Evolution (but not Religion) in the Biology Classroom

I rarely post an essay on both here and on my homeschooling blog (Quarks and Quirks), but this one fits both. 

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“Now that I’m homeschooling, I’ll be teaching the boys creationism, of course.”

The chuckle I’d expected from my father didn’t come. He paused, unsure what to say. My decision to homeschool my older had somewhat unnerved him, as it wasn’t the typical path, but he was never one to meddle in my life. I’d rarely even seen him pause like that, processing thoughts that were likely previously thought unthinkable. Creationism? How could that be?

“I’m kidding, Dad,” I reassured him, a bit surprised he’d even thought it was possible.  He exhaled but still looked a bit shaken. He was then a Biology professor at a state university and is still today a liberal Presbyterian. He is committed to science while believing in God, and he finds no conflict between science and his religion. I was raised with both, understanding evolution and believing in God, never seeing conflict between them. And while I left my belief behind about a decade ago, it wasn’t because of science.

What does it mean to understand biology through the lens of science? It means to understand that from the simplest species to the most complicated, natural selection drives the changes to that species. Genes copy with errors, and errors can wreak havoc with life or increase the chance of an individual surviving to reproduce. And that’s what life (in the biological sense) is all about — making more of a species. From antibiotic resistance in bacteria to the form and function of the mammalian eye to the modern human today, evolution is the driver. It’s wily driver, without direction or purpose. Every slip of DNA’s copying mechanism is random, with ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ relative to where the alteration occurred, what (if any) effect it has on the organism, and even the environment in which that organism lives.IMG_0986

To teach biology without this understanding is to miss much of what biology is. To limit evolution to that bacteria’s antibiotic resistance or the finch’s beak is to mangle the very mechanism of change in the living world. It’s akin to teaching composition without discussing grammar. Evolution is how change happens, and biology can only be fully understood by appreciating that overarching truth in science.

So a few weeks back, when I tucked into evolutionary biologist’s David Barash’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, God, Darwin, and My College Biology Class, I found myself nodding along. Barash begins his undergraduate animal behavior class with what he calls “The Talk.” This lecture affirms that his class with look at all of biology through the lens of evolution, a statement I make on my biology syllabus for the classes I’ve taught my sons and their friends and that other families have used as well. I admittedly have an advantage, as my students are known to me and from families where creationism isn’t part of the curriculum. And so evolution simply permeates the class, with religion rarely brought up. It is, after all biology class.

Barash’s classes are more diverse than my tiny home classroom, and I imagine my father’s were similarly diverse. College biology may be the first place conservative Christians rooted in creationism or, its euphemism, Young Earth creationism, may first experience biology through that lens of evolution in a way that affirms the process rather than denies its validity. That could easily put a student on guard, worried about veracity of the rest of the course or thinking about at least part of his or her faith. I’d agree is seems wise to warn — or at least inform — the class of the lens in place. That should be sufficient.

IMG_0538I can’t recall any reference to religion in any of my biology courses in either my Catholic high school or Catholic university. Religion wasn’t mentioned, and no one every asked, as far as I recall, if it should or shouldn’t be discussed in the science classroom.  Barash takes the offensive, as he starts with a talk about religion and science. He doesn’t stop at stating that evolution is the underpinning of biology, and that all will be discussed through that lens. He does not hold, as I do (and as does Stephen Gould) that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” meaning they have separate domains and are, therefore, compatible understandings in a single human being. Instead, Barash tells his students that religion and science do overlap in domain, and that accepting evolution demands deconstruction of any belief in “an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.”

After discussion of the complexity created by natural selection and the illusion of humans as central in the living world, Barash settles into theodicy, an issue far afield of the evolution he sets out to explain. Problems with theodicy (the attempt to reconcile suffering in the world occurring in the presence of an omnipotent, caring deity) contribute to many a person of faith’s loss of that faith. Veering from science, Barash steps broadly into religion, confronting students with the news that if they buy evolution, their faith will likely fall, provided they’re thinking deeply enough:

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator. (Barash)

As an agnostic who sees science through the lens of evolution and the universe as a mystery we ever so slowly unwrap, origin somewhat understood, but only with the most tenacious grasp, I find myself irritated with Barash. Like other militant atheists (and I’m assuming he is an atheist), he forces a narrow lens on what God must be to the believer: God, it seems, must be creator of all, simple and complex, pulling each string and guiding each change. God must create humans as separate, with some of God’s supernaturalness in humans but not other creatures. God must be absent given suffering in the world.DSCN0653

About a decade ago, I left my faith behind. But I didn’t lose it in the science classroom, and I didn’t lose it because I understood that the complexity of life is due to evolution, the roll of the genetic dice paired with environmental pressures. I didn’t lose faith because I understood the long arc of evolution that brought humans into being. I lost it in part to the theodicy question and in part to long thought about what made sense to me. Science wasn’t part of my musing.

My father, a biologist who understands and teaches science through the lens of evolution, a man of faith who is dedicated to helping others of faith, understands that science and faith need not be in conflict. He hasn’t lost his belief, despite decades of science study as a researcher, professor, and interested human being. He, like Barash and I, understand the complexity produced by evolution’s often slow hand, and he is unbothered by the lack of supernatural gene in humans. And the theodicy question? He’s obviously found a way through that one, all while appreciating the science of evolution. And at what cost to his science classes? None.

Barash’s mistakes, in my opinion, are two-fold. First, his view of what God is to a believer is myopic and simplistic. Views of God, gods, goddesses, and divine forces in the universe are as diverse as there are people who believe. Second, his approach is arrogant and presumptive. To tell people who believe just how their faith will be undone is an act of assumed superiority and completely without regard to the personal nature of an individual’s faith. Will some conservative believers, steeped in the absoluteness of a seven-day creation myth struggle as they take biology in a college classroom where evolution is the common currency? Probably. But many believers of all flavors won’t struggle one bit, content with their separation of science and religion.

DragonflyBarash wants to warn his students that, should they retain their faith, they will do so only with “some challenging mental gymnastic routines.” How a nonbeliever can begin to step into the mind of a believer and predict whether the wonders of evolution will deepen or destroy the faith of another is beyond me. Yes, science can challenge faith, especially a conservative faith resting on a supreme being pulling the strings and putting humans above all else. But faith, in many forms, can sit comfortably with the scientist, causing no sacrifice to the scientist’s understanding of the universe and the living things inhabiting it. Barash’s talk forwards his own atheist agenda, and that, in the classroom, is going too far.

I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but when at the front of the classroom, I believe you have a responsibility that includes knowing your boundaries. If you’re a biology teacher, teach science. Unabashedly teach evolution and say that you’ll do so. Talk about complexity. Ignore creationism, as it’s not science. And ignore God, whether you believe or not, as faith isn’t part of science. Encourage students struggling with the concepts to discuss their struggle with classmates, their religious leader, their God, or anyone who will listen and let them sort through. But stay out of the wonderings and wanderings of their faith.

I teach biology through the lens of evolution. I’m an agnostic. My father, on a far larger scale, did the same for decades. He’s a Presbyterian. It works.

Why Church?

IMG_1277Why church?

I’ve asked myself that for much of the last year. Personally and professionally, change abounds. I’ve expanded my work from home and married the man I love. It’s been a good but busy time, with plenty for my hands and heart to do. For the past six months, I’ve found myself often at home with family, attention focused tightly at a time where that seems the most appropriate action.

Church has changed, too. The UU community I’ve called home for the past seven years has also gone through wrenching changes, with a loss of our minister last summer and a moderate loss of congregation in the process. Initially, part of church leadership, I sat through meetings and contributed to email discussions, watching conflict and division grow and wondering just what was right. Gradually, I pulled back, first leaving my committee chair position and then attending services only sporadically. During winter and spring, I dropped my son for his OWL classes (Our Whole Lives — a human sexuality series offered in Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ churches) and spent services in the church gathering area, where I could tune in and out as desired. This summer, I’ve attended rarely, excusing my absences to travel and family consolidation time.

