To Know and To Believe

(Sermon given at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington on April 3, 2016.)

DSCN0296Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to [have] knowledge. It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being. If we’re true to its values, it can tell us when we’re being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes. (Carl Sagan)

Knowing and belief. Science and religion. As Unitarian Universalists, we hold religion and science far from one another. We say that religion doesn’t belong in science, and, if we’re true to our dedication that everyone has the right to their own search for meaning, we don’t impose our science onto someone else’s religious beliefs. For example, we hold, arms outstretched, our understanding of how humans evolved from earlier primates in one hand, while our beliefs about whether a god cares about our existence in the other.

Just as we hold those domains to be separate, insisting that the realm of science be clear of the realm of religion, we often confuse our ways of knowing in science with our ways of believing religiously. We cup those ways together, mixing them and using them indiscriminately, undoing that separation out of carelessness and simple human nature.

Today, I’ll explore understanding in two realms — science and religion. I’ll tease out belief, which loves to pose as knowledge but isn’t. It may be a way of understanding, but it should never be confused with knowing and knowledge. I’ll explore knowing of a particular kind – the scientific kind of knowing. I’ll also sit with uncertainty and its relationship to science and to religion, as it drives both.

Let’s start with what science is. Science is, according to Dr. Bruce Railsback of the Geology Dept of the University of Georgia,…the concerted human effort to understand, or to understand better, the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding. It is done through observation of natural phenomena, and/or through experimentation that tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions.”

Let’s start in the middle of that definition. Science involves the observation of natural phenomena. It’s using the senses to attend to the details of the universe. The twinkling stars above. The scurrying ants below. The breeze on our face. The evidence of the passage of time and the aging of our bodies. Science involves observation of both the untouched, natural world and of the manipulated world (experimentation), but the starting place is unadulterated observation.

So science is watching the chickadee eat, noticing their preference for one thistle feeder over the other. It’s about observing many chickadees over many days. It’s about noticing that the sun appears in the same direction every morning, but depending on your latitude, not at the same time each morning. It’s about watching person after person succumb to smallpox, as Edward Jenner did in the late 1700s, hearing from others and noticing himself over many years, that milkmaids, who often developed the mild disease of cowpox, rarely suffered the deadly smallpox.

There is a level of knowing that occurs with observation. I know that the chickadees in my yard prefer the feeder in the front yard because the thistle seed vanishes far faster from that feeder with its perches than it does from the mesh feeder in the backyard. I know the sun appears in the same direction every day, at least for my lifetime, because I’ve seen it do so for the well-over forty years of my life. And Jenner knew that, in the population he observed, milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox.

So observation leads to some level of knowing — a conditional knowing, a descriptive kind of knowing limited by what has been seen. Alone, an observation tells us very little, or at least often less than we think it does:

Three people were traveling by train through Scotland when they saw a black sheep through the window of the train.

“Aha,” said the first with a smile, “I see that Scottish sheep are black.”

“Hmm,” said the second, “You mean that some Scottish sheep are black.”

“No,” said the third, a scientist, glumly, “All we know is that there is at least one sheep in Scotland, and that at least one side of that one sheep is black.”

Science, however, doesn’t end with the observation of one side of one sheep or the position of the sun from one spot on the Earth, but observation is at the heart of all science. It is, as Dr. Railsback notes, the basis of understanding, but it is not alone science. Faced with data from observations, we start to ask questions. Why do these chickadees prefer one feeder over the other? Why do we see the sun in the same place each morning? Does the mild disease of cowpox, common to milkmaids, somehow really protect them against the deadly smallpox?

It’s these questions that lead to more thought, more observations, and, perhaps, an eventual hypothesis. A hypothesis is often defined as an educated guess, but that sells short the work that goes into creating a hypothesis. Rather a hypothesis is based on multiple observations paired with previous scientific knowledge. It’s a proposed answer to a question about what’s been observed. We have to be careful when we hypothesize, for it’s tempting to become attached to these so-called educated guesses. When we hypothesize, we aren’t stating knowledge. We’re stating possible connections that need to be tested and very well may not hold up to testing. That’s tricky, because as humans, we want our guesses to be right, as it just feels good to be right.

The chickadees like the feeder in the front yard because it has perches, allowing them a more secure stance when eating. Something about having cowpox makes smallpox a milder disease, so giving someone cowpox might be a way to prevent smallpox deaths.

