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.

Pope Francis, Atheism, and Words of Thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

A Letter to My Father: Agnosticism Explained

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

Dad,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Sarah

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

Through a Glass Darkly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

 

Thankfulness, Fears, and Hopes

Aaron's Pictures 8 2010 038Not long ago, I posted about a spate of existential depression that hit this winter (Existential Darkness in the Dawning of the New Year). My mood has improved, perhaps due to news avoidance and regular use of a light box for my anxious, moody version of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but perhaps also due to taking some advice from a friend. A friend from church told me she started each day with a simple meditation, asking herself three questions:

  • What am I thankful for?
  • What do I fear?
  • What do I hope for?

It’s a simple list, and it immediately reminded me of guidance I received on prayer some 25 years back. During my Catholic years, I was taught that prayer had four elements: praise, thanksgiving, petition, and listening. Fast forward to a time when I use the word divine to describe tiramisu, a passage of music, or that first sip of coffee in the morning, and that formula for prayer is hard to translate into atheist meditation. While I can sit in awe at a sunrise or a child’s sleeping face, I don’t believe in a being to praise for that natural wonder or rush of love. The lack of belief in a divine meaning leaves asking for help out of the question and listening an act of searching the silence and self rather than the whisper of a savior.

But this list I can do. I tried it at first at night, a few weeks before my artificial sunshine lamp was suppressing morning melatonin and lifting my mood. As anxiety mounted, I asked myself, “What am I thankful for?” I can’t recall my answer that night, but I know I didn’t ponder the question but rather answered immediately, in the privacy of my thoughts. “What do I fear?” came next, and in my anxious state, I could have gone on and on, but managed to name one, the first that came to mind. And in naming it, its power reduced. Not a lot. But enough. “What do I hope for?” was the last, and that answer was certain: I hope to not feel this existential angst and anxiety that had plagued so much of the previous month. And eventually, I fell asleep.

While I never managed to start each morning with that list,  I’m still  working through it most nights. Well, I work through most of it most nights. Often I fall asleep before getting to hope, a more positive outcome than it sounds in writing.

For me, the order of the questions matters: thankfulness, fears, hopes. Were I to start with my fears, I’d end up wound up in such a knot I’d never sleep, effects of my artificial morning light be damned. And leading with hopes would seem somehow greedy and ungrateful. And to end in fear? That seems, well, sad and scary. Thankfulness, fears, hopes. It works.

I’m often surprised by the answers to those questions, especially when I do this exercise as my rational mind is shutting down and allowing the more random selector of dream material to surface. At this tender spot between the harried day and sleep, I tend to consider more what lies at my core and far less of what “should” be. One night, after an exceptionally hard day with my boys, I may find myself thankful for the time I share with my children, reflecting on that gift that particular homeschooling offers despite the challenges the day presented. The fear follows but with a different note: Have I done enough and made the right choices, the ones that afford them plenty of options as they move into adulthood? What am I missing? What are they missing? My hope sandwiches the fear, and may be either a hope for peace within me or wisdom as I continue on that journey. Or perhaps even both.

Sometimes what starts as a personal reflection turns outward, away from me, finding focus on the bigger world. Just a few nights back, after again another medical bill was rejected by my expensive and questionably valuable individual health care insurance policy, the following answers to those questions came forth:

  • I am thankful for the coverage I have, which would probably protect me from financial ruin should something awful happen. I’m thankful for the resources to fill in those gaps in coverage and enough professional medical knowledge avoid unnecessary visits and their inevitable bills.
  • I fear for those without the safety net of good insurance, for those who go without care because they can’t afford it and for a society that doesn’t value its citizenry enough to see universal coverage as a right.
  • I hope for change in that society, from the top down and the bottom up. I hope someday we’ll get it right.

More often, though, the reflection remains more personal and, with no effort, focused on a concern in my life that often wasn’t at the forefront of my mind during the day.  The act of being grateful ameliorates the strength of the fear before it is even mentioned. Naming the fear, even if already weakened, reveals the hope behind it. Daring to whisper the hope in the quiet of my head makes it seem somehow less unobtainable — possible, even.

So each night (and sometimes during difficult patches during the day) I finish with a short reflection that often reveals more than I’d guessed was in my head.  It’s not prayer, and it’s not silent meditation, but for now, it’s a way to quiet the noise and focus my attention on the matters of my heart. It is a stillness that brings clarity and peace, and that’s divine.

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.

Christmas Presence

My boys, 2002.

