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.

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Out of the Ruts

IMG_0906Michigan weather and a county with little remaining plowing budget have found me driving in ruts. My street, a narrow slip that, with a car parked at the edge, allows only single-file traffic, is covered with several inches of ice. Two tire-sized ruts provide the only path, and transferring a vehicle from those ruts to a driveway or the other way ’round takes intention and precision if one doesn’t want to skate into another car or simply spin one’s wheels. Those ruts hold the car tight, however, albeit with a fair amount of jostling within them. There’s safety in the ruts, even with the daily morning glaze of ice. The nausea-inducing ride in them is far from pleasant, but while in these ruts, you’re not apt to end up sideswiping a car or ending up in a snow bank.

Driving in these physical ruts led me to think about the metaphorical type, the kind that we say we want out of yet not badly enough to risk the leap; the one that may leave us skidding into the unknown or simply spinning our wheels in frustration. There can be an odd comfort in even our most painful ruts, perhaps because we know the jostling they bring, which can sometimes seem more comforting than whatever road might lay beyond those well-worn grooves.

Six years ago tonight, my rather messy disaster of a marriage turned far more chaotic. Years of worsening arguments and other insanity came to a head, and by the end of March 2, 2008, I lived alone with two children. I’d like to say that I never looked back after that day. The episodes that led to the shrinking of our household should likely never open one’s mind to reconciliation, and I’m still uncertain why, that for almost another year, I fought for that chance to return to healthy married life. It was, as they say, likely desired for the children, although children are always better off away from violence and deception. It took me almost a year for me to realize that the loss on March 2nd was best accepted and better for all.

Every February since, starting somewhere in the middle of the month, I feel the downward pull. It’s a tug towards some wintery mix of sadness and anger, tinged with a bit of guilt and touched with disbelief that the whole nightmare — years of it — was mine. I don’t blink at our anniversary and can’t even recall the date of our divorce, but that Sunday night in March, along with the weeks preceding it, are still hard to bear. While my grief takes different forms different years, at some point, I find myself in the ruts of revisiting that past — the day itself, then the weeks around it, then the years that came before. It’s a nausea-inducing ride of pain and sadness, yet I fall into those grooves each winter.

Last year, happily enjoying the first year of love with the peaceful, honest, and faithful man whom I’ll soon call my husband, I almost missed it. Mid-February found me thinking about the date, but little emotion came. For the first time, I felt some detachment, some ability to not let those memories play over and over, with all the emotions returning during the reruns. The actual date caught me off guard. I’d actually forgotten, until, at some point near the end of the day, I remembered. Into the ruts I fell.  I cried with company, and the sorrow left more quickly. I started to think those ruts had passed for good or at least that their hold on me had loosened.

This year, the heaviness started over a week before the date. I felt the familiar grooves after landing with a thud, and drove along their familiar path. It’s been a long season, and, like many of us who are suffering cabin fever in what is truly the worst winter many of us have ever seen, I’ve had some dip of mood. Perhaps my upcoming nuptials contributed to my mind’s unexpected plunge into the darkness of six years earlier. While I’ve largely concluded I’m capable of being part of a healthy marriage, of loving someone deeply without losing myself (a self only really found in the past dozen years), of being loved deeply and without reservation, I’m prone to worry that at points borders on panic.

I don’t question whether I had a role in my marriage’s slide into disaster. I know myself when I’m anxious — grasping, afraid, demanding of answers to all that confuses and scares me, angry, wordy — and those last years found me anxious beyond what I’d known previously. I also know what most of us know about making relationships better: I could have listened more and talked less. I could have sat with my anxieties before throwing them at another. I could have let go just when I most want to grasp tightly. In a million ways, I  know I could have loved better. Couldn’t we all?  I don’t, however, take all the blame for the nightmare that was the years before that particular March 2nd, nor any for what happened that night. I did many things over many years that didn’t help, but ultimately, we are responsible only for what we choose to do with our hands and hearts. We are sovereign that way.

Somewhere in the past few days, the dread and deafening doubts tiptoed away enough to let me get through some days without crying. The relief, similar to when the ice finally starts to melt, was barely perceptible until I looked back and saw I hadn’t cried that particular day. I scheduled a massage for Saturday, washing myself in tender and healing touch. I mentioned my blues to my massage therapist, telling her the date that had been bothering me. Her response made little impact at the time: Do something special that day, something that rewrites that day in my memory. Fat chance, I silently figured. What could happen that could push away that darkness of that single and dreadful day? How could I escape those ruts?

The answer came hours later, after the mail had failed (again!) to bring my copy of UUWorld, the quarterly print and online publication of the Unitarian Universalist Association. By no effort of my own, I had a piece in both editions, a piece I’d written last fall — Questions of Comfort, a musing about the need for meaning in tragedy. An editor at UU World contacted me, a writer who rarely submits anything to anyone anywhere since that keeps the rejection monster from visiting too often. He asked if they could use the piece, and I, eager to be in print, elatedly agreed. While I’d seen the piece online, my copy had yet to arrive. Over the previous days, friends send messages saying theirs had arrived, one kindly sending a picture of the first page, providing the proof I needed that this was real. But I wanted my own.

