Rational and Reverent

 I’ve written about the Nones (And Then There Were Nones), or religiously unaffiliated. With almost 20% of Americans fitting this description (and the majority of them socially liberal), is it any wonder that the Unitarian Universalists would consider how to attract these folks? Add that we’re a shrinking community (Growing Pains: 161,502 UUs), and it’s easy to see why all those unaffiliated people might seem like ready converts to Unitarian Universalism.

IMG_0144Can the rational and the reverent co-exist? A recent sermon about the Nones set me thinking about the relationship between the rational and the reverent, mindsets that at first glance seem to be in opposition. The sermon, Watering Down the Wine, by Rev. Alex Riegel,  focused on this population of the religiously unaffiliated and played with the idea that we could attract some of these people to our fold if we changed our language and mindset. True, we have a relevant and rational message of compassion and inclusivity that likely does appeal to many of those Nones (as well as liberals happily ensconced in their own faith traditions). But there are barriers. According to the Pew study, 88% aren’t looking for a church. Why they aren’t isn’t covered in the study, but I’d imagine it’s a mixture of feeling wounded from previous church experience, feeling no need to collect on a Sunday morning in a traditional setting, and a preference for Sunday morning in jammies with the paper and a cup of coffee.

We have coffee, and jammies would likely be fine with most congregations, but for the most part, we’re still all church, and rather traditional church at that.  And wounded? Some, but not all. Many have simply decided that they don’t believe what they were brought up to believe. They’ve embraced the rational, what can be thought and touched and turned around in the mind. Others, like me, arrive seeking, questioning the beliefs of youth or just wondering what is out there. Or wondering what isn’t. Either way, we’re theoretically in it together for “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” (4th principle, for those keeping track).

So here we are, built around the idea that the search is the real work of life. That said, I’m not sure how many UUs are actively seeking spiritual answers. We’re a rational bunch, sometimes ruthlessly, stubbornly rational.  Rational thinkers, wounded or not, make up the majority of those in the pews of a UU church, with spirituality and spiritual language largely abandoned or faced with skepticism. In his sermon, Alex suggested relaxing that tight rationality and considering adding some reverence. And he suggested re-thinking opposition to God, or at least to the traditional God. Replace some of the rational with the reverent, seemed to be the call.

I’m deeply rational. I’m also an agnostic who readily admits that I just don’t know the answers and am okay with not knowing. There is so much unknown in the universe, after all, and truths about it we take for granted today were the stuff of fantasy just a generation (or even a decade) back. I just don’t know, and that’s okay with me. I’ve long given up the “easy God” of James Kavanaugh, scholar, poet, and once-Catholic priest. I’m not bitter about the time spent with that comfort but not drawn back to it either. That’s the rational end of me at work. It’s the same part that doesn’t refer to being blessed and will commit to holding someone in my thoughts but not to praying for them. That rationality runs deep and strong, and it’s not wont to be pushed aside.

I don’t think that my rationality gets in the way of my reverence. There’s no need to suspend the rational when staring in awe at the moon, realizing the smallness of me in the grandeur of the Universe while understanding the moon’s physical makeup and relationship to the Earth. My reverence is just as profound when I catch the profile of my younger son, still child-like but on the cusp of adolescence, and the catch in my throat that comes is from the wonder of a world that entrusts us with the lives of the helpless and trusts us to figure it out. And it’s reverence when I meet my dear friend’s eyes and am reminded that love is not limited to those who’ve never known pain or fear but is fully available again and again.

It is reverence I feel when I sit on Sunday morning in a room of other people on their own journeys. Not reverence for something outside of us but rather something among us. It is reverence for our strength together and for the power in community that should only be used to bring more love, compassion, and justice to the world. It is reverence for the freedom I have to believe or not believe in whatever God, spirit, or presence that speaks to me. It is the reverence for the individuals in that space, each coming with his or her own view of what sacred and what brings meaning. It is reverence for what makes us different and what makes us the same.

The rational may be the easy part for many of us, but the reverence is what keeps the rational from running losing our heart, reduced to reason only. The rational and the reverent balance each other, the latter reminding us that despite all we know, we don’t yet understand it all yet.  Our rational mind wonders and weighs, while our reverent mind celebrates the mystery, respecting what has been wondered and weighed and what remains unknown. It is the act of being reverent of the child, the community, the beloved, the stars, and humanity while understanding the rational underpinnings of it all that makes us more fully human than with either sentiment alone.

Rational and reverent. The Unitarian Universalist church appreciates both. This may not be obvious in our services and social time, with the rational language for more comfortable for most of us. So perhaps Alex is right. Perhaps we need to find the language of reverence to temper the rational. While that may be spiritual language, I don’t think it has to be. Perhaps more regular talk about awe and amazement, respect and appreciation, will bring us closer to expressing what we are more likely to note in the quiet of our hearts. Rational and relevant. Truth and meaning. This is the stuff of Unitarian Universalism.


14 thoughts on “Rational and Reverent

  1. Really thoughtful. I appreciate the challenge your community faces. I would say that what might help is finding a way to express your story. The UUA has a very compelling story, and I think they should find a way to express that story.

      • I would look to where the UU emerged from. As I understand it (and I am no UU scholar), the Unitarians emerged as post-enlightenment Christians who believed firmly in freedom of conscience. The Universalists emerged from the radical Free Church movement, and came into their own among the Congregationalists in the U.S. The Universalists were also very active abolitionists. The eventual commonalities between the two traditions led to the formation of the UUA. To fully tell this story, you would need the personalities, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Buckminster Fuller, Susan B. Anthony, and so many others. I also think that (and again, I am an outsider who remains Christian, so please understand I am only offering my limited reflections) the UUA needs to frankly acknowledge their ties to the larger religious environment from which they grew. Susan B. Anthony was not only identified as a Unitarian, but as a Quaker. UU’s have written hymns, preached, and practiced rituals. Too often, when I have encountered UU’s, they seem eager to decry or run from that element of their own heritage. Again, I may not be fair in this. It is only my impression of those UU’s I have encountered, which, admittedly, is not a huge number.

