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.

A Walk in the Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Rational and Reverent

 I’ve written about the Nones (And Then There Were Nones), or religiously unaffiliated. With almost 20% of Americans fitting this description (and the majority of them socially liberal), is it any wonder that the Unitarian Universalists would consider how to attract these folks? Add that we’re a shrinking community (Growing Pains: 161,502 UUs), and it’s easy to see why all those unaffiliated people might seem like ready converts to Unitarian Universalism.

IMG_0144Can the rational and the reverent co-exist? A recent sermon about the Nones set me thinking about the relationship between the rational and the reverent, mindsets that at first glance seem to be in opposition. The sermon, Watering Down the Wine, by Rev. Alex Riegel,  focused on this population of the religiously unaffiliated and played with the idea that we could attract some of these people to our fold if we changed our language and mindset. True, we have a relevant and rational message of compassion and inclusivity that likely does appeal to many of those Nones (as well as liberals happily ensconced in their own faith traditions). But there are barriers. According to the Pew study, 88% aren’t looking for a church. Why they aren’t isn’t covered in the study, but I’d imagine it’s a mixture of feeling wounded from previous church experience, feeling no need to collect on a Sunday morning in a traditional setting, and a preference for Sunday morning in jammies with the paper and a cup of coffee.

We have coffee, and jammies would likely be fine with most congregations, but for the most part, we’re still all church, and rather traditional church at that.  And wounded? Some, but not all. Many have simply decided that they don’t believe what they were brought up to believe. They’ve embraced the rational, what can be thought and touched and turned around in the mind. Others, like me, arrive seeking, questioning the beliefs of youth or just wondering what is out there. Or wondering what isn’t. Either way, we’re theoretically in it together for “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” (4th principle, for those keeping track).

So here we are, built around the idea that the search is the real work of life. That said, I’m not sure how many UUs are actively seeking spiritual answers. We’re a rational bunch, sometimes ruthlessly, stubbornly rational.  Rational thinkers, wounded or not, make up the majority of those in the pews of a UU church, with spirituality and spiritual language largely abandoned or faced with skepticism. In his sermon, Alex suggested relaxing that tight rationality and considering adding some reverence. And he suggested re-thinking opposition to God, or at least to the traditional God. Replace some of the rational with the reverent, seemed to be the call.

I’m deeply rational. I’m also an agnostic who readily admits that I just don’t know the answers and am okay with not knowing. There is so much unknown in the universe, after all, and truths about it we take for granted today were the stuff of fantasy just a generation (or even a decade) back. I just don’t know, and that’s okay with me. I’ve long given up the “easy God” of James Kavanaugh, scholar, poet, and once-Catholic priest. I’m not bitter about the time spent with that comfort but not drawn back to it either. That’s the rational end of me at work. It’s the same part that doesn’t refer to being blessed and will commit to holding someone in my thoughts but not to praying for them. That rationality runs deep and strong, and it’s not wont to be pushed aside.

I don’t think that my rationality gets in the way of my reverence. There’s no need to suspend the rational when staring in awe at the moon, realizing the smallness of me in the grandeur of the Universe while understanding the moon’s physical makeup and relationship to the Earth. My reverence is just as profound when I catch the profile of my younger son, still child-like but on the cusp of adolescence, and the catch in my throat that comes is from the wonder of a world that entrusts us with the lives of the helpless and trusts us to figure it out. And it’s reverence when I meet my dear friend’s eyes and am reminded that love is not limited to those who’ve never known pain or fear but is fully available again and again.

It is reverence I feel when I sit on Sunday morning in a room of other people on their own journeys. Not reverence for something outside of us but rather something among us. It is reverence for our strength together and for the power in community that should only be used to bring more love, compassion, and justice to the world. It is reverence for the freedom I have to believe or not believe in whatever God, spirit, or presence that speaks to me. It is the reverence for the individuals in that space, each coming with his or her own view of what sacred and what brings meaning. It is reverence for what makes us different and what makes us the same.

The rational may be the easy part for many of us, but the reverence is what keeps the rational from running losing our heart, reduced to reason only. The rational and the reverent balance each other, the latter reminding us that despite all we know, we don’t yet understand it all yet.  Our rational mind wonders and weighs, while our reverent mind celebrates the mystery, respecting what has been wondered and weighed and what remains unknown. It is the act of being reverent of the child, the community, the beloved, the stars, and humanity while understanding the rational underpinnings of it all that makes us more fully human than with either sentiment alone.

Rational and reverent. The Unitarian Universalist church appreciates both. This may not be obvious in our services and social time, with the rational language for more comfortable for most of us. So perhaps Alex is right. Perhaps we need to find the language of reverence to temper the rational. While that may be spiritual language, I don’t think it has to be. Perhaps more regular talk about awe and amazement, respect and appreciation, will bring us closer to expressing what we are more likely to note in the quiet of our hearts. Rational and relevant. Truth and meaning. This is the stuff of Unitarian Universalism.