Stalked mail carriers rarely deliver, however, and Saturday’s delivery was notably without my copy of the magazine. As I headed to bed after a marvelous day with my intended, it came to me that perhaps I’d found a way out of the ruts March 2nd had held for me these past six years. March 2nd fell on Sunday again this year, and friends, knowing I’d not yet held the magazine that contained proof that I was indeed a published writer, promised to bring that proof to church. Sunday, I’d see my words published in a small yet not invisible magazine that often contains pieces on the hardest parts of life as well as the seemingly small wonders it brings every day.

And so I find myself on a new road, one where March 2nd isn’t a day of recalling pain and reliving disaster and returning to thoughts of failure. March 2nd can be the day I first saw my work in print in a made-of-paper, read-by-people-who-aren’t-obligated-to-do-so magazine. It’s small, this success, but it’s a start down a road I’ve yearned to travel: The road of the published writer.

I don’t know what will happen come the end of February 2015. Habits are hard to break, and some memories are more challenging to manage than others. It’s not in the remembering that the ruts wreak their havoc, however. It’s in the emotions and thought patterns that we dig deeply, either by intention or accident, and it’s what we miss by assuming that once we fall in that we can’t find our way out. There’s nothing wrong with remembering and learning from our most painful memories, but when they steal so much of our present, they need some adjusting. They are ruts to ride over and out of, in search of more open road. Who knows where that might lead?

On Being a Compassionate People

DSCN1000A few weeks back, my younger son was having a hard time. He was anxious for reasons he couldn’t entirely identify, and when anxious, he acts irritable and stubborn with frequent outbursts. I know this about him. I have known if for years. I know that under that prickly, grouchy exterior is a kid who is worried, scared, and simply out of sorts. But two weeks back, as he became more prickly and grouchy, I responded with stubborn adherence to rules and withdrawal of computer privileges. Not surprisingly, this increased his anxiety, making him more prickly and grouchy. I suppose on some level I knew he was in distress, that he was worried or concerned about something, but I was focused on only my desire to have less opposition and conflict in the house and more sense of  control over the workings of our family.

In short, I felt his distress but overrode it with my own discomfort. Yes, I eventually broke through that override and comforted my son, working with him to find the source of his distress, the very process of which brought his anxiety down several notches. It was then that I expressed what Merriam-Webster calls compassion: Sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

As humans, we are at out best when we are compassionate. Compassion occurs when we recognize and then respond to our shared situation of being human, namely being prone to suffering. We all suffer. We all watch others suffer. And, like it or not, we all contribute to the suffering of others. When my son was lashing out and melting down because he was suffering, I added to his suffering initially out of lack of awareness followed by a desire to maintain control of the status quo.  I didn’t act with malice. But I added to his suffering by reacting to his behavior without thought the cause. When I found compassion, his suffering decreased simply by the acting on my desire to alleviate his suffering. He knows as well as I that I can’t rid him of his anxiety, and yet knowing I would want to makes a difference.

I belong to a faith tradition that operates from a place of compassion. According to our second principle, Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote “justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships.” Compassionate people are whom we proclaim to be. Not compassionate to just some. To everyone.

Compassion can come easily. It is easy feel compassion for the injured child, the oppressed worker, and the abused woman. We generally express this compassion at a distance, with words, signatures, and financial contributions, hopefully also finding opportunities to work with our hands to ameliorate some of the suffering this world metes on its weakest and most disadvantaged. This is, however, the easy sort of compassion. While the world’s problems can bring us to despair, question the purpose of our lives, they can also bring us to our compassionate selves.

Compassion finds its voice in the UUA-sponsored Standing on the Side of Love campaign, “an interfaith public advocacy campaign that seeks to harness love’s power to stop oppression”. “Standing on the Side of Compassion” doesn’t roll of the tongue so easily, but the sentiment is the same. This organization advocates for those who are suffering at the hands of others for simply being themselves, whether GBLT, immigrants, or the otherwise oppressed. Immigrate rights and GBLT rights are close to the hearts of many Unitarian Universalists, receiving time from the pulpit, discussion from pews, and action from congregations. This sort of organized compassion also comes fairly easily, with these issues resonating with UUs, since they speak to fundamental equity principles we as those of a liberal religion find compelling, important, and immediate. In short, we see them and feel them and feel for those oppressed.

Compassion is harder when it’s more personal, especially when we feel injustice has been done to us. When we feel a sense of being the victim, we’re apt to struggle with the very human responses of anger, hurt, and even vengeance. To some degree, this is what I experienced with my son. It was easy to take his irritability and stubbornness as intentional actions to subvert my authority as the adult of the house. It was easy to forget that, like all of us, he wants to be good, to do right, and to be thought well of. Behaviors come from somewhere, and objectionable behaviors are no exception. Few people desire to be mean, thoughtless, hurtful, careless, or just annoying.  We do, however, become just that when we’re afraid, tired, overwhelmed, or simply because we’ve always done them and don’t know how to do otherwise.  All of us fall into that. It’s human

So back to compassion with those who sit closest to us, those in our homes and most imitate communities — our families, our workplaces, our churches, and our friendship circles. If these behaviors that look so intentional and therefore, well, mean and hateful, really come from fear, fatigue, and full plates, then what we are seeing in “bad behavior” is someone suffering. And the recognition of suffering calls for the desire to alleviate (and often first to understand the cause of) that suffering.  Therefore, we’re called to compassion in the face of bad behavior.