I’ve started to more deeply consider the question underneath my avoidance. Why church? Why should I get up each Sunday morning, the one day no one needs to otherwise dress and leave the house, and go to church? Why not stay home with my coffee, New York Times, NPR, and pajama-clad loved ones? Why drive twenty minutes to sit for sixty, sip coffee for fifteen, and drive another twenty home? Why do I go?

Seven years back, I had reasons, the first being a hole I couldn’t fill at home.  A life-long member of some Christian denomination or another, I was, seven years back, rather new to saying aloud that I didn’t see any evidence of a god. A reluctant agnostic, mostly closeted because I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the safety of a personal god, I was feeling loss. Holidays deepened the sense of loss, with Lent and Advent leaving me unmoored. Finding a congregation that was fine with my increasingly faithless status and offered a touch of ceremony to the big liturgical holidays relieved a bit of the chasm that came with jumping theistic ship. At least I was somewhere doing something vaguely familiar.

I came to that UU congregation with several searching friends. In my socially slow-moving, introverted style, I gradually found new friends and acquaintances.  I’d spent the previous decade and a half moving from parish to parish, never feeling settled. At one, I’d come to know a few families well enough to make coffee hour more than a dash for a donut for each kid, but I never found friends. I certainly didn’t experience the supportive relationships my parents had known and continue to know in their places of worship. At this church, I’ve had true friends, the sort where coffee hour can’t contain the conversations. The sort  that spread to the other six days of the week.

And the sort of friends that can sop up some of the sorrow of a slowly imploding marriage and soften a bit of the disaster of divorce. New friends and old held me when I cried. Sunday mornings because a refuge, a time and place I could let down and feel, for just a bit, cocooned from a reality I couldn’t believe was mine. I don’t believe in fate or a god that directs our lives, but I do believe in the power of two or more people gathered in love and in the balm of friendship. I imagine I’d have found a way through those terrible years without that place and those people, but I’m not sure I’d have made it through with much of my sense of self and dignity intact.

Of course there were the kids. Boys, young boys then, not the type to share their grief and confusion over bagels and fair trade coffee but old enough to feel a sense of community. I considered Sunday morning church and religious education to be a social as well as learning opportunity for my introverted boys. Over the years, I came to deeply appreciate the UU approach to children’s religious education. It’s respectful and thoughtful, and my children blossomed in that environment. Questioning was welcomed, the quiet, thoughtful sort as well as the more outspoken and even challenging type. My boys have done well there, learning lessons about respect, dignity, worth, and love, lessons that came through the members who taught them regardless of what the curriculum of the day was. As they’ve matured, they’ve taken on responsibilities that serve the congregation, learning that belonging to community means participating in the work of the community.

That’s good stuff. But, still, I’m asking the question.

Why church now?

I’ve settled comfortably and confidently into my agnostic, humanist view of the world. Holidays no longer echo emptily. We’ve largely left Easter behind, and Christmas has become a time for family. I don’t wake up the first Sunday of Advent longing for “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel,” and I often find Fat Tuesday takes me by surprise and leaves with no pierogi or other indulgence, let alone a vice to give up. I don’t go to church to fill that hole. It’s filled itself with time.

My life’s settled down (for now) and with that calm, my need for sanctuary seems less urgent. I’ve found more peace within myself, although that’s still a peace that takes work, as I’m prone to angst and anxiety. Over the years, I’ve found more of that peace at home, in no small part because I’m sharing that home with a supportive and loving partner. I have friends, some from church, some from other communities, friends I mostly keep up with outside of the confines of Sunday mornings. And my boys? As the church has aged and the number of families with children has dropped, even with jobs they enjoy and adults who care for them, church isn’t offering them the companionship it once did.

Why church?

I’ve let that question flit in and out of my mind for a year. I’ve pondered it more seriously for the last several months. And for nearly a week, I’ve written and rewritten this piece, hoping to sort through that question a bit more. A sermon a week back, given by a long-time member who’s seen the place through many ministers and countless changes, provided me with a longer view. After a lifetime of mostly Catholic church experience, I’m new to the leadership and political engagement that many other churches require. I’d never watched a congregation grumble and feud. I’d never seen a member cry because of changes in ministry. I’d never sat at the meeting table, seeing how painful and divisive disagreement can be. Frankly, I’ve wanted to flee, missing my ignorance about the hard work it takes to build a church. I’ve wanted to return to the outside, where lack of engagement in process allowed me to keep my rose-colored glasses on or simply leave when things didn’t feel good anymore.

But this longer view makes me think yet again about my question: Why church?

  • Church, because it is a place where others who value religious freedom gather.
  • Church, because values of inclusion, equality, and justice always need a voice.
  • Church, because supportive community is built over time, not just used when in need.
  • Church, because working through pain, anger, and disappointment in community deepens understanding.
  • Church, because children thrive in an environment of thinking, caring adults who see them as competent and valuable.
  • Church, because stumbling and falling aren’t ends if we help each other off, address our hurts, and work together to heal.
  • Church, because it reminds us that community is larger than any one person, idea, or belief.

So I’m finding my way back to church. I can’t say my energy or enthusiasm is high, but seeing the place from a longer view nudges me to have more patience with the time we’re in. So I’ll show up on most Sunday mornings. I’ll ease into participation beyond that, parking my cloak of disappointment and reluctance on the hangers in the hall. I’ll have the hard conversations, listening to others and mulling over ideas. I’ll also look to the past, learning about what it takes to make a community last over a century and a half and perhaps helping to build that community’s future.

Informed by Faith

I gave this sermon at UU Farmington on November 17, 2013. 

Reading:  Impassioned Clay, by Raph N Helverson (Singing the Living Tradition, #654)

Deep in ourselves reside the religious impulse

Out of the passions of our clay it rises.

We have religion when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient, self-sustaining, or self-derived.

We have religion when we hold some hope beyond the present, some self-respect beyond our failures.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the heart.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream of the hears.

We have religion when we have an abiding gratitude for all that we have received.

We have religions when we look upon people with all their failings and sill find them good; when we look beyond people to the grandeur of nature and the purpose in our own heart.

My memory begins with church.  Specifically, it begins in 1970 in a Baptist church in Madison, Wisconsin.  It goes like this: From the center of a braided rug in what seemed to be an immense space, I see my parents in the doorway.  My father, in a dark coat and suit pants smiles while my mother, dressed for Sunday service, holds out her arms and beams.  Decades ago, my parents deciphered that memory for me.  In our Baptist church’s nursery, at ten months of age, I took my first steps across that rug towards my parents.

Millions of steps and countless of memories later, I have stepped into dozens of churches. I’ve called about ten of those my spiritual home, some for only months, most for at least a few years, and a few for over a decade.   From Baptist to Methodist to Catholic to Episcopal, I toured a slice of Christianity.  It was a generally liberal and entirely Midwest journey, and it ended in my late thirties when I left the theistic traditions.

I was born in the last months of the sixties  to pacifist parents in Madison, Wisconsin,.  The Baptist church of my birth, memorable to me only because of those first steps, did not baptize infants, so I began life unclaimed by any one denomination. I recall little more about my second spiritual home, the liberal  and Catholic St. Paul’s Church associated with the University of Wisconsin.  Aside from long legs, towering above me as I sat or sprawled on the pew, my main memory of this time is one exciting moment yelling, “But I want to go to church!” while being carried by my father into the vestibule. I doubt the veracity of that exclamation, and it says more about my tendency toward the dramatic than my spiritual yearnings.

More informative memories start later. When I was four, we moved to Michigan.  We settled in Warren, where liberal Christianity meant the local Methodist church. For seven years, I spent most Sunday morning in a classroom, learning about the Golden Rule, Jesus’ compassion, and the Bible, earning my own copy of the latter after memorizing the Lord’s Prayer. Services, seldom attended by children, were dull to me, with their the long prayers and a longer sermon, interrupted by hymns and choral pieces accompanied by the organ.

