Thursday, February 22, 2007


The UU Carnival's topic is "Authority". Wide-open topic, which is a mixed blessing.

In graduate school, we learned about a study in which parents were rated on control and affection. Turns out that parents who rated high in both control and affection (the "Authoritative" parents) had kids with the "best" outcomes. The parents with low affection ratings and high control ratings were labeled "Authoritarian" and were more likely to see their children grow up to have difficulty making decisions and having relationships. The affectionate but lenient parents had just the children one would expect: spoiled kids with no impulse control (the kids who would likely overdose one day). And the children who were the least likely to do well? Had parents who rated low on both scales. These kids are neglected, left alone, likely to join gangs or die young, least likely to have successful, productive lives.

It's easy to look at studies like that and feel smug. I know how I would rate on the affection scale - right at the top. But sometimes I'm not so sure how I rank on the control scale. It's a balance that is harder for me to strike: I don't like to nag and I don't want to micromanage my children. But it would be nice if they cleaned up their rooms or cleared the table without threats of "no television" or the trash bag room cleanup.

The religion I chose, Unitarian Universalism, if put to the same measure, would likely rate high on affection but not very high on control. Without the "authority" of Scripture, of creed, of dogma, we UUs are left to our own devices. Or are we? I look around at the other folks at my church, and at other UU churches, and I don't see a bunch of self-indulgent, spoiled, impulsive people (although there are a few...but they don't usually stay very long). On the contrary, I see people engaged in their community, working for justice, reaching out, trying to make the world a little better.

What is it, then, that keeps Unitarian Universalism from acting like that lenient, affectionate parent? We see that UU people tend to behave more like those raised by authoritative parents. So where's the authority?

That's the elevator speech. You know what I mean. You're in an elevator, and as the doors close and you've pushed the "27" button, the person next to you asks you where you go to church and what your church believes in. Sure, you can push the "2" button and escape the conversation, but don't. Answer the question in as long as it takes to get to your floor. What do you believe?

The principles are the easiest way to find our denomination's authority. Our covenants. How we agree to behave. Those covenants came from people. From us. They are alive and breathing and changing and vibrant. They come from a desire to live in relationship. And that same desire to live in relationship is the center of parental authority. Which is why I expect my children will turn out to be lovely, responsible, engaged adults who do take care of their dishes and clean their rooms. It's a process, a wonderful process, this raising of children, which I sometimes imagine is how God must feel watching us.

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