My Theology

ExPluribusUnum, or "one from many", is the Shortest Way to Describe My Theology.

I believe that we are all mere human beings trying to make sense of our existence; so we should keep that in mind when we interact with one another. We are one people, composed of many persons. "God" is found in the love we share. The only way to get to that holy place is to practice more love!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Drinking from Deep Wells: A Candlemas Reflection

I was a faithful member of the United Methodist Church from the age of 12 until I was 18 and in college. When I left, for good in my mind, at the age of 19, I told myself that I was a leaving behind a church that condemned me, a religion that left me malnourished, and a God who had forsaken me for eternity. In a period of less than two years, my spiritual journey led me along a path from doubting Christian, to anti-religious atheist, to inquisitive Unitarian Universalist. My dalliance with atheism was short-lived and half-hearted, and my embrace of Unitarian Universalism was initially borne of gratitude for discovering a way to be religious that allowed me to be rid of the Christianity that I’d left behind me. I have now been a Unitarian Universalist for 18 years – at 36 years old that’s half my life so far, following the 18 years I was a professing Christian, and threefold the years I belonged to the United Methodist Church with which I identified for so long. A lot about my theology and my religious outlook has changed in all that time, and I continue to reassess my beliefs as I age and have more life experience.

I remember a class called “The New UU” that I took at the first UU congregation I would join on my new path, which is now called the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair (NJ). In one of the early sessions, a gay former Catholic got into a heated debate with the minister leading the discussion about the role of ritual in Unitarian Universalism. This man was angry at even the merest suggestion that what would be his newfound faith should in any way resemble the one which had scarred him, which meant that there was absolutely no room for ritual of any sort, or even the word ritual itself. At the time, I thought he was being ridiculous; but in him I recognized the hurt that I, too, was feeling as a gay man ostracized by the faith of my upbringing. Who was I to judge him? Unfortunately, he did not find what he was looking for that evening, so he got up in a huff mid-class and he left. I sometimes wonder where his journey led him after that night. As for me, I decided that religion was still a worthwhile pursuit and I chose to remain.

My early years as a Unitarian Universalist were ones in which I was comfortable being dismissive of Christianity and also being around others who were equally or more dismissive. For a modern movement whose roots lie in two Christian denominations, it bewilders me how much we have come to embrace an overall disdain for our origins. Granted, I appreciated this tendency at first; but my years of study and open encounter with those UU’s who would still follow Jesus, not to mention my separation from the particularist and fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible that I’d fled, rendered me less hostile to the faith of my upbringing than I’d once been. Reading the works of Marcus Borg, whom I declared to be my favorite theologian upon his death just a year ago, was a great influence on my willingness to not disregard and discard all the good that I’d known within Christianity. In my experience, many Unitarian Universalists are open to the wisdom of ABC religion – Anything But Christianity.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that I have come full circle and consider myself a Christian – I haven’t evolved that far, yet! – nor do I mean to imply that everyone can and should find that the Christian story is of ultimate value to their lives. I’m simply observing that, at some point, we became a faith that is comprised largely of people whose major impulse is to leave behind rather than to move toward. How do we overcome that?

