Week 24: Unity Church of Truth, 15 June 2008

“What musical is this from?” Elaine whispered to me, as we sang Let There Be Peace on Earth (And Let It Begin With Me) toward the end of today’s service.
Heck, I don’t know. I often misidentify songs from musicals I’ve actually seen. And while I know the song, I didn’t think I’d seen it sung in a musical — and a quick tour of musicals in my head led me to conclude it’s not in Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Annie, Hairspray, Cats, Lil’Abner, Les Miserables, Phantom, Menopause, Pirates of Penzance . . . I was quickly concluding that it wasn’t in a musical, but I wasn’t sure.

So I called the lovely Mrs. Baldwini after the service and asked her because, if there’s someone who knows show tunes, it’s the Baldwinis.
She answered, “No, that’s not from a show. It *is* the closing hymn of the Unity church though. Hey–where’d you guys go today?” (Apparently, she went to a Unity church for a while some years ago over on the west side, where they also sang this as part of their weekly service). (I was kind of disappointed that the hymnal didn’t include John Lennon’s Imagine, but then Michael reminded me that that’s more Unitarian hymn).

The sermon this morning (called the Lesson) was from Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, and was about the interplay of the ego with the world, the importance of being “present,” and becoming a parent to your own inner child as a method to taming the ego, practicing being present, and moving past the roles we play (parent/customer/shy person/criminal/et cetera).

This was the third or fourth service where we’ve blessed the children either headed off for the children’s program, or returning from it. We did so also at Temple Beth Shalom, St. Ann’s, and the Seventh Day Adventists. This was, by far, the most joyous of the blessings, as we sang a very peppy song (with clapping) as they entered, and then had a blessing for them as they were up front with the Reverend Clare Austen (and followed up with a blessing for ourselves–which the Reverend pointed out was a step toward self-parenting the inner child).

One thing that I haven’t seen too often since my time in chapels on military installations is a specific greeting to newcomers. The Unity service has a specific time to greet newcomers, and they offer a packet of information (which included a copy of July’s Daily Word, a brochure on Service Leadership (groups you can join and service opportunities), a Prayer Request form, a paper on the children’s programs, and a copy of the current (June 2008, Vol 14 Issue 6) Discoveries (which seems to be the church newsletter)), a carnation, as well as an invitation for a free latte from the Barista stand, and an audio tape of one of their Sunday services. The Guest Welcome was followed by the Congregational Greeting, which is similar to the “passing of the Peace” in liturgical traditions, or the “greet those around you” portion of many services. This time was sandwiched between the first and last verses of a song. That is, we sang the song, then there was the greeting (the pianist continued to play), and we came back to our seats as we sang the last verse of the song. (I have to say, this is remarkably better than the 10-second Peace at One* where they dropped the houselights after the ten seconds of greeting, and moved abruptly on to the next item. If you didn’t catch it in my original report, it was my least favourite peace).

One of the problems with the project — one that I hadn’t quite anticipated playing out as it has — is the “cult” question that invariably arises when you’re talking to (especially, but not limited to) conservative evangelicals. (Certainly not limited to, as I’ve got it from Episcopalians and Catholics, too.  Most recently, an Episcopalian of my acquaintance asked were we “attending cult churches, too?” but didn’t define which groups she considered as part of the definition).

There’s an uneasy truce between the evangelicals, the mainliners, and the catholics. For the most part, the catholics and mainliners agree that they’re both probably Christian (and define the evangelicals as Christian, too — though the question of who is or isn’t getting into heaven may still be up for grabs). And most moderate evangelicals agree that, though apostate on any issue of social justice, the mainliners are mostly Christian, and the catholics are probably okay. (There are factions of both catholics and protestant evangelicals that hold the other is definitely not Christian, and likely to burn for all of eternity because of it, but I’m going to set those aside for the moment).

Where all three groups tend to come together is when they unite against “cults.” Loosely defined, “cults” include anyone who claims tenets of a certain faith (in this case Christianity), but either doesn’t hold enough of the tenets or has too much variation on the specifics for the mainliners, evangelicals, or catholics to “count” as a denomination rather than a cult. (Because the definition of “cult” is both slippery and tends to be pejorative, many scholars are now using the term “NRM” or New Religious Movement — though these often include religions that were “new” in the 19th, or even 17th centuries).

Walter Martin, an early writer on the subject of cults, and author of The Kingdom of the Cults, defines them in this way in his The Rise of the Cults:

By cultism we mean the adherence to doctrines which are pointedly contradictory to orthodox Christianity and which yet claim the distinction of either tracing their origin to orthodox sources or of being in essential harmony with those sources. Cultism, in short, is any major deviation from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.

Some of the differences between Unity’s theology and, say, the Nicene Creed, include it’s stance on
the divinity of Jesus:

Unity teaches that the spirit of God dwelt in Jesus, just as it indwells every person; and that every person has the potential to express the perfection of Christ, as Jesus did, by being more Christ-like in everyday life.

the virgin birth:

Unity accepts the virgin birth as an experience in the spiritual unfoldment of each individual. Thus the virgin birth is a spiritually interpreted as the birth of the Christ consciousness (the awakening of the awareness of God’s Spirit within) in the purified soul.

the crucification and resurrection of Christ:

Unity teaches that the cross symbolized the crossing out of all false beliefs. Here again, emphasis is on life and living, through the resurrection rather than on the Crucifixion.

The use of the word “Spirit” in the Unity literature is interesting, because it’s not usually preceded by a definite article (“Spirit” instead of “the Spirit”). For example, on Wednesday, there’s Meditation in the chapel from 6:30-6:50, and the invitation reads, Connect with Spirit! Likewise, in the announcement about the upcoming (August 16) Unity in the Community (a cultural and racial diversity celebration), participation also “opens consciousness in Spokane to our greater connection with spirit.” What I’m not sure of is if or not “S/spirit” is a personal pronoun (which would make sense with the capitalization and lack of article, but doesn’t make sense with the lowercase usage). This is perhaps something I ought to write in my letter (I’ve been slacking on project letters, but the Reverend Clare invited our inquiries when she met us at the door on the way out).

Unity’s emphasis is on the ecumenical similarities between denominations and religions, instead of the differences. This is the part that drives the doctrine-centric churches to distraction. But one of the things that Unity does well is to infuse the sacred back into all facets of life. They have a focus on prayer, meditation, and mindfulness, and see the sacred in everything and everyone.

In our readings on the Emergent/Emerging church movement, one of the things many of the author-pastors seek to do in their communities of faith is to integrate the spiritual back into the daily lives of their congregations, with or without a weekly church service or gathering for worship. This is one of the things that has the modernist Evangelicals up in arms over the postmodernist emergent movement: in bringing the sacred back into the secularized spheres, they (emergents) dabble too closely into ecumenical, universalist, spiritual practices that much of the doctrine-focused church has rejected as being everything from “un-Christian” to “unholy” to outright “anti-Christian”:

Any thoughtful consideration of the removal of the foundation and the boundaries for Christian faith must conclude that this postmodernization is fatal to biblical faith, stripping the term “faith” of any real meaning and opening the door to substantial change in fundamental beliefs. These changes can be found most prominently in the soteriology and eschatology of emergents. After they have undergone emergent accommodation to postmodernism, doctrines such as atonement and judgment no longer resemble the biblical teachings Evangelicals believe are non-negotiable….
The effect of the emergent movement’s presence in the body of Christ is equivalent to both an autoimmune disease (such as multiple sclerosis, in which the body attacks itself with harmful consequences) and an immunocompromising disease (such as AIDS, in which the body lowers its defenses to external pathogens). The Emerging Church movement acts like an autoimmune disease, stripping Christian terminology of its biblical meanings, and it acts like an immunocompromising disease, disarming the body’s defenses against foreign invasion. The result is that this movement represents a deadly influence within the Church which requires a decisive response from those who recognize it as such.

In his notes from the Unity Church of Truth this morning, Michael writes that, while much of the Emergent Church seems to be about Jesus without church, the Unity Church seems to be church without Jesus. This is not wholly accurate, as the denomination does have an emphasis on God (and even on Jesus), but it is not the same emphasis that evangelical, catholic, or mainline churches place on Jesus, as the son of God and savior.

One thing the Unity Church does, that is also a focus of the emergents, is meeting people in where they are. They’re warm, welcoming, and accepting. (If you just read those as positive attributes, please understand that the conservative traditions I mention above see “warm, welcome, and accepting” as hallmarks of cults, and with great suspicion.  If you read it as a list of negatives, please understand that I meant the list as positive attributes that I feel all ought to be true in all churches).   As many emergent writers have noted, there’s a cultural yearning for spirituality and expressions of faith, the question is if and how the church meet these needs in this time and place.

Postmoderns generally aren’t satisfied with pat answers to burning questions — journeying through the questions is more important than the final destination of the answers, and postmodern thought generally acknowledges the limitations of easy answers.   (Including the problems that arise within one’s faith community when questions are raised about these final answers — the stifling of which Michael calls “checking your brain at the door,” which is how we found ourselves in a tradition that’s based on creed rather than doctrine).

We actually told several people at Unity, including the reverend, about the project, and enjoyed all-around positive response, and several shared stories about similar journeys others had taken. (Last week, Scott at Crosswalk dubbed the project a “Spiritual Roadtrip” — a moniker we’ve adopted, as we see ourselves “church hopping” but not “church shopping”.  And roadtrips nearly always take you back to where you began, but with a renewed sense of purpose, a new eye on the “old,” and a new appreciation for both the familiar and the unfamiliar.  In these respects, it’s a very apt metaphor).

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One Response to Week 24: Unity Church of Truth, 15 June 2008

  1. zachary says:

    this was a good read, and brought back somewhat fond memories of my own brief tenure at the Unity church, which was just right before full conversion for me and Paul. Paul was also a great fan of the late Walter Martin, who has a radio call in show, called the Bible Answer Man, now hosted by his protege Hank Hannegraf. Thats so interesting that they sing the same closing song now that they did then.


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