During those same years, noontime found us at the University of Detroit’s chapel,  liberally bent and Jesuit run. Yes. I went to church twice almost every Sunday. The chapel was in the university’s Commerce and Finance Building, a large classroom, really, with colored panes of glass where clear would have been. We sat in molded plastic chairs. There were no kneelers and no kneeling, and while I knew when to sit and stand, throughout the rest of my Catholicism, I couldn’t figure out when to kneel.  As in other Catholic churches, children attended services with the adults.  Sermons were shorter and more comprehensible than in the Methodist church, at least they were when I paid attention. Jesus’ love and messages of social justice and peace were perhaps just more accessible to my child-self than the more scripture-based preachings of my mornings.   Folk tunes accompanied by acoustic guitar punctuated the shorter, livelier services. The song’s lyrics and tunes echoed the music in my home, with many being the same folk tunes my father sang, guitar hand,  in the evenings at home with my mom and I. Themes of justice and love and peace filled this ordinary appearing space. This Land is Your Land. This Little Light of Mine. ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple.

While aesthetically and experientially quite different, my Methodist and Catholic experiences professed similar messages about the love and compassion of Jesus and social justice while providing supportive community. Potlucks. Informal meetings in people’s homes. Accessible, human clergy whom my parents called by first name. Few rules and prohibitions. Plenty of community.

At home, Christianity whispered.  We said grace at meals, put out the crèche and Advent wreath each December, and attended at least one religious institution each weekend.  I don’t recall bedtime prayers, petitions to God for wants or needs, references to heaven or hell, or biblical bedtime stories. I do recall boycotts on lettuce and green grapes (and I mourned the loss of the latter) and intentionally being raised within the city of Detroit . I grew up with clergy in my home for meals.  I saw women in the (Catholic) pulpit. I grew up without much sense of mystery in or fear of  God.  Without a sense that religion prohibited much of anything other than hate and discrimination.  With a choice of what path to follow when I decided I wanted to choose.  Free thinking started early and was encouraged often. Like my father says of his youth, I have nothing to unlearn from that time.

Somewhere along the way, my parents made it clear that I was to choose my own faith when ready.  I spent my elementary school years gathering a scorecard of sorts, noting the differences and similarities between the two places, unaware that neither were the only version of Methodist or Catholic life. Grape juice instead of wine for communion? Check for the Methodists. Shorter services with better music? Check for the Catholics. But junior high found me in a Catholic school, unable to participate in communion because of my non-Catholic status. The sense of being outside of fold was subtle but present. The mystery of ritual and faith of my Catholic school –and a desire to be like my friends –swayed me to, by twelve, become sacramentally and spiritually Catholic.

Or at least to become a liberal, 1980’s Catholic. That’s the only version of Catholic I knew until eleventh grade. Tumbling and reeling from my parents’ divorce and searching to define myself as myself, I  stumbled upon group of charismatic high school and college-aged Catholics. I was intrigued at this more tangible spirituality, far more alive and life-permeating than my previous church experience. For three years, as youth and then adult leader, I explored Catholicism from a more intimate, energetic, personal angle.  The mystical end of the faith spoke to me, bringing energy to my spiritual life and relief from my angst.  But by twenty, the mismatch between that conservative and close-minded bent of that arm of the church and my less emotive but more accepting and socially active upbringing led me to leave, returning my focus to the Jesuit Catholicism I’d been raised with.  Attending the University of Detroit for undergrad and grad school allowed me to remain in that church of my youth, albeit at the student version. I was active in Campus Ministry and sang with the guitar group for weekly Mass.  I  left school a practicing Catholic looking for a good fit.

Catholicism outside those Jesuit institution walls and in the ever-more conservative larger world was a disappointment.  My then-husband and I attended a handful of churches over the next dozen years, some for several years.  My boys were baptized Catholic, each in a different church.  Shifting buildings failed to ease the increasing discomfort I felt with the walls of Catholicism with its patriarchy, tightening rules, and increasing conservatism. God wasn’t the question yet. Catholicism itself was.

What transpired in my heart and mind over the next several years was informed by the fluidity of faith taught by the example of my parents. First, we moved to an Episcopal church in an attempt to find a more welcoming, liberal spiritual home. ( I simply asked my Episcopal friend what the most liberal Episcopal church around here was. She pointed me in towards the one headed by an openly lesbian minister, which seemed like as good an indicator as any. ) That held us for a few years, but during that holding period, I went through an intense time of change in spiritual thought.  First, my mother converted from Catholicism to Reform Judaism.  This played no small influence on my decision to leave Christianity.  Her fluidity modeled what religious choice should be — personal searches made freely and with great thought.  Second, and definitely a story for another day, my belief in God was rapidly dropping away. I started to allow the questions that had, like a leaking faucet,  become the background of my thoughts. Prayer, God, rules, religion. With sadness and relief and absolutely no idea what would come next, I left church.

A few years later, my boys and I found a Unitarian Universalist community.  It asked for no commitment to God or creed;  it preached love and acceptance, spoke cautiously about Jesus, resonated with messages of justice and equality, and encouraged reason and pondering. It became home.

Soon after we found our Sunday morning spot, life heaved unexpectedly the way life does.  As my marriage exploded, my new-found community held me tight.  Pondering the divine, questioning the nature of love, and wandering into a new life with my two children and without my spouse, I had found a place to work out and through the difficulties of  life out in a religious community which embraced free thought, spiritual search, and human dignity.  I found a home.

Today, I identify as an agnostic Unitarian Universalist. I don’t believe in a god or divine force. I hold to laws of science and trust science to continue to unravel the mysteries of the universe but am comfortable with them unexplained.  I am content with an understanding of my existence as temporal, bound by my birth and death, and I don’t find myself worried about the purpose of our existence. Instead, I focus on the world in front of me, seeking unity, compassion, love, peace, and acceptance.

Agnostic as I am — unbeliever I am — I remain informed by the faith of my first thirty-some years of life. While God has dropped away, I still find the language of my religious upbringing useful for my agnostic living. Reverence. Ritual. Sacrament. Even Jesus. These religiously rooted concepts anchor my agnosticism and Unitarian Universalism..

Reverence.  Reverence, according to Paul Woodruff, a humanities professor at the University of Texas in Austin and author of Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, states that “reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations (and) from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside of our control — God, truth, justice, nature, even death.” Reverence is one of those words that is hard to define but easy to identify. Reverence can generate respect, but it is not respect alone. Reverence certainly contains awe and wonder as well, although it is still something more.

The reverence of my youth was wrapped up with God’s role in the natural world. Every summer, I attended an Episcopal summer camp in Ortonville, Michigan. For a week or two,  this urban child  lived a bit closer to nature, with woods and water, fields and flowers surrounding me. The chapel we used for services, choir practice, and movies held a wall of windows behind the altar, granting a view of nature’s grandeur. At ten or so, I connected the two, awestruck by the nature outside the window framed by the building created for the worship of God. Reverence was born.

It is certainly within the purview of the rational person to be reverent. Reverence requires no god. There’s no need to suspend the rational when staring in awe at the moon, realizing the smallness of oneself 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. The accompanying catch in my throat is from the wonder of a world that entrusts us with the lives of the helpless, certain we’ll figure it out. And it’s reverence when I meet my partner’s eyes and am reminded that love and joy are not limited to those who’ve never known pain or fear,  but rather something fully available even when we hurt and fear the most.

It is reverence I feel when I sit here on Sunday morning in a room of people on their own journeys. Not reverence for something outside of us but rather for 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 to 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. Reverence remains.

Ritual. I was a child drawn to routine, the mundane cousin of ritual. I thrived on a regular bedtime, a predictable breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the rhythm of school. Routine comforted me. Ritual fed me, offering focus and meaning and a sense of purpose. The Catholic church provided plenty of ritual, what between the sign of the cross, the prayers and responses during Mass, and the sacraments.. These were soothing elements of my Catholicism, sometimes the nidus of my reflection of sense of purpose and meaning and sometimes simply mindful and mantra-like. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its most basic level, provided solace during those times where “going through the motions” was all I could manage. Ritual, observed and participatory, at its peak, allowed transcendence of self and ego, raising awareness of truth beyond my mind.

Leaving Catholicism meant leaving those rituals. The hole was vast, with no go-to prayers to quiet the chaos in my head and no communion to remind me that I belonged to a larger body of believers as well as to a god.  I tried prayer beads without the prayers, meditation with mantra, chant, and other rituals that shadowed those that had comforted me in my theistic days. Mindful meditation and mantra in time of stress provided the greatest comfort, allowing an anchor when I needed one most.

As a family, we’d long performed the ritual of grace before dinner, a practice carried from my family of origin to family of choice. While I was theistic, we’d used the same stock prayers of my youth:

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blest.

and

God is great; God is good. Let us thank him for our food.

Seeking anchors for myself and my boys,  I worked to take a ritual that was quickly losing meaning (and seeing hypocritical, given all of our agnostic/atheist views) and form it into something meaningful. We cast aside the theistic prayers, made a chalice with a candle, and bought a book of prayers and words of wisdom from the world’s many traditions. And so we gathered, the three of us, all needing some tethering, each evening to light the chalice and find a reading. I know I found — and find — solace in the ritual, small as it is. Ritual remains.

Soul. Throughout my Christian upbringing, my ideas of what happened after death were fuzzy. When my grandfather died, I can’t recall anyone saying anything about where he went.  Heaven seemed vague and frankly boring. Eternity with God held no allure, and Hell was never a concept that made any sense in the context of a loving God. With no afterlife idea firmly in mind, the soul wasn’t ever about existence beyond the boundaries of my body. It was a piece of language without firm definition until I started thinking about just what I did and didn’t believe.

Soul, or the essence of one’s being as I call it now, informs my relationships with myself and others.  It’s the “me” under me, what’s left when I strip off my ego defenses, upbringing, wants, desires, and all that I’ve always identified as me.  My soul’s been with me since my start and will continue to accompany me on this journey of life.  It’s not the part of me that’s UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, homeschooling mom, divorced, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, or introverted-yet-sociable.  It is what is both before and beyond all that.  It’s the part of me capable of great compassion and love for those my egoic-self finds hard to love and feel compassion for, a list  of people who often includes myself. It’s the part that yearns for peace for all, not because I want it to be so but because it’s what humans should have.  It’s unselfish, kind, patient, undemanding, unassuming, endlessly loving, and deeply in touch with humanity.  It’s me with all the “me” left behind.

Soul, or essence, is not immortal or otherworldly. It can be buried under all the stuff that we identify as self — UU, agnostic, white, middle-class, divorced, homeschooling, liberal, free thinking, tactile-sensitive, and introverted-yet-social.   It’s a risky thing to expose. The more I work to let my soul lead, the more tender I become:  the more I risk in this world. It’s a vulnerable way to live, soul exposed, and I know I’m only living there a small fraction of my life, although I’m working on increasing that time.  It’s living with the soul that leaves me most fulfilled as human, most compassionate and loving of life around me.  And that’s worth some pain. Soul — or essence –gains definition.

Jesus. I was raised a Christian. My memories of kindergarten Sunday School include an episode of soggy tights due to hesitancy to use the church restroom and songs about Jesus:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, we are weak but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.

The song mystified me, much as heaven did. Jesus, a long-haired white guy, according to the picture on the classroom wall, was dead, but not. Human, but God. He loved me but had never met me. As years of Sunday School passed, I developed more sense of the man Jesus — the compassionate, generally patient, loving, and forgiving man said to be the son of God. And he seemed like a good guy. My Jesuit Catholic experience added a social justice component to the man — Jesus cared for the poor, the lost, the imprisoned, the hungry. He was unimpressed by money and power. He loved people. Yes, he seems like a good guy. And, at that point, filled with faith that this whole triune God thing worked somehow, he was real — human and divine.

When the divinity of Jesus fell away — when my faith left leaving reason as my main way of seeing the world — I started to like Jesus even more. How much of the life of Jesus portrayed in the Christian New Testament is real isn’t important to me. Whether the stories of Jesus’ compassion, acceptance, and activism are created to make a historical figure more appealing or to simply spread a way of thinking is immaterial to me. I like the guy. He’s a fine role model for how to move in the world and human enough to relate to (Recall the tantrum in the temple when he turned over the tables of the sellers and money changers? A man who struggles with anger and disappointment. I can relate to that.). He loved deeply. He acted boldly. Myth or man, the ideals professed in the Gospels carry with me today. If we lived in a world where those values were practiced, I can only imagine the difference in the lives of all of us.  Jesus man or myth, remains.

Jesus. Soul or essence. Ritual.  Reverence. I walk with these today. These are the remnants of the religions of my first (almost) four decades. I have followed in my parents’ footsteps, choosing a path that speaks to the truth to me at the time, changing paths when needed. I’ve come to forks in the path, wandered down one for a bit, then turned back.  I’ve stood at forks and looked backward and from side to side, awaiting the inspiration or courage to choose a way. As I’ve walked, I’ve picked up God and love and compassion. Justice and peace. Jesus and awe and reverence. Hope and humility. Divinity and everlasting life. Rules and prohibition. Joy and community. Requirements and reconciliation.

But at my last fork, I stared long and hard into the unknown. I set down prayer and God and promises of everlasting life. I set down rules more complicated than Jesus’ exhortation to love one another. I set down restrictions on gender in religion. And I took my first step on the wide path that is Unitarian Universalism, where I was free to carry what I chose to carry.  I remain informed by the religions of my youth as I  step forward with what remains: reverence, ritual, compassion, community, love, justice, equity, soul, Jesus (and a host of others), reason, and free thought. It is these I carry as I walk down this path and wander toward the next inevitable fork in the road.  When I get there, I’ll stop and again set down what no longer serves me, consider what still does, and take the next step.

Questions of Comfort

IMG_0392“But if you don’t believe in God or some greater purpose to the universe, how do you find comfort in times of trouble?”

That was the question from a congregant on a recent Sunday morning after a sermon on knowledge and belief at my Unitarian Universalist church. Palpable concern tinged with emotion filled the asker’s voice as she spoke: How could one manage the pain and suffering that goes with life without something greater than oneself along for the ride? Or at least how could one see one’s way through travesty without a sense of it being part of a greater purpose?

After the speaker worked away at his answer, I turned to my pew mate who had lost her husband to cancer not too long ago. Before I could form the question, she answered, her eyes wide: “If there had been a purpose, that would have been worse!”

I agree. I cannot reconcile a greater purpose in the traumas and suffering of this world, a purpose that requires, for instance, someone young to die to do what? Teach patience? Persistence? True love? Endurance? A tolerance for suffering? Can’t most of those be learned in our more ordinary moments, such as while in line at the post office or during a bout of the flu? Questions about the source of a greater force or divinity aside, the thought that a greater source or being would have a purpose to putting a father through cancer, a mother through the suicide of a child, whole countries through famine or war is just, well, unfathomable and, frankly cruel.

But back to the asker’s question: Where do you find comfort in times of suffering if you don’t believe the suffering has a greater purpose? My comfort comes from three sources. First, I ascribe to this Buddhist view: Life is suffering. That’s not a miserable thought designed to depress and defeat but rather a reminder that feeling unsatisfied — suffering — is reality. We all feel pain and distress, making the Buddhist view a realistic look at the world. We come into the imperfect world with our imperfect selves and, to no surprise, live imperfect lives. The Buddhist answer to this suffering is to embrace impermanence and to avoid attachment to what is and to what we wish could be.

Am I good at this? Not really, but remembering that life happens — that suffering and discomfort are part of life — help me out when I’m uncomfortable with a twist life’s thrown me. Sure, I try to control what I can. I get my flu shots, wear my seat belt, know where my kids are, save for a rainy day, and otherwise take the precautions I can against the ways of the universe and the wiles of human nature. But in the end, I work hard to remember that control only gets me so far and so safe and that I can’t protect everyone within my reach. There is comfort in knowing my limits, differentiating what is my responsibility from what is beyond my grasp.

My second source of solace in calamity is knowledge. Comfort in fact, in science, in knowing brings me to peace about some of the suffering life passes my way. Comprehending more about the way the world works helps me ascribe cause where there is cause and ponder where there isn’t. Understanding probability and what randomness truly is removes a good deal of finger-pointing at what is fair and what is not. Storms and sickness know no “fair.” Sure, where you live and your behaviors may move you closer to hurricanes or further from heart disease, but “fairness” suggests an outside arbiter, making decisions about where to place that maelstrom or blood clot. That would be unfair. And cruel. I’ll take comfort in the equanimity of randomness, thank you.