This is hard. Hurts can run deep if not addressed swiftly, and it can be hard to feel compassion for the person who seems to wrong you over and over. Towards its end, my marriage suffered, among other ailments, a loss of compassion. I imagine that’s true of many ended love relationships, although I don’t think it is a mandatory part of the finale. I’d like to have been able, during those failing years, to have been more compassionate to my now-ex-husband. Not because it would have saved the marriage but simply because I’d likely alleviated some of both of our suffering.

Holding grudges and refusing to look at the causes behind a person’s suffering cause more suffering. When we deny the suffering of others, we deny the other the chance to be seen as simply a fallible human. When we compound that suffering with our actions, often on the grounds that they’ve wrongs us so we can wrong them, we increase the suffering for all parties. When I’m looking at suffering with a sneer and a swear, I suffer, too. I lose some of the tender part of humanity that accepts that none of us behave perfectly. I gain a gritty, tough exterior that places more distance between me and the other person, thus dampening my ability to see the person as a suffering human.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean being a marshmallow or doormat. It doesn’t mean allowing injustice to continue or wrongs to go unanswered. My compassionate response to my son’s underlying compassion didn’t reverse the consequence we have for tantrums, but it did make it less likely that the next tantrum would come, simply because the true cause — his suffering — was somewhat reduced simply by my caring. No, in the adult world it isn’t all that easy. Sometimes, as in my marriage, divorce is the most compassionate answer. Often, it means having challenging conversations and risking feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable. Consequences can come along with compassion, but we must take great care to let the compassion lead us to those consequences, with our eyes wide open to the process by which we hand down those consequences.

My younger son’s anxiety has lessened as of late. It’s not gone, but he is more comfortable.  During our rediscovered peace, I’m better able to listen to his words and actions, noting when the anxiety rises a bit. Knowing I’m attuned, he’s better able to check himself and ask for assistance, knowing a compassionate response complete with hugs, advice, and sometimes firm reminders are available from someone who understands that he, like all humans, suffers and who wants to reduce just a bit of his suffering.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, he’s acting more compassionate himself.

One None

I’m still thinking about the Nones, that 20% of the population that doesn’t identify with any one religious tradition. It’s a diverse group to consider, consisting of a mix of atheists, theists, and something-in-betweenists. The spiritual-but-not-religious and the not-spiritual-nor-religious reside here, and finding common threads among this diverse group proves challenging.

NPR ran a series last week titled, “Losing our Religion” (see the bottom of this post for links to the episodes). By sharing the stories of a few handfuls of people who fall in the None category, the stories explored the variety of reasons this body is growing, how they cope with tragedy, why they leave religion (or never seek it), and how they view religion from their seats on the outside.Whether None or not, it’s worth a listen, as it’s apt to make even a None more aware of this growing part of the US population.

Before the series ran, I had done my own research. I talked to one None, a good friend willing to share why he, like 88% of Nones, isn’t looking for a church or spiritual home.  He grew up in a somewhat-observant Hindu home, attending temples with his family until he decided that he wasn’t certain about religion at all. He stepped away, asserting himself at a young age and remains an agnostic-near-atheist today who neatly fits in the None category.

Fast forward several decades, with plenty of study of science, a keen sense of compassion, and spirit of giving, and he remains a None. He’s wondered aloud why I go off to church each week, what draws me away from jammies and the paper. Generally, I stick to the same story: I find companionship on my journey through life for me and my boys, I learn from others, and I enjoy the habit and tradition of hymns, sermons, and silence.

But couldn’t you find that community at a coffeehouse on a Sunday morning? Couldn’t you share your stories in a small group, offering support to each other both in word and deed? Over a latte or even a beer, couldn’t like-minded people come together to discuss issues or a book? He’s right. This would meet my desires for companionship and common purpose, both which drive me to head to my Unitarian Universalist church each week. And for the introverted, it’s possible small groups would make meeting people more comfortable than facing a large congregation. It’s not easy for those of us who dread approaching a stranger to find a community in a church. Certainly I never managed to introduce myself to strangers at coffee hour, a time I still find loud and fatiguing, a sense only somewhat relieved when I find my sure shelter friends, some whom I’ve knowing before I attended.

Beyond the gathering itself, he questions the service itself. Why, he inquires, would I want to hear the same person week after week? What’s the point of that, what with so many points of view in the world? Most Unitarian Universalist churches do hire a minister to be their main speaker on Sunday morning. Smaller congregations and those between hired ministry rotate the duty to people within the congregation while bringing in outside speakers when possible. But as a matter of ease or simply tradition, most congregations have a minister to do the preaching.

