Reading my UU World over coffee this morning, I read two articles back to back that begged a response, and I am grateful to both the authors for the passion they ignited in me to be in conversation. I don’t know either of them, Kris Wilcox or the Rev. Dr. David Breeden. While I am responding to them specifically, I am also responding to prevalence of their arguments within Unitarian Universalism. In other words, I have heard similar stories many, many times but had the time and inclination to respond to these this morning.
In Kris Wilcox’s article about why she does not participate in UU congregational life despite having loyalty to the tradition from having been raised UU, she shares her theological evolution from humanist to Christian and finally to firm atheism. I know as well as anyone the limits of short form essays to describe long and complicated journeys through theological identities. However, the anecdote Wilcox highlights in order to explain her atheism is typical, and deserves a closer look. She writes,
My cheerfully unexamined faith did fine through my twenties, with no major stress tests. But later, after I had children, and my 5-year-old asked, “Mommy, is God real?” I knew she wasn’t asking me about the Spirit of Life and Love. She was asking if God is an actual, sandal-wearing guy in the sky, the way her paternal grandparents and some of her friends insisted. I knew also, looking into her eyes, that I was an atheist and always had been.
As I have written and preached (you can watch me address the subject with a head cold here), an ethical atheism is, to me, a far more honorable and healthy theological position than uncritical, exclusivist orthodoxy. I was raised by one spiritual atheist and one existentialist atheist and I turned out alright –except that I became a Christian, which some UUs consider a failure of parenting or of reason.
It is entirely age appropriate for a five year old to first conceptualize God in concrete terms! Unitarian Universalist religious educators know this and, in the good programs, we addresses that with love and curiosity. We must better teach parents how to do so, too. Too many parents go theologically paralyzed in the face of their children’s questions about God, being triggered, as we say now, by either their own religious traumas or their discomfort of not knowing how they themselves feel. “I’m a grown-up! I should be able to answer this but I don’t know what to say!”
It is entirely possible to offer to an inquiring child a God-concept that is not the “sandal-wearing guy in the sky,” but Wilcox seems not to have considered that, deciding that a five year old’s age peers and one set of grandparents are the final arbiters of how to define God, and also cause to reject God altogether. But there’s more to the story, and it is not really fair to conclude that this mom really relied on five year olds or her in-laws to circumscribe religious reality for her daughter.
The “more to the story,” as it true for most couples, is that her spouse is almost fatally allergic to God, Jesus and traditional expressions of religious faith.
The author’s husband has such a toxic experience with traditional religion that, “[he] would sooner take [the children] on the highway without a seatbelt than give them unshielded exposure to even the most liberal Christianity.” Later in her article, Wilcox describes her little daughter proclaiming, “‘People who believe in God are crazy,’ to which Scott nodded approval.”
Oh, boy. I’m so sorry. I really am. Whatever they did to this man as a kid, it was sick and soul-damaging and wrong. I am so sorry that whatever happened to him hardened into a conviction that anyone who believes in God must be crazy. I am really, really tired of hearing ministers use the line, “I’m sure I don’t believe in that God, either,” because it insults the author’s husband and my intelligence and diminishes the profundity of both our experiences.
Unitarian Universalism attracts a lot of Scotts, and we need more than one now-ancient religious education curriculum (“The Haunting Church”) to minister to them. Any thinking person who reacts with such uncritical hostility and disgust to Theism or Christianity badly needs pastoral care (although are unlikely to want to get it through a church’s ministry). But individuals who come to UU churches looking for what Kris Wilcox calls the “detox experience, “whose primary function is to bar the door and heal the wounds of bad religious experiences” must have it clearly and caringly communicated to them that Unitarian Universalism has outgrown its identity as the hospital for the religiously wounded. We tried it, we built a marketing campaign around it, and it didn’t work. It didn’t work in terms of growth because as Wilcox herself expresses it, a religion based on not being religious and defining itself by “This is What We Do Not Believe” has no core integrity or sustaining purpose. It didn’t work institutionally, as religiously wounded people who join religious communities and emphatically insist on their right to remain wounded — and who participate in community from a place of suspicion and fear, angrily counting Jesus mentions on Christmas Eve — do not build healthy systems. They build, at best, social clubs of UU fundamentalists as toxic as conservative Christian fundamentalists.
The healthy people who seek spiritual growth just leave these congregations, if they ever stay longer than a couple of weeks.
“I’m concerned my children will pick up theism along with the Seven Principles.”