.  Indeed, several cultures Coming six months after the Festival of the First Fruits, and being its mirror image, let this be a time to celebrate our members of the community who have passed into ancestorhood during the previous year.


 If a loved one has died within the past year, use today to honor them.  If no one close to you has died, you can use today to honor someone who has touched you spititually or honor your ancestors in general.


In addition to the basic communion ritual, ask folks (beforehand) to bring photos/momentos of loved ones who have passed into ancestorhood over the previous year.  (For folks who forget, you might want to have a notepad and pencils on which to write their names so that they can be included.)  Also, for the potluck dishes, ask folks to bring a favorite dish of their departed.  The ancstral icons and food should be placed on the altar as usual, but ask folks to hold on to their icons *of the newly departed* until after the ritual starts.  After the invocation of the ancestors but before the communion blessing, insert the following:

Today we honor those who have joined the ranks of the ancestors this past year.

Invite folks to state the names of the recently departed, and as they do so to add the photo/momento of the recently departed among the icons of the older ancestors.  Ask them also to state their loved one's favorite food, being shared today.  When finished, turn to the altar and say:

You who have passed on into glory,
Your memories still live in our hearts and your spirits still guide us.
Through Love we are never alone.

Water Communion


It's the Atumnal Equinox and fall is in the air.  Daylight is receding, harvests are being brought in, and folks are coming back from summer vacations - it is a time of ingathering.  The UU ritual of Water Communion is preserved here.  While the rituals before and after this, Blessing of the Loaves and Festival of the Ancestors, focus on harvest and other aspectsof fall, the Water Communion is not really seasonal in and of itself.  We will use the autumn equinox as a time to focus on ingathering - that is, a time for community.


The communal aspect of Water Communion obviously cannot be replicated as a personal ritual.  However, since the Water Communion is about interdependency, that aspect addressed.   


Have a large empty basin, near the center of the altar table, but leaving room for the offering plate.  In addition to the basic communion ritual, ask folks (beforehand) to bring a small amount of water from a place that is meaningful to them (which could include their home).  Ask folks to place their potluck dishes of seasonal foods on the communion table as usual, but to hang on to their water.  (You might want to have a bowl of water - perhaps from last year's water communion - and some small containers on hand, in case anyone forgets.)  After lighting the chalice but BEFORE the invocation of the ancestors, insert the Water Communion. (You want to do it before so that the water is consecrated along with the communion food.)

Communion leader (or someone else for this part) lights the chalice and says:

Just as many little streams join into rivers which join into the oceans, their waters intermingling,
So to do we voluntarily join together as one.
Alone we are small; together we are powerful, as wide and as deep as the oceans.

Invite participants to come up and pour their water into the basin.  This can be done silently or with a very few words as they are pouring, whichever works best for your congregation/group.  When all are finished, commence with the rest of the communion ritual.  If desired, you can use some of the water from the water communion bowl as the libation for the ancestors.  Many congregations boil the water communion water afterwards to sterilize it, and then use it in their child dedication ceremonies throughout the year.  In addition, when new congregations are starting up, many congregations will send some of their communion water for the new congregation.  In that way, there is a continuous stream of transimission from established congregations to new ones. 

Some congregations include as part of the ritual a recognition that not everyone has access to water, so essential to life.

Blessing of the Loaves


Remember the Blessing of the Seeds back in the beginning of spring?  This is the mirror image ritual six months later as we begin autumn. the first wave of harvests.  I don't expect many folks to grow their own grains, mill their own flour, and then bake bread, but this again is to remind us of our ties to the land.  However, in many agricultural cultures, this is the time when people start harvesting grain.  And while the grain eaten may vary from culture to culture, the importance of grain itself is pretty ubiquitous, whether wheat, rice, corn, millet or others.  Moreover, the making of bread requires many different steps - planting the grain, tending, harvesting, milling, the making of other ingredients - all go into a loaf of bread.  Thus, the Blessing of the Loaves gives us an opportunity to recognize these things.


Whether you bake or not, this ritual can be performed on a personal level.  You will need some bread.  Light your chalice or candle. Hold the bread, breaking off a piece, and say:

Seeds planted in spring and tended over the summer have come to fruition.
This sustaining food, whether baked or bought, is the tangible result of my efforts.
But even so, I know that I could not accomplish this alone.
I give thanks for the fertile earth, the sun and rain,
I give thanks to those who grew, tended, harvested, milled, and baked.

Eat, thinking both of what you've accomplished and what you owe to the help of others.