My representative None points out the origins of this practice: ministers and priests historically served to be the authoritative figure on all things religion. With an uneducated populace, the minister was needed to read and interpret the scriptures, guiding the flock with his words and wisdom. How would that pertain to a bunch of UUs, and how could one person be an authority on those sources we claim rely upon?

It’s a fair question, one for which I don’t have an answer. It led to a discussion about the service itself. As someone who didn’t grow up going to weekly services, the practice is foreign to my None friend. And part of why I go to church is simply because I always have. It’s not a great reason, and it’s not my only one, but it’s why I searched for a church home after leaving Christianity. I missed that ritual. I missed the songs and the time to gather formally and share ritual. This all brings a look of puzzlement from my friend.

So, I asked, what would be worth taking the time to gather with a large group of people? Service, says my None. He’d be glad each week to join a group of people working on an environmental or social project.  Perhaps, he added that would be a good model for the Unitarian Universalist church. This was the original context of the conversation — would the Nones be drawn to a UU church? What, if anything, would draw the majority who say they aren’t looking for a church or spiritual home? After wandering around what isn’t appealing, the idea of regular service within a community comes forth as desirable.

More ideas followed. Rather than hiring a minister to preach each week, a church could hire a minister to organize the service that would be the mission of the church. The minister would serve as part program manager, part pastoral caregiver, bringing skills in leadership as well as compassion. On Sunday, people would gather to do work, perhaps offsite, with children old enough to work participating with the adults and younger children remaining in class, much as they do now. People could also do work at the church, focusing on tasks that don’t require being in the field. Everyone would have a hand in service. Perhaps once a month, the Sunday would be communal time, with a speaker invited in to inform, motivate, and inspire.

It’s a compelling image. It’s also far from what most UU churches do today. Most, like mine, are wed to a rather traditionally-structured Sunday morning, with congregants facing forward to listen to their minister. But if we really want to grow, we need to consider change. Perhaps Sundays filled more with service than services is a start. I’m reluctant to admit that, attached as I am to our Sunday service. And change is hard. But as I look around our meeting house on a Sunday morning, I see who is missing. Those in their late teens through early 30s. Men, especially single ones. People who are uncomfortable with or just uninterested in a generally traditional service with less focus on the divine. People who want to act now, not just once a month, but every week.

I’ve spoken in-depth to just one None. Perhaps that’s the way to start. Perhaps if we all found just one None to listen to deeply, to what would draw them to community, to church. My friend is certain there are others who share his desire to serve rather than sit, peers of his in the middle of their lives as well as those in the generations straddling his. I’d encourage each Unitarian Universalist to seek out a None and engage him or her in this discussion. Listen with an open mind to criticisms of our current model, ideas about a more appealing model, and the needs that rest behind both. Then go back to your congregations, and when the discussion turns to growth, share what you’ve found.

On Losing Our Religion (NPR, January 14-18, 2013)

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing Pains: 161,502 UUs

Principles under construction — somehow it seems fitting.

I’ve sat in the pew of a Unitarian Universalist for nearly five years. I’ve been a member of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington for about the same amount of time. I can’t recall a point in those years where growth hasn’t been part of the conversation at that church. Even before I took a seat at the Program Council table (a group of committee chairs meeting monthly to accomplish tasks requiring cooperation), I was well aware that promoting growth of the church while retaining members was considered a top priority. I’m just as aware that we’re not managing to meet that growth goal, a quandary which we share with other congregations and the faith as a whole.

So when UUworld.org released the news that Unitarian Universalist membership dropped to 161,502 from the previous year, I wasn’t surprised. I’ve largely lurked on a Facebook page dedicated to discussing growth strategies, lurking because after only five years in this faith tradition, I don’t know what to add. I read the ideas others post, follow links about the general decline of adherents to liberal religion, and wonder about what it means to try to grow a religion.

I’d love to see Unitarian Universalism grow. I have absolutely no idea how to do that. In theory, a creedless religion open to those on any path up the mountain should pull from a large swath of humanity. We are the “come as you are” denomination, theoretically welcoming the marginalized, the uncertain, and certainly not conservative religious. I’ve already mused that we may not be as welcoming as we say we are, with theists taking a hit in some congregations while, if the comments to my blog posts are any indication, atheists feeling squeezed out by other congregations. But on paper, we should draw a large group.  But we don’t, not as an individual congregation and not as a faith tradition.

What gives? I’ve joked that we lack the threat of hell. Without eternal damnation or heavenly reward, Unitarian Universalists lack the stick and carrot that accompanies much of our competition. Okay, so religious conservatives aren’t the most likely bunch to show up on a Sunday morning, where the sermon may revolve around marriage equity, interfaith work, or illegal immigrant rights. That saddens me as a citizen of this planet, but it’s not exactly surprising that we’re not drawing that crowd. The liberal adherents of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and the like are often discussing the same issues from their pews, pews filled with people who hold to more common theological ground than that found in any UU gathering.

But what about the fifteen percent of Americans who identify themselves as nonreligious? Half of those people count themselves as theists but don’t identify with a particular religion. The other half are agnostics, atheists, secular humanists, and all those who answered “none” when asked their religion. Those in this sizable portion of the religious belief pie seems to hold the greatest potential to be drawn to Unitarian Universalism. (UUs, however, fall into the “other” category on this chart, with 500,000 claiming it as their faith, a number more than three times the number of members on the books at UU churches. This is significant.) We are at once a religion of those with faith in humanity and the workings of the universe, with beliefs ranging from nothing to science, the self to God, nature to the atom.

And that’s the problem. How do you bring together people of such diverse paths to truth and meaning? How do you connect the liberal theist with the staunch atheist? Where does the Wiccan with Buddhist leanings fit into a church with contemplative Christians and abundant agnostics? In short, what is our common ground, and is that common ground firm enough to support a religious movement?

Bound up in this line of thought is the question of what Unitarian Universalists believe. In the past, I’ve admittedly given the rather flippant and unfortunate answer I’d heard others give: “Whatever they want.” It’s shorter than listing the seven principles, which don’t actually bind us together in any formal sense anyway.  Here they are, as listed on the UUA website:

  • 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

I like the principles. All seven. They’re hardly objectionable, even to many belonging to liberal religious theistic traditions. But they are not a creed, and being creedless is perhaps key to what sets Unitarian Universalists apart from other faith traditions. I think it’s also key to our dwindling numbers. A faith community, be it church, coven, synagogue, association, congregation, or gathering, needs an overriding agreement to bind the members together. While the UUA offers the seven principles as a list of what UU churches affirm and promote, these are not a creed nor faith statement. They are a guide, a suggestion, and apt to be revisited and revised in years to come.

And perhaps that’s the dilemma and blessing all wrapped up in one. We’re a church of change, growing and shifting as the world shifts. We are not static and therefore hold to no static truth. As a faith that encourages seeking for religious truth, we are unique. I’ve often wondered if with all our openness to the many paths of truth that lead to meaning if we don’t chase many of our members and potential members out the door, encouraging them to scurry down those paths that pave a more definable route up the mountain. In contrast to the clear paths laid by Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammad, Bertrand Russell, and other, Unitarian Universalism provides a Hogwart’s-like maze of moving staircases. I can see why many are drawn to the clarity of a faith with a proscribed path.

I’m not alone in preferring the Hogwarts model, however. I have at least 161,501 companions on those staircases. I enjoy walking a flight of stairs with others on my journey and yet revel in the freedom to separate my path from their when we differ in opinion. While I’m not a fan of writing mission statements or any other writing done by committee, I understand the purpose of revisiting and revising these individual church pieces as well. We are a faith open to the realities and quandaries a changing world present, and this requires a willingness to look again and again to what we hold — even loosely — to be true.

But as far as winning and keeping members, I think this openness to change and lack of creed shoots us in the proverbial foot. It’s hard to articulate what Unitarian Universalism is about and impossible to answer the question, “What does a UU believe,” with more than the flippant response noted earlier. Few elevators are long enough for a concise explanation of Unitarian Universalism, and frankly, most people have short attention spans.  I’ve often joked that as an aspiring writer, I would have done well to pick a faith with more adherents if I planned to write about religion. But here I am, and I plan to stay with the loose, gossamer confines of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Like many here, I find comfort in elusive, evolving nature of this faith tradition. I remain concerned about our future and uncertain what I or anyone else can do to present Unitarian Universalism to the wider world in a way that makes it appealing for more than a quick stop on a road up the mountain. I don’t have answers. Fortunately, that fits my faith tradition perfectly.

Peace, Namaste, Blessing Be, Amen, and all of that.

 

For more on the principles:

On Raising an Atheist (and an Agnostic): Part II

The steps behind the Unitarian Church of Charleston (SC) sum it up nicely.

Last week, I mused about my younger son’s atheism and my older son’s agnosticism, both which came to light after years of my own questioning and movements into and out of churches. (Here’s On Raising an Atheist: Part I.) I can see that piece may be seen as a cautionary tale to the parent wanting to foster theism. Perhaps it is. This installment, however, I think could inform a parent raising children of any belief system, at least any open to the idea that others can be moral, ethical people even if they hold different beliefs. As a strong proponent of a free and meaningful spiritual search for each individual, I’m fine with my children’s choices, which may be temporal or permanent. Either way is fine with me.

But.

Yes, there’s a but. It’s where I focus attention when we discuss atheistic and agnostic views, where my energy into their religious education goes. My “but” goes like this: those labels tell me what you don’t believe and nothing about what you do. Without a sense of what one then does hold sacred, important, or true, those are labels of negation (atheism) and uncertainty (agnosticism).  There’s nothing wrong with either, but to me, left alone, they are immature and incomplete.

So fostering this deeper thought is part of the work of raising the atheist and agnostic, including myself. What do you believe? I pose this question quite often to my boys, generally receiving a list of what my younger does NOT believe (God, creationism, etc) and silence from my pondering older. I often answer my own question aloud, noting that I believe in social justice, love, peace, compassion, loving kindness, marriage equity, equal rights in general, and the mystery that is our universe. I believe in honesty and integrity, hard work, and the ability of humans to change and grow. I believe in the sacredness of the world but not of any one nation. I believe we are all one in some ineffable way and that there is more in this universe we can ever comprehend, although the act of trying touches the sacred.