The holidays surround me. No, the tree isn’t up. Holiday cards aren’t coming or going. No candles grace the table, neither Advent nor Hanukkah, although one season has begun and the other approaches in a few days.  Only older son’s efforts give physical evidence of the season, with lights hanging in most of the first floor, paper snowflakes filling the dining area, and paper chains wrapping the crown molding.  And I have been doing a bit of shopping, making my closet an off-limits place.

Physical manifestations or not, once December begins, I start to think. For years, I wondered just what I believed. Was Jesus the son of God? Was he a historical figure who led a movement of compassion and social justice? Was he an idealized conglomeration of social actors in his time? I don’t know. Jesus — divine, human, or mythological — has a powerful message that resonates today as well as it did two thousand years back. Belief aside, that message continues to impact the thoughts and actions of many. I suppose that’s worth a celebration.

With the theological questions put aside, this year I’ve found my thoughts drifting backwards through the last fifteen years. My older son’s first Christmas at seven months of age was a commercial delight. As the first grandchild on both sides, he was celebrated in full retail fashion. I can’t recall what his father and I bought him, but I remain amazed at the appallingly large pile of presents from grandparents for a child who didn’t care about anything more than paper to crinkle and lights to watch. What I do remember, thanks in part to video watched countless times, is that child a week later, pulling up on every piece of furniture, laughing while the Barenaked Ladies sang “If I Had a Million Dollars” while his father popped out from behind the ottoman. That first Christmas with him was love and promise incarnate. He was the best gift I’d ever received.

As my older grew, so did his appreciation of the holiday. The second year, it was all about the lights. “Ights, ights! Pitty ights!” came the cry from the backseat as we drove our toddler through the Hines Drive Light Show on a snowy December evening. His face beamed with excitement — all those lights, those pretty lights seemed to be in place just for him. For the first time, we started taking detours from trips after dark, seeking out the “pitty ights,” a habit persisting for years to come.

A year later, the lights still delighted, but presents had gained more attention, although one or two would still have done. That Christmas was the first that kept his father and I up late as we arranged and rearranged wooden train track on a board, carefully figuring how to make the most of the space. I’m not sure who was most excited as his Dad and I carried the display into the living room at the end of a long round of present opening. We all had a fine time for years to come, designing track and running trains. Gifts of tunnels and bridges with plenty of new engines were under the tree each season.

A year later, I was pregnant with my younger and feeling rather queasy as we travelled to Wisconsin to spend the season with my mother. The night of December 24th, the day after we arrived, my critically ill stepfather died, having smiled his last smile at my older and knowing that another grandchild was on the way, his fourth. It was a solemn season, with Christmas Day plans unchanged only because of my older’s presence. Again, he was our present, our life in the midst of death. Our family was a gift to my mother, who would from then on travel to Michigan for the season instead of staying home.

The next year, my younger joined us. Less outgoing than his (introverted) brother, he spend the jangly, crowded season’s celebrations in a sling or at my breast. Comfort often eluded him, and the busy gatherings that fill this time of year often still bring him stress mixed in with the pleasure. While little else from that holiday season comes to mind, I can still feel the weight of his body in that sling and the rocking and patting that was part of the ritual that kept him somewhat together. My older son enjoyed the noise and crowd while my younger and I often retreated into quieter spots.

The years blur after that. Children grew. Toys and books multiplied, an embarrassment of plastic, wood, and paper filled the living room on Christmas morning. Even after we left the Catholic and then the Episcopal church, the Advent candles remained, joined by Hanukkah candles and traditions when my mother converted to Judaism. Fatigued by the present deluge, we put the reigns on at home, following the adage, “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.” Other traditions remained unchanged from my childhood — stockings first, coffee cake second, presents (taking turns) followed. A real tree replaced the artificial one, and one parent on Christmas morning replaced two. My mother continued to visit.

I’m not sure why Christmas past is so present this year. Perhaps once the tree is up and decorated, my mind will stay put in Christmas 2012. As the boys grow older, their excitement softens into enthusiasm. While this makes the waiting for Christmas morning easier, it reminds me that more changes are coming. Requests for gifts have changed, with my older’s list including a solid state drive, a mechanical keyboard, and a long list of computer related paraphernalia. His brother’s list remains more comforting — historical costumes and books still have a place among the tech accessories. I find myself missing pouring over train track adaptors and roundhouses.

My relationship with the holiday remains uneasy. It’s mine to celebrate by tradition alone, and I can’t shed the sense of a season stolen, now that my faith is gone. Perhaps that tradition is enough, as long as within it we continue to look beyond the lights, presents, and  coffee cake to the reminder that loving each other is humanity at its best.

May your holiday season be filled with love and peace.

