Defending the Faith (or at least trying to explain it a bit)

It’s not simple to explain Unitarian Universalism. When explaining it to the theist, the clearest route to reaching understanding is to relate it to the listener’s spiritual traditions and emphasize our historical routes. We gather (often) on Sunday mornings to share our joys and sorrows, listen to stories and sermons, sing songs that unite us, and enjoy coffee and conversation. Similarity to other traditional church structures established, one can move to a brief history of UUism and through in a few principles. Followers of liberal religious traditions will generally be satisfied. Conservatives may be raising their eyebrows, sensing the presence of trouble, but at least the presentation of UUism in the context of traditional religion offers something familiar.

It’s harder to sell the agnostic or atheist. Especially the life-long type, who has no yearning for a community of similarly minded people who gather Sunday morning to sing, share, and learn something new. In fact, presenting Unitarian Universalism to the devout nontheist is decidedly dicey despite the relatively large number of non-theists in the pews of UU churches on Sunday morning. Obviously they come from somewhere, seeking something not found at home with a cup of coffee with the Sunday New York Times.

I’ve recently befriended one of these devout non-theists who spend their Sunday mornings at home, and I’ve been asked a rather challenging set of questions that often render me temporarily speechless. That’s hard to do. Here are a few of the questions I’ve received, along with somewhat cleaned-up versions of the fumbling responses I’ve given:

Why would you want to go to church on Sunday morning if you don’t believe in a deity?

Good question. The answers are many: joining with community of like-minded people, participating intelligent discourse, and confirming that I’m not alone in being a liberal thinker who feels deeply that we are here to love and respect the paths of all with whom we share the planet. I go because there I feel at home. Not jammies-and-the-NYT at home, but my church is a place I feel warmly welcome and utterly accepted.

Well, couldn’t you do that other ways, ways that aren’t “church”? Like gathering with like-minded friends while having a beer?

Yes, that does sound quite fine, but it’s not enough for me. I enjoy the bits of ritual we have at church — singing hymns, lighting the chalice, sharing joys and sorrows, and just listening to the same message with people. (By the way, this is NOT sensical to many a nontheist, who will quickly point out that this is sounding very much like a theist church. For me, however, it’s integral to my search and then settling in a UU church.)

What we do as a church is more than what I could do on my own, or at least more than I’m likely to do on my own. At my UU church, my children receive instruction in the religions of the world, are challenged to define their own beliefs, consider ethics and morality in the light of respecting the worth and dignity of all, and enjoy the company of other liberal thinking children and their families. I have the chance to work within an organization that I think could make a positive difference in the world, both in word and deed. Could all that happen at home? Sure, but I’m just not that motivated.

Hymns?! A chalice?! Wait a minute, aren’t hymns religious songs? And what about that chalice?

Some of our hymns are older Unitarian, Quaker, or other liberal Christian hymns, which reflects our roots. Others remind us of our other sources of wisdom, such as humanism, other world religions, and even the reasoning mind. Yes, some mention God. And, yes, some people edit that word out mid-song. That, along with so much of Unitarian Universalism, is a personal choice.

The chalice has its roots in World War II, starting as a symbol of those willing to help and sacrifice (see UUA: The Flaming Chalice for more information). What started as a seal for papers for the USC (Unitarian Service Committee) became a the symbol of Unitarian Universalism. The lighting of the chalice signifies the start of our time together whether in a service, meeting, or other gathering.

Religions hold a particular set of beliefs, welcoming those in agreements. How can you claim to be welcoming to all AND be a religion?

(This one gave me serious pause.)Whether Unitarian Universalism is a religion, faith, spiritual path, or a philosophical way of life is debatable. It is neither credal nor doctrinal, and what even binds us together as UUs is a serious question. The UUA sites seven principles, but these provide neither creed nor doctrine and could easily apply to any person living an ethical life, theist or not, religious or not. We say we welcome all. We are also made up of fallible and opinionated humans, and therefore we fail to walk the talk at times. No, there is no hierarchy to UUism, although many congregations are voluntary members of the non-authoritarian but often handy Unitarian Universalist Association. There simply isn’t a single set of rules. And, yes, this causes trouble defining our identity, growing our membership, and explaining what Unitarian Universalism means to those who ask.

