OnFaith: Losing God and Discovering Prayer

While I’ve not been blogging much lately, I have been writing. Visit me at OnFaith where I consider prayer in the life of an agnostic with a Christian past. While you’re there, poke around a bit. Regardless of your belief system, there is plenty to read and consider.


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:


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.



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.



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.

One None

I’m still thinking about the Nones, that 20% of the population that doesn’t identify with any one religious tradition. It’s a diverse group to consider, consisting of a mix of atheists, theists, and something-in-betweenists. The spiritual-but-not-religious and the not-spiritual-nor-religious reside here, and finding common threads among this diverse group proves challenging.

NPR ran a series last week titled, “Losing our Religion” (see the bottom of this post for links to the episodes). By sharing the stories of a few handfuls of people who fall in the None category, the stories explored the variety of reasons this body is growing, how they cope with tragedy, why they leave religion (or never seek it), and how they view religion from their seats on the outside.Whether None or not, it’s worth a listen, as it’s apt to make even a None more aware of this growing part of the US population.

Before the series ran, I had done my own research. I talked to one None, a good friend willing to share why he, like 88% of Nones, isn’t looking for a church or spiritual home.  He grew up in a somewhat-observant Hindu home, attending temples with his family until he decided that he wasn’t certain about religion at all. He stepped away, asserting himself at a young age and remains an agnostic-near-atheist today who neatly fits in the None category.

Fast forward several decades, with plenty of study of science, a keen sense of compassion, and spirit of giving, and he remains a None. He’s wondered aloud why I go off to church each week, what draws me away from jammies and the paper. Generally, I stick to the same story: I find companionship on my journey through life for me and my boys, I learn from others, and I enjoy the habit and tradition of hymns, sermons, and silence.

But couldn’t you find that community at a coffeehouse on a Sunday morning? Couldn’t you share your stories in a small group, offering support to each other both in word and deed? Over a latte or even a beer, couldn’t like-minded people come together to discuss issues or a book? He’s right. This would meet my desires for companionship and common purpose, both which drive me to head to my Unitarian Universalist church each week. And for the introverted, it’s possible small groups would make meeting people more comfortable than facing a large congregation. It’s not easy for those of us who dread approaching a stranger to find a community in a church. Certainly I never managed to introduce myself to strangers at coffee hour, a time I still find loud and fatiguing, a sense only somewhat relieved when I find my sure shelter friends, some whom I’ve knowing before I attended.

Beyond the gathering itself, he questions the service itself. Why, he inquires, would I want to hear the same person week after week? What’s the point of that, what with so many points of view in the world? Most Unitarian Universalist churches do hire a minister to be their main speaker on Sunday morning. Smaller congregations and those between hired ministry rotate the duty to people within the congregation while bringing in outside speakers when possible. But as a matter of ease or simply tradition, most congregations have a minister to do the preaching.

My representative None points out the origins of this practice: ministers and priests historically served to be the authoritative figure on all things religion. With an uneducated populace, the minister was needed to read and interpret the scriptures, guiding the flock with his words and wisdom. How would that pertain to a bunch of UUs, and how could one person be an authority on those sources we claim rely upon?

It’s a fair question, one for which I don’t have an answer. It led to a discussion about the service itself. As someone who didn’t grow up going to weekly services, the practice is foreign to my None friend. And part of why I go to church is simply because I always have. It’s not a great reason, and it’s not my only one, but it’s why I searched for a church home after leaving Christianity. I missed that ritual. I missed the songs and the time to gather formally and share ritual. This all brings a look of puzzlement from my friend.

So, I asked, what would be worth taking the time to gather with a large group of people? Service, says my None. He’d be glad each week to join a group of people working on an environmental or social project.  Perhaps, he added that would be a good model for the Unitarian Universalist church. This was the original context of the conversation — would the Nones be drawn to a UU church? What, if anything, would draw the majority who say they aren’t looking for a church or spiritual home? After wandering around what isn’t appealing, the idea of regular service within a community comes forth as desirable.

More ideas followed. Rather than hiring a minister to preach each week, a church could hire a minister to organize the service that would be the mission of the church. The minister would serve as part program manager, part pastoral caregiver, bringing skills in leadership as well as compassion. On Sunday, people would gather to do work, perhaps offsite, with children old enough to work participating with the adults and younger children remaining in class, much as they do now. People could also do work at the church, focusing on tasks that don’t require being in the field. Everyone would have a hand in service. Perhaps once a month, the Sunday would be communal time, with a speaker invited in to inform, motivate, and inspire.

