Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tired of Defense

I had a bit of a disturbing parking lot conversation today. I mentioned to a friend that I had seen her friend at my UU church. I thought of it as a positive. Another way that the world is so small that we all seem to run into each other. Well, my friend stated that she was not happy about this. It caught me completely by surprise. She flat out said it like that. I asked her why, and she stated that it would mean her friend was no longer a Christian. I was flabbergasted. Obviously, I told her that no one could take away her friend's Christianity. Just because you attend a UU church, doesn't mean you can't be a Christian. We don't go and try to "de-Christian" people. Instead of being happy that her friend (after a long search) found a possible church home, she was upset that it didn't meet with her idea of a Christian church. Then my friend said something that drives me crazy. "Isn't it really more of an organization then a religion, anyway?"

GAAHHH!!! I get so tired of people saying that. We are a religion. Just because we don't conform to your idea of religion doesn't mean it isn't authentic. I believe in a higher-power, I say grace at the table, I observe certain holidays, I pray, I come together every Sunday in community, I read sacred texts to help discover deeper life meanings. How is this not living my religion? UU supports and encourages all these activities. How is that different then yours? Yes, I totally grant that UU isn't for everyone. It really isn't. But, for those it is right for - it is meaningful and powerful.

That is my two-cents. I just wish I had the presence of mind to say that second paragraph to my friend. Instead I sat library duty thinking of all the things I could/should have said. It also occurred to me that my friend didn't appear at all to think it an insult to consider my faith not real. I am sure if I had insulted Christianity, it would mortally wound our friendship.

11 comments:

Bridgett said...

Ok, you know from reading my blog that I am a lifelong struggling liberal Catholic, and so I speak from that worldview. Being a cradle Catholic, I don't know much about other denominations of any kind--it's like being white and not knowing anything about Indian or Mexican culture. I just don't have to because there's always a Catholic church in town or in the next town. Whatever. Anyway, I didn't grow up with any negative opinions of any other religions except Jehovah's Witnesses. I just didn't know much. Reading your blog has opened a door to UU in a way that an encyclopedia article never could.

I still don't know much about the nuts and bolts of UU but what I see is this. I see many ex-somethings (Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, etc) who join Unitarian-Universalism and finally feel ok about God. And just knowing that bit, I mean, how can one argue with that?

It's like saying that the 19th century Irish fleeing a famine or Germans fleeing conscription, coming to America, means they're not Irish or German anymore. No. I see UU as a new home for many people, but not that it rips away their roots the way sudden conversions to other religions do. In my mind I have clumped UU together with the Quakers in their adaptability to dogma. Maybe I'm wrong there, but that's how it appears to an outsider.

The only reason I would be disappointed to see a friend go to a UU church would be if she were in charge of my parish's picnic committee and she'd bailed on us.

People need to satisfy the spiritual side of their personalities, of their human selves. It's got to come from somewhere, and people know if they've found a home.

plaidshoes said...

Thank you for saying that, Bridgett. You really captured what I hope it appears to non-UUs. It is really about inclusion and openness then exclusion and narrowly focused dogma. I would also be sad, though, to lose a good volunteer! :-)

plaidshoes said...

I think what hurt the most was they we have been friends for a long time and it just became suddenly very clear that she really doesn't see the value in what I devote a lot of my time to.

NFQ said...

I was raised UU, and I've often had the same sentiment as your friend -- that UU isn't exactly a religion. You describe your own beliefs and practices when you say, "I believe in a higher-power, I say grace at the table, I observe certain holidays, I pray, I come together every Sunday in community, I read sacred texts to help discover deeper life meanings." -- with the exception of the coming together on Sundays, all of that varies hugely from Unitarian to Unitarian. (Well, you can be UU even if you don't go to church. But church on Sunday morning is a UU practice for sure.) And I thought that was kind of the point. You don't have to believe in any higher power/s or pray to it/them if you don't want to. They don't tell you what texts you should read and ponder, they don't tell you what holidays to celebrate. There are seven UU principles, and they're all about being a good person in general. Completely secular values that it's pretty hard to argue against, no matter what your background. You may be a religious person -- it sounds like you are -- and you may gain something valuable from the UU framework. But to say that Unitarian Universalism is your religion ... I don't know, maybe we just use the word "religion" in very different ways.