Hypotheses are small steps. They are testable steps. They lead to experimentation which, per Railsback, “…tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions”. Experimentation yields more observations and more data. And it yields more questions. A hypothesis that proves false is just as valuable to science as the one that is proven true. The feeders’ positions are switched, and the chickadees continue to dine from the front yard feeder, the one with metal mesh and no perches. The hypothesis is unsupported — location of the feeder seems to matter more than the form of the feeder. Jenner innoculates a 9-year-old boy with cowpox from a milkmaid’s pustule, resulting in a mild illness with no rash, and, a few months later, he innoculates the boy with smallpox. The child remains healthy. The hypothesis is supported– infection from cowpox did seem to protect the child from smallpox.. Either way, hypothesis supported or not, the next step is another hypothesis and more experimentation.

Now, not everything is easily testable by experimentation. Some systems are beyond our ability to control conditions, leaving us with finding ever-more sophisticated ways to observe. Our understandings about the universe and its laws and age unfold because we learn to observe differently while developing new ways to observe. We smash particles together and watch the fallout, for example. Our knowledge about how life began and diversified on Earth is also observational, relying on fossil-hunters and increasingly sophisticated methods of determining the age of those fossils.

When does that cycle of observing and often experimenting stop? It doesn’t. After many experiments and accumulation of data from many sources, we start talking about knowing in a scientific way.  We are the best scientists when we keep in mind that we still don’t know much, and that our current knowledge is limited by the accuracy of its mode of discovery, the tools and technology of our time, the integrity of this scientific process, and the creativity and insight of those observing and asking questions.  The scientific method of observing, questioning, hypothesizing, and experimenting is not flawed, but we are. We are prone to bias. We prefer not to be wrong. We see correlation and assume it is causation. We see patterns when none exist and miss patterns where they are present. We reach, seeing what’s not there, because we are so desperate to know. We make mistakes.

So, then, if we make mistakes, what is knowing in science? Knowing starts with observation and is furthered by repeated experimentation. It’s driven by data collected by those looking for fact and truth. (Hope and conjecture have no role in science. Anecdotes aren’t science either, for as the adage goes, the plural of anecdote is not data.) Knowing in science can mean understanding a theory, one of the big, broad theories such as those about evolution or gravity or germs. It can also mean understanding, as well as current research allows, the mechanisms behind the disorders and diseases that cause us to suffer and, at some point, to die.

Aside from the big theories and the basic mechanisms of action in biology, chemistry, the Earth science, and physics, knowing in science is tenuous and subject to change. We are perhaps most aware of this in medicine. Here’s an example from routine women’s  health care:

Recommendations for calcium supplementation, self-breast exams, and pap smears have changed drastically in the twenty-two years I’ve been practicing medicine. When I started working as  PA in family practice, we urged women to take 1200 mg of calcium daily to prevent osteoporosis, examine their own breasts monthly to check for suspicious masses, and get a pap smear annually to check for cervical cancer, starting at age eighteen. Observational studies followed by experimentation drove those recommendations, so most health care providers followed them. That is how medicine works. Large studies, preferably verified by other large studies produce reams of data that lead, after much discussion and dissention, to recommendations for practice.

Today, those recommendations have changed. Calcium supplementation is no longer routinely recommended for osteoporosis prevention, as it has a dubious role in preventing fractures while having a clear role in increasing kidney stones. While some women do find their own breast cancers, monthly self-breast exams did not save lives. Annual pap smears started very young led to over diagnosis of benign conditions and a corresponding unnecessary increase of the not-always-benign treatment for those conditions.

Was the science that drove those recommendations wrong? Yes and no. Yes, calcium plays a starring role in bone metabolism. Yes, women who notice a breast lump should see a doctor promptly. Yes, pap smears reduce the rate of death from cervical cancer. But because science is an ongoing process, and because doctors and scientists continue to question and continue to experiment, the book didn’t close on those issues in women’s healthcare. It stayed open, because that’s what science does. It remains open.

And that’s where uncertainty enters the room. No matter how much we know about the natural world, what we don’t know dwarfs that knowledge. The universe is vastly big, and our smallest bits of ourselves are so very, very small. We know so much. And so little. Science embraces uncertainty because without that uncertainty, without that examination of what is known, we would have no need to keep questioning and wondering.