        I appreciate the desire of the UUA to try and avoid “dogma” as a smothering effect from a community. However, unless the community can understand itself and establish its identity, then I cannot see how anyone would want to identify themselves with it. By claiming and telling your story, you provide an identity. This does not mean exclusion, but does enable a person to tell that story, and realize that the story tells them.

        Just my thoughts.

      • This history is there for the taking, and it’s certainly available on the UUA website and in many congregations, from the sermons on Sunday morning, to religious education classes, to the art on the walls, to special classes during the week. UUs are proud of their Unitarian and Universalist history. I’ve not found the resistance you’ve mentioned, instead seeing a desire to share these stories and enjoy those hymns. I don’t think a lack of appreciation for or respect of is the problem. The discussion of the greater religious environment of each of these people may not be the first part of that discussion, but I’ve not had any sense of it being hidden either. My experience with UU is mostly on the micro basis — one church membership with only a few visits to others, aside from my time at SUUSI the past two years.

        I think finding a cohesive message from these parts is hard. Without a single prophet or founder, finding the cohesive thread that translates into a simple story just isn’t easy. It’s true that, on the whole, the focus on our history is not on the interior, religious lives of the many great people who were Unitarians and Universalists. It was on their courage, their deeds, and their character.

        Perhaps the difference is here: the main characters of our faith tradition are not the ones who founded it or even preached in it. They lived remarkable lives while being Unitarians or Universalists for even just part of their lives. These people are not so much the history of our faith as much as historical people who were in a similar (but changed) faith tradition. I’m not sure how to clarify that, so I hope it makes sense.

        The UUs I know don’t want to join because Jane Addams attended a Unitarian church, for example. They join because the message today, as convoluted as it is, resonates with them. It’s this message that needs refining, in my opinion. That’s the hard task, with so many faith traditions and current beliefs and philosophies filling the pews on Sunday morning.

  2. Nice job — again. “That said, I’m not sure how many UUs are actively seeking spiritual answers.” I’m one of the UUs who is not currently seeking spiritual answers. I have a somewhat agnostic approach to Buddhist thoughts and principles and I attend UU for community, diversity and social action. I can only hope at least some “nones” find the same attraction to UUism that I do.

    • If a vast number of UUs were polled as to why they attend and to what they think the central message was, I wonder what the data would show? Would something rise to the top? I know our somewhat recent stats on belief, but that’s not the answer to why people attend. That’s the message to focus on. And really, it’s hard to find us if you don’t know where to look. A small group without a single message — how do people find us? The bigger us, not just UUCF?

      • I think it’s not so much about the current UUs as it is about finding ways for UU to attract the growing number of “nones” – or the 2/3rds of “nones” who call themselves “spiritual but not religious (SBNR)”

  3. Thank you for this. Your thoughts are very similar to my own. As a new UU minister, I’m saddened by the division between reason and reverence which suggests our minds get in the way of reverence. I don’t find mystery and wonder incompatible with science and rationality; indeed I am usually most awed by the mysteries revealed through science. My sense is that UUs could use more awe and wonder in services, which to me is a spiritual framework, but that we don’t necessarily need God language or to reclaim traditional christian language.

    • You’re welcome. Our minds can be a barrier to reverence, but only if we let them. We can talk our way out of reverence if we choose, or we can hold the mysterious and ordinary as amazing, and allow them to fill us with awe and respect. Yes, I’d like to see more room for this in our services. I’m grateful for location of our church, perched on seven acres of woods, which allows one to look out at what most of us seem to agree is worth a moment of silence — the natural world around us. While I don’t mind some spiritual language, I think it’s unlikely to work for many of today’s UUs.And if that is what it takes to draw new people in, we’re likely to lose people. We are our congregations. Now if we can only figure out who it is we are and just what we hold in reverence while we remain so rational.

  4. Last Autumn, I sent a note to the UUA asking if they would be offering guidance. Here’s the reply, “We have indeed received proposals for programming about how to reach out to “nones” and will be given full consideration for GA 2013.” Alex is right, 2/3 of nones are spiritual but not religious. It’s probably a safe bet that those 2/3rds would be more willing to look at UUism than the 1/3 who are atheist and agnostic.

    • According to the study, 37% of the Nones consider themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ (Pew Forum), with 42% as neither spiritual nor religious. I’m honestly not sure which of those groups would be riper for the picking, and I doubt the same approach would draw both. Additionally, on 10% are looking for a religion. Now, what this 10% believes and wants is the data I’d want if I were the UUA. As for the others, it seems they are content to spend Sunday mornings at home in their jammies or at the local coffee shop. Either way, traditional religion (and that’s what UUism resembles from the outside and, honestly, from the inside) isn’t going to appeal to them.

      We have two issues: Identity as a religion and way of living that religion. As long as we look like a church and smell like a church, I’m guessing those 88% are staying home. And as long as we lack a single message that can be spread with conviction, we’re not even attractive to the 10% open to a religion.

  5. I’ve given a couple sermons, now, from Paul Woodruff’s book, ” Reverence, Restoring a Forgotten Virtue.” Very thought-provoking, and right in line with this conversation. If you haven’t read it, seek it out.

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