Rev. Jim Parrish is the Minister of the UU Fellowship of Fayetteville, AR. Here we talk about coming to Unitarian Universalism, community, and philosophy.
*Interview conducted on June 3, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, my line of questions tend to set a tone about a story. We are our stories. Our stories will live on after us. Therefore, as a species, narrative is more important than anything in our lives. We build our sense of self around them. In your own family background, was there any sense of Unitarian Universalism? Or was this something that developed as you grew up and became more independent?
Rev. Jim Parrish: I came across Unitarian Universalist philosophy early in life. I grew up on a farm in Kansas. The upbringing was that of equity and caring for people. The small town that I grew up in had a Methodist Church and a Mennonite Church too. Probably, the largest population was Mennonite. We were part of the Methodist Church. I went through the classes and everything to join the church. To me, the classes, in some ways, created more questions, especially when it came to learning creed. I read a lot. I was a child of the World Book Encyclopedia. I went through it several times. This was back in the 60s and 70s. Looking for information, it was a time of change. It was a time still of the space race. We were going to the moon, which was a huge thing. I was a science and, probably, theology nerd. I read a lot of literature. When it came time to ask the questions between the two, theology and science, for example, I used my barn on the farm. If I laid down in front of my house and looked south, back in the day, the clear Kansas sky in the night, the Milky Way would be shining. I would be looking at Sagittarius in the south. We were learning more and more about the universe that we lived in. It was the center of our Milky Way. It was set towards Sagittarius.
The question came to me, “If the God of my Methodism, the Methodist Church, was the God of all of this too, what I was being taught and narrowly sold, was not big enough, the God was not holding onto all of the people of the planet. There were wars. There were famines. There was a conflict in Northern Ireland. My best friend who wasn’t Methodist meant we couldn’t be friends. Religion was not stepping in and saying, ‘No, no, wait, this is about one thing.’ Why are we are war with each other? Why aren’t we stopping wars?” It wasn’t what was being taught. I was going to have to find out what religion was all about because, obviously, it was not good enough for me at that time. I kept reading. I would go to school. Eventually, I did find Unitarian Universalism mentioned in a book in the libraries. I continued to search. I thought, “The description of UU, this is probably what I am. But in Kansas, I have little in the way of resources.” I went to college, eventually, in engineering. I went to the Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Manhattan, Kansas. They were the liberal, where you could ask questions about religion, folks. The fellowship was full of professors. I didn’t hang out with professors. They were pretty boring. it would be later on when I would finish university.
Also, in college, I found a book called The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. These were the gospels rejected by Constantine’s church, who, basically, formed a church because he wanted the power to wield. These books were rejected because they would not provide a platform for that. Religion had another dimension. It was like, “This is a very human power and politics thing. Religions are intermixed.” It answered a few other questions. Going to getting out of school, going to get a job in Rockford, Illinois, where I went to and found a modest to large-sized Unitarian group of 500 or so people, this was home. This was where I found my religious self. I went to classes there. I did engineering for 25-ish years in Rockford. I decided it was a young person’s game. I had been through the hierarchy in the Unitarian church there. I decided to become a UU minister. I retired from engineering. I went to the seminary at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. I was ordained and graduated there in 2012. I have been ministering since. I went to interim ministry in Topeka, Kansas for two years. Then I was called to the UU Fellowship of Fayetteville, AR. That’s the mini-bio [Laughing].
Jacobsen: [Laughing] Now, if you’re talking all of this life experience and training in the philosophy and lifestance of Unitarian Universalism, what does a service look like? In other words, the important points of contact and the ways of conveying this philosophy to a community who make a conscious choice to attend a service and listen intently to a rendition of communal values, where they agree, fundamentally, with the ideas and concepts, and the feeling, coming from said values.
Parrish: Let’s step back into the central piece of Unitarian Universalism, the principles, they are our history evolved. Have you seen the book on the principles? It is a small book. Track it down, if you haven’t seen it, it’s about the history of the principles. Basically, the principles, every decade or longer will change. We will have a new set of principles. The principles were formed in the beginning when the UUA formed. They were going to be creeds to declare who they were. As Unitarianism and Universalists had their own thing going, until they joined with us in 1961, Unitarians, as they evolved, would change the principles. Transcendentalism changed Unitarianism early on. Transcendentalism about thinking outside of the box to a degree where that’s our opening to developing Humanism, eventually, allowing feminist philosophy joins with Unitarianism, allow Universalists and others, and the movements for abolition and suffrage. We were open to it. We had the good. We had the principles. What can change the world for the good, people are good. We have to embrace more and more ways of being. We did it badly sometimes, but we were always trying to do it. I will jump ahead to when Humanism came along. It was quite the fight of Liberal Christianity and the non-theism of Humanism and way of being and religion.
The ability to survive that and to create a space for more feminism, who created the sources and insisted: after the Unitarians and the Universalists came together, the principles formed at the time were still not respecting women, children, and men. It was all very patriarchal. The principles were hammered out over several committees and general assemblies. To me, they are still open. In fact, what is happening today, it tells me. There is a huge opening again. Circling back to the meaning of the sources, it is fascinating and wonderful. One of the things that I and other worshippers try to do is worship around the meaning of the principles, “How do we understand them? How do we practice them?” We vary the sources within the services. We leave open spaces. So, people of different sources. I have pagans. I have humanists. I have mostly those two. I have Buddhists who practice Asian philosophy, including Daoism, etc.
There are some who I am missing. Others who do not want to state while accepting the principles. For me, and for my community of worship, we have a message that “here’s what is happening in the world. Here is how Unitarians might look at that.” We bring people in to speak on different areas like Islam. What is happening in Islam? Someone who lives out the religion. The other spaces around it are left neutral for folks to be who they are within them based on choices and concerns. We have a silent prayer. The music from our hymnal, we try to create a worship that allows folks to be who they are, where they are, within Unitarian Universalist religious being. Also, it is to challenge then within the source as well. I ask, “Do you know as a UU Christian has meaning to a lot of UUs? It helps inform their lives as a UU humanist. Do you understand how that works? Are you in conversation with that?” I believe religious naturalism is a development of Humanism and Paganism coming together. The pagan world is about the natural world and science. I love science. But it can be kind of dry and uninspiring. So, paying attention to the evolutions is fascinating.
Jacobsen: There is an interesting phrase from a deceased writer-philosopher. He said, paraphrasing, ‘If we are alone in the universe, or if there are extraterrestrial civilizations in the universe, then either is a terrifying fact’ [Laughing].
Jacobsen: Similarly, we live in a very big place at any reasonable scale relative to human beings. So, a religious sensibility, by which I mean one in which you either imply a sense of awe and wonder about the universe or a basis for moral and ethical teachings, can provide a foundation for more communal solidarity more than the dry quasi-liturgical statements coming from a scientific textbook. Outside of the works of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson or the late Carl Sagan with a gift for words. It can be a dry presentation. Sometimes, or many times, individuals who accept all of the foundational facts and theoretical frameworks for understanding the natural world, adding a sense of awe in a formal communal framework can be a lovely addition to one’s life.
Jacobsen: If I look at the decline in a lot of fundamentalist religion in some of the developed world, then I believe the Satanists, the Ethical Culturalists, the Ethical Society people, the Humanists, the Unitarian Universalists, and others, are important for providing an alternative, a healthy and productive alternative, for a social species. So, for individuals who might be looking, searching, in transition out of a traditional religious framework or questioning one, or out of one and just floating, how can they get involved and find a Unitarian Universalist online group or physical space from which to build a new and conscious community for themselves?
Parrish: If they’re looking for one, it is oddly more accessible, as it is all over Facebook and social media, and the UUA website. It is really a great resource for connection, especially to the churches nearby. Church of the Larger Fellowship is an online version, which does great work of allowing folks to tap in. Right now, all of our services are online. You can find out how to join the services. You don’t have to try; you can be in Oklahoma, Missouri, anywhere. You don’t have to be in Arkansas. That’s the way it is for a lot of places now. I would say all of those are really good resources.
Jacobsen: If individuals have a change of mind about the religious upbringing or the religion in mind for them, what about books or authors who articulate the Unitarian Universalist vision well? Any recommendations along those lines?
Parrish: It is interesting. As a youth, I read a lot of science fiction. There was a lot of Unitarian Universalist philosophy in science fiction. It has changed. Science fiction has evolved too. I am reading a lot more science fiction from women of colour and other cultures. It is fascinating. The answer is, “Books” [Laughing].
Parrish: I look on my shelf here. If you want to try an African American humanist, Anthony Pinn, he’s a little academic, The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology. The book which I have dragged with me for decades. It is The Values of Belonging: Rediscovering Balance, Mutuality, Intuition, and Wholeness in a Competitive World of Carol Flinders. What that gave me, it was a sense of what religion was about. Religion, if you go back beyond the agricultural era, agriculture is where you had the religion of the kings and queens as a handmaiden for control. Religion to a hunter-gatherer society was how they lived, how they were in relationship to one another and the world around them. Unitarian Universalism and Religious Naturalism are trying to get to that. That’s what religion should be about. But it has been co-opted for power and greed for way too long. An odd one has an interesting view: A God That Could be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet by Nancy Abrams. Have you seen that one?
Jacobsen: No, what is the content?
Parrish: She is a quantum physicist. She’s a writer for science. She needed a sense of God, but because of addictions. She was searching for a God that might be real. She was looking to quantum physics, neuroscience, and things, to kind of come up with an idea of God, which is more like an idea of a God that is like the riots that break out o hold human culture accountable for its failures. It is a God that happens between people and is created as needed, as life changes. That’s a simple way of putting it. Her book is complicated. So, there are some books, I suppose.
Jacobsen: My final question: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?
Parrish: [Laughing] In the end, Unitarian Universalism is relatively simple. It comes down to the sources, which are brilliant in bringing together people in relationships in all these different ways. Looking at the principles and saying, “They evolved. How do we sort that out?” It is putting them up into the air and saying, “Our principles and sources are open for revision. They aren’t frozen in time. You don’t recite them. You, actually, incite them. You say, ‘I am going to evoke them. If they don’t work, then I will go back to pragmatic experimentation and try something different to see if it is, hopefully, approved,’ then see how that goes for a while.” It is an open-source religion. It is the only way that I think it should be.
Jacobsen: Rev. Parrish, thank you very much for your time.
Parrish: Well, thank you!
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.