I’m sure I’ve missed some questions that have arisen during this on-and-off dialogue between quizzical stay-at-home agnostic and Sunday-morning-church agnostic. I’m equally sure there are more questions to come and that they’ll cause me a moderate amount of psychic discomfort and require serious contemplation. That’s okay, since we are the church/association/religion/faith/philosophy where “answers are questioned.” Yes, I’m more comfortable when I’m on the questioning end, but answering these common questions demands a rigorous look at what we’ve accepted previously. Defending a faith (or whatever) as nebulous and diverse as Unitarian Universalism leads to careful consideration and not a small amount of introspection and critical thought.

This ongoing process has left me wondering what brings some nontheists to our doors while so many see no need for that community. I’ll admit I wonder myself at times, a fact I’ll freely share. In our busy lives, Sunday morning can seem like just one thing to do. But somehow, I keep finding the time, so there must be something there. So I’m welcoming the questions and continuing the conversation regardless of my own consternation and occasional quiet. It keeps me thinking, a desirable state of being, and encourages me to consider again what I’ve embraced these past several years.

12 thoughts on “Defending the Faith (or at least trying to explain it a bit)

    • Good question. Certainly not every UU would call his/herself a deist, but some deists might find the UU lack of creed redeeming and even worth checking out. I suspect a good many would still prefer coffee in their bathrobes on Sunday morning, however.

  1. Reverend Harry T. Cook’s sermon last week about Humanism is a good example of how church can be valuable to people who are agnostic, atheist, or don’t believe in a deity. I like that there are a dozen or so people having coffee in the hall watching the service on closed circuit TV, they’re attending mostly for the coffee and conversation after the service:

    • I agree that Harry’s sermon illustrates what would appeal to many a non-theist. (I have a few issues with it, but that just makes it all the better. The best sermons leave me in a bit of a questioning mode and wanting to engage in more discussion.) I still wonder what it is that makes some folks seek out that community, whether downstairs with the coffee or upstairs without, while others stay home, either reading the grist for their mill or listening to it solo on the web. This is not an extrovert/introvert line, given the large number of the latter who show up each Sunday, myself included. There is something else.

  2. Thanks for this. I had a couple chuckles in your introduction. And as for the questions: Great answers! I jotted some of my thoughts I had:

    Why go to church if nontheist — I think event many theists would say (admit?) that the primary value of church is the human community, the social connection and support.

    Having a beer with friends doesn’t compare to church, unless all the talk over that beer is very focused on one’s beliefs about life, meaning, and purpose, including a 30-60 minute talk on the topic. The church setting forces you to spend some time on these important questions. It’s so easy to ignore the meaning and purpose of one’s life in day-to-day living. A couple hours of week focused on it is something everyone should do.

    As far as the hymns and chalice, I say beer-drinking has just as many cultural practices engrained in it. Every social interaction does. I think the songs we sing a UUCF rarely if ever are so deity-worship-centered that that’s their only value. Almost always, they have much wider meaning and value.

    The “Welcoming to all AND a religion” question — UU breaks the mold. I’m not nearly so concerned about whether UU is a “religion” — that question rests entirely on how you define religion. And if UU in not a religion, I couldn’t care less. It is what I want.

    One overridding comment: I think a lot of people don’t put enough value on people coming together in a community, and doing things as a community — especially a community of conscious choice. Sunday mornings sleeping in and watching TV or reading is nice, but when are you getting together with people to talk about meaningful things, and making plans to improve the world? I argue we’ve taken individualism much too far in this culture, to our detriment.

    • It is the community issue that seems to be the make-or-break. I know for me, coming together to contemplate the bigger questions was something I deeply missed after leaving theistic churches. That hole sat with me, and finding UUism, where I could doubt, think, re-think, question, and just sit with uncertainty with others, filled that hole. Debating the same over coffee or beer, even weekly, would not be the same.

      So here’s my question. How do we foster an appreciation for this sense of live community –UU live community, with rich discussion, multigenerational conversations, and new fodder for thinking — in those who’ve never had the experience? Yes, this is a growth question. Not a growth for growth’s sake question, but more of building a community of these like-minded thinkers who want to good in the world. Not that people can’t do plenty of good without a church, but, like I said, it takes more effort.