Uncertainty in science is good. It is necessary. It is what brought science to be and drives science on. Without uncertainty, we remain frozen, without impetus to look again, without reason to wonder. We need uncertainty to move forward scientifically. But uncertainty can also drive us away from science, especially when science doesn’t yet have answers to our questions. The earliest people were uncertain when the moon eclipsed the sun, when stars changed position in the sky, when rains and winds brought death and destruction. They were uncertain why people died and how new life came to be. In that uncertainty, they built beliefs and rituals and stories. Before science had a codified process, uncertainty brought us religion, a way of understanding what we did not know and couldn’t explain.

I think we’d agree that the Jewish primary texts, the Torah and rest of the Old Testament, and the Christian primary texts, the Gospels and remainder of the New Testament, don’t explain the true origins of the world or explore the root causes of plagues, floods, or other natural disasters and wonders. Similarly, we don’t take as true the stories of the Hindu gods, with Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer as actual forces in the natural world. We read these texts as history and literature, and while we may take those metaphors of creator, preserver, and destroyer to be meaningful representations of the process of our own birth, life, and death, we don’t confuse these with the actual forces of our natural world. We know those stories are stories, explanations from a time before the knowing of science.

But what about the god or gods or goddesses behind those pieces of historical literature? What are we saying when we say we believe in a god or goddess or an assortment of them? Belief is a trust, a confidence in something or some idea that is untestable and perhaps not even observable without generous interpretation. Some may believe in a deity who knows their name, who breathed life into them. Some may believe that an unseen deity protects them from harms, known and unknown. Some may believe that deity brings them trials and tribulations as tests of faith and devotion, or simply as ways to make them better people. And some believe that their loving, omniscient deity, giver of life, then calls them away from that life to something better — something unknown, unseen by anyone on Earth, somewhere where pain and suffering vanish and life never ends.

Whatever the narrative of the human life within that belief structure about the divine, it is a narrative designed bring comfort, order, purpose, meaning, and security. We all want those in our uncertain, unpredictable, sometimes chaotic and always finite lives. Belief in a divine force, something beyond ourselves and beyond the ever-evolving scientific knowledge of the world, can bring a sense of certainty to the uncertainty of our lives. Belief in a set of religious precepts ordained by an omnipotent God or beliefs in a single uniting force, connecting us all and giving us some power beyond our mortal limits, can help us manage the uncertainty of being human. Belief in forces outside our natural world can be amazingly soothing and helpful.

That’s where belief belongs. Belief is the language of religion. In that realm, it’s valid and sound, allowing one to hold close and valuable something untestable and ephemeral. While belief may lead a person to make seemingly scientific connections (the cancer vanished, so God exists), it should never — ever — be confused with the knowledge, however mutable, that science provides.

But, as I mention, we are uncertain, and we, as humans, are not so good at accepting that uncertainty. That’s what drives good science inquiry and, eventually, knowledge. It’s also what drives us to belief, the way understanding in religion when we should be in the realm of science.

Belief is a way of understanding the world, but it’s not appropriate to science or applications of science, like medicine. Uncertainty in the scientific  realm — and especially the medical realm — can drive us to claiming knowledge in ways other than scientific ways. When medicine doesn’t provide clear relief from symptoms, we may turn to those anecdotes from a friend or the friend of a friend or some guru on TV. In our uncertainty and often our fear, we may become prone to follow fads and  accept pseudoscience, sure that doing something — anything — is better than doing nothing. We cling to answers that go directly against the scientific process proven to be effective for over 400 years — simple answers, such as a specific diet or oil that cures everything. We read lists of symptoms from vertigo to fatigue, impotence to rashes, all linked to a single substance either used in excess or in deficit. Gluten and lyme disease and even vaccines get named villains for all that ails — while vitamin D and coconut oil become the new fountains of youth. (And, yes, gluten can be deadly to some and troublesome for others, and lyme disease is a real entity requiring medical intervention, but neither cause all medical woes, nor does Vitamin D or a fad diet fix all that ails us. And vaccines save lives. The World Health Organization attributes the measles vaccine alone to saving 17.1 million lives just since the year 2000 while not contributing at all to autism rates, according to numerous studies.) In the face of no clear answer or no easy answer, it’s easy to cling to what is not knowledge — It’s easy to cling to belief.