There are, of course, events that are unfair and not random. War. Famine. Terrorist attacks. I’ve been spared these traumas, and I’m grateful. They do confound and pain me, but I don’t question their purpose in the greater scheme of things. They have causes, certainly, but that is quite different from purpose. And how to find comfort through them? As someone who has only observed these through the newspaper, radio, and TV, I simply don’t know, but I’m fairly certain searching for purpose of the purposeless wouldn’t help me.

My fellow travelers provide my third source of comfort in a world of suffering. I am not alone in my suffering. The travelers I know by name comfort me most often, with willing ears and caring words when I’m most troubled. Sharing suffering lightens me a bit, and when commiseration follows a sharing, I’m reminded that very few if any of our pains are unique. We all get sick, become disappointed, lose heart, lose love, lose sleep, lose hope, ponder the place we have in the world, and worry about those closest to us as well as those nameless ones thousands of miles away. So we don’t suffer alone even when we are alone. I’ve many times taken comfort in that reality. With seven billion other humans on the planet, I’m likely not the only one experiencing anything. And somehow that helps.

Years ago, when my beliefs included a God, I prayed when suffering or upon seeing another in distress. And about a decade ago, I started questioning that process. My questions started with source and purpose: How could a relevant force in the world, greater than ourselves, omnipotent and omniscient, exist in the face of suffering? How could a god desire — even demand — praise, petition, and thanksgiving while letting horrific happenings occur despite that praise, petition, and thanksgiving? And if God did none of that — if free will reigned and all hands are off — then what was the point of all that praying?

And thus the comfort of prayer and context of purpose gradually left. Losing that easy comfort in just the conversation with a source was initially both unnerving and liberating. It took time to find that a touch of Buddhist thought, knowledge, and companions could relieve some of the inevitable suffering of life. Truth is that I still find myself starting to pray at odd moments, stopping after the invocation of the divine. “Dear God,” I begin. And end. There just is no more comfort there.

So I sit, without a sense of a greater purpose to the rain that falls other than that rain falls. I’ve not been faced with the truly horrific, so one could say I’ve not been truly tested by suffering, but I’ve had my own traumas in my forty-four years. In the past decade or so, I’ve met with greater adversity than in the previous three combined, and yet, finding comfort has been far easier. I don’t ask the question of the greater purpose to suffering anymore. I suffer. I will continue to suffer. So will all others. With knowledge of this, a thirst for knowledge and appreciation of fact, and the community of 7 billion with whom I hurl through space, I am comforted.

A Walk in the Woods

IMG_0434Yesterday I walked in the woods with my dear friend, sharing the sights and sounds of Stony Creek Metropark on a warming Saturday morning. We’d started a conversation an hour before, and there was still much to be said on both sides.  Or perhaps it began months earlier, after he talked me into reading Richard Dawkins’ controversial work, The God Delusion. I’d avoided the book, not wanted to read a polemic against religion. After reading just over half the book, I couldn’t complete it. It felt hostile and angry, not feelings I hold at all toward religion and religious people. And, yes, it held arguments against the likelihood of the existence of God that resonated with — and expanded on — my own. But I’d had enough.

Whenever the conversation began, its basic components remained the same. He feels the world is worse for religion while I maintain it’s given more to humanity than it has taken. He cites genocide, wars, hate crimes, exclusionary behavior, and a host of hostilities, all in the name of religion. He’s right, of course. Throughout history, religious differences and religious beliefs have led to atrocities, both large and small, many in the name of a god, or at least with the intent of doing what that faith believes is the work of their god.

Yes, he’s right. Terrible acts have been committed and will continue to be committed under the shelter of religion and religious thought. Religion serves to set a group apart, encouraging a community to share values and ideals. In the course of this setting apart, those different may be seen as in the way of the truth as that group perceives it. Those with differing views of the greater reality are sometimes seen as in conflict with that particular truth, which when taken to extreme, can lead to violence. But, I counter, plenty of hate has occurred without religion as a motivator. Racism and sexism, while fostered by some religious groups, run rampant through history regardless of religion. Mass executions under Stalin and Mao were not religiously motivated either. And some atrocities have multiple triggers, as in Darfur.

A bit of googling around lead me to dozens of poorly documented lists tallying the dead from both religious and nonreligious atrocities. The numbers go the way of the one doing the tallying — the religious cite higher numbers killed in conflicts not based in religion while the agnostics/atheists claim the count goes the other way. I’ve not the time nor inclination to do the math myself, and I’m fine with saying its a draw. Either way, human beings have committed unimaginable wrongs against others of their species in an astounding number of ways.

Humans find ways to divide. We’ve evolved to gather in community for protection at the very least. As a species, we thrive when we divvy daily tasks yet still stick together when whomever is perceived as the dangerous ‘other’ comes into our camp. We’re territorial, suspicious, and tribal. We don’t like change, and living in proximity of ‘other’ requires either change or the removal of ‘other’. Religion or not, I maintained, we have always and sadly likely always will battle ‘other.’

And so the conversation went, as we walked through the woods, debating the topic heatedly but without anger. We enjoy a good back-and-forth, which is good, since I seem wired to walk into one sometimes just for the mental stimulation, regardless of how strongly I feel about a topic. We did pause for a group of birders, not sure they’d share our enthusiasm for the subject, but otherwise, the debate continued through the woods.

What bothers me most in conversations like this is what I perceive as hostility against religion.  Now, my dear friend is decidedly not hostile against religion or religious people. He’s a tolerant, accepting chap, devoted to peace and human rights and as loving, kind, and smart as they come. He’s just not the hostile type. And yet I find my hackles raised when the conversation takes this turn. Suddenly, I’m ready to defend the tolerant portion of the religious, the part that includes my family (and his) and many of my friends (and his). It’s me against the anti-religious tide, and I raise my verbal staff to part the seas for the faithful and kind.

Well, at least I do put up a good verbal defense. Or at least I think it is. My dear friend (and for this and other traits I do love him), is unfazed, lobbing counterpoints to each of my replies. We’re without statistics, walking by water and through woods, stopping once to wait for a chipmunk to pass and again avoid trampling a butterfly. I talk about the good done by religious people, about churches and temples and mosques committed to helping the poor and downtrodden. I talk about the benefits of the institutionalization of values, such as the Golden Rule, a exhortation repeated in most world religions to treat others as one would want to be treated, to love as we want to be loved. We each attempt to measure the immeasurable to support our respective opinions.

Miles later, we’re no closer to agreement and not entirely out of fuel for this fine discussion. He’s calling me on my logical inconsistencies to the point where I just start pointing them out myself to save verbiage  I’m pointing fingers at overstatements and wanderings, at least as I see them. And despite my tone, I’m satisfied and happy. We don’t agree. We’re unlikely to agree on this one, and even if we started toward agreement on some middle ground, I’m not sure either of us would admit it. I’ve had to think deeply, and I’m sure I’ll continue to think deeply about the role of religion in this world. I’ll mull and stew.

And we’ll undoubtedly debate again, and I’m glad. These debates stir my thoughts beyond the subject at hand. I start to think about the motivations behind my stance. Sometimes, it’s just out of desire to be obstinate that I take the up to his down. But generally, like today, there is more there. With this question — the question of whether religion has given more to humanity that it’s taken — I found the strength of my attachment to the hope that religion could some day be tempered and moderate, used cooperatively as a point of shared general values of love and compassion for humanity. I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic that we’ll ever reach that point. We’re just far too…human. I’m just not so sure the balance leans are far into the red as some say. In the woods — in the peace of the trees and waters and residents of both, my friend at my side and my children’s futures in my heart — I have hope.

Pope Francis, Atheism, and Words of Thanks

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

I smiled while reading the Huffington Post piece, Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics. (I’m assuming it applies to us agnostics who do good in the world as well, since the hair between the atheist and agnostic is the knowability of the presence of God.) Personally, the issue of my redemption matters little to me. I don’t hold to the idea of sins or sinners needing redemption. As human, I am fallible, and whether one calls those numerous failings human behavior, sins, transgressions against other living beings, or mistakes doesn’t really matter to me. And as human, I am accountable to myself and others for those shortfalls. I don’t see the role a divine being would have in my acknowledgement of my mistakes, my need to make amends, and my subsequent attempt to avoid those mistakes again.