Here’s the collection of past musings on the season, a chronicle of belief changed and the struggle the holidays presented.

 

 

And Then There Were Nones

The New York Times reported “Percentage of Protestant Americans is in Deep Decline.” The Washington Post’s take was different: “One in five Americans reports no religious affiliation.” USA Today worded it this way: “The emerging social, political force: ‘Nones.” And Maine’s Morning Sentinel reported it this way: “Study: Maine still one of the least religious states.”  The Pew Research Center of The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recent report on the U.S. attitudes towards religion hit the news circuit last week, albeit with a variety of focuses.

While I imagine it was lamented in many churches, I found it a bit of a relief. I’m not alone. Actually, since I identify myself as a Unitarian Universalist, I don’t actually qualify as part of the 19.6% of those claiming no religious affiliation, since I identify myself as a Unitarian Universalist. (UUs can be found under the heading Other Faiths (1.2%), then under Unitarian and other liberal faiths (0.7%), with 0.3% of those surveyed claiming that title.) That’s a mighty small group that’s been shrinking over time, so it’s nice to feel the company of the larger group of folks who sit outside the boundaries of Christianity (73% call themselves Christian in this 2012 study).

Only 29% of the Unaffiliated Americans call themselves Atheist or Agnostic with the rest being “nothing in particular,” thus the moniker “Nones.” I can’t say I feel any affection for the term, although I suppose it’s a bit snappier than “Unaffiliated.”  This is not a homogenous group when it comes to religious belief, either. While more lean left than right, they are a hard group to pin down. What this growing group does share is a lack of desire to sit in a place of worship on a Sunday (or any other day):  88% aren’t looking for a particular religion. This pool of Nones, it seems, aren’t ripe for the pews of even a Unitarian Universalist church. Why is left to wonder.

What I wonder is a bit different. I wonder what draws some nonbelievers (those atheists and agnostics who aren’t Nones), to church each Sunday. A nonbelieving friend of mine asks me often what draws me to my church, given there certainly is no threat of hell for not going and that it does involve getting dressed and moving on a Sunday morning. I’ve answered that question in enough different ways that I’m sure he wonders if I’m just shooting into the dark, hoping to hit the “right” answer by luck.

There might be something to that. Or perhaps my reasons keep changing.

Seven or eight years ago, I became a None. I’d left theism and wandered feeling somewhat lost, part of the 10% of Nones seeking a spiritual home or like-minded community. When I found my Unitarian Universalist church, I’d managed to shove some ritual and routine into the gaping hole that resulted from leaving church. At that point the hole from leaving a belief in God was not the problem. It was the hole of habit that loomed largest at Christmas and Easter, times when community with hymns, sermons, times of quiet, and community were what I’d always experienced. My UU church filled that hole, and, for a while, that’s all I needed.

Eventually, those holes started to close. As more of the trappings of my Christianity fell away and became further from my present moment, the need for those trappings faded. At some point, I was no longer at church for ritual and routine. I was there to discover something new. Perhaps at this point I was thirsting for something greater than myself. Deep into a failed marriage and climbing out of a painful divorce, the loss of God as comfort and purpose was smarting. Not that I had any remaining belief in an omniscient  omnipotent creator being, but I was missing the something beyond myself. Whether that was something to love, something to cry to, something to rant to, or something just to quell the fear and loneliness that threatened during those years, I don’t know. I was drawn to find a practice, and tried a host of meditative practices, including prayer beads without prayer, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and chant. Each one informed my search for meaning and my understanding about myself. None of them stayed with me, at least in their entirety, but through each I grew a bit more comfortable in my godless life and my own skin.

Sometime recently, I stopped my spiritual search. My lack of belief in God and the supernatural and corresponding appreciation of the strength and beauty of reason, as well as increasing wonder of the natural world and the beings in it brought me to a stillness. I’d not quite call it peace. I’m still separating emotionally from spirituality, and there is a tender spot that remains where belief once reigned. But at this point, it’s gone. I’m no longer attending my UU church as a spiritual seeker.

So why am I there? I’ve immersed myself into church life — teaching RE, running a book table, sitting on committees, attending meetings. We rarely miss a Sunday, a dedication I generally attribute duty to my children’s social needs and religious education. It’s more than that, however. I go now for community. This is my tribe. This group of potential Nones who instead decide to wake and dress on (most) Sunday mornings with no threat of hell nor promise of eternal reward. These sometimes profound, sometimes pedantic, always opinionated and passionate people in various stages of belief in God, science, humanity, the universe, and more. With these people I want to share joy and sorrow. With these people I want to stumble through life with more compassion and love than I did the week before. With these people I want to raise my children to think freely about what is important, what is true, and what is right. With these people I’m willing to struggle through the hard parts, sit through long meetings, and worry about growth and finances that stretch beyond my own walls. I’m in deep.

I’m five years from being one of the Nones — five years in a Unitarian Universalist community that feeds me, teaches me, listens to me, cares for me, and sometimes drives me mad. It’s the right place for me today, a previous None who is know comfortably tucked three levels into the list of religions on the Pew study. I don’t know where I’ll be in five years, in either church or belief. I may stay put or perhaps return to the pool of Nones. I might even find myself in some other tiny branch on the tree of religiosity and spirituality. But for now, here I sit, surrounded by my community of fellow travelers.

Religious Language and the Agnostic

I’m an agnostic. This word best captures my current residence on the belief scale, since being an atheist requires a knowing that I can’t claim to possess and theist or even deist reach further than I’m willing to stretch. But I was raised a theist and continue carry the language of a theist. No, I don’t pull out terms like second coming when discussing matters of belief, faith, or global warming, but other distinctly religious language leaves my lips, perhaps unnervingly often for one claiming not to feel the evidence is present to accept the existence of God.

Sacred. Holy. Spirit. Reverence. Soul. Communion. Divine. Amen. All those retain a place in my vocabulary, even years after the concept of a god eludes me. I’ve oft heard the phrase “spiritual but not religious,” and perhaps this applies to me, which might explain the retention of that spiritual language. Or perhaps it reflects what I miss about believing — a connection with something bigger than the forces of physics, chemistry, and biology.

Perhaps I make for a poor agnostic. I’d like to think not, however. I’m quite comfortable in my not knowing about the nature of the divine. In that not knowing, I can’t embrace a theistic tradition. Materialist, however, I’m not. I’ve mused here before about soul, salvation, and the sacred, all terms that leave most secular humanists cringing or at least looking the other way. Yet these terms speak to me. Better than anything else, these words of spiritual origin touch what I believe about the transcendent nature of life.

There is something more. Perhaps that more is the sense that the sum of us is more than our parts. Call it strength in numbers if you like, but there is something transcendent to me when two or more are gathered, regardless of their names. Whether that greater something is love, compassion, God, or something else entirely, I don’t care. But, for me, there is something there.

Perhaps that something — that love or whatever — is the product of the chemicals of my very human brain, circuits trying to make sense out of what I don’t understand. Perhaps it’s no different from what the ancients did when they ascribed the sun and moon with powers and worshiped them accordingly. I don’t know what that element is that exists when I’m in communion with others, what can bring out the very best in us and bind us together when there is no sound reason to be bound. Perhaps it’s an illusion or delusion. Perhaps it’s even God.

I don’t really think the “what” matters. I’d prefer not to make my “what” a someone or something with rules attached and strings to pull. I’d not want my “what” to be what divides a family, nation, or worlds. Whatever that “what” is — love, God, some law of the Universe that we have yet to understand, or only the workings of my human imagination — really doesn’t make a difference. It is, after all, only what helps me make sense of the world as I see it.

Maybe it’s a bit more than that. What to me is frankly divine (although not in the God as ruler and creator sense) shapes my way of being in the world. Whether Humanist, Christian, Muslim, Pagan, agnostic, or something else, our beliefs serve as the lens through which we see the world. My version of agnosticism tinged with spiritual language informs the way I think and act in this world. Believing that compassion and love are what both binds us and is greater than us, I strive to be more compassionate and loving. Holding to the idea of a soul — a true essence of the self that transcends egoic desires — leads me to seek that which lies deeply within each human. Understanding the natural world and all it holds as holy and sacred impacts my interaction with that world.

There is a flip side to those ways of viewing the world. What is not compassionate and loving distresses me, most of all when it comes from me. When I struggle to find good in another only to be thwarted, my sense of soul stutters a bit. While I hardly believe that all the world is good, I believe we were all born with the potential to move through the world with goodness. And though I may see both the furthest stars and smallest insect as sacred and holy, I eat some of those holy creatures and burn a fair amount of energy our nearest star played a part in forming millions of years ago, feeling guilty along the way.

In short, I’m human. I’m an agnostic human, with over thirty years of theism and theistic language that has left its mark in my heart and language. Some might say I’m still tethered by that theistic upbringing, unwilling to let go of the reassuring comfort of belief in what cannot be seen or measured. Perhaps. And perhaps this language will drop away in another five or ten years, as my time away from traditional religion increases. I hope not. Or at least I hope the sense of wonder at this universe and the love we share within it will not drop away as well.

Namaste.

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.