In addition to the basic communion ritual, ask folks (beforehand) who do bake to bring "bread."  (Interpret "bread" *loosely.*  This can include tortillas, steamed buns, cornbread, whatever. In fact, there should be something present without gluten in it for those with sensitivities.)  Those who do not bake should being seasonal dishes as usual.  (If no one bakes, you will have to buy some bead.)  Place the food on the altar table as usual.  Make sure that everyone has washed their hands before this ritual because there is going to be touching of food involved.  After the invocation of the ancestors but before the communion blessing, insert the Blessing of the Loaves.

Take a large loaf of bread turn towards the group and break the bread, saying:

Seeds planted in spring and tended over the summer have come to fruitiion.
This sustaining food, whether baked or bought, is the tangible result of our efforts.
But even so, we know that we could not accomplish this alone.
We give thanks for the fertile earth, the sun and rain,
We give thanks to those who grew, tended, harvested, milled, and baked.

Give half a loaf each to pre-designated people on each side.  Invite folks to form lines to come up and tear off a piece of bread from the halves, but ask them not to eat it yet.  Depending on how many people are involved and/or there are people with gluten sensitivities, you might have to take a second, different type of loaf, and break that in half as well, giving each half to two more pre-diesignated people.  Make sure that someone is still holding bread for you.  When everyone has a piece of bread, finish the communion blessing by breaking off some bread from the person still holding it and placing it on the plate.  Pour the libation, etc.  Break off a piece of bread for yourself from the person still holding bread.  Then invite everyone to eat, thinking both of what they've accomplished and what they owe to the help of others. If there is a variety of different kinds of "bread," invite folks to try something they don't normally eat during the potluck communion meal.

John Murray Sailed Over the Ocean

Many years ago, there were two separate kinds of churches – the Unitarians, and the Universalists. Each church started on its own, but over time, they grew to have more things in common with each other. This is the story about the person who started the Universalist church; his name was John Murray.

John Murray was born more than 250 years ago, in England. He was very religious, and started preaching in different churches. Eventually he started believing an idea called universal salvation, and that idea is what the Universalist church eventually got its name from.

But universal salvation was not popular back then, and many of John’s old friends disagreed with this new idea he was preaching. They made him leave their church, and stopped talking to him. Then something very sad happened: his wife, and his baby son, got very sick – so sick, they died. Some other bad things happened to John after that, so he decided to stop preaching, move away from England, and come to America. So in the year 1770, Murray got on a ship that sailed over the ocean, heading to New York City.

But the ship got blown off course, and got stuck in a bay in southern New Jersey. The ship finally got away, but a few sailors – and John Murray – had gotten on a smaller sailing boat, and the winds changed direction, so Murray’s boat could not leave the bay. They needed food, so he went ashore to ask for help from the nearest farmhouse he could find. When he knocked on the door, John Murray got the biggest surprise of his life: the farmer answered the door, and asked John, “Are you the preacher God has sent to me?” John was shocked: how could this man know he had been a preacher?

The farmer’s name was Thomas Potter, and he did not know that about John. But Thomas, also, was deeply religious. He led discussion groups on religious ideas in his house, then built a chapel, a small church building, on his farmland. Thomas prayed to God often, asking God to send him a preacher, to give sermons there. But not just any kind of sermons, because Thomas Potter also believed in universal salvation, and he wanted a preacher who would talk about that in his sermons. Very few people believed this idea, and for these two of them to find each other like this was totally surprising.

At first, John did not want to preach; he had left England to leave preaching behind him. But Thomas kept asking, so finally John said that if the winds did not pick up by Sunday, he would preach. The sailboat stayed in the bay for several days while no wind blew. Finally, on Sunday morning, Thomas invited his neighbors to the chapel, and John Murray preached a Universalist sermon there. The day was September 30th, 1770.  Thomas was extremely happy, and John…well, just as everyone was leaving the chapel, a sailor walked up to say the winds had started blowing again during the sermon, and they could now leave. That’s how John Murray got back to preaching in America, which led him to start the first Universalist church in America nine years later – well, the first besides Thomas’s chapel, that is.

Day of Reflections


Summer solstice is the longest day/shortest night of the year.  It is the sun at its greatest strength but also the mark of its decline.  From this day forth until the winter solstice, light wanes into darkness.  There is still a lot of growing yet to do but now in the heat of summer things start to slow down a bit compared to frenetic spring.  Now is a good time to take stock of how the year is going and make any necessary adjustments.  The word "reflection" can refer both to light, as in reflections in a mirror, and to thought, as in self-reflection.  So this ritual plays on the double meaning of reflection as we celebrate the peak of light. Also, as the winter solstice ritual represented light expanding outwards, this summer solstice ritual represents light contracting inwards.  (Note: I'm not against bon fires, either today or for any of the other holidays.  They just don't work well indoors.)