I never make it through the whole list without interruptions. “There is no God!” my younger exhorts. “Why would anyone think so? No one can prove there is one, so there just isn’t!”

My usual retort goes something like this, “And you can’t prove there isn’t one.” Witty, huh? Such is theological musing with my ten-year old.

The last time we conversed, he gave a bit of ground. “I believe in science,” he said. That, I told him, was a start.

My older remains silent for these spirited discussions, and I’d guess that has more to do with staying out of the fray than lack of serious thought on the subject. He’s in a Unitarian Universalist Coming of Age class dedicated to supporting that process. (Think confirmation without confirming a preordained belief.) He’s worked for weeks in class on a statement of faith and values –which is perfectly doable without a deity. No, I haven’t read it, but I have some inklings about what he holds valuable and sacred based on what causes him to cheer (Obama’s statement of support of marriage equality) and slump (intolerance of any sort).

Supporting the development of a personal belief structure in a child without a catechism upon which to rely takes more than benign neglect. It takes, I believe, both an education in the religious teachings of the world and in the gritty, sometimes scary and sometimes beautiful world in which we live. Teaching children the language of the sacred and the religions of the world offers context to what they will see and hear throughout their lives.  It also offers them choice — the choice to embrace the path that leads them to the truth as they understand it. Informing children (in age-appropriate ways) of the ways of our physical world, from a sound grounding in cosmology, Earth science, evolutionary biology, and environmental science to a culturally diverse accounting of our planet’s sordid history, poverty, and human rights abuses — this is the education that leads them to establish their values and worldview. Topped with accounts of the world’s peacemakers and civil rights workers, there is a message to spread that good people working hard can make necessary change in a messy world.

I’ve yet to see my children suffer at the hand of theists for their beliefs or lack thereof, but I’m not naive to think that will not happen. Statistics indicate that about 16% worldwide and 3 -9% in the US identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, or non-believers. These are slippery statistics, since nonbelievers also may identify with other philosophical or faith traditions, like Taoism, Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism, or something else.  Others still identify with a theist tradition although reject the notion of a divine actor. There’s overlap, but the message is clear. As agnostics and atheists, we are a minority. And to many evangelicals in this country, Protestant, Catholic, or otherwise, we’re morally suspect and in mortal danger. So far, we’ve been surrounded with gentle, accepting folks of a variety of religious beliefs, many deeply held, including some nonbelievers, who hold just as tightly to their worldview. It’s likely many we’re with don’t know what we believe. Some don’t care. Others likely assume we’re Christian, the assumed norm in this nation. I’m open to the conversation and encourage my children to be the same, but it generally just doesn’t come up.

And this may be the toughest point about raising and atheist or agnostic. Do I teach my children to avoid the subject and give vague answers when discussions about the religious arise. No, but I’m not sure I’ve explicitly taught them how to handle those situations either. Our participation in the Universalist Unitarian tradition admittedly makes this less of an issue. We go to church. They go to religious education. They’re relatively well-versed in the seven principles (which aren’t doctrine or creed but really provide a fine framework for living life, regardless of belief). I’ve largely focused on reminding my younger to speak respectfully to others and avoid his more inflammatory statements about what he thinks about the presence of a god. He’s generally taken this charge seriously, although he’s prone to spout anti-theist rhetoric to those he deems likely to think like him, meaning family and a few close friends.  We’re working on this balance between speaking one’s truth while not being overtly offensive to others.  Evangelicals of all beliefs (atheists included) struggle with this, although most of them are not still ten and struggling neurologically with understanding  that the internal milieu of others might differ from one’s own.

Perhaps a better title for these posts would have been “On Raising  a Respectful and Responsible Atheist (or Agnostic) Who Appreciates the Role of Religion in the World and Can Articulate What Values and Beliefs He Has, Not Just Speak Against Others.” That’s a bit unwieldy, however, and still likely missing something.  I’ll stick with the original and continue to encourage my children to articulate their beliefs and values that accompany their atheism and agnosticism. I’ll teach them paths to peace from all the world religions and open their eyes to the real need to work for that peace today. Whether they remain agnostic or atheistic or not, whether they remain within the Unitarian Universalist church or not, this education will serve them well.

Peace.

Unitarian Universalism and Religious Pluralism: Do We Miss the Mark?

In a recent post about religious freedom, I wrote about rallies held by the conservative end of the Catholic church. These rallies protested regulations prohibiting the picking and choosing of health benefits offered by employers, all in the name of religious freedom. I celebrated my own Unitarian Universalism and its tradition of respect for religious freedom, offering a definition of religious freedom a bit different from the one proposed by protesting Catholics.