But we shouldn’t.  Belief isn’t the language of science. It’s not how we know what is under our feet, over our heads, or in our own bodies. And if we’re serious about holding science and religion as far apart as we can, if we’re committed to understanding that knowing in science can never be preempted by the beliefs associated with religion, we cannot mingle these ways of understanding the world.  

We hold science and religion apart because they are different domains in our post-enlightenment age. Science is built on observation, questioning, and experimentation. It requires constant uncertainty and scrutiny, testing and retesting, looking forward and backwards at the same time. It is a continuous process of uncovering knowledge that leads to more questions. It is about objective truths and the building of knowledge as understanding.

Religion also fills the void of uncertainty, but it fills it with belief. Untestable and often unobservable, beliefs may change across a lifespan due to experiences or new ideas or just need. Beliefs carry no burden of proof and offer comfort that, for some, lasts a lifetime unchanged. Belief is about that which touches our metaphorical hearts. Belief is personal, subjective, and entirely non-scientific. It can be what brings us comfort when nothing material, science or otherwise, can, but it should never be confused with the knowing that comes from science.

So here they sit, science on the one hand and religion on the other, arms stretched wide. 

And here’s our ways of understanding, knowledge paired with science, belief sitting with religion.

May uncertainty be with you as you hold those realms apart.

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Idealism, Existential Depression, and Unitarian Universalism

IMG_1582(Somewhat edited text from my sermon given on Sunday, April 26, 2015, at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington. This piece was inspired by a book by James T Webb, Ph.D.: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope)

“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.”

Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath


It starts something like this:

I read something in the New York Times or hear something on NPR about some aspect of health care. Perhaps it’s about affordability: sky-high deductibles on top of high premiums that keep people from seeking health care despite having insurance. Or maybe it’s about lack of access to dental care for low-income adults. Teeth are, of course, part of our bodies, and they are a part that can be damaged or diseased. Dental care isn’t a luxury, and teeth aren’t expendable, like an appendix (whose removal is generally covered, after that sky-high deductible). Yet for the poor, affordable and timely dental care can be near impossible to find.

Or maybe I go to work, to my job as a PA in a family practice that serves mostly the poor, addicted, and disenfranchised. Maybe I’ve spent too much time that day (time that causes other patients to wait for ages) searching for the doctor or medical center that will take a patient’s particular flavor of Medicaid, frustrated because this patient has something rare, something only a few surgeons in a large metropolitan area can manage well, and the best of those aren’t in her network. Or perhaps I’ve cared for a woman who lost her housing and is living out of her car. She has Medicaid as well, thus she has healthcare coverage (well, aside from dental care), but she can’t afford a place to live and has exhausted the meager resources of her friends. Her skin infection on her foot is getting worse, and her blood sugars are rising, which isn’t helping her infection. And why isn’t she taking her insulin? Because without a house, she has no refrigerator in which to keep it, and it’s terribly hot outside. Besides, if she takes it, she has to eat, and access to food isn’t predictable.

Whether via the news or the through the lives of my patients or the experience of a friend, I find myself in some mix of anger and despair over a myriad of healthcare wrongs in this nation and across the world. My husband is a fine conversational partner when I’m in this state, and he’s willing to nod and shake his head in turn, listening to the verse of the day: “Why don’t teeth matter? Why is it so hard to find quality mental health care for people of need? Couldn’t we take better care of patients if we had more time? What if the Affordable Care Act, despite all its limitations, disappears in the next election cycle?”

He’s patient through the chorus as well: “Why is it like this? Why don’t we care for people — really care?! Why do we focus on war and wealth and not on people?!”

It’s hard being an idealist.

I can’t recall a time in at least the past twenty years when I didn’t see the world in two painfully conflicting ways:  One way is filled with sunshine, hope, and clarity that what should be will be. That what is right and good and best will happen. It’s optimistic, in a way, brimming with faith in humanity and hope for the future. Optimistic, but not giddily or mindlessly so. Maybe it’s more high-minded, but not, at least mostly, haughty. It is a view finds solace and hope in morals and values and virtues, the sorts that seem universal. Justice. Equity. Compassion, Respect for human dignity. Equality. Fairness. Kindness. Goodness. Love. Patience. When I wake with this view of the world, I’m certain that I’ll parent a bit better than the day before, sure I’ll be a more loyal friend, a more compassionate partner, and at least a bit more dedicated to getting some exercise. It’s the same part that trusts that after this election, we’ll have healthcare for all, equal pay for women, solutions for poverty, and justice for the immigrant. I even believe that someday, dental care will count as medical care. It’s the side that can find the way out of the bed even on the darkest morning because the sun will always rise. It is my idealist who wakes most mornings.

