Dear Maria,

I read your very thoughtful blog entry, UUA, Why Aren’t You Nurturing My Spirit? right after General Assembly. I hadn’t attended, myself, and I had plans to listen to the Service of the Living Tradition and Sunday morning service and Ware Lecture and other treats from the week. As a humanist, I read your piece with growing trepidation, especially when I got to your characterization of Marlin Lavanhar’s sermon in the Service of the Living Tradition.

In Marlin’s story . . . I am the oppressor. I am his oppressor because he did not feel comfortable being open about his authentic self.

After that, I was braced for a rough half an hour watching his sermon. But instead, in what I agree with you was a wonderful sermon, I didn’t hear “you are the oppressor” at all. I heard his discomfort, but I didn’t hear him blaming it on anything but his own failures of courage and integrity. I do think, and it’s clearly implied by Marlin’s sermon as well, that there is some blame to go around. It falls on each of us when we let it show in our faces: “you believe that?

We are each other’s oppressors. We can try to stuff each other in the closet with a look, with a roll of the eyes, with a “maybe you should try the UCC church down the street,” or “the Buddhist temple,” or “the Unity church,” or “the Humanist community.” There’s plenty of blame to go around, sadly. But I was looking hard for a finger pointing at humanists for shooting down theists, and what I saw was a little different from this:

What is wrong with Unitarian Universalism and what is holding us back from growth is our failure to embrace those who embrace God.

I really tried, I really expected it, but I didn’t see quite what you saw. Marlin did focus particularly on how hard our congregations are for those who embrace God; we do focus on it quite a bit these days, and there’s a good reason for that. If I may use an even more loaded metaphor than the closet (Marlin used it glancingly also), affirming God-believing UUs is like affirming the value of black lives.

“Black Lives Matter!” a person declares.

“Why do you say ‘black lives matter’?” the reply shoots back. “Don’t all lives matter?”

Yes, all lives matter, and since our judicial system and so much else about our country keep saying that black lives don’t count in that “all,” I’m gently, persistently pointing out that they do. And I am saying “We need to embrace those who embrace God” (lovely phrase, by the way) because in my congregation, although we say all theologies are welcome, we do convey, too often, that theist theologies, in particular, aren’t included in that “all.”

Thus the pendulum. Though I’m pretty tired of it too. I agree that it would be lovely if the pendulum were to stop swinging. Where would we like it to stop?

When I discovered Unitarian Universalism after decades of being a “None”, I was amazed and happy. It truly was amazing to this former Catholic — a place where I could take my authentic self and my Humanist family and be loved and supported in ways that I thought were only available to theists or others who could accept the supernatural.

My experience too! It sounds to me like we’re in a pretty good stopping place for humanists. What else do we need to do to nurture your spirit? Well, you spell some of it out.

So, where are the GA sessions on Grief Beyond Belief? Where are the services that take their inspiration from our creation story, the universe story, and the truth that we are star stuff and part of a grand, magnificent, messy, wondrous, interconnected world? Where is the advice for what to tell my son when he can’t sleep because he’s afraid that he is going to die some day, or that I might die and leave him alone? Where is the training in UU seminaries of how to minister to people like me who need to rely on human hands and human love to find hope and purpose? Where is the sense of mission to reach out to people like me who have nowhere else to turn for solace and inspiration and community because we don’t fit the religious norm? Where is the joy, and the celebration of life and love from a humanist perspective?

 

I know the answer to your question, and I hope it makes you happy: these things are to be found in UU congregations. I don’t know about the GA workshops—I haven’t done more than scan those for a couple of years—so maybe we do need more distinctly humanist presentations at GA. But the rest? Either I am particularly lucky, or you are particularly unlucky, because I have found those everywhere. Not only in my own congregation, not only in my collegial gatherings with ministers whose theologies do not all agree with mine by a long shot, and in the nondenominational Christian seminary I attended, but in every UU congregation I’ve belonged to. In fact, I’ve never attended a UU congregation that made me feel as if my theology were unwelcome. They might have said the Lord’s Prayer or mentioned God, they might have sung a hymn whose theology I find irksome, but I’ve always found lots of room for my beliefs and my preferred language and symbols. And I know for a fact that the ministers were not always of my theological stripe.

In fact, we have very few congregations in which the dominant theology is liberal Christianity. I’m glad they’re there, anyway—King’s Chapel should remain its badass high-church Christian self—even though I wouldn’t want to attend every week and they would certainly not want me as their minister, nor would I want to serve there. It’s fine that we have a few congregations that are explicitly atheist, pagan or Christian. But all in all, I much prefer the ones that try to be a home to all of those folks and more, and that is the kind in which I always hope to serve.

