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.

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.

Existential Darkness at the Dawning of the New Year

IMG_0149This morning’s New York Times brought the usual sort of news:

I’d go on, but I’d just get more discouraged.

It’s New Year’s Day, and I’m feeling an increasingly familiar set of feelings as I wonder the meaning and purpose of my life and of life in general. No, there has been no crisis in my life. No sudden loss of a loved one or other such personal tragedy. Life has been quite generous lately. Thanks to the holiday break, I have had some time on my hands, an unusual situation given the tempo of much of my life. While I sometimes dip into the existential in this busy life, there’s usually enough that must be done to distract me from my growing angst. Thank goodness. Time on my hands has created time to stay with these thoughts, and the thinking has gone south.

I could blame it on my age. It’s not unusual for folks my age to have bouts of existential depression. The kids are growing, the amount of remaining life seems shorter by the moment (because it is), and the people who are doing amazing things in the world are often my age. Or younger. And the world seems increasingly chaotic, cold, and fragmented. It’s hard to maintain a sense that it’s all somehow okay. I’d imagine strong theism could be somewhat protective, but that’s not something I have plans adopting.

I do think theism protected me from this crisis during my childhood and younger adulthood. When it all seemed awful in the world or just within myself, belief in an omnipotent, loving deity provided an answer. Okay, not a concrete answer, but a vague sense of comfort, even if only the comfort of rote prayer. In my late teens and early twenties, I worked hard to cultivate the sort of belief that would offer the deep comfort I desired. I sought out experiences and spotty practices that might dull the loneliness and fear that lurked in my soul.

It worked. Or at least it gave me a place to run and something to do when the world seemed to dark and cold, providing solace. It also provided a community of people looking for explanations for the unexplainable and a bit of reassurance that they weren’t alone. And, according to psychologist Dr. James T. Webb, feeling connected and letting go are adaptive coping methods of managing these existential events.

I know pushing through these crises became harder as I let go of my theism, a process that happened gradually and somewhat reluctantly beginning in my early 30s.  Finding a community of like-minded people seemed unlikely after leaving two churches and wondering where the doubter belonged. I did find those people in the UU church I’ve attended these past several years, and they do offer community, albeit a community of people prone to the same sorts of doubts and depression. That’s perhaps too dramatic, as these same people work through those issues, moving though life determined to make it a bit better for those they touch directly or tangentially. There are no answers or perfectionism, but there is acknowledgement that there are big questions, plenty of big problems in the world, and a paucity of easy answers.

But it’s not really enough when this angst brings me down. I feel so small and ineffective in a giant world that frankly overwhelms, saddens, angers, and scares me. My life occurs in a but a tick of the second hand on the cosmic clock. My reach is so small, my grasp so loose, and my strength so inconsequential. And to top it off, I’m really not trying. The chaos continues around — people are born, they suffer, they die, and for what?

I don’t know. And I don’t know what I can do about any of it. Webb recommends several additional antidotes to connectedness and letting go. He advocates knowing one’s self, being involved in causes, maintaining a sense of humor, touching, living in the moment, cultivating optimism and resiliency, and being aware of “rippling,” the way our lives affect those around us. I’d agree that all of those can help ameliorate some of the pain associated with the existential crises that continue to punctuate my life.

I do think there is goodness in the existential angst. It serves as an honest acknowledgment that there is deep pain the world: divisions that need healing and people who need compassion. It reminds me that despite the reality of our aloneness, we are stronger together. And perhaps best of all, at least when I can turn a bit of light to the darkest of the gloom, is the reminder that love matters. The way we treat each other — the way we love each other — matters. If for nothing else, showing those in front of me love and compassion lightens their load and tightens the connection between us. And, if Webb is right about the ripple effect, it’s then worth knowing the love we show can carry to those not in front of us.

Does that matter, in the long arc of the universe? I don’t know. But it gives me a bit of comfort and lifts me back to the moment I’m in, making it an effective antidote for the time being. It lightens the quality of the inner dialogue and warms something within me that I’m willing to call my soul. It informs a course of action when the headlines are bleak — connect with others and simply love them. It’s the only purpose to this life that resonates with me, and if I’d look at the back of my car more often, I’d be reminded of that. Love. It’s our soul purpose. The rest follows. And a bit of the cloud lifts.

For a fine article on existential depression, read Dr. James Webb’s piece, Dabrowski’s Theory and Existential Depression in Gifted Children and Adults

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.

Lent and the Unitarian Universalist

Helleborus orientalis, commonly knows as the Lenten rose.