It’s a compelling image. It’s also far from what most UU churches do today. Most, like mine, are wed to a rather traditionally-structured Sunday morning, with congregants facing forward to listen to their minister. But if we really want to grow, we need to consider change. Perhaps Sundays filled more with service than services is a start. I’m reluctant to admit that, attached as I am to our Sunday service. And change is hard. But as I look around our meeting house on a Sunday morning, I see who is missing. Those in their late teens through early 30s. Men, especially single ones. People who are uncomfortable with or just uninterested in a generally traditional service with less focus on the divine. People who want to act now, not just once a month, but every week.

I’ve spoken in-depth to just one None. Perhaps that’s the way to start. Perhaps if we all found just one None to listen to deeply, to what would draw them to community, to church. My friend is certain there are others who share his desire to serve rather than sit, peers of his in the middle of their lives as well as those in the generations straddling his. I’d encourage each Unitarian Universalist to seek out a None and engage him or her in this discussion. Listen with an open mind to criticisms of our current model, ideas about a more appealing model, and the needs that rest behind both. Then go back to your congregations, and when the discussion turns to growth, share what you’ve found.

On Losing Our Religion (NPR, January 14-18, 2013)

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.


Existential Darkness at the Dawning of the New Year

IMG_0149This morning’s New York Times brought the usual sort of news:

I’d go on, but I’d just get more discouraged.

It’s New Year’s Day, and I’m feeling an increasingly familiar set of feelings as I wonder the meaning and purpose of my life and of life in general. No, there has been no crisis in my life. No sudden loss of a loved one or other such personal tragedy. Life has been quite generous lately. Thanks to the holiday break, I have had some time on my hands, an unusual situation given the tempo of much of my life. While I sometimes dip into the existential in this busy life, there’s usually enough that must be done to distract me from my growing angst. Thank goodness. Time on my hands has created time to stay with these thoughts, and the thinking has gone south.

I could blame it on my age. It’s not unusual for folks my age to have bouts of existential depression. The kids are growing, the amount of remaining life seems shorter by the moment (because it is), and the people who are doing amazing things in the world are often my age. Or younger. And the world seems increasingly chaotic, cold, and fragmented. It’s hard to maintain a sense that it’s all somehow okay. I’d imagine strong theism could be somewhat protective, but that’s not something I have plans adopting.

I do think theism protected me from this crisis during my childhood and younger adulthood. When it all seemed awful in the world or just within myself, belief in an omnipotent, loving deity provided an answer. Okay, not a concrete answer, but a vague sense of comfort, even if only the comfort of rote prayer. In my late teens and early twenties, I worked hard to cultivate the sort of belief that would offer the deep comfort I desired. I sought out experiences and spotty practices that might dull the loneliness and fear that lurked in my soul.

It worked. Or at least it gave me a place to run and something to do when the world seemed to dark and cold, providing solace. It also provided a community of people looking for explanations for the unexplainable and a bit of reassurance that they weren’t alone. And, according to psychologist Dr. James T. Webb, feeling connected and letting go are adaptive coping methods of managing these existential events.

I know pushing through these crises became harder as I let go of my theism, a process that happened gradually and somewhat reluctantly beginning in my early 30s.  Finding a community of like-minded people seemed unlikely after leaving two churches and wondering where the doubter belonged. I did find those people in the UU church I’ve attended these past several years, and they do offer community, albeit a community of people prone to the same sorts of doubts and depression. That’s perhaps too dramatic, as these same people work through those issues, moving though life determined to make it a bit better for those they touch directly or tangentially. There are no answers or perfectionism, but there is acknowledgement that there are big questions, plenty of big problems in the world, and a paucity of easy answers.

But it’s not really enough when this angst brings me down. I feel so small and ineffective in a giant world that frankly overwhelms, saddens, angers, and scares me. My life occurs in a but a tick of the second hand on the cosmic clock. My reach is so small, my grasp so loose, and my strength so inconsequential. And to top it off, I’m really not trying. The chaos continues around — people are born, they suffer, they die, and for what?

I don’t know. And I don’t know what I can do about any of it. Webb recommends several additional antidotes to connectedness and letting go. He advocates knowing one’s self, being involved in causes, maintaining a sense of humor, touching, living in the moment, cultivating optimism and resiliency, and being aware of “rippling,” the way our lives affect those around us. I’d agree that all of those can help ameliorate some of the pain associated with the existential crises that continue to punctuate my life.

I do think there is goodness in the existential angst. It serves as an honest acknowledgment that there is deep pain the world: divisions that need healing and people who need compassion. It reminds me that despite the reality of our aloneness, we are stronger together. And perhaps best of all, at least when I can turn a bit of light to the darkest of the gloom, is the reminder that love matters. The way we treat each other — the way we love each other — matters. If for nothing else, showing those in front of me love and compassion lightens their load and tightens the connection between us. And, if Webb is right about the ripple effect, it’s then worth knowing the love we show can carry to those not in front of us.

Does that matter, in the long arc of the universe? I don’t know. But it gives me a bit of comfort and lifts me back to the moment I’m in, making it an effective antidote for the time being. It lightens the quality of the inner dialogue and warms something within me that I’m willing to call my soul. It informs a course of action when the headlines are bleak — connect with others and simply love them. It’s the only purpose to this life that resonates with me, and if I’d look at the back of my car more often, I’d be reminded of that. Love. It’s our soul purpose. The rest follows. And a bit of the cloud lifts.

For a fine article on existential depression, read Dr. James Webb’s piece, Dabrowski’s Theory and Existential Depression in Gifted Children and Adults

Notes from a Once Catholic

I’ve written about having been Catholic. I’ve written a touch about being Methodist and Episcopal and much more about being UU. I’ve written about agnosticism and atheism as well, in both broad strokes and brief bites. What I’ve not said much about is the leaving of the faith that was with me in some form from ages 5 to 35. And I’ve said little with what I retain from that faith that filled almost three-quarters of my life.

It’s not an angry tale. It’s not filled with pain, shame, or fear. I was brought up in what I’d maintain is the best sort of Catholicism at one of the best possible times for a faith with a checkered history. From the mid-seventies through the mid-nineties, my Catholic base was at the University of Detroit. Until my undergraduate and graduate days, noon mass in the St. Ignatius Chapel — located in the Commerce and Finance building — provided my spiritual sustenance. Once ensconced as a student at U of D, I moved to the nighttime student mass. Aside from the latter having a bigger crowd with younger people, there was little different about the experiences. Both services were led by the same Jesuits, men of the Society of Jesus, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola almost 500 years ago. Both boasted  guitar-based music that was singable and relatable.

And, notably, neither were representative of what Catholicism would look like in the suburban parishes my then-husband and I would sample.

We tried. We tried half a dozen parishes over the next ten years, looking for a place that resonated. Since I was the family Catholic, I suppose much of that resonance centered around me, but we left each place in agreement — it just wasn’t working. I don’t imagine it helped that during that same decade, the Catholic church was swinging towards conservatism, perhaps the inevitable backlash against the liberal shift a few decades before. But not having lived the history of a more conservative Catholicism, I’d naively assumed that the accepting, loving place of social justice and radical inclusivity was a mature church — one that would never, in my mind, move backwards.

We baptized two children in two different parishes that felt entirely alike. There was a homogeneity to the Catholic experience of these decades. Families — mostly Caucasian — filled the pews, those with children in any associated Catholic school seemed to belong a bit more than those of us that didn’t. Laity seemed to play little role in the everyday workings of the church and almost none in the Mass. Gone was a message of social justice and inclusivity. Gone were women in the pulpit. And gone was a sense of belonging.

And so it went. Gradually, attending Mass became more habit than heart. I was growing uncomfortable with the Catholic Church as a whole and with the response of our parish and the larger Church to the ever-increasing number of cases of sexual predation within the Church. While that was not why I eventually left, the lack of seriousness which that continuing scandal received left me wondering why I was there. We could have just stopped going, drifting away, and had not one sermon on one Sunday been given, that’s likely what would have happened.

The priest was not our usual priest but rather an occasional giver of sacraments and sermons. He began urging us to think of the wonderful people we knew. The people who gave willingly of their time and talents to friends, family and the world. The people who focused love on their families and lived with integrity and love. All that was fine. And then: “If only they were Catholic.”

That was the end. We never returned. None of our parents were Catholic, at least at that point. Certainly they were fine people, devoted to their families, some within other faith traditions and some without any at all. Our friends certainly weren’t all Catholic. And as far as I could see, it didn’t matter. And why should it? Why should having selected (or having been born into) a particular faith tradition make you better than those from another tradition? The sermon wasn’t why we left the institution, but it was the gust that took me out of an institution that, for a decade, had increasingly been a poor fit for me.

