This afternoon, an Evangelical Christian posted a message on the Facebook group for my Unitarian Universalist church (whose members are mostly atheist and typically humanist even if they do believe in a god) trying to get people to attend an “Evangelical Mission.” He gave essentially no context and it was only through my own Internet sleuthing that we figured out the details of the event he was promoting. It was proselytization through spam.
I was initially unsure how I felt about being evangelized to in my own church (yes, I think of our Facebook page as an extension of the church; it’s part of our community which extends beyond the church building. It’s also my main connection to the UCE community at the moment, since getting to church when my toddler’s nap time conflicts with Sunday services is challenging). On the one hand, we pride ourselves on being open to ideas and people of all faiths. In theory, anyone is welcome to “worship” with us – Unitarian Universalism is about orthopraxis (right action) not orthodoxy (right belief).
On the other hand, this person was quite obviously trying to get people to hear the Gospel of Christ and convert to Christianity. I wouldn’t go into his church and begin expounding upon the virtues of humanism. What makes him think it’s OK to come into my church and try to pull me out of it and into his?
The post has been deleted, either by a group admin or by the person who posted it. Given that members of the church were firmly but respectfully engaging with him, I suspect he deleted it after realizing he wasn’t going to win converts. I’d have taken a screen shot, but I never expected the post to be removed.
Despite the post being gone, I’m angry that someone felt it was appropriate to come into my church, imply (albeit indirectly) that my faith (such as it is) is a lie and try to recruit people away from it. I’m angry that he wasn’t open and honest about his intent. And I’m angry that I’m angry, because it was just a Facebook post and therefore seems ultimately inconsequential.
March 1 was the beginning of Lent. For Catholics and other Christians, it’s a time of self-sacrifice. It’s meant to symbolize Jesus’ time spent in the desert, during which he is said to have had nothing to eat or drink.
Even many people who aren’t Christians use Lent as a time to abstain from their vices. Many people, regardless of faith, give up smoking or alcohol or eating red meat. Others give up sweets and sugar.
I had been thinking about giving something up for Lent this year, but never quite got around to deciding on something meaningful. Instead, someone from my church shared a link to the UU Lent Facebook group. As a Unitarian Universalist, I was intrigued by the idea of approaching Lent from a UU perspective rather than a more traditionally Christian one.
According to the people behind the Facebook group, UU Lent (also known by the hashtag #uulent) is:
[…] a way for Unitarian Universalists to engage in a shared spiritual practice alongside siblings in faith who are observing Lent. In some Christian traditions, in preparation for the celebration of Easter, the faithful make a personal sacrifice as a way of bringing them closer to G*d, and reminding them of the sacrifices that Jesus and his followers made.
As Unitarian Universalists, we share theological roots with our Christian siblings. However, rather than a practice of self-denial, this is an opportunity to spend the Season of Lent engaged in a spiritual discipline of deep intention and appreciation of our world, our place in it, and an openness to Grace in our daily lives.
This idea appealed to me quite a bit, for a number of reasons, which I shared on Facebook at the start of the Lenten season. I’ll quote myself directly:
I’m going to [take part in UU Lent]. Hopefully, it will provide some focus and much needed spiritual discipline in my life. It may even lead to on-going practices to help keep me centred and focused on what’s most important.
Since I haven’t been to church in ages (partly due to D’s nap time, but also because I’m lazy and lack the discipline to get out of the house on Sunday morning), this will act as a spiritual practice – whatever that might mean for a humanist – and maybe even encourage me to make a greater effort to get to Sunday services at the ol’ UCE.
It’s been an interesting experience so far. For the most part, I’ve found myself simply meditating on the daily words. As I think about what they mean to me – particularly from a spiritual/religious perspective – I try to put them into meaningful practice going forward. It sometimes seems easy. “Love” just means loving my family, right? Well, no, actually. I think it must mean more than that if I’m going to make it a spiritual practice. It must mean something close to the radical love Jesus spoke of.
That kind of radical love is difficult and uncomfortable. But I’m trying. I’m trying to love the street person struggling with addiction issues as much as I love the child he endangers by discarding his syringe on the street. I’m trying to love the people supporting the fascist regime that’s unfolding in the United States. And I’m trying to reconcile loving those people while still resisting, fighting and even hating the thing they support. It’s hard. I fail more often than not, but it’s an important practice.
Today’s word is “vulnerability.” This one is difficult. Like most people, I don’t like to feel vulnerable. Vulnerability can seem like weakness. And you can be hurt if you allow yourself to be vulnerable.
What does vulnerability mean for me? I think it means being more in touch with my emotions and more willing to express them. This is something I’ve never been good at. Despite having long had a bad temper (which has mellowed a lot with age), I’ve generally been the type to keep my cool and not show much emotion – good or bad.
