“Recovering Christians”: a UU Minister Responds

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.

j

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.

“recovering Christians”–and recovering Christianity

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?

j

[note: for a UU minister’s response to this post, click here.]