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!

Friday, February 12, 2016

Seeking Sanctuary

In my experience, when people are asked why they became Unitarian Universalists, or why they remain Unitarian Universalists, one of the reasons most often cited is community.  We seek groups of people who are like-minded, or who have similar values, with whom we can connect and to which we might belong. It’s a perfectly human desire, and Unitarian Universalist congregations provide that home that many of us need, especially when we feel that we would not be comfortable or would not be wholly accepted in any other of the spheres we inhabit in our lives.

When I first became a UU, now half my life ago, I, too, sought community. I sought a place where I could be me – a black, gay, young man, raised a Christian but seeking…something. I sought a place where I could pose questions about God, where I could ask “why?” without fear of reprisal, where I could confidently assert “I don’t believe that!” without fear of rejection. And I believe I found that place.

But community is noisy. Community is different people coming together with all their joys and all their hurts, their assuredness and their confusion. Community of the people by the people and for the people is an exercise in controlled chaos at times. Community means serving on committees, task forces, councils and boards in the interest of perpetuating said community. Community is busy, and loud, and satisfying, and depleting, and beautiful, and replenishing, and rough. Community is competing wants and needs seeking resolution. Community is strength and community is effacement. Community is multivalent – as many different things as the people within it, and much more.

And although community is very important to me, it has never been my primary reason for joining or remaining a member of a church. My answers to that question about becoming a UU usually sound like “exploring my spirituality” or “cultivating my theology”. My answers about remaining a UU usually sound similar, with the added component of a deep love for this faith I found all those years ago. Having benefitted from community for so long, I have come to a place in my life where what I need more even than the community I found is sanctuary.

Seder table set on the chancel in the sanctuary of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore (Universalist & Unitarian), April 2010

Sanctuary is stillness. Sanctuary is safe vulnerability; sanctuary is comfort. Sanctuary is holiness, set apart from the mundane. Sanctuary is oneness of breath, oneness of purpose, oneness of intention. Sanctuary is showing up, sitting in a pew, and being nourished. Sanctuary is allowing others to do the hard raucous work of community, for a time. Sanctuary is self-care. Sanctuary is Sabbath rest - the opportunity just to be and not to do. Sanctuary is the quiet harmony of everything which is nothing which is within everything and nothing. Sanctuary is wholeness. Sanctuary is peace.

Community and sanctuary are not of necessity at odds with one another; they can both exist in the same space and at the same time. Somehow. One of the things I’ve discovered while exploring my spirituality and cultivating my theology, all within the framework of my UU community, is that God more often than not resides in the mystery of paradox. Sanctuary means being able to find an answer to “why?” and being able to say “I do believe this” without fear of reprisal or rejection.

Sanctuary is quiet silence. Today I seek the quiet.

#UULent reflection for Day 3: Quiet 

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 in 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...

UUA Top Stories latest stories : UUs in the Media