As I have shared, I am a Unitarian Universalist and a practicing Christian. Sometimes I talk about my experiences with this. Other times, I talk about my faith, generally, and it’s heard by my fellow congegants from a Christian perspective (I haven’t been exactly quiet about that, especially this past year, so it’s probably not surprising that when I say something about my religion, it’s assumed that I’m talking about J.C. and the boys).
This happened a few weeks ago. I shared on facebook the discovery that college students are having intense discussions about the nature of God in coffee bars downtown, leading to an in-person discussion on the same topic with some of my church friends. The earnestness of the students’ dialogue both excited and perplexed me–I have been yearning for a place to discuss God more, myself, and wondered aloud why these discussions aren’t happening at church. The response of my church friends, on the other hand, surprised me: “If what you need is an in-depth Bible study,” advised one friend, “then you probably need to go somewhere else.” The comment was off the cuff and not meant to be offensive, but I think it’s telling in terms of how we UUs sometimes view questions of faith, especially where we put “Christian” in front of that faith.
I have thought about this in the weeks since this interaction, and I have a few questions. Of which the first (and the only one I’ll deal with today) is: who said anything about Bible study? We actually have a fairly long-standing Bible study group in existence at my church; I have never gone to it, but I feel sure that it is an open, curious and respectful discussion. What I want is to go deeper with my faith. I want reflective dialogue. I want consideration of difficult questions. I want connection. We can offer these things to one another without any mention of Bible study, and conversely, we can read our Bibles with all the piety of Mary and still miss the mark on the things that truly encourage the development of spiritual depth.
One aspect of the Bible does matter in this discussion, however, and that is the feelings we have toward it and how we bring those attitudes to our interactions around faith. To the extent that you are offended by biblical references, closed to any possible message in the life or words of Jesus, or openly hostile to the inclusion of any Bible stories in the religious education that we might offer our children, you are indeed impeding my ability to fully explore and grow in my faith in the context of my church. For those who explain that it’s not a kneejerk reaction against Christianity that provokes this attitude–”I’m a humanist; I don’t ‘do’ this spiritual stuff”–I wonder if that reasoning holds up in light of the variety of texts included in UU-style worship. Do the Upanishads offend you equally? Are the musings of Rumi as fingernails on a blackboard to thine ears?
When I first wrote a draft of this post, I ended up with something ridiculous–a reflection about how odd it is to be the sole practicing Christian I know . . . amid a congregation of former practicing Christians. Certainly we are a varied group in our church, but the vast majority of us were at one point churchgoers in Christian families. The interesting question, then, isn’t “why am I the only one,” but “why does Christianity continue to hold meaning for me?,” and perhaps “what led my fellow congregants to decide that the ‘Christian’ label wasn’t one that fit them?” Of course, this isn’t one story. It’s more than 100 stories, and I’d love the chance to hear them. Given that Christianity isn’t exactly unfamiliar territory for our congregation, however, our individual histories suggest that there are challenges to confront directly if we are going to be truly open to spiritual growth.
On Twitter this summer, Rev. Ellen Cooper-Davis exhorted us, “Don’t be a recovering anything. Recover. Be a Unitarian Universalist.” Those words inspired a round of hear, hears in the blogosphere, and I’d like to add an Amen, myself. In a widely-shared post, Unitarian Universalist minister and online persona PeaceBang also called for us to release the part of our congregational identities that are built around rejection of our previous religious lives. These perspectives are timely and needed if our movement is to grow. They do, however, leave open the question of how one might recover from prior religious trauma, and how congregations can help.
I got my start in Unitarianism at a large church in Salt Lake City. If we accept that individuals can be damaged at the hands of religion, this congregation was ministering to the walking wounded, and it showed. While its members were in many ways a thriving and joyful bunch, the church culture I entered into was defined by “us” and “other”–we were hunkered down against a social onslaught, and in that context we devoted more energy to patting ourselves on the back than reaching out to those in need; we spent more time raising our eyebrows and nodding knowingly at what individuals had previously experienced than in doing the work to process those hurts and move forward.
Building a cohesive community, helping members to feel safe and comfortable, encouraging a spirit that makes people want to return–these are important tasks for any congregation. Our more important task, however, is welcoming the stranger. The healthy church is not the one in which everyone knows that s/he is “on the team” and feels bolstered by a Yay, Us! sermon to go out and live for another week among “them.” It is the church whose doors are truly open for public worship, for anyone–like us or very, very different–who may walk through them. This requires that we do the difficult work, individually and together, to acknowledge and work through our spiritual hurts so that we are open to grow ourselves and to foster that growth in others. In this way we gain both depth and centering, that we might maturely witness and minister to the struggles of the stranger among us (even when that stranger is someone we know and love who is grappling with something we ourselves haven’t experienced and don’t understand).
This I believe: we are not fully free to grow spiritually while we handle the religion of our past with garlic cloves and lead vests. Coming to terms, together and individually, with our Christian heritage is needed. It’s challenging. And . . . it’s out of my area of expertise. Are positive spiritual growth opportunities enough, or do we as a denomination need to offer intentional opportunities for spiritual detox? What would that look like? And what might our congregations look like, from our relationships with one another to the messages we hear from our pulpits, if we all decided, together, to “recover and be Unitarian Universalists?” I would love to know . . . and as wonderfully quippy as Rev. Cooper-Davis’s words were, I don’t think our merely saying them is enough. Our members have been hurt. They are hurting. Where do we go from here, that we might go somewhere better, together, in the future?
[note: for a UU minister's response to this post, click here.]