Idealism, the tendency to see the world in terms of how things should be, is often touted as a virtue. It can be that. For the individual, idealism can provide energy, fuel hope, and inspire action. It’s exhilarating to think about what could be if only. It’s hopeful to consider the vast amount of human potential this world holds. It’s inspiring to consider what one set of hands, one pair of  ears, one mouth, and one pair of feet can to when combined with a compassionate heart, and an outward-thinking mind.

Idealists are catalysts for change: they see the mismatch between what is and what should be. Some idealists act on the distress borne out of seeing that mismatch: they feed the hungry, clothe the naked, march for the oppressed, fight for the downtrodden, and otherwise work to see the world move closer to their ideals, all for the betterment of humanity and the planet. Idealism in community can do even more. When people with similar “shoulds” and “could bes” work together, powerful change can happen. Idealists working together  is what brought emancipation to the slaves, the vote to women, civil rights to Blacks, and, slowly and steadily, marriage rights to gays and lesbians.

Sounds just peachy, doesn’t it? Some days, and often at the end of other days, I see the world differently. I see what is and despair about whatever could be. In real life, the kind with limitations and failures and human beings and differing ideas of what should and could be, idealism is both a source of motivation as well as a source of stress and sadness. It’s just hard to watch the world and those humans, including oneself, not BE what one thinks SHOULD be. The world and its inhabitants just don’t always do what’s better for the world and those inhabitants. Add a fairly sharp mind to an idealist mindset (and many a bright person is idealistic), and it’s not hard to quickly think oneself from hopeful to existential funk. After all, the poor aren’t fed, not even in our own neighborhoods and schools. Dental care is an extra. Racism lives, and young black men continue to be on the losing end of justice, economic equity, and, too often, hope. Those with the privilege to protect use their power to harm those who can take no more harm. Gays and lesbians have the right to marry given and taken away in the same day. And I still lose my temper at my kids. Let the funk begin.

According to James T. Webb, PhD, expert in gifted education, and author of Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, “Bright, intense, caring, idealistic people are more likely to be disillusioned than many others, and along with disillusionment can come depression.” Does that list of characteristics remind of any people you know, perhaps, even, any people around you at this very moment?  Bright? Intense? Caring? Idealistic? And at least a bit discouraged or anxious about the state of the world? Does that statement resonate with you? You — and I — are not alone.

While clinical depression doesn’t strike every idealist, few idealists I’ve known escape disappointment punctuated by occasional outright despair when viewing the human condition. We learn our idealism from many places, but the first source is often our families of origin. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with my father that begin with concerns about something political and social, equitable health care, and ends up with both of us with our brows crinkled, shaking our heads, feeling more than a bit disappointed in our society if not our world. We’re not depressed, but we are discouraged. But what lies behind that discouragement? It’s not just the unmet ideals of our nation or the ones we personally fail to meet. It’s something more.

As humans, we look for meaning in our lives. When I teach biology class, I tell my students that the purpose of all living things is to procreate. It’s true, biologically speaking. The job of life is to preserve the species via reproduction.  As humans, of course, we find our meaning in more than just replacing ourselves. What we find meaning in varies from person to person and from one time in our lives to another time. Meaning can be found in our relationships with self, family, friends, and even the stranger. Meaning may be rooted in personal accomplishments, appearance, or possessions. It may be found in God, goddess, the pantheon of deities, or the assuredness that there is no divine being on whom to call. Some find meaning in money and jobs. And those same may find it in acts of charity performed with that money or within that job. We may find meaning in the intangible and immeasurable: love, honesty, compassion, hard work, pain, suffering, birth, and even death. We may find it in the silence between the measurables and immeasurables, the places where only the breath resides.

Wherever we find it, however we name it at this moment, what gives us meaning is inextricably linked to the existential questions: Who am I? What is important? What is my purpose? Why do I exist? What is there beyond the self? These questions are at the very heart of our search for meaning, and as we look for meaning in our lives, we are actually grappling with these big existential concerns — we are wrestling with the meaning of life overall.