Namaste.

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.

 

 

Gratitude

A special thanks to Ministerial Intern/Intern of Ministry Michael Brown for an inspiring sermon on gratitude on November 18, 2012, available at uusermons.com. I’m grateful to you, Mike.

Throughout the month of November, kind people on Facebook with more focus than I are noting for what they are grateful. Starting the first of each November, a few of my friends take time each day to consider all the wonders in their lives and make note of them online. It’s a fine practice, but I’ll not join in since I’m nearly three weeks late and would likely start repeating myself after three days, given my short memory. Instead, I’ll take some time here to consider a framework for gratitude and the Unitarian Universalist while giving thanks along the way.

While Unitarian Universalists lack agreement on the deity question, I’d bet most of us could agree that gratitude, freely given from the heart, is a valuable practice. And while we also don’t all agree on the seven principles, I think these can serve as a template for our gratitude. Here’s an attempt at framing my gratitude in terms of those principles

Principle 1: We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. This principle strikes me as the core UU principle, with the others springing from it. Christians are instructed to love one another as they have been loved by God. Unitarian Universalists are encouraged to continually and consistently respect the worth of everyone, not just the folks we agree with or like. In the light of gratitude, this mean appreciating the presence of the people in our lives, and not just the ones who touch it in a loving, compassionate way. Those are the easy folks for whom to be grateful. I’m also thankful for the driver who cut in front me in line at on Telegraph Rd., the tired and crabby postal worker who accepted my package, and the nasty-spirited commenters who belittle most of what I believe in. Why? Because these are the people who make me put this principle into action. They are the ones that make me breathe deeply and pause, perhaps then to remain silent or to slather with kindness. I’m thankful for these opportunities to practice my beliefs.

Principle 2: We affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Principle two is the practice of principle one. It’s how we demonstrate that we believe that people have worth and dignity. I’m grateful for the compassion others have shown me, for sticking with me when I’m less than charming or helping out when I’m just worn out and need some care. These acts of kindness remind me that I have worth and dignity often when I feel the least worthy or dignified. On a larger level, I’m thankful that as a nation, we’re finally moving toward offering equity to those who love another of their same gender. Finally, albeit slowly, the worth and dignity of this part of our population is being realized, and equity and justice are being achieved.

Principle 3: We affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.  I am deeply grateful for the freedom I have within my Unitarian Universalist congregation to explore what spirituality means to me. I feel a sense of privilege to be surrounded by deep thinkers who take none of the wonder of the universe or live in it for granted. Between people and programs, there are plenty of opportunities to consider spiritual matters and plenty of conversation to share. Thank you, UUCF.

Principle 4: We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. This one is easy for me to take for granted. Raised in liberal religion by spiritual seekers who were not afraid to look beyond the faith of their youth, I was taught by example the importance and value of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I’m grateful for family (Jewish and Christian) who afford me the same acceptance. I know I’m lucky in that. I’ve never had to defend my beliefs to family nor have I been told my path is wrong or invalid. For all of that freedom and support, I’m thankful.

Principle 5: We affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of democratic process within our congregations and society at large. I’m grateful to have a voice in my church and in my nation. After years in Catholic churches where I felt like I had no say, being part of a congregation that supports democracy in religion restores my sense of ownership of my spiritual home. On the national level, I’m grateful to live in a country where, messy and polarized as it all may be, there is choice. I can vote for whom I want, and I’m thankful for that right.

Principle 6: We affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. I’m grateful that there are efforts made in this direction, by individuals, groups, and, at times, our government. I’m often discouraged by how deeply inequity, violence, injustice, and bondage continue to plague our world community, with discouragement turning to despair at points. I’m discouraged by my own lack of action, although I don’t even know where to begin. I’m thankful others have more courage and conviction on these issues, giving their time and talents to working for world peace.

Principle 7: We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. I’m grateful for my sons, my family of origin, my family of choice, my friends, and my community, all who are integral strands of the web of my life. I’m thankful for the spot of garden I nurture (often poorly) in my yard and the bit of sustenance I receive from it. I’m grateful for those who farm the earth gently, remembering that we must take care of this fragile planet. I’m thankful for those who work to make sustainable energy sources more accessible and practical and grateful, helping to assure my sons and my sons’ sons and daughters will have futures full of light and heat.  I’m grateful for our tiny spot in the universe, the one that is Goldilocks-comfortable, and either the chance or choice that made this place possible.

Gratitude, structured over the days or within religious principles, is a valuable practice. It’s worth taking some time to take note, aloud or on paper or pixel, what brings us closer to truth, love, and meaning. It’s worth the effort and exposure to thank those who bring us those elements that make our lives even just a bit better. As I composed those last 1000 words, only a small fraction of what makes me grateful made it to the page. But it’s a start. And the time to be thankful extends beyond this Thursday or the end of November. For that — and so much more — I am grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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.