I won a Vespa from a radio station several years ago and the person who took my photo when I went in to claim my prize joked that I didn’t seem very excited. I was, but I didn’t show it. I’m not sure I even knew how to show it.
This ability to be cool can be helpful. I’ve been known in various jobs over the years as the guy who always remains calm under pressure. In truth, I’m often in a state of mild panic just below the surface. But not letting that show has generally served me well in my professional life.
Still, there’s something to be said for being in touch with one’s emotions, especially in one’s personal life. So that’s where I’ll start. I’ll try to be more open and emotionally vulnerable at home, where it’s safer to do so. If I succeed, it should lead to greater intimacy with my wife and family.
And since UU Lent is a religious exercise, I’ll try to apply this practice at church (I haven’t been recently, but plan to begin attending regularly if I can manage to slightly shift my daughter’s nap time). Being vulnerable there means being more open to community. I’ve never been good at meeting new people, networking or even making small talk with people I don’t know well. Partially, this is because I’m an introvert. But it’s also because I’m a very cautious person who sucks at breaking out of his comfort zone.
But a church is supposed to be a community. And it always had been for me, even if I’ve seemed closed off. I’ve met good friends through my church. I’ve gained a sort of surrogate grandmother. And it’s the only place I’ve been able to have a completely open conversation about how absolutely horrible the first few months of D’s life were for everyone in our house.
It’s a community that filled a card with wonderful messages when D was born, despite the fact that it would be an understatement to say that Sara and I had been very infrequent attendees for a couple of years by that point. We were not forgotten and were still considered valued members of the church community. I was truly touched the day we walked into church with our baby, for what was probably the first time in over a year, and were handed a card that had been signed by a large portion of the congregation.
I suppose what I’m getting at, with this rambling bit of prose about church-as-community, is that I want to allow myself to tell people what they mean to me. This means being open and vulnerable about my feelings. It means risking the discovery that I value a particular relationship more than the other person. But with that risk comes the possibility of great reward – deeper friendships, more intimate connections with people I’ve come to think of as family (even though I’ve never told them) and a stronger connection to my spiritual community (something I’ve long ago learned I need in my life, even if I’m terrible at developing and nurturing it).
And, finally, one more act of vulnerability. Instead of saving this post and thinking on it for a day or two, as I’d typically do with a post of this length and degree of personal exposure, I’m going to post it in a fairly raw form. This is it. Here it is.
That’s the conclusion I’ve come to after much introspection and reading about religion. Ever since the whole “to baptize or not to baptize” thing came up, I’ve been thinking and reading, reading and thinking.
Marcus Borg’s writing has been of great help. It helped me realize a few things. First, I believe in god (in lowercase, for now, since I’m not entirely sure god has the characteristics necessary to be a proper noun). Of course, what I believe in isn’t the “being above all other beings” that most people in the West—believers and atheists alike—tend to think of when the word “god” is used. My god is a pantheist god with a bit of a Christian flair.
Second, his book The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, helped me realize that, despite my not-so-common concept of god, I can explore my spirituality through the Christian tradition. And that I can do so without having to check reason at the door and believe the impossible.
My views, while not particularly mainstream in Christianity are, according to Borg, not as unorthodox as I once thought. They align well with older, mystical strands of Christianity (and Judaism). They’re not new ideas, they just fell out of favour in mainstream Christian theology for a few hundred years.
The problem with being a panentheist, postmodern Christian, of course, is that there’s not exactly a church for me.
Despite what Borg (and others) say, it’s tough to say the Nicene Creed without crossing your fingers when you believe that Jesus was killed mostly for being a political radical and that his death didn’t necessarily “forgive our sins,” that his resurrection was perhaps not a literal thing and the virgin birth probably didn’t happen, but that he was “of God” (but you’re not sure what that means) and continues to be an important figure in your spiritual life by virtue of your ethno-cultural background.
I looked into the so-called emergent (or emerging) church. But the churches in Edmonton described online as “emerging churches” don’t seem to follow the “emerging paradigm” Borg talks about. They’re theologically conservative, Pentecostal mega-churches whose pastors are youngish hipsters. And, while a hipster pastor might be cool (I guess?), the rest of that is pretty much the opposite of what I’m looking for.
Within UUism I can be a postmodern-panentheist-Christian-humanist. I can be a sometimes-atheist-but-usually-theist-who-thinks-Jesus-is-kinda-rad. I can have a rich, meaningful religious life without having to tie myself to creeds or orthodoxies.
And, while I still sometimes long for the certainty of traditional Christianity, the freedom to explore that’s given to me in Unitarian Universalism is exactly what I need.
I have a complicated relationship with organized religion—especially in the last 6 or 7 years. For example, Sara and I got married in a United Church by a Unitarian minister. We used to go to a Unitarian church, but attended Catholic mass on Christmas Eve.
For a time, I was an avowed atheist.
Lately, with talk of baptism on our minds, we’ve been attending a United Church (after deciding that the local Anglican parish was too “Catholic”).
Building my own theology
Our years in the Unitarian Church of Edmonton (UCE) made me realize how important it is for me to have some kind of spiritual practice in my life. Unitarianism was a good fit. No one told me what to believe. I had to figure it out on my own, but had the help and guidance of a like-minded community (and a pretty outstanding minister).
But at times I’ve felt like it wasn’t enough, like the theology—or lack thereof—wasn’t sturdy enough. It didn’t have weight to it. So I began to look toward Christianity. I looked at the ritual of Anglicanism. I looked at the near-humanism of the United Church of Canada. I even looked at Quakerism, albeit only from a distance (I never attended a meeting for worship).
I settled, for a while, on the United Church. I was baptized into it, and it seemed to be the Christian denomination that most aligned with my beliefs. Sara, too, seemed to like it (or, at least, she said good things the particular congregation we’d been visiting). But I still have trouble saying the Nicene Creed. I’m not sure I really believe it.
Christianity has its merits. It’s a powerful story and I still find meaning in it, even if I’ve long taken most of it as little more than allegory, myth and metaphor. But saying the creeds seems to require a slightly more literal interpretation—not in the sense of biblical literalism, but certainly in a more literal way than I ever have.
And so, on Easter Sunday, I’m sitting here and wondering what the right path is; do I:
return to the Unitarian Church?
stick it out with the United Church, recognizing that I’m at best a nominal Christian?
alternate between the two?
seek out something else entirely?
Religion and child rearing
Complicating all of this is the fact that I have a child now. While I certainly don’t want to indoctrinate her into any particular religion, I believe that spirituality is important for children.
It’d be nice to raise Dee in a faith community that has young families with children. The United Church tends to lack that. The congregation we’ve been visiting does have a very small group of young kids—and the minister does a great job of ensuring they’re seen and included—but, like so many mainline churches, it seems to be mostly grey and dying.
The Unitarian Church of Edmonton has a lot of young families—from what I see on Facebook, it looks like there may be even more kids than when we were attending regularly.
Raising Dee as a Unitarian seems to make the most sense. It “fits” our family best and, I think, would give her a better basis for ethical and moral living than a Christian church. I think, if we raised her in a Christian setting, we’d be saying, “Yes, but…” a lot when talking to her about what she’s learning in Sunday School.
I guess that means the theology isn’t so weak after all. It’s much more in line with what I believe, actually.
So maybe that decision is made. But the question remains: to baptize or not to baptize?
For some reason, it seems weird not to. But if we’re doing it purely for cultural reasons, instead of actually believing in its importance, is there a point? And, as a nominal United Churcher, I view baptism as purely symbolic—no one is going to hell (if it’s even a real place) for lack of baptism. Even if I were a dedicated Christian, baptism isn’t strictly necessary according to “my” denomination.
If it’s just about a rite of passage—something our culture tends to lack—maybe a dedication in the Unitarian church is enough. It’s an option we haven’t discussed much, but perhaps the ritual (as a concept) is more important than the details.
I don’t have an answer. Not right now, at least.
Sara and I will have to talk. We’ve spoken about this before, but we’ll have to continue talking in order to figure out what works for our family.
This post, essentially, is me thinking out loud. I think better when I put my thoughts down in writing. And I’m genuinely curious to know what my readers (all three of you) think about the questions I’ve posed. Leave your thoughts in the comments.
I’m attempting—yet again—to read the entire Bible. It’s a huge collection of books, so it’s a daunting task, but I think it’s important for anyone interested in Western history or literature to give it a go at least once.
Regardless of your religious affiliation, or lack thereof, it would be difficult to make the case that Christianity and the Bible haven’t had a huge impact on Western culture.
Because I’m interested in the things that make up and influence our culture, I’m interested in the Bible. And as a lazy, “spiritual but not religious” type, it might give me something to chew on.
You’ll notice I said “yet again” at the start of this post. That’s because I’ve tried and failed to read the entire Christian Bible several times. I’ve used a paper version and an electronic version (via an Android app that provides reading plans and tracks my progress).
Most recently, I was using a “read the Bible in a year” reading plan. That actually worked really well for about three months. Then I got busy and gave it up. That was about six months ago.
I’m trying again, starting yesterday, using a 90-day reading plan. That means more reading per day, but hopefully I can stick to a plan that doesn’t take a full year.
I don’t know if I’ll be wiser at the end of this or if, by some divine intervention, I’ll have undergone a religious conversion, but I’ll have at least checked something off of my bucket list. And really, what more can I ask for?