These concerns aren’t products of a modern society, although modern conveniences and generally ample thinking time give us more opportunities to ponder over them. The ancients wondered about the meaning of life and other existential concerns, and our world’s religions exist out of the desire human beings have to explain not only the natural wonders that delight and terrify us but also to explain the human condition in all its glory and suffering.  But gaining scientific understanding of plagues, floods, and the Northern Lights does little to assuage our need to understand our place in the world under the firmament.

The external signs of our grappling for meaning are our shifting focus, our shuffling priorities, our ever-changing ways of being in the world. If I’m convinced (or at least hoping) that status or admiration by others is important to life, I’m likely to find meaning in my job, my income, my home, my possessions, and what is said about me at the water cooler or in the papers. If I’m wed to meaning in human relationships, I’m likely to seek to deepen my bonds to those around me. Our sense of meaning in the world points us towards ideals while driving our behaviors.

In the midst of these ideals, grappling, and even depression, there is hope. There is hope that doesn’t require abandoning ideals, although it does require understanding that many ideals are subjective. There is hope that does not depend on dogmatic beliefs in unseen forces. Hope that accepts that life is messy even when it’s working fairly well. Hope that isn’t escapism via work, media, social networks, material possessions, travel to far-away lands, or food and other chemical substances.  Hope. Not withdrawal into ourselves or collapse into the abyss of detachment or even anger.

Hope. The real McCoy. It is the antidote to this existential funk that so many idealists experience. After all, we can no more shake off our idealism than shed a decade from our lives. And, despite the pain it can cause, the pain of watching ideals go unmet, of seeing a world that seems to continually fight becoming better, I doubt many of us would give up our idealism even if we could. Idealism is, for many of us, what brought us to Unitarian Universalism. We were not content with an “easy God,” a guy in the sky with all the answers, pulling the strings, or, if we waited and listened, telling us which strings to pull. Or, perhaps, we’ve never had an easy God to ask, to blame, to beg, to cajole. Perhaps we’ve just come here because our ponderings of ideals and existential issues were rattling around in our heads, seeking the company of other idealists feeling thwarted by life. Or perhaps we’ve found this place for our children, desiring that their existential questions would find patient ears in this community of thinkers, lovers, and doers. Many of us came to this religion, Unitarian Universalism, with hope, the antidote to existential angst.

Unitarian Universalism offers, among other things, hope. It also encourages idealism and actively ponders the big questions. It encourages knowing ourselves. Our fourth principle (one of seven suggested as common thinking points by the UUA — not creed or dogma but rather a place to start) points us to this responsibility: We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

This is first a statement encouraging acceptance of ourselves as human beings — it is part of our natural, human self to wonder and search and to grapple with the big questions. Naming this part of ourselves, whether we consider our idealism and existential wonderings friend or foe, is exceptionally hard, as the mirror it requires to examine one’s self and one’s beliefs throws back images that we may interpret negatively. We do too little. We surf the net too much. We listen with too little attention. We act on our ideals too seldom and on our momentary drives too much. We worry about the small stuff too much. The list goes on. We fall short, and it hurts.

But to manage the recurring disillusionment all idealists face, it’s essential to start with the basic truth that you are who you are — an idealistic, flawed, and sometimes disappointed person who wants a better world. Embrace it. Your idealism is part of you. Embrace also that desire to search for meaning. That’s part of being human, as is the stumbling and bumbling we find ourselves doing as we sort through meaning and ideals. View this existential work as necessary human tasks taken on by fallible human beings in a messy world, and it’s not quite as daunting.

So what now? Now we turn to principle three: We affirm and promote the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. We don’t need to search for meaning and manage our ideals by ourselves. We’re here to help each other through both the pain of ideals unrealized and the search for meaning in our lives. We are also here to accept ourselves and each other as imperfect and unfinished beings, and, most importantly, not lesser people for it.