It was more than intolerance of difference that was nagging at me. It was more than the minimally acknowledged pedophilia. It was more than the disappointment that the rest of the Catholic church was not what I’d thought of as Catholic — liberal, loving, accepting, and working towards greater inclusivity of women. All that was bothering me, but I was also tugged by the nagging doubt that all the rules and rituals that had attracted me at thirteen were not going to bring me any closer to meaning and truth. Not that they’d been completely meaningless all those years. Comfort came from those, and the sameness of the rites was an anchor when everything else around me moved.

So I left.  I moved to a less-restrictive faith, where I spent a few years allowing myself to sort through questions about prayer and about the nature of God. And I came out quite whole and quite agnostic. But decades of Catholicism left their mark, with the liberal leanings of the Jesuit Catholicism of my youth leading me towards what is inclusive, loving, and open to growth. It is what was planted in my youth, starting at five or six, that led me to the Unitarian Universalist church I cherish today. It is what showed me a faith community could be, illustrating the support, compassion, and quest for meaning and knowledge a spiritual home could provide. Without that upbringing, I’m not sure I’d have bothered to search for church after leaving theist traditions. I’d likely have been happy to stay home in my jammies with a paper and coffee.

I know many previous Catholic who looks back with mostly anger at the church of their youth. Some have been hurt by the church they encountered; others, excluded; still others, just disenchanted. Many remain angry, even years later. While I don’t understand the Catholicism I saw as an adult nor the conservative, myopic, male-centered view from the Vatican that is seeming to wrap itself tightly around the Church of today, I don’t revile it either. Where we’ve been informs where we are, and the person I am today — some of the best parts of who I am today — was forged in the Catholic Church.

Come to the Table: Unitarian Universalism’s Six Sources

Most religions have creeds. Unitarian Universalists pointedly don’t. UU’s do have two lists of suggestions: the seven principles and the six sources. No, after five years in a Unitarian Universalist Church I don’t have them memorized. Yes, the Nicene Creed (and Apostle’s Creed), Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, Doxology, Act of Contrition, the Ten Commandments, and most of the Beatitudes are still at the tip of my tongue. I have passages at scripture that pop out when triggered, and I could certainly have responded appropriately in Mass, at least until Fall 2011, when the responses changed. 35 years in Methodist, Catholic, and Episcopal churches with plenty of repetition in school, church, and youth group implanted them deeply.

I can paraphrase the principles, although not in order, if given time. The sources? Not so much. The principles are words of intent that translate easily to a course of action. While not binding, they are the more prominent expression of common belief. Unitarian Universalists aren’t uniformly behind the principles (or even behind the idea of them), but they are a nidus around which we can discuss common ground. They’re debated (as is their existence), but what isn’t in a UU congregation?

The six sources, however, are less visible and less discussed. They are in the front of the hymnal and on several promotional materials, but they don’t get the air time as a uniting list that the principles do. Here they are:

Unitarian Universalism (UU) draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

The list is not hierarchical. One source isn’t better or worse than any other. The sources aren’t full-course meal, designed to be consumed in entirety. They are a smörgåsbord, a range of ever-ready choices for the seeker of meaning and truth. I delight in that smörgåsbord. I was raised with a mini-version of that table of bounty. Five years ago, joined a much larger table when I joined a UU church, a place dedicated to the belief that the choices are vast and mine to make. It is bountiful. 

Our sources that set us apart from other liberal traditions. Our principles would likely be acceptable among many progressive and liberal believers of many traditions.  The sources would not.  Our six sources distribute the weight of understanding about the world among the self, the prophetic and wise ones who walked before us, the world’s faith traditions, and the rational, scientific brain. This distribution is without bias, although individual churches may lean more heavily toward one or more source, while others lean in different directions. 

It is this distinction that also sets at odds with other traditions. We’re not one single thing. We’re not all believer or nonbelievers, and we’re not always what we started as. We’re a community in flux, ideally growing and learning continually and certainly always changing, celebrating the diversity of the table and welcoming those who eat from the opposite end as ourselves. As tolerant as other faith traditions are, I can’t think of one that offers this rich of a spread or one that would encourage the search that UUs are encouraged to take any and every day.

