Sunday, February 13, 2005

A lengthy essay about Liberal Christians and UUs

Wrote this about six months ago as a response to a sermon about Christianity that squicked me and it is on my mind. An apparently dedicated reader of this blog (lucky me) will notice that a lot of his comments have been taken to heart. My errors basically stemmed from having had an oversimplified version of Arminianist-flavored Calvinism explained to me as a kid, and having left the Presbyterians before I grew up intellectually enough to read Calvin on my own.

When I was a child, church was a trial to be endured. Though I had an enviable view of the proceedings from the choir loft where I sat with my parents, I failed to appreciate it. Hyperactive creature that I am, I was forever making small noises, getting up to move around and otherwise embarrassing my parents and distracting the choir. After some complaints from the other choir members, I was sent back down to sit with the rest of the church.

So I sat with a book, reading through the entire service.

Not good enough. My parents ordered me to stand when everyone else stood, sing what they sang and participate in the responsive readings.

As a kid, I noticed that I didn’t necessarily agree with what was in the readings, but I read them anyway. That I thought to disagree was the Unitarian Universalist in me. That I kept reading anyway was the good Calvinist in me, a streak that is still there.

The UU in me was visible other ways, though, I was kicked out of Sunday School for asking too many questions as a kid. (As I recall, the question that got me escorted from the room was my challenging a teacher’s assertion that the bible is the best-selling book in the world by pointing out that there are lots of translations of the bible but the only Koran that counts to Muslims is the one in Arabic, a nugget I’d picked up in my fifth grade World Cultures class. Thus, ten-year-old CC reasoned, it was likely that people would buy several bibles as they had different words, but a person only ever needed one Koran.)

In a lot of ways, Christianity is good for a kid. Calvinism especially. Anyone in Junior High School will find a theologian who understands the innate depravity of man and the ultimate worthlessness of human effort to have extraordinary insight.

I was a liberal Christian though, so my parents were always light on this message and heavy on the concept of God’s love and the redeeming value of doing one’s duty to one’s church, one’s family and one’s God. The people at this church were on the whole very, very good to me and I wanted to be like them. I was pretty well-schooled in Bible stories, knowledge that has served me well culturally. Indeed, by late high school I was having huge doubts about Christianity in general, yet was the only person in my senior English class who could correctly identify Joseph of Aramathea.

At the same time, the Presbyterian Church had gotten a new minister. She was brilliant, well read and I knew she was a lesbian from the moment I saw her. I identified totally with her intelligence and literary nature. Even though I'm straight, when she was fired I felt that the Presbyterian Church had no use for person like me, despite the loving treatment I’d received my whole life.

The Hindu Dharma says “We do things to no purpose, and at the same time we do not have the courage to give up such rites altogether. So we go through them ‘somehow’ for a false sense of satisfaction. Far better it would be, instead, to have the courage to be an atheist. The atheist at least has some convictions, so it seems to me.”

Going through ritual “somehow” well describes my attitude toward Christianity for most of late high school, and by the time I went to college I had determined that I wasn’t going back to Presbyterianism, though I missed terribly the promise of a good afterlife to those who were among the elect. (Item: Every 17-year-old believes themselves to be among the elect, if not a visible saint. Trademark of the age.) I wanted to believe in those things and be accepted, but I just couldn’t accept the personified deity that the bible described who had made humans in his image and thus had quite rightly made them jealous, vain and wrathful creatures.


In college, I declared myself an agnostic and developed a habit I retain to this day of taking the atheist side in any disagreement between theists and atheists.

As I progressed through college, things called me back toward my past and toward a life of faith. The old familiar hymns were the most notorious. The “Ode to Joy” will forever send me to my mother’s side as her dutiful soprano, less on key than she imagined, belted out “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.”

I was alone in my faith, though I took several college theology classes, all Christian, and had many talks with my aunt on the subject. She sent me lots of books. One day, at graduate school in New Orleans, I was very lonely and decided to hunt up a church. I found a sermon of Katy-the-Wise's on the internet, decided to visit, and that was that.

