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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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