So we’ve accepted our idealism and that of our fellow travelers. What’s next? The rest of our Unitarian Universalists principles guide us there as well. They mention supporting democracy, working for justice, valuing our fellow travelers, caring for our planet and all the life it supports, treating all humans with compassion and dignity. These concepts (ideals in themselves, really) provide a route out of some of our pain, as they affirm the ideals we hold so true while nudging us to not just agree with them but to actively promote them in our world. The words that begin all are these: We affirm and promote. Affirming is the armchair, or perhaps pew, response. Promoting requires action, even if that action is speaking your mind to spread the word or signing a letter to your congressperson. We’re to do to the work that helps these ideals become actualized in the world. This work, even if it is small, helps us feel effectual in our world, and, as we work to serve others, we tend to set aside some of the noise in our head.

Idealism and its often accompanying existential angst and questioning can be abated by techniques that extend beyond Unitarian Universalism, of course.  Relationships can quiet the questioning voices, allowing us to find meaning in those human contact points as we give and receive. Just talking about the despair can help, as knowing one isn’t alone can often be an antidote to pain (recall sharing our sorrows?). But we needn’t just cry together. Laughter helps, too. Laughing at ourselves, at the absurdity of the world, laughing at the absurdity life often presents to us. Laughing requires stepping out of our heads enough to see that situations pass.

And all things pass, from obstinate congresses to “religious freedom” acts. Even wars and epidemics eventually end. If there is anything a look through history can tell us, it is that nations and our world changes. It’s not always for the better, but it’s not also always for the worse. Taking the long view can help the idealist. Not only can that look let us know how that problems — even the most dire ones — have been solved in peaceful ways before but that it is often idealists with persistence who make that happen. As I look out over this room, guess who I see? Idealists with persistence.

So go ahead. Hold onto your ideals.  Dream of a day when affordable health care (including dental care) for all is reality; a day when marriage is between two consenting adults who love each other, regardless of gender; a day when the color of your skin doesn’t affect the level o dignity and justice you receive; a day when caring for our planet is a top national agenda; or even a day when there isn’t a war to send our children to fight. Continue to grapple with the big questions, as it is only by questioning meaning that we shape our ideals and relate our existence to those ideals.  And as you go, hold onto hope, and help others hold onto hope as well.

Anne Frank:

It’s really a wonder I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because some of them seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them because, in spite of everything I still believe that people are truly good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being transformed into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.

– July 15, 1944

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.

 

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.

Out of the Ruts

IMG_0906Michigan weather and a county with little remaining plowing budget have found me driving in ruts. My street, a narrow slip that, with a car parked at the edge, allows only single-file traffic, is covered with several inches of ice. Two tire-sized ruts provide the only path, and transferring a vehicle from those ruts to a driveway or the other way ’round takes intention and precision if one doesn’t want to skate into another car or simply spin one’s wheels. Those ruts hold the car tight, however, albeit with a fair amount of jostling within them. There’s safety in the ruts, even with the daily morning glaze of ice. The nausea-inducing ride in them is far from pleasant, but while in these ruts, you’re not apt to end up sideswiping a car or ending up in a snow bank.

Driving in these physical ruts led me to think about the metaphorical type, the kind that we say we want out of yet not badly enough to risk the leap; the one that may leave us skidding into the unknown or simply spinning our wheels in frustration. There can be an odd comfort in even our most painful ruts, perhaps because we know the jostling they bring, which can sometimes seem more comforting than whatever road might lay beyond those well-worn grooves.

Six years ago tonight, my rather messy disaster of a marriage turned far more chaotic. Years of worsening arguments and other insanity came to a head, and by the end of March 2, 2008, I lived alone with two children. I’d like to say that I never looked back after that day. The episodes that led to the shrinking of our household should likely never open one’s mind to reconciliation, and I’m still uncertain why, that for almost another year, I fought for that chance to return to healthy married life. It was, as they say, likely desired for the children, although children are always better off away from violence and deception. It took me almost a year for me to realize that the loss on March 2nd was best accepted and better for all.

Every February since, starting somewhere in the middle of the month, I feel the downward pull. It’s a tug towards some wintery mix of sadness and anger, tinged with a bit of guilt and touched with disbelief that the whole nightmare — years of it — was mine. I don’t blink at our anniversary and can’t even recall the date of our divorce, but that Sunday night in March, along with the weeks preceding it, are still hard to bear. While my grief takes different forms different years, at some point, I find myself in the ruts of revisiting that past — the day itself, then the weeks around it, then the years that came before. It’s a nausea-inducing ride of pain and sadness, yet I fall into those grooves each winter.