My conversion story is a crucial part of this essay if for no better reason than to offer a counterpoint to the conversion stories of ex-conservative Christians who describe childhoods traumatized by thoughts of hell. But now we get to Unitarianism, and we’ve gone as far as this can go with just my story. After all, this is supposed to be about the general case of converting liberal Christians. (And, to be fair, it doesn't even address the case of liberal Christians who become UU Christians. While I consider my UUism heavily Christian influenced, I am by no means a trinitarian.)

I viewed Christianity pretty rationally by this point myself, and I suspect this is the case of a lot of liberal Christians. What surprised me was how irrationally UUs typically viewed it. Christianity was my high school sweetheart. I was still fond of it, though I could see its flaws. To have so many people so openly declaring that they were, in effect, “recovering Christians,” as if Christianity were like alcoholism, was very troubling to me. No one likes to hear their high school sweetheart insulted.

Make no mistake, Jerry Falwell is a figure of fun to Liberal Christians too, but surely UUs who were so good with tolerance would understand and tolerate the differences in Christianity, too?

Some did. But to many, Southern Baptists were the extent of Christianity and concepts even as basic and Unitarian-friendly as viewing bible stories as metaphor were viewed as impossible for these simple folk with their crosses.

Hearing my roots made fun of, which to be fair Katy did limit, was not the only issue I faced.

I suspect that once the aspect of fear is gone, to turn away from the God who threatens and punishes you, is quite simple for the Conservative Christian.

The liberal Christian God is a different sort of God. A kind, loving God, who has done so much for you. All you need to do is your duty to God. You do want to do your duty, don’t you?

The Conservative Christian God is an angry redneck father who takes you out behind the woodshed when you don’t behave. The liberal Christian God is more like a Jewish mother who doesn’t eat for three days so her mouth won’t be full of food when you call.

You can’t hate a Jewish mother, but developing the proper psychological distance from one takes no small amount of time and fortitude. And hearing her insulted can send you back into her arms.

The very assumptions that Christians are all alike and they are all adept at mental compartmentalization or otherwise lying to themselves that are so comfortable for the ex-Conservative Christian make life much rougher on the ex-liberal one, and the ex-liberal is much less likely to make a fuss about it as they are not rebelling against anything and are likely to be quite unsure of themselves. The enthusiasm of the recently converted, annoying to others but valuable in retaining conversions, is much more the domain of the ex-Conservative Christian.

To the ex-Conservative Christian, Christianity is often a difficult and possibly abusive ex-spouse. To the ex-Liberal Christian, Christianity is more like a parent. We rebel against our parents when we’re young, but we still love them and we recognize that they are right about a lot of things. Still, sometimes their way of living and view of the world cannot be ours. To have ways of living and views of the world that differ from our parents’ can be a really scary thing but is necessary for one to reach full adulthood.

It bears mentioning that the Conservative Christian’s intolerant family and social connections wasn’t my problem either. My Christian relations’ reaction was somewhat snippy at first, I’m still young and they took it as a stage, but they quickly adjusted and my family allowed they would rather I went to a more liberal and more intellectual faith than the other direction toward getting saved and bombing abortion clinics. My friends were accepting and even interested. I actually was able to subtly evangelize and get UUism a few more members from those who had doubts like my own.

Every UU church wants to expand, but most seem to want to convert the Conservative Christians and bring in atheists who haven’t previously needed a church. In reality, every UU church’s best source of converts are the UCC, liberal Episcopalian, liberal Methodist and liberal Presbyterian churches that have people sitting in the back unable to embrace God in human terms as a being who rewards and punishes. A person who can look past the scriptural God, who is very much that personified deity, and see something else, something above that, is halfway in our door.

And that person is going to be a much better UU, at least initially. They will not ask why they can’t believe whatever they want or insist that their specific preferences as to service content will be matched exactly as ex-Conservative Christians do. By the same token, they will have an understanding of the way churches function and what needs to be done and how an hour long talk on gardening or the church’s maintenance needs is not a sermon that an atheist may lack. Both of those impairments can be overcome by new members, but liberal Christians already have that much more resolved.

