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Can a church based on individualism sustain itself?

Unity's approach of clear answers coupled with freedom to choose appeals to the individualist worshipper. This tactic works well with lay liberals who are turned off by "shoulds" and "have-tos." This group is more likely to summarily dismiss a church's teaching if it is presented as the only way. On the other hand, if an idea is presented as a possibility, the lay liberal is more likely to listen to the argument. In other words, part of Unity's success lies in its ability to engage seekers in a relatively non-threatening discussion. The lay liberal may be more willing to listen to Unity's message than a fundamental message because it allows for freedom and does not automatically put the listener on the defensive. The first step is being heard, and the second step is presenting a convincing argument. For individualistic lay liberals, Unity's message has the potential to be heard more than the conservative message, and in many cases presents a more convincing argument than mainline churches which may appear out-of-touch because they must remain true to traditional philosophies.

Many sociologists and academics, like Bellah et al. (1985), Durkheim (1915) and Bloom (1992), agree that the individualist spirit is a menace to society's traditional institutions. Adherents of the secularization paradigm argue that an institution based on individualism could not thrive because it would be made up of self-seeking individuals who have no real connection to the whole. Bloom writes, "Urging the need for community upon American religionists is a vain enterprise; the experiential encounter with Jesus or God is too overwhelming for memories of community to abide, and the believer returns from the abyss of ecstasy with the self enhanced and otherness devalued" (p. 27).

The question then becomes whether a church based on individualism can sustain itself — whether it can motivate people to move beyond the boundaries of their own experience. The answer in the case of Unity is a qualified "yes," and this response is bolstered by explanations which fit into the marketplace paradigm of the sociology of religion. Since the United States is populated by individualists, it makes sense that the market would devise a religion which would meet the individualists' spiritual needs. Of necessity, the new religions which cater to individualism are a menace to traditional religions, as sociologists have expected. As adherents of the new paradigm argue, it may be that in a society of individualists, a wider variety of smaller religions will better meet the needs of religious consumers (Warner, 1993). Unity is one example of a religion which meets the needs of religious individualists by providing the following services, which are outlined in Chapter IV:

  1. Unity shows people how to connect with the divine, how to have that individual experience.
  2. Unity collectively reinforces the individual experience of God, and reminds participants of their connection to God.
  3. Unity collectively reinforces individualism in general by encouraging free choice and giving participants the authority as well as the responsibility for their spirituality.
  4. Unity provides a social community for individualists who want to make their own decisions but don't necessarily want to be alone.
  5. Unity provides a model or pattern for life which challenges the traditional view of reality while at the same time incorporating ideas popular in secular society.

It is true that acknowledging that people have the freedom to choose opens up the possibility that some people will choose not to worship with Unity. Annemarie, for example, says Unity is a stepping stone, which implies that she is not so committed to it that she wouldn't go somewhere else if it served her. But individualism will be a pervasive American characteristic regardless of whether or not it is acknowledged. Perhaps by catering to individualists with choices and a greater degree of freedom, Unity is able to entice them to stay.

The situation of appealing to individualists can be illustrated with a fictional story told from the market perspective. A child is looking for ice cream, and he has several ice cream stores to choose from. He's got it stuck in his mind that he wants pickles and peanut butter ice cream. After all, he loves both pickles and peanut butter, and he loves ice cream, so he knows it will be good. He goes into the first store, and asks for pickles and peanut butter ice cream. The store owner and all the customers look disgusted, and the store owner says, "Son, putting pickles and peanut butter in ice cream is a sure way to ruin it. We offer your basic, fundamental vanilla ice cream. It's the way God intended it." The child leaves, feeling sure that pickles and peanut butter would be fabulous in ice cream and annoyed because the store owner doesn't recognize this as well. In the next store, which is the one the child's father and mother have always gone to, the child walks in and reads the menu: "We are proud to offer three traditional flavors: vanilla, chocolate and strawberry." When he asks if they have pickles and peanut butter ice cream the store owner replies, "Look, these three flavors have seen this ice-cream-eating community through thick and thin since long before you were born. I'm sure that if you give them a try you'll find they are very tasty." Once again, the child walks out without ice cream. He's tried vanilla, chocolate and strawberry before, and now he has a taste for something different.

When the child goes into the Unity ice cream store and repeats his request, the store owner says, "Well, pickles and peanut butter ice cream sounds like a very interesting flavor. I've never tried that before. Before I get your ice cream, let me tell you how our ice cream store works. The people who founded this store sampled all the different kinds of ice cream that they could find because they wanted to find the best. It turns out that all of the ice cream they tasted used some kind of cream and some kind of sugar, and the rest of the ingredients just made it have a different flavor or a different consistency. So they picked what they thought was the finest cream and the purest sugar, which is what you start with here in our store. We'll show you one way to mix the ice cream yourself and you can put in the rest of the ingredients so it tastes like you want it to taste. We have a lot of ingredients that we've tried and we think they taste good, but you can choose for yourself and decide." The child starts looking around and sees all kinds of different ingredients, but not what he's looking for. The store manager reaches to a top shelf and says, "Let's see, we have peanut butter, but we don't have pickles. If you have some of your own pickles, you are welcome to put them in." The child runs out of the store and buys a big dill pickle in the deli down the street. The child is very excited as he makes the ice cream, but when he tastes it he makes a face and spits it back in the bowl. "It's nasty," he exclaims, disappointed because he was so sure it would taste good. But the child really wanted some ice cream, so he accepts when the store owner offers him a taste of Unity's best-selling flavor. By that time, he is so hungry that he eats the whole bowl and is amazed how much better it is than pickles and peanut butter. The next day, the child returns to the Unity ice cream store to learn more about making ice cream and to add some of the ingredients they suggested.

The child is an individualist who has put together an idea of what he thinks religion should be. While other churches dismiss that idea as foolish or outside of tradition, Unity encourages him to test it. Unity embraces the philosophy that ideas should be tested, and if they are not effective they should be released. When the individualist tests his idea and finds that it isn't what he thought it was going to be, Unity is waiting there with a replacement philosophy which can also be tested in everyday life. It is Unity's willingness to allow people to test their individual ideas that keeps individualists coming back. By the same token, individualists are willing to test Unity's philosophy because Unity is willing to let them decide for themselves whether or not to follow it.

In addition to having implications for Unity as a church, individualism has implications for individuals as well. Unity is a religion which claims to cater to thinking individuals who want to make their own decisions. This encouragement for participants to think for themselves provides a good method of checks and balances which is built into the organization of Unity. In theory, if Unity attempts to teach something ridiculous, individuals will call them on it. However, the effectiveness of this system of keeping Unity in check depends on the vigilance of individuals. It would be easy for individuals to think they are choosing for themselves because that is what Unity advocates and because that is what the individuals want to do. But in reality an individual may be so caught up in the effervescence of the movement that they do things they wouldn't normally do. They may be so excited by the fact that Unity's philosophy corroborates a particular area of their personal philosophy that they accept Unity's entire philosophy without further question. This is a particular danger due to the flexibility of Unity and the fact that it allows and encourages investigation of ideas which the organization itself does not espouse. Paul, for example, immersed himself completely in Unity when he found that the philosophy helped him through a particularly difficult time in his life. He spent almost all of his spare time volunteering at the church and eventually worked there. As time went by, however, he began to distinguish between following the philosophies of Unity and following Unity as an organization.

My take on the philosophy of Unity is that God is where we are, that we carry our own church within ourselves. And if we want to celebrate that, then Unity is a fine place to do that. I wouldn't make it my god. I think sometimes people surround themselves with Unity and it makes it harder to function in the real world, and I don't think that's what it's really about. I think it's about using the principles in every day life.

Although part of Paul's reasoning is the result of his mystical outlook, his discriminating attitude toward following the organization without question is a healthy one. While it is possible for a participant in any church or religious movement to get caught up in it, it may be a particular danger in Unity since individuals may be convinced that they are making decisions for themselves when in fact they may be following the party line without question.

© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.