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.


Spontaneous Sacrament

A recent post by UU blogger Nagoonberry about water communion led my thoughts down the sacrament path.  I spent over twenty-five years as a practicing Catholic, a member of a faith ritual and sacrament for every occasion.  While I have no desire to return to that faith, I still miss the rites and rituals of the church of most of my youth and young adulthood.

I chose Catholicism at age 12 after years of attending both a Methodist and a Catholic church for years and soon after starting Catholic school.  I can’t recall all the workings of my preadolescent mind that led me to choose that path, but Communion was a large part of the picture.

Communion differs in significance in the various Christian traditions.  For Protestants, it is a remembrance of the Last Supper, of Jesus sharing a meal with his apostles.  For Catholics, it is the partaking in the body and blood of Jesus, through a mysterious process called transubstantiation. It wasn’t that rather grisly theological difference that drew me toward Catholicism.  Instead, it was the ritual and the idea of partaking of the divine.

Catholics rock at ritual.  From baptism to the eucharist to the anointing of the sick, Catholic sacraments take the ordinary events of life and touch them with the sacred. I’ve partaken in five of the seven, four compressed into two years during junior high.  I celebrated baptism, reconciliation, and first communion at 12, with confirmation following the next year.  Marriage by the Jesuit who had administered the first three followed in my mid-twenties, leaving only holy orders and anointing of the sick, which I’ve only observed.

Beyond the seven sacraments, Catholic life is awash with ritual, from dozens of prayers and responses of the Mass to the extraordinary events that fill Holy Days.  While Holy Week, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, was a long haul in the pew, it was a week where life was infused with the sacred.  Every sense participated: from the taste of bread and wine, to the feel of the rough cross on Good Friday; from the scent of incense wafting up the aisle, to the sound of the choir and the sight of candles aglow, reverence and ritual reigned.

I miss it.  I left it for more reasons than fit here, but I miss the ritual.  I’ve heard many an ex-Catholic bemoan the repetition and response of the Catholic Mass, but that’s the part I cherished, the part that nourished my soul.

So here I am, still with my soul but without sacrament.   A brief stint in a small Episcopal church provided that while allowing me time to consider where my heart rested, religiously speaking.  It provided a source of ritual during this time of sorting my heart. Enter the Unitarian Universalist church I now call home.  I vetted three over a series of Easter and Christmas seasons (perhaps the points I most missed ritual), eventually settling on UUCF for an assortment of reasons.  Like most UU communities, it is short on sacrament.  I’ve caught a few quite moving child dedications, but otherwise there is no formal sacramental life of which to speak.  (Coffee hour is NOT a sacrament.)  Rituals are minimal, although services hold to a more Protestant format, with opening words, a chalice lighting, a responsorial opening, readings, and a sermon, interspersed with some hymns and medication time.  Format, however, is not ritual. And water communion (and  Nagoonberry’s description fits my experience of the event at my church) isn’t sacrament.

It’s understandable.  It’s a collection of spiritual seekers and thinkers coming together for as many reasons as there are participants.  With a large percentage of secular humanists, a pack of agnostics, and a minority of theists of sorts, we’d be hard-pressed to find a sacrament we could all agree upon.  And that’s okay.  Unitarian Universalism is religious tradition that welcomes all comers and focuses on how one lives in the world.  Sacrament and ritual work for some and not for others, and most services seem to avoid any that look, well, spiritual.  And that’s not where many UUs are.

Ganesha, the remover of obstacles

But sometimes, my congregation surprises me.  At a service a few years back, our minister, freshly back from a month in India, introduced us to Ganesha, the Hindu deity represented by an elephant riding a mouse, and put his picture on a small table. He explained that upon entering a temple, worshipers would stop at a statue of Ganesha and break a coconut on him, symbolizing the letting go of the mind to better reach the heart or spirit.  The mind is an obstacle to the soul, and Ganesha is seen as the remover of obstacles.  Our minister invited people to come up to whisper an obstacle in their own lives into Ganesha’s ear. To my surprise, dozens of people, adults and children, approached. It was reverent, quiet, and meaningful. It was sacrament, spontaneous sacrament.  I’m not at all certain it would be repeatable, at least in that form, but as sacrament, it spoke to me. Over the years, other spontaneous sacraments have graced Sunday morning, small blocks of time where together where we at least agree to revere the mystery the universe presents.  I’ve no doubt these moments are more sacramental for some than others and even tedious for some, but they feed me.

I guess what I’m seeking is communal quiet, reverential time with a bit of ritual to pause and consider something beyond our little lives.  Not to talk about the issues, debate the situation, or even think.  Just to sit in that great magnitude some call the universe, God, humanity, the sacred, the divine, or even nothing at all.  In my Catholic years, those opportunities clearly presented themselves.  In a crowd of Unitarian Universalists, they’re a bit harder to find.  I’m willing to look and wait, finding spontaneous sacrament where I can.