      The “is UU a religion” issue is another question. I think it only matters in a sense of how we describe ourselves, and I have no problem adjusting the phrase “Unitarian Univeralism is a ______________ that supports the worth and dignity of every human being (or whatever principle/though the speaker picks). However, words like “church,” “hymn,” “sermon,” and even “moment of science” ring churchy bells for some folks. This may be an attractive or repellent feature, depending on the person. Sadly, our message is broad but the language we choose when describing where our message occurs has minefield potential. But that’s another post…

  3. I think your words and questions highlight an important discussion and a serious misunderstanding. I’ve been a non-theist Unitarian for over 40 years. At certain times in my life, I have received much from this community and I’ve tried to return that gift for others. I’m not moved by concepts like “the sacred” or “the divine”, although it doesn’t upset me to know that others are. My essential beliefs about how the universe functions could be described as scientific materialism, although with very broad definitions for all the aspects that we don’t understand. There’s no question for me that community is the essence of what we find here. People experience this community as spiritual or ethical or principled or caring. Every time that some group tries to restrict the scope of who is welcomed, the community gains some new members and loses others. I see no value in this exercise. I know that some people believe we can create a kind of evangelical church with old time religious feeling and liberal theology. I grew up in an evangelical Christian church and I think that they’re wrong.

    Even though I’m not religious by nature, I don’t mind ritual when its purpose is to strengthen the bonds of community. Ritual doesn’t have to be theist – it doesn’t even have to be religious in order to be moving and effective. I don’t mind quoting from other religious and secular traditions as long as the borrowing is accurate and in context. My greatest personal concern with the changing UU community is how intolerant it’s becoming. The Baptist church that I grew up in had fewer rules than a typical UU church. I don’t see why it matters whether we think of this as a religion or a philosophy. I don’t even go that far – I think of UU principles as an attitude. I spend a lot of time with UU youth and I can tell you that attitude is closer to how most of them feel than philosophy or faith.

    The times when I feel least welcome in my own chosen community are the times when someone talks about “our faith”. Since your faith is not my faith and my theory is probably not your theory (remember, I think as a scientist), a little creative imagination should allow you to understand how I feel. I hope to continue to contribute to this unique and sometimes odd spiritual community for many years to come, as long as the fanatics of religion don’t succeed in pushing out and turning away all the secular idealists like me.

  4. I’m a non-theist, yet I certainly understand and appreciate your desirefor things like getting with a community of like-minded friends, along with desire for ritual,etc. Although I don’t and won’t go to any assembly, I can appreciate another non-theist doing so. And you sound like just the sort of person I would fellowship with over a beer in the back yard–intelligent, open, and seeking truth.

    • Thanks! I’d be glad to share than beer and some conversation to go with it. Back yard and kitchen table conversations and community are remarkable effective. I’ve a number of friends of similar ilk who prefer those options to an organized assembly. Sometimes, I think they have the right idea.

  5. i actually started going because the kids were asking about church. I struggle to keep going when I dont have a kid who is enjoying the RE program (i really really strongly dislike the director of RE at my church and the entire program except for the YRUU). I occasionally find something inspiring at our services, but too often leave them feeling bad about myself or simply bored stiff. We have been having a crisis though – our church is about to celebrate its 20th year, and we’ve had 8 ministers? 6 in the past 8 years. I want a warm, welcoming place and i like a lot of the people here, but no one will come when the services are unpleasant and focused on ‘you arent doing enough’ or simply talking about issues that have absolutely no meaning for me, or, just, really boring . .

    • That’s a hard go, Cara. Yet you’re sticking with it. Why? There is, after all, no threat of hell for not going… Seriously, I wonder about the question of why we go and why we stay at times. Community seems to simplistic. What’s the more that keeps us going?

      • I had missed your followup comment – i need to make sure I get notified of them! I like the community. and actually, things have changed for the better again. We got a new music director who is AWESOME! Choir is over 30 people! and sounding fantastic!! We also have a new interim minister and omg i LOVE listening to him!! So i’m at choir every week, we perform about once a month, and they did a kids production which both kids participated in even tho the younger isnt going to RE . . .so its suddenly looking up! Just keep our fingers crossed that our next minister will work out better than the last several . . .

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