Thus we return to the membership question. What does it take to get them the rest of the way here? We need to do everything we can to divorce ourselves from the image that we’re a bunch of liberal freaks, first of all. If the only time the outside community hears of the UU church is when they are protesting something, then that church is doing its membership a great disservice and not fulfilling its obligations to work for a better world. (ooh… Fulfilling its obligations… I'm getting downright Pelagian...) For every contingent that goes to the March for Women’s lives, we need a group working with interfaith organizations to feed the hungry and a group meeting Wednesday nights to study theology.

Sometimes, we work very hard to remove anything from our “Fellowships” that might make us resemble a church. We rewrite the hymns to make them less theistic. Ex-Conservatives love that. But wouldn’t we be better served to sing the original version, examining its meaning for theological relevance today, especially in light of different conceptions of God and the Holy? There’s a beautiful baby in this bathwater. (Some of you are saying "duh." Good for you.)

RE is vital here. UU children need to know the bible stories that will be so important culturally and need to be exposed to other faiths, but the teachers also need to teach a rigorous curriculum of UU history that will give the students a firm foundation and an idea that their faith has roots and that a lot of good people have found their truth in UUism. If nothing else, their parents who have come from liberal Christianity to UUism will find that in many ways, their journey reflects the journey we as a denomination have taken from historical Unitarianism to modern UUism.

Everyone needs to know how the UU faith differs from other faiths in a way they can easily explain—UUs don’t share belief, they share a method of arriving at belief. This method, refining belief through reason, is the core of who we are. Don’t let people describe our faith as “the church where you can believe whatever you want to.” The church spends way too much time emphasizing our tolerance when members and potential members alike desperately need reminders of our integrity. (After all, in a church of "tolerance," small groups are encouraged to yap at one another in endless competition for the attention that "tolerance" implies is their due. A church of "freedom" emphasizes that you can have a barn, but you have to build it first.)

The most important lesson we can teach our liberal Christian converts is that we are seeking what they are seeking, to live an unambiguous life in an ambiguous world and to seek always the highest and best in humanity, and that if we blur the lines between theism and atheism, it is because in light of the ultimate significance of this goal those lines seem less crucial.

There are a few hundred thousand UUs in our churches. But though society at large don’t have the courage, intellectual wherewithal or attention span to be UUs there are a least hundred thousand more out there.

But right now a lot of them aren’t having nightmares of brimstone and fire or arguing about the existence of God with their co-workers. They are fidgeting in a church full of people that love them, wondering why they so naturally recite words that they don’t believe. For such a person, church is a trial to be endured. But the life of faith can be so much more.

10 comments:

fausto said...

Thank you, CC. Very sincere and thoughtful. Your journey has much in common with mine.

A few minor points where I would take issue:

Every 17-year-old believes themselves to be among the elect, if not a visible saint.

Many do, but many consider themselves to be rejects of the Universe, unbeloved by God or by anyone else. That you did not is testament to the good work of your parents and your liberal Presbyterian church.

And, to be fair, it doesn't even address the case of liberal Christians who become UU Christians. While I consider my UUism heavily Christian influenced, I am by no means a trinitarian.

Neither are most UU Christians. Most of them hold a Socinian Christology, a Pelagian doctrine of atonement, and some concept of profligate and unconditional grace. I wonder if you still may be nursing a lingering trace of Presbyterian hangover that causes you to define "Christian" too narrowly.

But to many, Southern Baptists were the extent of Christianity and concepts even as basic and Unitarian-friendly as viewing bible stories as metaphor were viewed as impossible for these simple folk with their crosses.

Aren't you stereotyping the Southern Baptists in the same way that you accuse other UUs of stereotyping to you? Bill Moyers, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore are all Southern Baptists, but I'd feel more comfortable worshiping with any of them than with some of the more simple and dogmatic UUs I know.

Every UU church wants to expand, but most seem to want to convert the Conservative Christians and bring in atheists who haven’t previously needed a church. In reality, every UU church’s best source of converts are the UCC, liberal Episcopalian, liberal Methodist and liberal Presbyterian churches that have people sitting in the back unable to embrace God in human terms as a being who rewards and punishes.

I think you mean best potential source, and if so I agre with that. Historically, what differentiated us from other Protestant denominations was a more liberal and inclusive, less dogmatic, affirmation of the Christian way of encountering the world, not an outright rejection of all Christian experience. In recent decades, though, we have become much more of a community of refugees from Catholic, fundamentalist Protestant, or Jewish religious communutuies where the practice of religion was authoritarian and abusive, and these people associate their religion of origin with abuse. I think this is why we are so focused on condemning those experiences and their communities, and why we unconsciously conceive of having a "mission" to "save" other souls from a similar "hell". This has probably been our largest "source" of new members recently (especially here in Catholic-dominated Boston). However, once they arrive we do not do nearly enough to help those folks we do save to heal, and see all of Christianity objectively in its entire breadth; nor do we do enough to articulate our faith in the traditional religious vocabulary and/or affirming spirit that would reach those liberal Christians who do not feel abused in their current denomination, but merely more constrained than they would like to be.

I also think another hugely overlooked source of prospective UUs is in the secular, "spiritual but not religious" population. These are people who have already exited their overly constraining old denominations, but have not rejected spirituality and religion in toto. They can be reached, but they have to know about us, and they have to perceive that we can offer them something affirmative that they haven't yet found anywhere else. It isn't enough merely to note the shortcomings of whatever tradition they abandoned. They've already been there and done that.

Art said...

I really liked this essay.
Asyou know, since we ahve discussed it before, I disagree with you about the best place for new converts. I think the people who have no religious background whatsoever are the best source for new converts. (That how I came to Unitarianism, so I guess we are both leeting our biography influence our perspective.) This is a huge segment of the population, and, unlike the lib. Christians, they will have to
be socialized into what it means to be a member of a church. But, they probably won't have baggage in the way that conservative Christian converts do.

Chalicechick said...

Fausto, had anyone ever mentioned to you that you are VERY DIFFICULT TO PLEASE?

Smile.

Your criticisms last time were taken to heart. These will be too.


AP-
I think current church members are a better source. They are used to making a place for church in their lives, approaching theological questions and doing what needs to be done to keep a church running. A non-religious person can start from scratch, but they will have to work hearder to achieve the same ends.

CC

fausto said...

Fausto, had anyone ever mentioned to you that you are VERY DIFFICULT TO PLEASE?

Who, me? You must be confusing me with my buddy Dr. Miguel Servet. Now he's hard to please. Argues with everybody, whether it's wise to do so or not. (Just ask Jock Calvin.)

Me, I was very pleased. Even showed your essay to my wife, the chair of our RE committee. I just had a few additional thoughts, that's all.

Your criticisms last time were taken to heart. These will be too.

Criticisms? I don't criticize; I comment.

And what last time?

Art said...

Agreed.
But there are so many many people without a church. And so many who don't know that there are churches that will welcome them.
BTW, um, re Fausto being hard to please -- ever heard the old saying about glass houses?

fausto said...

AP, were you saying something about CC with that last bon mot, or me?

Chalicechick said...

Fausto--

First off, I didn't have self-confidence at seventeen, just a deep cockiness that skims across the surface of a deep pool of cluelessness.


You have seen this essay before. You had comments then and I fixed what you commented on.

CC

Art said...

I was referring to CC. But hey, take what you like and leave the rest.

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Anonymous said...

I came across your website from a link on another site. You are a beautiful writer with a lot to say. When it comes right down to it, you can not form your view of a Christian based on a church. It is all about God and that we have a relationship with God through Jesus. It is not about going to this church or that or how we act or are treated by a certain 'group' of people but it is a heart matter. It is all about our relationship to God. We are sinful humans who are redeemed only by Jesus' blood. I know this sounds all too simple but when you know God and you know He is for real, you can have great compassion for those who are "so called Christians" who are totally missing it. Very intresting reading.