Perhaps, it’s this freedom of choice that keeps us from growing. The elevator speech for Unitarian Universalism requires a mighty tall building with a slow elevator, preferably maving several stops. The answer to the inevitable question, “What do UU’s believe?” is long and unwieldy. Even if the seven principles roll of your tongue, you’ve only partially answered the question by the eighth floor. “But what do you believe?” is either spoken or implied. “Where to you get your wisdom? What is your source? What one thing/idea/person/deity is your bottom line?”

The floors tick by, and your questioner grows impatient and perhaps uncomfortable. This is the hard question. It’s the one that takes the courage to answer. The principles are easy. The sources take admitting uncertainty, and uncertainty is not the hallmark of any other faith. If, before the twelfth floor, you manage to mention that we draw from the wisdom of the world’s religions, you can rest knowing you’ve summed up three of the six. It will likely take three or more floors to explain that doesn’t mean you believe in all those deities or none of them, and that really that’s a moot point.

If you recover your sensibility and still have an audience, you may mention reason or science, but don’t know if I’ve made it that far. I’m worn out by then, and generally ready to be rejected outright or tuned out. Also, I admit I tend to forget the other three: personal experience of the wonder of life, the words and deeds of the great men and women who have come before us, and science and reason. I don’t forget because they’re unimportant. They’re essential. They just don’t roll off my tongue.

And I don’t think they sit easily with others. You’re likely 20 stories up by now, and your audience is either riveted and asking for directions, looking at you with pity since you’ll never “get”it, or asking another question. “But what do UUs believe?”

“So many different things.”

“Come and see.”

“If you’re asking the questions (and still listening to the rambling answers), it’s the place for you.”

It’s not an easy question to answer because there is no one answer. And that likely keeps many folks from checking us out. Why come if there’s no one “thing”? Why come if a member can’t even tell you what the place is about. What’s the point? In a busy world where speed matters and speed toward a goal matters more, why join a group of people who are rather vague (as a group, at least) about what they hold to be true? And why join a group where the person to your right and the person to your right may hold a vastly different view of the meaning of life and truth than you? You might as well celebrate your own truth at the IHOP or Starbucks Sunday morning. What’s the point of choosing a church that doesn’t tell you what to think and believe?

I don’t have an answer, but I’d like to hear what you say. As I see it, the lack of a clear answer — a single truth — is what makes us UU and makes it hard for us to grow our congregations and spread the larger values of Unitarian Universalism to more people. It is what appeals to me personally and concerns me institutionally. We’re shrinking, and in an increasingly complicated world, people seem to be seeking firm, simple answers. We’re not competing for those who want simple answer Sunday morning  — there are plenty of places for them. Rather we’re seeking those who can live with uncertainty, share the values of our big, somewhat messy set of suggestions, and want to work for a better world.

We have such bounty at our table, so much to share. So how do we do it? How do we market ourselves in a world where deep seeking and questioning are not the norm? Do we need a unifying message, concise enough for a shorter elevator yet still expansive enough to include us all? If so, how do we communicate that? Your turn.

Growing Pains: 161,502 UUs

Principles under construction — somehow it seems fitting.

I’ve sat in the pew of a Unitarian Universalist for nearly five years. I’ve been a member of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington for about the same amount of time. I can’t recall a point in those years where growth hasn’t been part of the conversation at that church. Even before I took a seat at the Program Council table (a group of committee chairs meeting monthly to accomplish tasks requiring cooperation), I was well aware that promoting growth of the church while retaining members was considered a top priority. I’m just as aware that we’re not managing to meet that growth goal, a quandary which we share with other congregations and the faith as a whole.

So when UUworld.org released the news that Unitarian Universalist membership dropped to 161,502 from the previous year, I wasn’t surprised. I’ve largely lurked on a Facebook page dedicated to discussing growth strategies, lurking because after only five years in this faith tradition, I don’t know what to add. I read the ideas others post, follow links about the general decline of adherents to liberal religion, and wonder about what it means to try to grow a religion.

I’d love to see Unitarian Universalism grow. I have absolutely no idea how to do that. In theory, a creedless religion open to those on any path up the mountain should pull from a large swath of humanity. We are the “come as you are” denomination, theoretically welcoming the marginalized, the uncertain, and certainly not conservative religious. I’ve already mused that we may not be as welcoming as we say we are, with theists taking a hit in some congregations while, if the comments to my blog posts are any indication, atheists feeling squeezed out by other congregations. But on paper, we should draw a large group.  But we don’t, not as an individual congregation and not as a faith tradition.