Will all humanists feel welcome in such a multitheological congregation? I fear not, because what I hear from a few humanists—not most—is that what they need for their spirit to be nurtured is to be in a place where everyone appears to believe as they do. I’m sorry to report this, because I’m a humanist myself, I don’t believe in God except in the sense of religious naturalism, and I most emphatically do not want people like us to die out. But from a few, particularly outspoken folks, I hear: “You have to stop using that ‘language of reverence’ or I don’t feel welcome here.” “Why use words like ‘God’ or ‘spirituality’ at all? Why not just use words we can all agree with?” “That was a great sermon except for the bit about Indra’s net. I don’t know why you need to talk about gods.” In other words, in order for these folks to feel “nurtured” in our congregations, we must all act like humanists all the time—and, more than that, we must act like a very particular strain of humanist, one who does not use any term that sounds “religious,” including the term “religious,” and also “sin,” “grace,” “redemption,” and indeed, “spirit.”

Like the great humanist Universalist Kenneth Patton, I like all those words and find them deeply meaningful. Others, I would rather leave out. You may not like any of them, and I’m not going to compel you to. But Maria, when you ask, “Where is the nurturing of my spirit that is in my language of poetry and nature and human relation that isn’t based on traditional religious words and symbols that have no meaning for me?” I have a question to ask you in response. It is “Why is your spirit only nurtured when you are spared all words and symbols that have no meaning for you?”

See, I get the nurturing of my spirit in the language of poetry and nature and human relation in a place where it’s mixed right in with the traditional religious words and symbols that have meaning for other UUs. That mix is how it has always been—which doesn’t mean it’s how it has to remain, of course, but let’s not rewrite history. The mythical time when you could spend a lifetime in Unitarian Universalism without ever hearing the words “Jesus Christ” except when the sexton tripped over his bucket, is just that: a myth. It never happened.

And even if it had, all those words and symbols belong in our congregations because all of us belong in our congregations. Oh sure, there are theologies that will probably never belong there. But do you flunk the UU test because you believe that there is a creator of this universe who can appear to us in human form and save us from our worst tendencies? Do you flunk out for believing that there is some kind of life after this one? Do you flunk out for believing that the universe is just, an idea I criticized in no uncertain terms in my most recent sermon? I hope to _______________ not (fill in the blank with the term of your choice). I want to be in community with all those people. I’ll come back to why in a few paragraphs.

I love that you want an option besides “organs and pews, hymns and sermons.” We might need to set them aside for liturgical reasons—that they don’t resonate with the practices people find most inspiring. However, we don’t need to set them aside for theological ones. There is nothing, nothing at all about a sermon or a pew that is incompatible with humanism or atheism.

And I love this: “You are not serving my needs, UUA, by having the only two options be gospel or classical, speaking in tongues or reading a science journal, listening to a sermon or listening to NPR.” Amen! These wouldn’t serve my needs either. But are these really the only two options you’ve found at UU churches? Please, come to services at my congregation. But more than that, come to services in Santa Monica, CA, Brewster, MA, San Francisco, CA, Warrington, PA . . . all of them have offered me a third alternative.

Most of all, what they offer me is connection to other people, whose hearts are so close to mine even when their theologies, practices, and beliefs are not. There’s a passage from Kurt Vonnegut—then honorary president of the American Humanist Association–that’s been rising up in my heart recently, and so when Marlin began his sermon, my eyes welled up as I recalled it again. It’s from Timequake, in which Vonnegut appears a great deal as a character—the author as Himself–and he is speaking of his real-life first wife, to whom he remained close all of their lives, even after their divorce. She was a devout Episcopalian and she died of cancer. He writes, “She died believing in the Trinity and Heaven and Hell and all the rest of it. I’m so glad. Why? Because I loved her.”

I am so glad Marlin walks with God. Why? Because I love him. I would like to hear about his experiences, his attempt to have just a closer walk with his god, for many reasons: because they would undoubtedly illuminate my own spiritual path, because I would learn so much to help me in my own struggles to walk more closely with my own deepest highest realest best thing (which I do not call God except when translating to another’s theological language). I hope he will preach from that experience and that longing, because when preachers preach from their longing, I hear my own and that helps me. But most of all, I want it because I love him. I want him to be able to bring his full spirit for its own sake: that he may thrive, that he may live fully, that our congregation may be a place of wondrous transformation for him.

Sometimes I don’t feel quite so welcoming. I’m uncomfortable with others’ longings. Oh dear. Marlin walks with God? Is he going to be telling me he speaks in tongues, too? Or believes that there’s a grand design to this universe and that there’s a starring role for our species? I worry that I won’t be able to listen to those cherished beliefs with an open heart. I worry that my inner judgment will appear on my face.

But there’s one thing I don’t worry about; I don’t worry that Marlin is going to tell me that I should believe in a God who walks with us, that I should speak of my longing for the holy with the anthropomorophic language that he uses himself, because it’s all over that sermon and his ministry that he doesn’t want to do any such thing. Bless him, he wants to welcome me exactly as I am. So what’s really uncomfortable is the challenge to me as a minister, as a Unitarian Universalist, as a humanist, as a person trying to live out the promise of love: will I do the same for everyone who crosses our threshold with a thirsting spirit?

Let’s keep talking. I hope to meet you in person sometime soon.

Be well,

Amy

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