And yet, to this agnostic, Pope Francis’s words matter. They don’t matter because agnostics and atheists are all excited about going to heaven, a place that doesn’t have meaning to those who don’t ascribe to the religious beliefs behind the concept (and I know that’s not the redemption issue, but it is bothering some Catholics, all of us nonbelievers thinking we’re a shoo-in for heaven). They don’t matter because atheists long for compassion from a god or knowledge that Jesus died for their sins (but plenty of us find Jesus to be a fine example of love and compassion).  They matter because they are inclusive in a way that past hierarchy of the church has not been, at least not in quite some time. They matter because intolerance for non-believers is alive in this country.

An unanticipated consequence of my movement from theistic Catholic to agnostic Unitarian Universalist has been awareness the negative view much of this nation has about nontheists. I’ve become a member of an untrusted minority. While I’ve been called a moral relativist and amoral by a few, overall, I’ve received very little heat for my lack of belief. Admittedly, I’ve chosen to associate with compassionate people of a variety of belief systems, but plenty of my friends are believers. Generally, I choose to listen to others statements of faith and their understandings of reality without injecting my own version. I identify as a UU, a faith tradition I’m glad to attempt to explain when asked, but I don’t go out of my way to say that I don’t believe in a god. That part just gets too sticky.

It shouldn’t be that sticky. I’m not pleased that I tend to avoid talking about that part of my understanding of the world. And I’m aware that too much of this country sees all atheists as without morals and absolutes, that we’re selfish, freewheeling relativists who do whatever our reptilian brain dictates. Others are just sad for my loss. I’d just like to be accepted as someone who works to do good in the world, who tries to love more fully, to show compassion more freely, and to work for a better world more often.

But I’m an adult, and I grew up in a faith-filled home, a variety of religious expression, and my own belief. I grew up sharing an essential belief with most Americans, and I felt, well, normal. My kids don’t share that experience.  My younger son, a staunch atheist since age five, a bit before I’d moved my hat to the agnostic peg, wonders if his atheism will limit him professionally. He has his eye on politics, and he’s well aware that this country, at least not now, sees atheists as amoral and suspect. They certainly aren’t presidential material, according to most Americans, he notes. As outspoken as he is, he learned early to curb talk of religion outside of our UU church, where varying opinions of divinity are regular Sunday school fare. He knows which of his friends are religious, and he has learned to listen but leave his own opinion aside, a task that I know is hard for him and that I’m certain has improved relations with others. It feels less than ingenious, though.

His older brother briefly considered scouting, wanting to be outside, light campfires, and climb trees with other kids. Then he read the Boy Scouts of America’s oath. “I can’t say that,” he told me. “I don’t believe it.” Now, given his preference for shirts without buttons and sleeping indoors, scouting was nixed for more than religious differences (and, yes, their stance on gays was another issue we had), this wasn’t a tragedy, but it was a moment reminding us that we stand apart.

So what Pope Francis said about doing good, and about atheists doing good, matters to me. It matters that the head of the Catholic church, a church to which a quarter of the US belongs, says that atheists are redeemed. It’s the message to believers that those of us who don’t believe are recognized as moral beings with the capacity of doing good, just as much good as a believer. Yes, I’ve read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that atheism is “…a serious problem of our time ” and “a sin against the virtue of religion.” Agnosticism can express “…a sluggish moral conscience.”  Catholics are not Universalists, after all, the part of my faith tradition that believed in inclusive salvation. And that’s fine.

I’m not expecting open arms from all the Catholics I meet, although most of those I know already welcome me that way already. I do hope that those who only saw atheists as morally depraved, least sad sacks of selfishness, or angry or ignorant people wandering lost will take Pope Francis’s words to heart, listening to the call of love and inclusivity of his words on May 22. Let’s do good together to make this earth better for all its inhabitants.

Peace.

A Letter to My Father: Agnosticism Explained

On the morning of April 19th, the day after a night of gunfire and fear in Watertown, just four days after the Boston Marathon shooting, two days after the explosion in West, Texas, and two days after the Senate refused to pass tighter laws regarding the acquisition of guns, I felt a deep sadness. I felt a need to connect with family, to receive the comfort of talking to someone who worried often and thought deeply, so I called my dad. Since time was short on his end, my dad emailed me with some reassurance and concerns that events like these had led to my adult-onset agnosticism. Was my agnosticism a theodicy problem (the existence of evil in the presence of a good and omnipotent God) putting science in conflict with religion?  Nope. This is the letter, slightly edited for an audience who hasn’t known me the past 43 years, I sent in return:

Dad,

Thanks.  The business of the day provided plenty of distraction. It’s hard to be so far from family when the world shows its grungier human and even natural (Texas explosion) side, and this week has served up plenty of all that.

I don’t know how far back you’ve read [of this blog], but the loss of faith is multifactorial. I simply can’t reconcile the idea of any omnipotent or omniscient deity with what I see and sense. It doesn’t work with my science understanding, although I don’t see a conflict between the two. I just don’t see the evidence. I can’t reconcile that a deity active in lives on Earth — could exist without being, well, I’ll just say mean. It’s not a question of being evil,  but the logic just doesn’t work for me.  As far a god just watching and loving us, that honestly seems rather insufficient and pointless. If I loved my children but never protected them, supported them visibly, or otherwise operated in their lives, what kind of parent would I be? And what good is that love? God weeping isn’t a comfort. Deism I can almost see, but that offers little on a day-to-day basis.

Is there an overarching element of the universe that makes the pieces bigger than the whole, something greater than us? Love? Community? The best of humanity? A few years back, I’d have given an unequivocal yes. Now I’m less certain. I believe and trust in love, the human spirit, the universe, and nature’s ability to find every crack and crevice, taking hold and bringing forth more life. I believe people can continually try to do better and work harder to make the world a better place for the very least of us and to the Earth itself. I believe that while we’re hard-wired to be out for ourselves that our vast and as of yet poorly understood brains can buck that wiring. Thus people run toward the explosion. Thus parents sacrifice for children. Thus we rebound from tragedy more determined to live and love well. I am hopelessly optimistic and desperately realistic, a mix that gives me heartburn and hope.

I see no conflict between this event and going to Boston [a planned upcoming vacation]. After 9-11, with a four-year old and a newborn, I didn’t want to go anywhere. Of course, there were no places we were headed, but hunkering down seemed best. I don’t feel that way this time. I fly. I go places where there could be risk (well, not like I have huge opportunities).Just as anyone else, I’m good at rationalizing my own safety. Heck, it’s either that or be chronically scared. And I really don’t want to be chronically scared.

It’s not events like this that shook my faith. That faith fell away gradually over many years, lessening as I moved from the Catholic church to the Episcopal church, and there drastically changing. Not because of anything there, but just because I had more room to think. And I’m quite settled in my agnosticism. The universe still holds all its mystery, love holds all its power, and life holds all its miraculous nature. I’ve lost, in my opinion, nothing at all. I do good on Earth because I am here on Earth, not because there is a God to whom I’m accountable (and idea I can’t embrace and really never could). I can wonder at the universe and can’t see why a God would need or desire mere human praise. It seems like narcissism on a grand scale. I can grieve and fear, knowing I’m not alone in the universe but that others have grieved and feared as humans have for all of human kind. I’m not alone, and I can’t see where, for me, a belief in God would add any more meaning or purpose than I feel now.

I completely respect those who find solace in the divine in whatever form. I don’t understand those who use belief to divide and sort humanity. The God they claim is irreconcilable with the way I see the world, and it sickens me. Jesus had it right, but most Christians don’t have it right about Jesus. Sometimes I miss what I felt about God — the comfort, the assurance — a decade or two ago, but I could no more talk myself into believing again than I could talk myself into believing the Creation story or the flood. It’s not, at this point of my life, a two-way street. Now, I know I (hopefully) have decades ahead of me, and my mind could change. So be it. But now, I just don’t see that happening.

I’m  happy, I’m whole, and I respect that you believe. I don’t doubt that my agnosticism tugs at you somewhat, but I know you well enough to know that you respect my way of seeing the world, too.