Saille said...

Great post!

NFQ, I think we raise a lot of UU kids in RE curricula that teach them about every religion *but* UU. Our intention is to live our principles; instead, we inadvertently portray our churches as launching pads.

I'm not going to argue that there are not secularists in UU churches. The presence of secularists in our churches and fellowships does not prevent UU from being a religion. In fact, the fact that they are peacefully welcomed puts a very fine point on what kind of religion we are.

I have come to believe that the most important thing about the UU Church is its role as a haven for religious freethinkers. In that capacity, it is both a precious fellowship in and of itself, and a vital foil for every other religion, particularly highly dogmatic ones. Throughout history, Unitarians and Universalists have risked their lives for issues of social justice, and above all for the right of conscience...the right to freely dissent. This goes to the very heart of what it is to believe, and it is deeply religious...as is the assertion that religious people can collectively transcend individual creeds and assemble peacefully in one faith community.

UUs operate under the assumption that each member constructs his or her own beliefs through a profound and ultimately personal exploration of faith. Not every UU chooses to undergo this process...but I don't see why this should remove UU from the category of "religion". Certainly there are many declared members of other faiths who are privately a-religious or lapsed. If someone chooses to treat church as a meeting place in a secular sense, that doesn't stop it from being religious for the observant.

plaidshoes said...

Thank you NFQ and Saille for the responses. Saille, you pretty much captured my sentiments exactly to NFQs points. I definitely agree (and I do see you points, too, NFQ!).

Jacqueline said...

I have so much to say to this, but I will just say that your friend is reacting to the idea that people like me are UU. I believe it is because the Humanists and more specifically, the Atheists, call it home that they have a hard time wrapping their head around it. Because, frankly, I don't pray, don't have a god, and don't want one... are we a religion... today, I am not so sure.

plaidshoes said...

Jaqueline - Your point is well taken. I guess it really comes down to what exactly religion means. I see our religion coming from two branches of Christianity. Has it changed? Yep. But, to me, to is still a coming together of people to help find meaning to this life. Whether it entails belief in a higher power - that is particular to each power. I think people tend to define religion too narrowly and therefore humanists and atheists do not feel comfortable with that term.

Saille said...

Jacqueline, in rereading I've realized that my zeal for the topic caused me to sound as if I thought atheists and agnostics had somehow opted out of the soul-searching process. I don't believe that, not for one minute, and I want to apologize. What I should have said, what I believe, is that the result of that search may be that one determines he or she does not believe in god, or that humanism is their non-god-based religion, or that they do not know if there is a God, a la Cynthia Landrum's article here:

http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/151790.shtml

I think I was mostly reacting to NFQ's words:

"You may be a religious person -- it sounds like you are -- and you may gain something valuable from the UU framework. But to say that Unitarian Universalism is your religion ... I don't know, maybe we just use the word "religion" in very different ways."

That really rubbed me the wrong way. Just b/c UU is your secular home does not suddenly negate it as anyone else's religion. If you are representing it that way to your friends who practice creedal religions, you are doing religious UUs a great disservice. UU is, fundamentally, historically, presently, a living religion, built on concepts two thousand years old. Both Unitarianism and Universalism were initially explored through a fundamentally Christian religious lens; that they have arrived at this transcendent place is their great triumph, and to gloss over their history as outliers in a creedal religion is a mistake. The example of UU is needed now more than ever, particularly in the face of religious polarization. The path to acceptance of atheism/agnosticism in the UU Church has been a long journey taken by many overtly religious people who saw fit to honor the ethical process and right action over creed and dogma. It's not something to be pooh-poohed.

NFQ said...

Sorry I forgot to check back here for a few days. Really appreciate the thoughtful responses!