In the eighteen years since I left Christianity behind me, I have attended Christian churches of various denominations only for weddings, funerals, and, after I met my husband and began observing Christmas again, Christmas Eve services. I once attended a Lutheran service on Palm Sunday because a nephew was being baptized. In almost every instance, I felt like an outsider. A welcomed and well-treated outsider, but an outsider nonetheless. Last year on Candlemas, a time of purification, preparation, initiation, and commitment, I decided that my spiritual life was spread too broadly and that I needed to choose the wells from which I would drink more deeply. On that day, I joined both the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, having decided to stop fighting my background, and the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, having long ago come to the conclusion that an observance of the natural cycles of the earth, and of life, held great value for me. I’ve spent the year between that Candlemas and this embracing the idea of claiming a narrower path than the one I’ve been taking all these years. I began moving closer to the rhythm of the Christian liturgical cycle during Advent, reflecting on quiet hope in the dark of the year. I continued observance of the rhythm of the pagan wheel of the year, participating once again my church’s Winter Solstice ritual. In eighteen years, I refused communion at every Christian service I went to where it was offered (except once a year, at most, in my own UU congregation where I could partake in good conscience). On this last Christmas Eve, after ten Christmases in a row of letting my husband and in-laws go up for communion and waiting behind, I led our pew up to the front of the church and partook with them. Just this weekend, I attended the Imbolc ritual of the Baltimore Reclaiming Community, where I honored the lengthening of days, asked a blessing on holy candles, gazed into the ignis purgans, and made a pledge to “live fully now” in the coming year. Next week brings Ash Wednesday... There’s something about these rituals that I’ve been missing in Unitarian Universalism, notwithstanding the sometime belief that there is too much ritual, as espoused by the wounded man I’d met so many years before as a new UU.

Part of what we as Unitarian Universalists value in religious life is the “encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”, and we promote the “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 that create and uphold life”. I have come to a point in my life where that means I must dig more deeply and draw from the wells that I have chosen for myself. The words of what some view as the Unitarian Universalist’s most sacred hymn plead “roots hold me close, wings set me free”. For the year ahead, I intend to explore ways in which I might be held close by my Christian roots and set free by Pagan wings. I will continue to be nourished from other wells, as they offer me their resources; but I will tend to my own at this time, and I will pray that this anchoring and expanding might continue to be held within my chosen faith community. Spirit of Life, come to me…come to me.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Should all Unitarian Universalists embrace a neutral humanism?

This morning I received a message from a friend who recently joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation for the first time a little under a year ago. The message asked for my take on an article posted on the Huffington Post titled "Welcoming Unitarian Universalists Home to Humanism", by the executive director of the American Humanist Association, Roy Speckhardt. At the time, I thought that the article was freshly written and posted - I now see that it was originally posted on that site in 2013. Nevertheless, I enjoy receiving such queries from friends and gave my friend a rather wordy response, essentially stating that I disagree with much of the author's premise, and explained why using just the first sentence of the article. I will respond to the content of the rest of the article in as many posts as necessary, and I hope to continue the many great conversations I have been having with UUs and others about the past, current, and future state of affairs among Unitarian Universalist worldviews.
And now that I've piqued your curiosity and you've read the article (seriously, read that first), what follows is a version of the response I sent to the friend who asked my opinion. I invite your opinions in the comments. I welcome constructive criticism and debate. I do not tolerate abusive language or mean-spirited diatribe. Here we go!
Note: There has been discussion over the appropriate use of the word "humanism", and the differences between various forms it takes, such as religious humanism, secular humanism, etc. What I understood from the word's use in the article and the meaning that I ascribe to it below is probably more accurately termed "nontheism", or "antitheism", as the case may be.

What an interesting article! Thank you for sharing it with me. My take on it, for the most part, is that I disagree with him almost in entirety. Starting with the first sentence, which reads in part that a humanist approach has been viewed as "the appropriate neutral philosophical place for all UUs to convene". Full disclosure - I am a theist, not a humanist, but I will try to be as unbiased as I can in my response. By and large, I don't believe that UUs should be neutral in our outlook, philosophy, faith, or other positions, whenever a strong opinion is preferable to neutrality. I also oppose the insinuation that "all UUs" must have the same position on the nontheist-theist continuum. That misses the larger point of Unitarian Universalism altogether.

From among our Six Sources (listed here with our Seven Principles), the one drawn from humanism itself reads:

"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;"

One of the major influences humanism has had on Unitarian Universalist thought is that we cannot and ought not allow any one "idolatry" overtake us. Note, too, that it says "of the mind and spirit". We should no more idolize the supremacy of reason than we should allow theism to be the only valid stand that a Unitarian Universalist may choose. Sure, humanism has held a high position of power and influence in the UU world for decades now, but it certainly should not be the place where we all "convene". Rather, I believe that we each forge our paths, along with others on similar paths, and we convene together with our differences and learn one from another. "God talk" may be uncomfortable from time to time for those who don't find such language useful, or even believe it to be harmful. The lack of such "spiritual" language is distressing for those of us who are not humanists. Church should be a place where we work through our discomforts, together, not a place where everyone toes the same line.