Love,

Sarah

My dad’s reply was swift: “THANKS!”  Thanks to you, Dad. I love you.

Through a Glass Darkly

DSCN0268For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (Corinthians 13:13)

I once felt certain that God existed, understanding that God’s love for me and for all humanity. I knew God knew me, with no doubt and no questioning. At 22, during Holy Week, I visited my parents, fiance in tow. I was a practicing, believing Catholic preparing to marry a man baptized something but practicing nothing and questioning little. Before attending an Easter service at my parents’ church, he told me that he didn’t believe that Jesus really rose from the dead or that Jesus was God. I sat through that Easter service throat tight with anxiety. How could he not believe that somehow it all worked? I was shaken more by the latter thought than the former, having had enough Biblical studies in my Jesuit university education to appreciate the possibilities of what resurrection could mean. But I was shaken. I wondered how this could work, with my immersion into the truth I found in the story of Jesus and his, well, doubt. We married, acquiescing to the other’s beliefs while each rarely examining our own closely.

I was fairly Catholic (at least in the 1970s/80s Jesuit-educated, social action, liberation theology sense of the word) and most definitively Christian. God the Father, Jesus the son, and the Holy Spirit, the holy trinity, made as much sense to me as evolution and English grammar did. Prayer was what one did when stressed, worried, thankful, concerned, or just aware of the presence of God. The Bible was story and history with relevant messages. The Eucharist was Jesus (flesh image suspended — transubstantiation was a reach even at my most Catholic points, which were several years earlier). Years later, I would baptize my children and watch my then-husband convert to Catholicism, in hopes of finding truth and meaning.

Perhaps one of the greatest pulls to God was God’s perfection.  God offered it all. Perfect love. Perfect patience. Perfect kindness, joy, compassion. Deeply aware of my imperfection and of the world’s perfection, God seemed to be the antidote to the pain of day-to-day life. Even if the closest I could get to perfection was spiritually hanging with the perfect, hoping for brief tastes of divine goodness, at least there was a paradigm of what could be. And when I failed, there was perfect forgiveness and understanding.

And then, in a paradoxical reversal the Corinthians verse, the glass gradually darkened. Life got hard. And what helped me through the hard was not prayer, faith, or divine grace, but rather logical thought, good friends, and hard work. Not that it was that simple. I’ve recounted my movement from Catholic to Episcopal to agnostic-leaning-atheist in previous posts (Notes from a Once Catholic and Prayer Problems), but in short, the possibility of perfection in the form of God dropped away, with the rest following. It was a painful, sad, and rather slow process, and thus far, only moving in one direction.

I doubt there is a way back. I’m not saying I want one, although sometimes I miss the simplicity and comfort of trusting in an omniscient, omnipotent God who loves me when I can’t stand myself. While I’ve lost the concept of a perfect God and instead rely on the immense workings of the universe and its physical laws revealed through observation, experimentation, and more observation, I’ve not lost a my yearning for losing myself in something other than today and all its drama and trauma. The soundtrack in my mind and on my iPod contains some frankly religious tunes which get significant play time when needed. Yes, I appreciate the irony of an agnostic finding comfort in songs about the divine at times of stress and sadness, but I’ve decided not to question the pattern. For some, I substitute words, using love for Lord. (I accidentally did this with one song a good month, until I noticed the name of the song on my car’s display panel. Now I just sing louder, substitution intact.) For others, I find myself moved despite lyrics that no longer resonate with my world view.

In ways I miss believing. I’ve mused in a rather academic way about whether I could go back, but that glass continues to darken. I can’t see the perfection I once saw, and frankly, I don’t want to. Life is complicated and imperfect. It’s messy and sometimes painful and unpleasant. It’s also sometimes joyful and simple and refreshing. And often it just is what it is. That’s all fine.

Overall, I prefer my way of being in life now. I look to my experience for solutions to problems, seeking out the wisdom of others as well, but searching my heart and ability to reason and learn first. I lean on people who lean back on me, experiencing the balance of humans in relationship, never perfect but certainly reciprocal, at least in the long view. I can’t make God work in my head or heart, or even what I still call my soul, and even my leanings toward considering a vague divine force larger than ourselves is challenging these days. I do believe in the tender strength of love, the power of humanity, the wisdom science, and the healing balm of time. And sometimes I still miss the easy God of my youth and young adulthood.

But the glass is dark, at least the one behind me. What is in front of me may be full of challenge and contradiction, but it is clear. And I am face to face with what reality means to me, knowing that without a belief in God, I am still whole and that somehow, the universe is perfect as it is.

Amen

 

On Being a Compassionate People

DSCN1000A few weeks back, my younger son was having a hard time. He was anxious for reasons he couldn’t entirely identify, and when anxious, he acts irritable and stubborn with frequent outbursts. I know this about him. I have known if for years. I know that under that prickly, grouchy exterior is a kid who is worried, scared, and simply out of sorts. But two weeks back, as he became more prickly and grouchy, I responded with stubborn adherence to rules and withdrawal of computer privileges. Not surprisingly, this increased his anxiety, making him more prickly and grouchy. I suppose on some level I knew he was in distress, that he was worried or concerned about something, but I was focused on only my desire to have less opposition and conflict in the house and more sense of  control over the workings of our family.

In short, I felt his distress but overrode it with my own discomfort. Yes, I eventually broke through that override and comforted my son, working with him to find the source of his distress, the very process of which brought his anxiety down several notches. It was then that I expressed what Merriam-Webster calls compassion: Sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

As humans, we are at out best when we are compassionate. Compassion occurs when we recognize and then respond to our shared situation of being human, namely being prone to suffering. We all suffer. We all watch others suffer. And, like it or not, we all contribute to the suffering of others. When my son was lashing out and melting down because he was suffering, I added to his suffering initially out of lack of awareness followed by a desire to maintain control of the status quo.  I didn’t act with malice. But I added to his suffering by reacting to his behavior without thought the cause. When I found compassion, his suffering decreased simply by the acting on my desire to alleviate his suffering. He knows as well as I that I can’t rid him of his anxiety, and yet knowing I would want to makes a difference.

I belong to a faith tradition that operates from a place of compassion. According to our second principle, Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote “justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships.” Compassionate people are whom we proclaim to be. Not compassionate to just some. To everyone.

Compassion can come easily. It is easy feel compassion for the injured child, the oppressed worker, and the abused woman. We generally express this compassion at a distance, with words, signatures, and financial contributions, hopefully also finding opportunities to work with our hands to ameliorate some of the suffering this world metes on its weakest and most disadvantaged. This is, however, the easy sort of compassion. While the world’s problems can bring us to despair, question the purpose of our lives, they can also bring us to our compassionate selves.

Compassion finds its voice in the UUA-sponsored Standing on the Side of Love campaign, “an interfaith public advocacy campaign that seeks to harness love’s power to stop oppression”. “Standing on the Side of Compassion” doesn’t roll of the tongue so easily, but the sentiment is the same. This organization advocates for those who are suffering at the hands of others for simply being themselves, whether GBLT, immigrants, or the otherwise oppressed. Immigrate rights and GBLT rights are close to the hearts of many Unitarian Universalists, receiving time from the pulpit, discussion from pews, and action from congregations. This sort of organized compassion also comes fairly easily, with these issues resonating with UUs, since they speak to fundamental equity principles we as those of a liberal religion find compelling, important, and immediate. In short, we see them and feel them and feel for those oppressed.

Compassion is harder when it’s more personal, especially when we feel injustice has been done to us. When we feel a sense of being the victim, we’re apt to struggle with the very human responses of anger, hurt, and even vengeance. To some degree, this is what I experienced with my son. It was easy to take his irritability and stubbornness as intentional actions to subvert my authority as the adult of the house. It was easy to forget that, like all of us, he wants to be good, to do right, and to be thought well of. Behaviors come from somewhere, and objectionable behaviors are no exception. Few people desire to be mean, thoughtless, hurtful, careless, or just annoying.  We do, however, become just that when we’re afraid, tired, overwhelmed, or simply because we’ve always done them and don’t know how to do otherwise.  All of us fall into that. It’s human

So back to compassion with those who sit closest to us, those in our homes and most imitate communities — our families, our workplaces, our churches, and our friendship circles. If these behaviors that look so intentional and therefore, well, mean and hateful, really come from fear, fatigue, and full plates, then what we are seeing in “bad behavior” is someone suffering. And the recognition of suffering calls for the desire to alleviate (and often first to understand the cause of) that suffering.  Therefore, we’re called to compassion in the face of bad behavior.