A commenter, Robin, begged to differ, not about my definition but about Unitarian Universalist commitment to respecting the free and responsible search for meaning of those of all faiths. Robin notes that within many UU congregations, real and virtual, there is a marked rift between the values of Unitarian Universalism and the practice of individual UUs, especially in the area of respect for the beliefs of others. Especially when those beliefs are theist (especially Christian), this commenter notes a palpable distaste for from the Humanist/Atheist wing of Unitarian Universalists.

Sadly, I’ve seen this in my own congregation. I’ve overheard heated rants about Christians and theism during coffee hour. It’s embarrassing, given the UU commitment to supporting free spiritual searches by all and to protecting the worth and dignity of all humans. I’ve called this behavior out in meetings, meetings where we discuss where we are as a congregation on our road to supporting interfaith movements in our community. Sure, we teach our children and ourselves about the religions of the world, but that’s not interfaith work.  And badmouthing any religion in a church committed to supporting religious freedom is downright contradictory to even beginning true interfaith work. But for years, I hadn’t put together the connection between our lack of interfaith work and a bias against theism all too common in UU circles.

Along comes the UUA Common Read, Acts of Faith, by Eboo Patel. A few weeks back, I led a small group in a discussion on Acts of Faith, which is a mix of memoir and call for greater religious pluralism. Patel is a Muslim and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization dedicated to serving the world while promoting religious pluralism and true interfaith dialogue. Patel quickly points out that he means real interfaith dialogue, not just the sort where religious leaders gather and talk about common beliefs and threads. He seeks instead a group of people working for what all faiths believe is important — service to others — while encouraging interfaith dialogue among those present.

I’d venture a guess that most UUs would support that goal. Committed to social justice and open to the idea that there are many paths up the mountain, working side by side with those of other faiths should be a UU norm. It’s where Patel goes next that likely causes unease in some. Patel does not advocate gatherings of the most liberal of the world’s religions. Instead, he calls for an Orthodox Jew to work with an Evangelical Christian while alongside a committed Atheist, and he calls for conversation. Conversation. Not conversion. Patel reassures the reader and the leaders of youth that he’s not desiring to dilute anyone’s faith tradition.  He states, citing a particular conversation with a Catholic leader,

By proclaiming our strong commitment to our respective faiths, even intimating that we believed what we each had was superior, we had cleared the way for an honest conversation. Neither of us was offended by the other’s faith tradition. to the contrary, it had created a common bond – two men of deep but different faiths talking about religious cooperation. (165)

Not conversion. Conversation and cooperation, while accepting the differences, as stark as they may be. This is a tall order for anyone of strong conviction. Most of us like to be right, meaning we tend to protect the view we have of the universe even at the cost of relationships with others. To join with others with beliefs as strong as our own yet radically different takes a willingness to sit with some discomfort. To work with others who believe their path is superior to yours takes humility and the ability to let go of the ego a bit more than may usually be comfortable.

It’s hard. Honestly, it’s that kind of frank conversation that I generally avoid with my friends whose religious views vary most sharply from mine, although I’m not sure we suffer for it. Our long-standing bilateral commitment to friendship tend to keep us focused on what we have in common, which varies depending on the friend. These relationships, while definite bridges between disparate faiths, are not interfaith work. Simply, the faith is left out. We don’t encourage each other on our respective spiritual journeys, although we don’t ignore the importance of these journeys either. (See an earlier post, Sharing Friendship, Sharing Religion, for one example.)

But what about Eboo Patel’s call to action? What about his call to have the conversations that actually accentuate the differences and encourage individuals to identify strongly with and practice their own beliefs while working side by side for the common good?  His assertion that this step is necessary if we want to reduce hate between faiths and make a more peaceful world causes me to wonder about the religious tradition I espouse and practice.  Unitarian Universalist, at least in principle(s) seem to be in a unique position to facilitate this. And yet, we too often don’t.

I don’t have an answer, but I think I have a starting point. It’s time to speak out against language that is antireligion. It’s time to call out the conversations in coffee hour, online, and in the pulpit that work against the goal of building respect for those who choose a faith other than our own. It’s time to identify what makes us uncomfortable and work within ourselves and our congregations, as well as the UUA, to combat the bias against theism that creeps into our conversations and decisions. I’m not suggesting we become doormats for the religious zealots who spread hate for all those who don’t share their beliefs. I’m simply suggesting we don’t become like them by producing our own rhetoric and hate.

We are, after all, a religion based on respect for all people and dedicated to supporting justice, religious freedom, and the rights of conscious. We can be part of the solution to  the rifts religious division causes in this world. We can do this while first understanding then respecting the depths of beliefs held by others, even when these beliefs are quite different from our own. We don’t need to agree with others or try to convert them to our way of thought. Religious pluralism puts into action radical inclusivity, and that’s about as UU as it gets.  Eboo Patel says it like this:

We need all those people — the hymn singers and the sun saluters, the Qur’an reciters and the mandala makers, the speakers of Hebrew and the readers of Sanskrit, the hip-hop heads and the folk music fans — and more. We need a language that allows us to emphasize our unique inspirations and affirm our universal values. We need spaces where we can each state that we are proud of where we came from and all point to the place we are going to.

I fear the road is long. I rejoice that we travel together. (182)

Namaste. Amen. So be it. Peace.