Lent is here, and plenty of Unitarian Bloggers are writing about it. More than writing about it, they’re participating in it, giving up alcohol, changing diets, learning new instruments, forgoing lunches out, and even giving up Unitarian Universalism for the forty days that began Wednesday, March 22, and continue until Easter.  I’m doing…nothing.  At least not yet.

Despite being raised in both Methodist and Catholic churches, the concept of giving something up for Lent didn’t reach me until seventh grade, not coincidentally my first year in Catholic school. I was familiar with Ash Wednesday and all of Holy Week (an extra-long week if you belong to two faith traditions and attend services from both), but the idea of setting something aside for those forty days was new to me. I was a child of the Catholic church of the 1980’s, attending Mass in a liberal, Jesuit chapel. Giving something up was okay, but taking on a new endeavor — a positive habit — was considered just as worthy Lenten commitment for the season. Over ten years of Catholic education (not including graduate school), I gave up pop, swearing, chewing my cuticles, and, if memory serves, chocolate. The cuticle-gnawing habit was no doubt the hardest and most frequently broken.

The particulars on the positives I adopted are fuzzier.  Perhaps that suggests that deprivation leaves a stronger mark than taking on something new, or perhaps simply it’s easier to recall failures involving a habit enjoyed over failures missing a new, less exciting habit acquired. For at least one year during Lent, I committed to daily flossing. I didn’t see it as a world-changing or even faith-shaping event, but my dentist had made it clear that it needed to happen. Lent seemed as good a time as ever.

At the height of my Catholic years, I made other attempts to touch the holy and stay in closer touch with my faith.  In college, I attended daily Mass more often (although never daily), prayed more, and read my Bible more. I can’t say I developed any new permanent spiritual habits during those Lenten seasons, but I can say I thought more about my faith. Perhaps the clearest way to put it is that I lived a bit closer to what I said I believed.

My Catholicism is almost ten years in my past, at least that’s how long it has been since I believed with sufficient force to have my younger son baptized. As I moved through the Episcopal church, to no church, to the Unitarian Universalist tradition, my Lenten and Easter practices gradually dropped away. Ash Wednesday goes unmentioned in my church, although it originates from one of the many traditions from which UUs draw their understanding of the world. With so many sources  from which to find truth, it’s no wonder Lent didn’t make the sermon circuit at my UU church this year.

Perhaps it should have, though. A time of repentance and of turning thoughts to right relations with others is a theme in many religions. Lent shares a focus on atonement with Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year where fasting and prayer accompany atonement to God and others. The Islamic Ramadan, a month of fasting by day with time to spiritually reflect, pray, do works of charity. Atonement is part of Ramadan, but the main focus is on a right relationship with God. Eastern religions prescribe atonement and repairing relationships, too.  Hindu teachings address atonement and penance rituals and practices, including charity and fasting. Buddhists focus on atonement to others and forgiveness of others with a focus on loving kindness and compassion. If we claim to take our sources as routes to truth, we’d be remiss to ignore the themes of these religions’ opportunities to do both inner and outer work.

I see two paths for the UU and Lent. The first follows the traditional fasting paths. Use Lent to rid one’s self of a bad habit. Six weeks without meat, processed foods, coffee, multitasking while eating, or multiple hours in front of the computer or TV could make for long-term changes to one’s life. Or, they may not. That time away from something desired, however, does remind us that we can take more control our minds than we often think we can. Our minds are slippery, wily things, and the act of stopping an habitual action, over and over, can be a step to a bit more mastery of our ever-wandering thoughts.

The second path looks outward as well as inward. It could bring us out of ourselves in into deeper connection to the world. Perhaps this season can offer a chance to reflect about then act on the principles we hold as true. The seven principles offer fine guidelines for living in this world and are well worth forty days of consideration and conscientious action. Here’s the list of what UU congregations (and, I would hope, individuals) affirm and promote:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. (UUA)
What would this second practice look like? Think of Ben Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues. Franklin didn’t try to address them all at once.  Rather he took one per week on which to focus his thoughts and actions.  He admits he often fell short, but he continued to try. Seven principles in six weeks provides six days per principle.  Six days to reflect on a particular principle and to watch one’s thoughts actions during that time, working to act in the world in ways more in concert with the values of our faith.
So how to I as a UU respond to Lent?  I’m taking the second path, a reflection on each principle in turn with a focus on acting on each principle in the world. I’m sure I’ll stumble plenty of times along the way. That’s okay. There’s a reason seasons of atonement return year after year. We have short memories and revert easily to old, comfortable ways. Perhaps, I’ll find a bit more peace within myself, for that would be sweet.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to touch the world a bit more softly along the way. Now that would be divine.
For some other views on Lent, see the following: