Disposable Believe-ables: What UUs Have to Gain From Prayer

This semester I am enrolled in two classes, both of which will no doubt inform my blogging.  One is my first introduction to Christian scriptures (New Testament Survey).  The other is a course called Prayer in a World of Diversity, taught by Miriam Therese (MT) Winters, one of the early usAmerican feminist theologian outlaws.

MT calls herself a “Roamin’ Catholic”nun and described herself as having “defected in place.”  With an introduction like that, you know this is going to be good.


Most of my classes at this seminary have had 8-13 people in them – cozy, seminar-like, but with a sense of scantness.  In my three Hebrew and Christian scriptures courses, there have been no more than 12 in any class, which always feels like a reflection of the national decline of interest in mainstream church attendance/ worship.

This course has 30 people enrolled!  Most are auditing the class, rather than taking it for credit – this is significant because these are not professional peoples seeking a degree or meeting an academic requirement.  They are taking the course out of personal curiosity or spiritual urgency.

On the first evening (we meet for nearly 4 hours weekly), as we went around the room and introduced ourselves, somewhere near 80% of the students identified as Roman Catholic or as previously Roman Catholic.   Many regarded themselves seekers and would likely fall into the category of “unaffiliated:” the semi-exalted Nones of the lauded Pew reports on religion — though these are not Millennials or even young Gen-Xers – these are old Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers.

This is largely a group of people who have experienced prayer under the auspices of organized religions and one that is strongly proscriptive and restrictive.  Drawn to this mystic teacher who started the class by saying, “If we are going to find any unity, religion ain’t the way,” these folks strike me as both desperate and determined for expansion, for liberation, for letting loose the form which has not only bound them, but strangled the Spirit out of their experience of religion, faith, prayer.  In clinging to set concepts of God and how to pray, Spirit has been squelched.

I am coming at this from the other – or at least another – side.

In the first class I found myself explaining, in broad strokes how with the historically Unitarian emphasis on Reason and the Unitarian Universalist engagement with dogmatic humanism, we threw out prayer.  We threw it out so far that many congregations and many individuals within our congregations have developed an allergy to the word and the process.  Borrowing a phrase from Diarmuid O’Murchu (whose book, In the Beginning was the Spirit: Science, Religion and Indigenous Spirituality, I am devouring as assigned reading for this course), we UUs are “conditioned by rationalism and the excesses of cerebral thought.”


Of course, there are exceptions.  It’s likely that at King’s Chapel in Boston, there are few or no allergic reactions to prayer.  When I speak with current ministers and other seminarians, I observe there is already a shift, one that some people bemoan and others hasten.

When I went to my hometown on the West Coast last January, where a UU fellowship was founded the year I left home (nearly 30 years ago!), there were yellow rubber ducks on the folding table altar and educational/intellectual lectures, rather than sermons – not a lot of room for prayer (the word or the form).  At the risk of hegemonic over-reach on my part, given the compassionate engagement of the people I met there, though they might not like the concept or even agree, I’m thinking there was a broad form of prayer and reverence being enacted and embodied there – but just not as it is traditionally conceived.

MT introduced a term that resonated strongly: “disposable believe-ables” from someone named Paul Ricoeur.  Here’s my (limited, skewed, and possibly wrong) understanding of what a disposable believe-able is.  The believe-able part is that which is universally true/resonant or is imbued with that elusive element.  The disposable part is what each faith tradition wraps that believe-able in, as a way to engage (and tame) it.

For instance, as I wrote a critique of the Trinity for my vexing Christian Theology course last year, orthodox Christians have the Trinity as one of their defining theological concepts, yet it is merely the outer trapping (disposable, in my Unitarian opinion) of a greater, vaster believable that Spirit/Life Force/Ultimate Source is inherently relational.

“…the Trinity was not a dogma to be taken literally, but a primordial truth of universal symbolic significance.  It was a human attempt to describe a core value (or set of values) of the God we Christians believe in – namely, relationality.” (O’Murchu, p. 4)

The biggest problem with such outer trappings is the chasm between intention and impact.  The intention is to make ultimate truths accessible to us small-minded humans.  Yet, always the impact limits the scope of the believe-able (or its availability to all).   Often, in fact, the impact smothers those believe-ables.  It is this reason I find much of the theological speculation involved in most academic Christian  (and probably other traditions’ as well) theology to be, at best, mechanistic, and at worse, malicious obfuscation.

So Unitarian Universalist threw out the prayer-baby with the liturgical-bathwater, surmising (with reason) that prayer is irrational and (with humanism) that prayer is inherently theistic (which it need not be).  What does that mean for us today?  I sense the pendulum swinging – not all the way back, but perhaps to a midpoint that can hold onto the believe-able while letting go of the disposable.  I hope that we are changing our minds and hearts and practices; as I noted, the conversations I am drawn into with other UU seminarians and ministers seem to support this.

And I recognize this shift personally, despite Buddhist meditation (which is not prayer-based) being my primary spiritual practice.   I want to both learn formal ways of prayer and then I want to unlearn them, all in service of my own spiritual formation, and in service of future congregations I will serve.  I keen for the transformative access, the deep comfort, and the resounding connection to Source they sometimes facilitate.   I share the sentiment O’Murchu wrote below:

I am not interested in trying to figure out who or what the Holy Spirit is; instead I want to learn how I can best collaborate with this pervasive cosmic and earthly creativity.  I am striving to better understand the divine life force at work in the world, primarily through the sacredness of the created order itself.  (O’Murchu, p. 13-14)

0 thoughts on “Disposable Believe-ables: What UUs Have to Gain From Prayer

  1. Oh to be in relationship with the Divine rather than trying to “figure” Divine out! What a beautiful notion. I wish I was there to take this course!! Miss MT!!

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