All that from just the first sentence! 

Humanism is a vital and necessary part of Unitarian Universalism...but it is only a part, not the whole.

I now ask self-identified humanists who read this article: What is your take on it? Do you feel threatened by shifts in language or tone in your congregation? Would an increase in "god talk" in your congregation, if not to the exclusion of more "neutral" language, be a deal-breaker for you? My observation is that this same argument — that one or the other group within the broad tent of Unitarian Universalism is falling victim to some position ostensibly hostile toward it — is being made from all sides. Many UU Christians and other theists have written similarly about how humanism threatens the historical dominance of theistic thinking in our earlier history. This is not a new conversation, but the tide seems indeed to have swung some, which is what I imagine spawned this article. I hope we can find our way to a place where people feel validated, secure in their views, and unthreatened by those who don't share their theological/philosophical stances. 

Bet you weren't expecting an essay! But there you have it, my take. Or the beginning of it, anyway.

To be continued...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Resolutions 20:15

It's 2015 now, and a question that's asked over and over this time of year is "what are your new year's resolutions?" Generally, my response has been something along the lines of, "I don't make new year's resolutions". This year, however, I decided to set several goals for the year and so I have shared those with people instead of resolutions. But the more I think about it, the more I realize how foolish I'm being. What good is a goal if you don't have the resolve to strive to attain it? So to any of you who received my self-righteous answer, I apologize! And I resolve to make a decent effort to achieve the following goals in the year ahead:

  1. Health. My management of my own health has been half-assed and reactive for several years now. I have pretty much been coasting along and only addressing issues as they've arisen. In 2015 I will be more proactive and manage my physical and mental health in better ways. Now that I'm approaching 36 — which is not that old! — I can't really afford to take my fitness for granted.
  2. Education. I have been telling myself for almost half my life now (!) that I will return to school to finish the undergraduate degree that I began but never completed. Once again, there have been half-ass attempts in the past to do this, but it's time to hunker down and git-r-done! (sorry...couldn't help it.) I also want to attend seminary and explore the possibility of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister of some sort. That'll be easier with the undergraduate experience.
  3. Redacted*.
  4. Family. I am very liberal, progressive, and open in just about every way you can imagine. But there are still areas where I have more traditionally-minded opinions. Last year, my partner and I became husbands by legally marrying in a beautiful ceremony at our church. See? Traditional. This year, I would like to do the research needed for us to lay the roots we would like for our family. Will we buy a house? Will we have children? Will I finally take a class in personal finance and become a real grown-up? 
  5. Relationships. I have admitted more than once that I have not been the best friend for the past several years, and I have not done much to sustain loving relationships with family members either. I can come up with many reasons why this has become the case, but I don't want to make excuses. I can and will do better! I will send cards, write letters, make phone calls, and visit more often. This is absolutely necessary.
  6. Spirituality. I will pay more attention to my spiritual life, and will do the things that bring me peace, joy, happiness, and edification. Some of these are playing music, attending performances, reading, writing, studying, hiking, praying, speaking French, being mindful, being grateful, going to church regularly, and making my husband happy.
  7. Purpose. I will be more purposeful about my life. One way I will do this, for now, is by adding more structure to my days so that I can actually pay attention to the goals I have set for myself for the year. I will review my goals periodically to make sure that I am working toward their attainment, and I will add/subtract goals as they are needed or met.
So, there they are. My new year's resolutions as of today, January 6, 2015. Your prayers and support will be greatly appreciated for the next twelve months. I got this, y'all! Thank you.

I'll link related posts below as they are written. Happy New Year!

*Goal #3 will be revealed when appropriate.