Last year, happily enjoying the first year of love with the peaceful, honest, and faithful man whom I’ll soon call my husband, I almost missed it. Mid-February found me thinking about the date, but little emotion came. For the first time, I felt some detachment, some ability to not let those memories play over and over, with all the emotions returning during the reruns. The actual date caught me off guard. I’d actually forgotten, until, at some point near the end of the day, I remembered. Into the ruts I fell.  I cried with company, and the sorrow left more quickly. I started to think those ruts had passed for good or at least that their hold on me had loosened.

This year, the heaviness started over a week before the date. I felt the familiar grooves after landing with a thud, and drove along their familiar path. It’s been a long season, and, like many of us who are suffering cabin fever in what is truly the worst winter many of us have ever seen, I’ve had some dip of mood. Perhaps my upcoming nuptials contributed to my mind’s unexpected plunge into the darkness of six years earlier. While I’ve largely concluded I’m capable of being part of a healthy marriage, of loving someone deeply without losing myself (a self only really found in the past dozen years), of being loved deeply and without reservation, I’m prone to worry that at points borders on panic.

I don’t question whether I had a role in my marriage’s slide into disaster. I know myself when I’m anxious — grasping, afraid, demanding of answers to all that confuses and scares me, angry, wordy — and those last years found me anxious beyond what I’d known previously. I also know what most of us know about making relationships better: I could have listened more and talked less. I could have sat with my anxieties before throwing them at another. I could have let go just when I most want to grasp tightly. In a million ways, I  know I could have loved better. Couldn’t we all?  I don’t, however, take all the blame for the nightmare that was the years before that particular March 2nd, nor any for what happened that night. I did many things over many years that didn’t help, but ultimately, we are responsible only for what we choose to do with our hands and hearts. We are sovereign that way.

Somewhere in the past few days, the dread and deafening doubts tiptoed away enough to let me get through some days without crying. The relief, similar to when the ice finally starts to melt, was barely perceptible until I looked back and saw I hadn’t cried that particular day. I scheduled a massage for Saturday, washing myself in tender and healing touch. I mentioned my blues to my massage therapist, telling her the date that had been bothering me. Her response made little impact at the time: Do something special that day, something that rewrites that day in my memory. Fat chance, I silently figured. What could happen that could push away that darkness of that single and dreadful day? How could I escape those ruts?

The answer came hours later, after the mail had failed (again!) to bring my copy of UUWorld, the quarterly print and online publication of the Unitarian Universalist Association. By no effort of my own, I had a piece in both editions, a piece I’d written last fall — Questions of Comfort, a musing about the need for meaning in tragedy. An editor at UU World contacted me, a writer who rarely submits anything to anyone anywhere since that keeps the rejection monster from visiting too often. He asked if they could use the piece, and I, eager to be in print, elatedly agreed. While I’d seen the piece online, my copy had yet to arrive. Over the previous days, friends send messages saying theirs had arrived, one kindly sending a picture of the first page, providing the proof I needed that this was real. But I wanted my own.

Stalked mail carriers rarely deliver, however, and Saturday’s delivery was notably without my copy of the magazine. As I headed to bed after a marvelous day with my intended, it came to me that perhaps I’d found a way out of the ruts March 2nd had held for me these past six years. March 2nd fell on Sunday again this year, and friends, knowing I’d not yet held the magazine that contained proof that I was indeed a published writer, promised to bring that proof to church. Sunday, I’d see my words published in a small yet not invisible magazine that often contains pieces on the hardest parts of life as well as the seemingly small wonders it brings every day.

And so I find myself on a new road, one where March 2nd isn’t a day of recalling pain and reliving disaster and returning to thoughts of failure. March 2nd can be the day I first saw my work in print in a made-of-paper, read-by-people-who-aren’t-obligated-to-do-so magazine. It’s small, this success, but it’s a start down a road I’ve yearned to travel: The road of the published writer.

I don’t know what will happen come the end of February 2015. Habits are hard to break, and some memories are more challenging to manage than others. It’s not in the remembering that the ruts wreak their havoc, however. It’s in the emotions and thought patterns that we dig deeply, either by intention or accident, and it’s what we miss by assuming that once we fall in that we can’t find our way out. There’s nothing wrong with remembering and learning from our most painful memories, but when they steal so much of our present, they need some adjusting. They are ruts to ride over and out of, in search of more open road. Who knows where that might lead?

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.

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.

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)