Happy New Year, friends! We are starting 2013 by looking back (but for the purposes of moving forward!) at an earlier post: this one, in which I wondered how we might move past the “recovery” stage in our approaches to religion. Below is a UU minister’s response to that post. Raising Faith is about exploring together through ongoing conversation, so I am happy to post this response–and I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.
Wishing you a blessed start to your year.
When I first joined a UU church in 1990, there was a popular curriculum called “The Haunting Church” used in an adult education class. That was replaced in 2006 by “Owning Your Religious Past.” I don’t know how widely this curriculum is used, but wanted to point out that it does exist.
The aversion to all things Christian has been a much-discussed and debated part of UU culture, overlapping with the humanist-theist controversy, for at least as long as I’ve been a UU. Having studied in a UU seminary with fellow students from throughout the UU spectrum – both geographically and theologically – I’m aware now that these issues are moving targets. Some congregations are very open to Christianity and theism – maybe they always were, maybe they’ve actively worked on becoming more pluralistic, or maybe new generations have caused a cultural shift. Some are still very predominantly humanist and proud of it (sometimes, the “us” vs. “them” mentality you mentioned) – but I have a sense that is changing.
The congregation I serve was once nearly exclusively humanist, but has been in transition theologically and culturally during the past decade (a result, I think, of numerical growth – or maybe the growth is the result of the transition – probably both are true.) I’d say about half would describe themselves as some form of theist, and half as non-theist. Doesn’t that make you wonder, what does “theist” mean to those who so label themselves? Is it about the use of God-language? Does it include earth-based spirituality? Is the god/goddess in question naturalistic, immanent, transcendent, personal, anthropomorphic, or…? Most importantly, what does that mean for how we live our lives? I find myself wishing that we did have ongoing ways to engage these questions together.
I’ve had requests to use more biblical references in my services. I’ve heard some wonder whether there’s too much emphasis these days on Christianity in our congregation, and will there be room for humanists? And vice versa. Mostly I see a willingness to be open to exploring different religious ideas and traditions, and this certainly includes Christianity. Not every individual. But the congregation as a whole.
The willingness to let others engage, even in communal worship, is not necessarily a willingness to engage oneself. I’d love to see a real interest in exploring together, in small classes or groups, our ideas of God or even religion. We need to go deeper, in ways that speak to our own experience and open us to the experience of others – that’s where transformation becomes possible. Healthy UU congregations have evolved past the “knee-jerk reaction against” stage, to an atmosphere of acceptance and safety where people can say they’re Christian or Buddhist or theist or atheist and not feel marginalized, but embraced. But engaged/challenged/asked to elaborate? Not so much. We’ve too recently achieved the “safe space” culture and are hesitant to mess with that. So in talking about our different theologies (if we do talk about them), we engage in an adult UU version of the “parallel play” of toddlers. But “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” is all one principle – not two separate concepts. Failure to engage, explain, question, discuss – for fear of lapsing into hostility or smugness – pretty much precludes encouraging one another’s spiritual growth. I think we can do better, and we should.
Reading your post, I’m pondering what it might mean to be a “practicing Christian” in a UU community, and how that might differ from being a “practicing UU.” Does “practicing” mean celebrating certain holidays, sharing the ancient stories, taking part in traditional rituals? Does it mean intellectual adherence to certain dogmas regarding ultimate reality? And/or does it mean, living the faith? In thinking about this, I’m remembering an article by the Rev. Victoria Weinstein.* Rev. Weinstein identifies as a UU Christian; this article appeared in UU World in 2007.
Rev. Weinstein wrote:
But where was Jesus in our UU worship life? … Since Jesus’ radical inclusivity, love of humanity, and passion for justice was so harmonious with all the “good news” I was hearing in our congregations, why did our ministers and congregants so assiduously avoid the Gospels? … I could not understand why UUs would allow the perversions of the Religious Right to define the word “Christian” (or “religious,” for that matter), why they would concede religious language to the conservatives, and why they would go out of their way to construct a religion intentionally bereft of theology… where every spiritual path but the Christian path was considered valid and where all evidence of a Christian past was removed, revised, and painted over.
It took ten more years of committed Unitarian Universalist life for me to consider that perhaps my dear UUs were the most strangely faithful Christians of all. Having either intuitively or consciously embraced Jesus’ gospel of love, service, and justice, they could not stand to affiliate with any so-called faithful who claimed to have received their inspiration for discrimination, exclusion, superstition, and damnation from the same source. The well, for too many UUs, had been irrevocably poisoned, and they would thereafter drink of the living waters from another source. Any other source, it seemed, but the Christian well. I felt called to abide with my religious community, to remain patient with my own sense of religious difference among them, and to pursue the ministry.
That perspective resonates with my own UU experience (mostly!) Particularly so as I’ve come to know this faith as not being defined by a set of intellectual beliefs. It’s a way of living, of understanding life and love and our relationship to the mystery of that which is greater than ourselves, however we may each experience that.
I’m aware that the members of the congregation I serve have a great range of experience with Christianity in their former religious lives. Some have been viscerally, deeply wounded – by misogyny, homophobia, biblical literalism. They’ve been abused by both church authorities and the teachings themselves. Of these, some seek healing and would appreciate other ways to understand the Christian tradition. Others want nothing to do with it, ever, period. But there are many more who had a mostly positive experience with Christian churches. They left because they stopped believing in the dogma, or wanted a greater (or different) emphasis on social justice, scientific knowledge, or freedom of conscience. Their memories of Christian community are mostly fond, not traumatic.
So I think we need to tread lightly when we assume “woundedness” among our humanists (for example.) For those who are indeed wounded, the church is here for healing, not to further deepen the wound or to give it more power among us. In our enthusiasm to get past our aversion to our own Christian roots, we’ve sometimes sent the message to humanists that, if only you’d get past your childhood trauma with religion, you’d see the light and be open to Christianity (or theism.) Of course, that’s not true and is as insulting as the implication that when you get over your old irrational superstitions you’ll leave Christianity behind.
What would it look like to build a Beloved Community where spiritual growth is actively encouraged? I think we’d have active groups of members exploring the deep spiritual questions together, feeling safe enough to reveal their own ideas, willing to question and to be questioned, everyone humble about their own beliefs and curious about those of others. And open to being changed by the process.
*Rev Dr. Victoria Weinstein is active in the blogosphere as “PeaceBang,” where she continues to discuss issues such as those she raised in the essay referenced above.