What gives? I’ve joked that we lack the threat of hell. Without eternal damnation or heavenly reward, Unitarian Universalists lack the stick and carrot that accompanies much of our competition. Okay, so religious conservatives aren’t the most likely bunch to show up on a Sunday morning, where the sermon may revolve around marriage equity, interfaith work, or illegal immigrant rights. That saddens me as a citizen of this planet, but it’s not exactly surprising that we’re not drawing that crowd. The liberal adherents of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and the like are often discussing the same issues from their pews, pews filled with people who hold to more common theological ground than that found in any UU gathering.

But what about the fifteen percent of Americans who identify themselves as nonreligious? Half of those people count themselves as theists but don’t identify with a particular religion. The other half are agnostics, atheists, secular humanists, and all those who answered “none” when asked their religion. Those in this sizable portion of the religious belief pie seems to hold the greatest potential to be drawn to Unitarian Universalism. (UUs, however, fall into the “other” category on this chart, with 500,000 claiming it as their faith, a number more than three times the number of members on the books at UU churches. This is significant.) We are at once a religion of those with faith in humanity and the workings of the universe, with beliefs ranging from nothing to science, the self to God, nature to the atom.

And that’s the problem. How do you bring together people of such diverse paths to truth and meaning? How do you connect the liberal theist with the staunch atheist? Where does the Wiccan with Buddhist leanings fit into a church with contemplative Christians and abundant agnostics? In short, what is our common ground, and is that common ground firm enough to support a religious movement?

Bound up in this line of thought is the question of what Unitarian Universalists believe. In the past, I’ve admittedly given the rather flippant and unfortunate answer I’d heard others give: “Whatever they want.” It’s shorter than listing the seven principles, which don’t actually bind us together in any formal sense anyway.  Here they are, as listed on the UUA website:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

I like the principles. All seven. They’re hardly objectionable, even to many belonging to liberal religious theistic traditions. But they are not a creed, and being creedless is perhaps key to what sets Unitarian Universalists apart from other faith traditions. I think it’s also key to our dwindling numbers. A faith community, be it church, coven, synagogue, association, congregation, or gathering, needs an overriding agreement to bind the members together. While the UUA offers the seven principles as a list of what UU churches affirm and promote, these are not a creed nor faith statement. They are a guide, a suggestion, and apt to be revisited and revised in years to come.

And perhaps that’s the dilemma and blessing all wrapped up in one. We’re a church of change, growing and shifting as the world shifts. We are not static and therefore hold to no static truth. As a faith that encourages seeking for religious truth, we are unique. I’ve often wondered if with all our openness to the many paths of truth that lead to meaning if we don’t chase many of our members and potential members out the door, encouraging them to scurry down those paths that pave a more definable route up the mountain. In contrast to the clear paths laid by Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammad, Bertrand Russell, and other, Unitarian Universalism provides a Hogwart’s-like maze of moving staircases. I can see why many are drawn to the clarity of a faith with a proscribed path.

I’m not alone in preferring the Hogwarts model, however. I have at least 161,501 companions on those staircases. I enjoy walking a flight of stairs with others on my journey and yet revel in the freedom to separate my path from their when we differ in opinion. While I’m not a fan of writing mission statements or any other writing done by committee, I understand the purpose of revisiting and revising these individual church pieces as well. We are a faith open to the realities and quandaries a changing world present, and this requires a willingness to look again and again to what we hold — even loosely — to be true.

But as far as winning and keeping members, I think this openness to change and lack of creed shoots us in the proverbial foot. It’s hard to articulate what Unitarian Universalism is about and impossible to answer the question, “What does a UU believe,” with more than the flippant response noted earlier. Few elevators are long enough for a concise explanation of Unitarian Universalism, and frankly, most people have short attention spans.  I’ve often joked that as an aspiring writer, I would have done well to pick a faith with more adherents if I planned to write about religion. But here I am, and I plan to stay with the loose, gossamer confines of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Like many here, I find comfort in elusive, evolving nature of this faith tradition. I remain concerned about our future and uncertain what I or anyone else can do to present Unitarian Universalism to the wider world in a way that makes it appealing for more than a quick stop on a road up the mountain. I don’t have answers. Fortunately, that fits my faith tradition perfectly.

Peace, Namaste, Blessing Be, Amen, and all of that.


For more on the principles: