I think I unnerved my father. On our last visit out to see my dad and stepmom, I mentioned, offhandedly, that at least half the congregation at our Unitarian Universalist church identified themselves as atheist or secular humanist. After a pause, he asked, “But don’t the Unitarians and Universalists believe (before they joined hands in 1961) in God? Weren’t they both Christian denominations?”
Well, yes. But by the 1830s, both were studying the texts of other religions as well. And so it went from there.
I’m not sure how we’d missed this conversation topic before, my Presbyterian father and I. We certainly discuss church life from our respective positions, and I was certain he knew the boys’ stance on God’s existence (firmly in the atheist camp, at least right now). My heart tugged, seeing this issue bother him. We discussed it a bit more on a denominational level, and he issued a thoroughly triune-God based grace at dinner. My own theology didn’t come up.
In fact, I’m still working out my own theology. I spent my first few years of life in a Baptist church, the next few in a Catholic church, too, my school years attending both Catholic and Methodist churches, my high school, college, and newly married years as Catholic, two years in an Episcopal church, two years at home on Sunday morning, and the last four years in a Unitarian Universalist church. Did I mention my mom is now a Reformed Jew? Exhausted? Me too. Confused? So am I. Still.
I’m not sure I’m closer to an answer, even a long, meandering, book-length answer to the question of what I believe about God than when my journey away from Christianity began, more than half a decade ago. By the time I left the Episcopal church my family had called home for the previous two years, I no longer believed in a triune god. This is fairly significant barrier to feeling comfortable in most mainline Christian churches, since if you spend more time in a service rewording the prayers into something that fits your understanding of the divine, you have little time left to actually pray. Academic head tricks aren’t worship. Add a heavy layer of doubt about why a loving God would require human prayer as catalyst to divine action to aid the poor, the sick, or Notre Dame, and the makings for a theological shake-up were on the counter.
So we left. And those makings sat.
A few years later, the boys and I settled into our current spiritual home, a Unitarian Universalist church. We’d vetted three over the course of a year, and this one struck me as most comfortable, one seeming too big, another too small, and UUCF being the proverbial just right. It was (and remains) a friendly community with a well-spoken minister at the helm and a vibrant religious education department. A church was found. A theology was not.
Unitarian Universalists, being without creed and with dedication to a free search for meaning and truth, weren’t going to provide me with a preset path on which to ride through life. Rather, these churches and associations provide the space to seek the truth as each persons sees fit and encourages spiritual growth (principles 3 and 4, for you UUs keeping track). No answers. Plenty of space for questions. As a result, UUs and UU congregations come in a variety of flavors. I’ve only sampled three congregations, so I can’t speak beyond that, but many UU churches contain a fair number atheists and agnostics. I don’t have numbers (although I’ve certainly looks) on the numbers of UUs who are theists, pagans, Eastern based, Humanist, Atheist, Agnostic, and so forth. The closest I’ve come to statistics on Unitarian Universalists and their theology would be a number from the summary of Faith Communities Today (FACT) 2005, a survey of 495 (about 50 percent) of UU congregations. The 2005 study was an expansion of the first FACT survey, done in 2000. The single respondent for those churches was either a leader of the church, lay leader, or paid staff person.
According to FACT 2005, 19 % of the minster responders and 11% of the lay leaders responding described their congregation’s worship services as “having a sense of God’s presence.” Overall (and more lay responded to the survey than clergy), that put 13% of all responders stating God’s presence was at their services. That’s down from 2000, where 26% reported having a sense of God’s presence at services (although a much high percentage of those answering that year were clergy.
Either way, either year, there doesn’t seem to be much God in the Unitarian Universalist church. No shocker there, given my modest sampling. I have no idea how many UUs would identify themselves as believing in something greater than themselves, whether that be nature, a communal spirit, the power of the universe, or the flying spaghetti monster. Most of the statement of faith I hear and read from other UUs are more about what they don’t believe, and the atheists shout the loudest. Our congregation boasts a moderate number of secular humanists, which at least says more about what they DO believe than what they do not (and that’s best saved for another blog post).
And many say very little. Perhaps, like me, they are still working out their own theology. Perhaps they have more certainty than I but prefer more privacy regarding their beliefs. If the FACT 2005 survey holds any water, there’s not too much God to find in a UU service, at least according to lay leaders and clergy.
So here I am, working out my own theology. Despite the dearth of theism in the UU world, part of being UU is encouraging spiritual growth and a free and responsible search for meaning (remember principles 3 and 4?). Our (often overlooked) six sources are the pool from which I draw:
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
- Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
- Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature. (UUA website)