I definitely agree that "Unitarian" and "Universalist" refer to particular protestant Christian ideas, and in that sense UUism is a Christian denomination. At the point at which the UUA and most congregations (as far as I know) are pretty explicit about the fact that you can be an "atheist UU," a "Hindu UU," a "Muslim UU," a "Buddhist UU," etc., I think it is clear that "Unitarian Universalist" no longer means "Christian" in the way that it once used to.

We're talking about an organization that encourages people to explore their spirituality and their relationship with humanity and the universe as a whole. But it doesn't have any specific teachings about what beliefs people should hold (unless you count the seven principles, which are basically "be nice to others"). It certainly doesn't have any particular supernatural teachings, which I consider essential to the definition of a "religion." (No, I don't think that "finding meaning in life" is the same thing.)

Saille, you wrote: "I don't see why this should remove UU from the category of "religion". Certainly there are many declared members of other faiths who are privately a-religious or lapsed. If someone chooses to treat church as a meeting place in a secular sense, that doesn't stop it from being religious for the observant." I see what you're getting at here. (I would personally not recognize as a Christian someone who attended a Christian church but denied the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, and the relevance of the Bible. But I think this is a separate issue.) I just don't see what it means to be an "observant" UU. If every person in a UU congregation could have completely unique beliefs about supernatural phenomena, it's pretty obvious that they don't share the same "faith" in the usual sense. They share an approach to developing one's personal religious beliefs, and that's what I see UUism as.

Saille said...

NFQ, you said: “I would personally not recognize as a Christian someone who attended a Christian church but denied the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, and the relevance of the Bible. But I think this is a separate issue.”

I agree with you. Going to church doesn't make someone religious. However, you can't then argue the inverse, that a-religious attendees negate the religion. They don't.

I am not arguing that UU should be considered Christian in any sense but a historical one. I’m not a Christian myself. But you seem to be treating “creed” and “faith” interchangeably, and my point is that UU has gradually moved away from creed, not because of an absence of religious faith or feeling, but because so many creedal Christian denominations shunned or actively punished people who held or explored less orthodox beliefs.

Certainly there are plenty of UUs with parallel/interlacing religious faiths, i.e. Buddhist/UU, Christian/UU, etc.. But if their religious needs could be met at a Buddhist temple or Christian Church, then that’s where they would go.

One of the newest attendees at our church is a sixty-something Catholic with a lifetime of very active membership in her previous church. As she explained it to me, she left because she found that the spiritual discussions at her church explored within too narrow a religious construct. She didn’t come to UU because she was not religious, but because she was seeking a religion of profound engagement. Consider the possibility that while you are enjoying a pleasant sense of community, many of those around you are having a religious experience.

You said:

“But it doesn't have any specific teachings about what beliefs people should hold (unless you count the seven principles, which are basically "be nice to others"). It certainly doesn't have any particular supernatural teachings, which I consider essential to the definition of a "religion." (No, I don't think that "finding meaning in life" is the same thing.)”

I really dislike the “be nice to others” thing. There are plenty of dogmatists out there who can be so nice to you that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, but they’re not living the Principles. The Principles are a deeply seated worldview meant to underpin the beliefs and ethical constructs of every UU. The bar is set very high, because there is no “letter of the law” or religious authority to hide behind. In each individual situation, the Principles must be re-examined to see how they apply. The Principles require a lifelong process of self-examination, and serve as a rebuttal to oppressive beliefs and practices.

WRT supernatural beliefs, this is a fine point that I think is frequently missed. The movement away from creed has of necessity honed UU down to the most essential form of religion: the fundamental right and personal responsibility to determine one’s own beliefs. As Natan Sharansky said, “Free societies are societies in which the right of dissent is protected.” As such, no religion can be truly free unless it is willing to address the possibility that God may not exist. Therefore, the presence of the ultimate religious dissenters, atheists and agnostics, is a measure of the health of the religious system. The search, the epiphany and, above all, the choice are the religious sacraments of Unitarian Universalism.