UUs, Theology, and Dear Old Dad

I think I unnerved my father.  On our last visit out to see my dad and stepmom, I mentioned, offhandedly, that at least half the congregation at our Unitarian Universalist church identified themselves as atheist or secular humanist.  After a pause, he asked, “But don’t the Unitarians and Universalists believe (before they joined hands in 1961) in God?  Weren’t they both Christian denominations?”

Well, yes.  But by the 1830s, both were studying the texts of other religions as well.  And so it went from there.

I’m not sure how we’d missed this conversation topic before, my Presbyterian father and I.  We certainly discuss church life from our respective positions, and I was certain he knew the boys’ stance on God’s existence (firmly in the atheist camp, at least right now).  My heart tugged, seeing this issue bother him.  We discussed it a bit more on a denominational level, and he issued a thoroughly triune-God based grace at dinner.  My own theology didn’t come up.

In fact, I’m still working out my own theology.  I spent my first few years of life in a Baptist church, the next few in a Catholic church, too, my school years attending both Catholic and Methodist churches, my high school, college, and newly married years as Catholic, two years in an Episcopal church, two years at home on Sunday morning, and the last four years in a Unitarian Universalist church.  Did I mention my mom is now a Reformed Jew?  Exhausted?  Me too.  Confused?  So am I.  Still.

I’m not sure I’m closer to an answer, even a long, meandering, book-length answer to the question of what I believe about God than when my journey away from Christianity began, more than half a decade ago.  By the time I left the Episcopal church my family had called home for the previous two years, I no longer believed in a triune god.  This is fairly significant barrier to feeling comfortable in most mainline Christian churches, since if you spend more time in a service rewording the prayers into something that fits your understanding of the divine, you have little time left to actually pray.  Academic head tricks aren’t worship. Add a heavy layer of doubt about why a loving God would require human prayer as catalyst to divine action to aid the poor, the sick, or Notre Dame, and the makings for a theological shake-up were on the counter.

So we left.  And those makings sat.

A few years later, the boys and I settled into our current spiritual home, a Unitarian Universalist church.  We’d vetted three over the course of a year, and this one struck me as most comfortable, one seeming too big, another too small, and UUCF being the proverbial just right.  It was (and remains) a friendly community with a well-spoken minister at the helm and a vibrant religious education department.  A church was found.  A theology was not.

Unitarian Universalists, being without creed and with dedication to a free search for meaning and truth, weren’t going to provide me with a preset path on which to ride through life.  Rather, these churches and associations provide the space to seek the truth as each persons sees fit and encourages spiritual growth (principles 3 and 4, for you UUs keeping track).  No answers.  Plenty of space for questions.  As a result, UUs and UU congregations come in a variety of flavors.  I’ve only sampled three congregations, so I can’t speak beyond that, but many UU churches contain a fair number atheists and agnostics.  I don’t have numbers (although I’ve certainly looks) on the numbers of UUs who are theists, pagans, Eastern based, Humanist, Atheist, Agnostic, and so forth.  The closest I’ve come to statistics on Unitarian Universalists and their theology would be a number  from the summary of Faith Communities Today (FACT)  2005, a survey of 495 (about 50 percent) of UU congregations.  The 2005 study was an expansion of the first FACT survey, done in 2000.  The single respondent for those churches was either a leader of the church, lay leader, or paid staff person.

According to FACT 2005, 19 % of the minster responders and 11% of the lay leaders responding described their congregation’s worship services as “having a sense of God’s presence.”  Overall (and more lay responded to the survey than clergy), that put 13% of all responders stating God’s presence was at their services.  That’s down from 2000, where 26% reported having a sense of God’s presence at services (although a much high percentage of those answering that year were clergy.

Either way, either year, there doesn’t seem to be much God in the Unitarian Universalist church.  No shocker there, given my modest sampling.  I have no idea how many UUs would identify themselves as believing in something greater than themselves, whether that be nature, a communal spirit, the power of the universe, or the flying spaghetti monster.  Most of the statement of faith I hear and read from other UUs are more about what they don’t believe, and the atheists shout the loudest.  Our congregation boasts a moderate number of secular humanists, which at least says more about what they DO believe than what they do not (and that’s best saved for another blog post).

And many say very little.  Perhaps, like me, they are still working out their own theology.  Perhaps they have more certainty than I but prefer more privacy regarding their beliefs.  If the FACT 2005 survey holds any water, there’s not too much God to find in a UU service, at least according to lay leaders and clergy.

So here I am, working out my own theology.  Despite the dearth of theism in the UU world, part of being UU is encouraging spiritual growth and a free and responsible search for meaning (remember principles 3 and 4?). Our (often overlooked) six sources are the pool from which I draw:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.  (UUA website)
So the makings are there.  And I feel no press of time to resolve this issue today, tomorrow, or next year.  It’s a theology in progress, building bit by bit as I learn from experience and the other sources listed above.  It’s a process I share here, since writing helps my processing.  It’s a process I’m glad to share, with my readers, my congregation, and my dad, if he so desires.