For this ritual, you will need a hand mirror.  Light your chalice or candle.  And say:

Once more around the sun.
Even though the days are bright, from this point on the light dims.
May I be mindful of the time I am given.

Tun away from the chalice and hold up your mirror.  You can either look at your own reflection or the chalice light, whichever makes more sense to you. Enter a moment of reflection.  How is the year going?  Are you where/who you want to be?  Are there changes that need to be made?  When you finish your reflections, turn back around, facing the chalice.


In addition to the basic communion ritual, ask folks to bring a small hand mirror or anything reflective, one for each participant.  (You might want to have some extra mirrors on hand,to be loaned, so that those who forget are not left out.)  After the invocation of the ancestors but before the communion blessing, insert the following:

Once more around the sun.
Even though the days are bright, from this day on the light dims.
May we be mindful of the time we are given.

Invite participants to turn around, facing away from the altar and the lit chalice, and hold up their mirrors.  They can either look at their own reflections or the chalice light, whichever makes more sense to them or is more feasible.  (Some people may not be able to see the chalice from where they are.)  Invite them into a moment of reflection.  How is the year going?  Are you where/who you want to be?  Are there changes that need to be made?  As they finish their reflections, they are to turn back around, facing the altar table and chalice.  When everyone has turned back around, say:

Festival of the First Fruits


This ritual gets its name from the Jewish festival of Shavuot, the Feast of the First Fruits. This is traditionally the time when the first harvests occur and are celebrated.  While spring is a hopeful time of new life and new begnnings, it is also a more tempestuous time when late and/or unseasonal frosts still happen.  By the time we get to late spring/early summer there is more certainty that what has grown is firmly established and even beginning to bear fruit.  Coming six months before the Festival of the Ancestors, and being its mirror image, let this be a time to celebrate new members who have been born into the community during the previous year.


 If a loved one has been born/adopted within the past year, use today to celebrate them.  If no one close to you has had a birth, you can use today to honor the children in your life in general.


In addition to the basic communion ritual, ask participants to being their babies!  Hopefully people have been bringing their children all along, as these rituals are meant to be intergenerational.  But on this day in particular, bring your infants who have been born during the previous year, and other children who have joined the community within the past year.  If for some reason that can't be done, then encourage folks to bring a photo or momento.  After the invocation of the ancestors but before the communion blessing, insert the following:

Today we celebrate those who have joined our community this past year.

Invite folks with infants to name their babes.  Let participants be free to show their appreciation, as they feel comfortable, as each name is called.  When finished, turn out towards the people and say:


Unitarian Universalism as a Multiplayer Role-Playing Game

UU World recently published a piece asking Is Religion Broken?, in which the author, Doug Mulder, describes a global movement that instills participants with four enviable traits:

  • Urgent optimism - willingness to address problems immediately and maintain hope of success;
  • Tight social fabric - trust that fellow members share overall goals and willingness help each other;
  • Blissful productivity - feeling more happy and fulfilled while working hard than while not working;
  • Epic meaning - belief that we are protagonists in a grand story, in service to an awe-inspiring quest.

Mulder says this movement encourages folks to care more about the satisfaction of doing well and/or good for its own sake rather than for fame and fortune, to remain resilient in the face of setbacks, and to cooperate selflessly with others towards much larger goals.  It's everything that we would want in Unitarian Univeralism. Only, this movement isn't any religion (unless perhaps you're Paul Tillich) - it's massive multi-player role-playing online games (MMORPGs).  He challenges us to reconsider what religion is for, with the lessons of MMORPGs in mind - that is, religion isn't about describing reality, but rather about helping folks find meaning in their lives.

As someone who plays online games I agree with Mulder in his characterization of how players generally behave online, but there are significant limitations in applying this to the real world. The immense attraction of these games is precisely because we know that these virtual realities are created by developers, and thus unlike the real world.  (Unless you believe in an omnipotent God who is playing the part of game developer, which most of us do not.)  I know that the game is designed such that, no matter how challenging it might be, no matter how many times I fail, success is ultimately possible so long as I keep trying.  But there are no such guarantees in the real world.  I know that I can trust fellow players because games usually involve players uniting against a shared enemy and it’s in our mutual best interest to cooperate; it's not at all unusual to behave selflessly towards members within our perceived group. But in the real world perceived enemies are usually far more numerous and complicated making perceived groups more numerous and complicated too.  I know that in the game world there are only a limited number of goals at any given time, and that if I apply time and effort, I can take satisfaction in visible progress.  In fact, I have stopped playing games that grew so big and complicated that “progress” was no longer readily apparent, making them more of a chore than a "game."  And in the much larger real world, the number of problems and obligations impinging can be overwhelming, it’s often unclear where to focus our energies, nor can we be certain whether our efforts make a difference. I know that in the game world the "good guys" are good and the "bad guys" are bad, and that the "bad guys" are usually NPCs (computer generated non-player characters) for whom I do not need to feel empathy. I do not stop to ponder whether the monsters are really just "misunderstood" nor how it is that the bad guys got to be how they are, whereas that is something that I think about a lot in this real world, making “epic meaning” much more ambiguous.

A small, limited world where choices are constrained by design and people are united around a common enemy who is often viewed as a "monster," and morality is black and white is something that liberal religion could never re-create, nor would we want to.  (In fact, in some ways it sounds more like conservative religion, and maybe that accounts for some of the unity and enthusiasm on the conservative side that is often lacking in liberal religion.)

These concerns stated, I am actually not against trying to reframe religion to more of a gamer's mentality. In fact, I think it might be a good thing to do.  For one thing, it would certainly be great if we could get folks to stop arguing over whether Jesus “really” lived and if so what he “really” said.  As Mulder points out, no one argues over whether the world in World of Warcraft is "real." Everyone knows that it's created, and yet folks are still devoted to it, and derive meaning and satisfaction from it.

What else can we learn from online role-playing games? 

In games (unless you’re playing PvP, player-versus-player), cooperation is rewarded and competition gains no benefit.  This is built into the system.  In our social justice work I often hear activists complain about how selfish people are, how they don’t do the things that they’re supposed to do.  But if we rely solely on guilt and judgement to get people to behave in more beneficial ways, we’re never going to accomplish our goals.  Instead, it makes more sense to find the ways in which our society rewards competition and penalizes cooperation, and work to make systemic changes towards the opposite.  Create financial and social incentives that favor cooperation.

In games small successes along the way are rewarded with obvious cues - visual banners, bells and whistles - providing gratification for achievement.  Players “level up” once they’ve achieved a certain amount of experience.  They earn different titles and ensuing privileges.  Imagine maybe the real-world equivalent in our homes, congregations, and organizations in terms of small rituals of recognition.  In fact, we already have some of these rituals - for example, the 'Coming of Age' ceremony.  But maybe we don't have enought of them.  Maybe we don't take enough time to note them as a community.  And what kinds of recognition and privileges come with them? 

In games the developers maintain a careful balance between making players work for achievement so that it feels earned (and thus we can feel satisfaction in earning it), and parsing out large challenges into a progression of smaller goals such that they feel manageable and worthwhile.  I remember attending a Leading Edge Conference at Middle Collegiate Church where we addressed how to get folks in congregations motivated for change (instead of fearing it). The suggested solution was to frame the stories that congregations tell about themselves such that the change in question is the next logical step in what they've already accomplished.  NOT, “We’ve been all wrong and now we’re turning 180 degrees,” but rather “This is who we are as a people, this is what we’ve already done, and this is the change that will lead us towards being even more fully what we are.”

Speaking of stories, and framing… Lastly, in multi-player online games we know that we’re heroes of the story, and yet there are other players who are just as much heroes too.  Two GAs ago, I had the honor of presenting as part of a panel at a workshop on how to motivate people to action on social justice. The challenge that I struggled with was how to get each of us to see ourselves as the hero in our own story while at the same time acknowledging that everyone else is a hero in their story as well. Honestly, I was afraid that someone in the audience would take exception to the word ‘hero’ and remind the room of the many times that we have frankly failed to be heroic.  I know that the castigators mean well, wanting to ensure that we don’t get too full of ourselves and take up too much space. I lean towards critique myself.  But there is nothing more demoralizing than doing the best that one is capable of at the time, given the imperfect knowledge and skills that one has at the time, only to be told that “You suck.” If the goal is to motivate towards action, towards “urgent optimism,” then we as Unitarian Universalists need to tell our stories of ourselves in which we are the protagonists in an epic story, where our actions do matter, where our participation is essential, where we are heroes, and yet at the same time recognize that we are part of a massive multiplayer world where other folks are every bit as much heroes too.


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