This is hard. Hurts can run deep if not addressed swiftly, and it can be hard to feel compassion for the person who seems to wrong you over and over. Towards its end, my marriage suffered, among other ailments, a loss of compassion. I imagine that’s true of many ended love relationships, although I don’t think it is a mandatory part of the finale. I’d like to have been able, during those failing years, to have been more compassionate to my now-ex-husband. Not because it would have saved the marriage but simply because I’d likely alleviated some of both of our suffering.

Holding grudges and refusing to look at the causes behind a person’s suffering cause more suffering. When we deny the suffering of others, we deny the other the chance to be seen as simply a fallible human. When we compound that suffering with our actions, often on the grounds that they’ve wrongs us so we can wrong them, we increase the suffering for all parties. When I’m looking at suffering with a sneer and a swear, I suffer, too. I lose some of the tender part of humanity that accepts that none of us behave perfectly. I gain a gritty, tough exterior that places more distance between me and the other person, thus dampening my ability to see the person as a suffering human.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean being a marshmallow or doormat. It doesn’t mean allowing injustice to continue or wrongs to go unanswered. My compassionate response to my son’s underlying compassion didn’t reverse the consequence we have for tantrums, but it did make it less likely that the next tantrum would come, simply because the true cause — his suffering — was somewhat reduced simply by my caring. No, in the adult world it isn’t all that easy. Sometimes, as in my marriage, divorce is the most compassionate answer. Often, it means having challenging conversations and risking feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable. Consequences can come along with compassion, but we must take great care to let the compassion lead us to those consequences, with our eyes wide open to the process by which we hand down those consequences.

My younger son’s anxiety has lessened as of late. It’s not gone, but he is more comfortable.  During our rediscovered peace, I’m better able to listen to his words and actions, noting when the anxiety rises a bit. Knowing I’m attuned, he’s better able to check himself and ask for assistance, knowing a compassionate response complete with hugs, advice, and sometimes firm reminders are available from someone who understands that he, like all humans, suffers and who wants to reduce just a bit of his suffering.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, he’s acting more compassionate himself.

Spiritual But Not Religious: What Does That Mean?

089A recent conversation with a friend (my inquisitive and always ready-to-challenge One None) led to a discussion of the nature of the spiritual but not religious. What does that term mean? Isn’t the spiritual just for the religious? Is spiritual but not religious really just fence-sitting, a reluctance of the agnostic to abandon the trappings of theism? I spent a good hour in an intense volley of opinions and ideas and came to, well, nothing new. It seems it’s complicated.

So I turned to my favorite crowdsourcing site, Facebook. Caveat lector. My Facebook friends are largely socially, politically, and religiously liberal, and the sample of respondents was in line with that reality. Out of nine respondents, four identify as Unitarian Universalist, three as Christian, one as Reform Jew, with the remaining one unaffiliated (at least per FB page).  My question was, “What does ‘spiritual but not religious’ mean to you?”

Well, it seems as a group we agreed what religious means. Religion is the structure for spirituality, a set of beliefs organized and then followed by people in agreement with them. No one overtly mentioned creed (and Unitarian Universalism is purposely without one), but it was alluded to by some. Religion was said to inform spirituality and to be “the way spirituality gains traction.” Across religious traditions, the definition of religion was the same.

Spirituality proved stickier, which came as no surprise. What does it mean to be spiritual? Does it assume accepting that one has a spirit? What is a spirit? Is it something that exists before and after one’s body exists? Can one be Humanist and spiritual? Does it demand a belief in a higher power? Does spiritual require a sense of transcendence? Is it a private matter or linked to religion? The responses begat more questions, but along the way, there was plenty to consider.

For almost all, spirituality was a bit nebulous and far more personal than religion. A few theists linked spirituality to belief in God, but this was not absolute. A Christian respondent defined spirituality as “practices or experiences that lead to an awareness of the self, both in affirmation and negation, as more than any single identification of body, mind, or elements thereof.”  One (UU) described the spiritual as “that which connects us (to) one another and to the universe,” with a theist responding that that was her definition of God. Other definitions also revolved around spirituality being connection with essence of the self, and others related spirituality to a feelings:  aliveness, love, and warmth as well as to sadness, grief, and despair.

Discussing spirituality brings forth another question: what is the spirit? I didn’t pose that directly, but one UU answered on their way through the issue of spirituality:  “… my understanding/use of this word (spirit) is the essence of living beings that persists before and after our earthly incarnation. My personal belief is that we all have a spirit and our spirits are a piece of a universal divine spirit. The universal divine spirit could be called God or Creator or something greater than ourselves.” Thus, no spiritual without a belief in a spirit. For others, spirit was more an essence of self, with no mention of the temporality of that essence.

What I came away from  was this: spirituality — whatever that is — may be fostered by religion but is not bound by or to it. Whether religious or not, people agreed on this. Additionally, spirituality was seen as a personal issue, again possibly supported by a religion or religious body, but largely the responsibility of the person. The language of spirituality was personal: peace, love, essence, core of being, energy, meaning, purpose, and even more nebulous terms.

I found this reassuring. I’ve struggled to explain what I, as Unitarian Universalist agnostic, mean when I mention having a spiritual element to my life. While I don’t feel I have a spirit that continues after I die or existed before I was here, I have a sense of essence. Perhaps ironically, I’m most comfortable with the word soul to describe that essence (for more on that, read The Soul, a post on just that from 2010), a word that actually has more meaning to me now than when I was a Catholic and moderately religious.

That essence, or soul, is easy to lose under the rush of life and the noise of the ego. For me, it’s nurtured by intentionality. Over the years the form of that intentionality has shifted. Twenty years ago, that was prayer and time with others in a religious community. In the past five years, it’s quite different and generally evolving. While at points I’ve touched that essence through more formal spiritual practice — meditation, yoga, or chant — those aren’t mainstays of my spiritual life. My soul is nurtured on a walk outside or even a long, quiet gaze out a window that opens onto a natural scene. It’s nudged along when I’m truly with someone, whether that be one of my children or a dear friend. Even in challenging interactions — the kind that require breathing and tongue-biting — bring me closer to that essence of myself, perhaps because, when managed with respect, the require plenty of tapping into the soul and tuning out the ego.

I’ll find my soul touched by acts of kindness, both given and received. It’s strengthened more often by the words I withhold than the ones I speak, unless those words are, “I love you,” “I hear you,” and “I’m sorry.” But it’s also strengthened by saying what’s hard to say, in the times I speak up for myself or others, voice quivering and sweat pouring. Standing on the side of love, peace, and justice is spiritual work.

My understanding of my essence grows as I read what others have written, turn it in my head, deciding what to take and what to leave. It finds traction when I write, sorting my thoughts and often discovering something new about myself or my spot in the world. It is nurtured by silence, whether accompanied by thought or just my breath. And it is shared when I can let go and deeply love.

Still, I don’t describe myself as “spiritual but not religious”. First, I’m a Unitarian Universalist, which may not seem so some as much of a religion, what with no creed or prescribed path, but does provide a wide path of sorts, lined with community who supports the searching process.  And I’m not sure how spiritual I am. While I believe in the soul or essence of a person, I don’t have a traditional — or even untraditional — spiritual practice. I have instead a rather hodgepodge of paths to a bit more inner peace that, I hope, are reflected as increased kindness and compassion to my fellow travelers on this shared journey of life.

I’m not sure the answer to my friend’s question is any clearer than when we first spoke. Spirituality is certainly separate from religion for many, and it’s alive in the atheist and agnostic community. It’s deeply personal and hard to explain, expansive while highly interior. It’s not the exclusive domain of the deeply religious but rather, to some, accessible to those across the belief spectrum.

So the question remains open: What does it mean to be spiritual but not religious? What is spirituality to you? And just what is spirit? Let the crowdsourcing continue.