Contagious Theism And Reason To Rejoice

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.”

I don’t know that any theological exploration or explanation written or shared by a UU Theist would overcome this level of contemptuous aversion, but I wonder if the paucity of Unitarian Universalist voices on the subject — and I’m not talking about a dry Humanist/Theist debate, because OMG, WHO CARES  — contributes to our loss of less virulently anti-religious seekers of community among us. For those who fear that their children will literally catch God like a contagious disease, a different kind of ethical community may be a better fit.

I have been a Unitarian Universalist all my life and I have heard and read hundreds, if not thousands, of testimonials by UUs who are fleeing and rejecting God, or Christ, or traditional church, or Islam or Judaism. Counter to that, I have read or heard hundreds of hand-wringing treatises by Christians who grieve that we have jettisoned the best of classical Unitarianism and Universalism (both lefty Protestant heresies/movements) in favor of a bland, offend-no-one “Yew-Yewism,” centered on anodyne principles that don’t even mention the word love, let alone God.

Please let this era be over, dear Lord, Source of Life, Recycling Bin, Vast Nothingness, O Fortuna!

We are living in a savagely divisive time, with the rise of Donald Trump making white supremacist ideologies and violence-mongering acceptable at the highest levels of secular leadership. Whether he wins in November or not, the tide has turned. Those who oppose him need each other. Those who believe in climate change – whether or not they share a belief in God — need each other. Those who want their children to learn practices of reverence, compassion, gratitude and hospitality free of attachment to religious doctrine need each other. Those who are doing the work of coming to terms with white privilege and all the “isms” need each other. Church buildings can close for lack of official, pledging members or identity conflicts among ordained and laity… and the people will still need each other. We will probably always crave rituals and rites of passage that help us mark the great milestones of loss and celebration and covenant-making in our lives, by whatever language. We will still need spiritual care and companionship to those for whom clinical cure is no longer a possibility.  We will still need to get together to express in some kind of language the deep delight we feel at the transcendence we experience through nature or the arts or relationships.

This is not a plea for the Wilcoxes or anyone else to find a UU congregation and join it. It is a plea for UUs to stop centering theological identity debates among us and get busy connecting and making it possible for as many of us as want to find a way to participate and know ourselves as a people who not only have personal, individual needs but a collective mission to serve, to learn, to advocate for, to enact love in intentional and transpersonal ways.

In his article in the same issue of the UU World, “O Peugot of many names,” David Breeden begins, “Despite what many conventionally religious people appear to believe, humanism does not exist to annoy the pious.”

A few sentences later, he repeats himself, “At the risk of annoying the conventionally religious…” and goes on to make his argument in conversation not with Unitarian Universalist theological tradition, which is Enlightenment informed, intellectually curious and well-established, but with Catholicism. 

Dang, I wish we’d stop doing this. This is exactly the kind of theological identity-baiting I’m talking about retiring as a favorite mode of exposition.

In response to this particular article, I’m pretty sure we stopped comparing our theological beliefs with the Roman Catholic doctrine about five hundred years ago. There is no reason at all to argue with it unless one is trying to score intellectual superiority points with come-outers from the Catholic tradition.

However, in general, I would rather we stopped going for those points and start constructing and teaching Unitarian Universalist humanistic theology in conversation with its true antecedents, Protestantism, or not at all. It can now stand on its own and has been able to since about the 1860’s. When we constantly bring out old, long-refuted Christian theological positions in order to mock and flog them, we perpetuate juvenile petulance as a community ethos and form of intellectual inquiry.

I am incredibly tired of coy references to “insulting the conventionally religious,” because Unitarian Universalists are conventionally religious people. We are not cutting edge, punk rock, or intellectually superior, although perhaps unusually academically credentialed. Once we cease our fetish with Terminal Uniqueness and stop setting up straw man arguments, we will see that even a fleeting glance at the changing religious landscape in America reveals trends toward theological pluralism and openness to diverse spiritual practices within major religious groups. Eclecticism is the norm now, not our special purview, and agnosticism and atheism are no longer anathema in anything but the most conservative, orthodox or fundamentalist branches.

Further, when we claim, as Breeden does, the likes of Ludwig Wittgenstein as one of our “go-to philosophers,” we reveal ourselves to be cemented in last century’s intellectual giants and out of touch with fresh perspectives. Wittgenstein was a white European, proven anti-Semite and anti-feminist. He may have some great insights on language but if we are to be relevant in the 21st century, we need to start name-dropping thinkers with a more enlightened and inclusive perspective; at least ones who thought women should be able to vote.

I loved two statements in Kris Wilcox’s piece and I think they guide Unitarian Universalists toward what we have best to offer, and to be.

In discussing her attraction to scholar of philosophy and ethics Jesse Prinz’s observation that wonder — or reverence — is “the common root of art, science and religion, and perhaps the defining human experience,” Wilcox finds in wonder the link between her atheism and “Christian longing.” This particularly delighted me as the co-author of a congregational covenant whose first line was, “In the bonds of fellowship and love, we unite to cultivate reverence.”

Yes! This is the task of the Unitarian Universalist religion, and to, as Wilcox later adds in a phrase that I cherish, act on “the feelings of respect and responsibility that go along with it.”

Discerning together what to properly do with with and about our reverence, wonder and awe, is a compelling vision for religious community. It requires solidarity with each other and with those whose lives are constantly and violently deprived of opportunities to experience wonder by systemic oppressions. It requires smart planning and stewardship of congregational resources of time, talent and treasure. It urges a communal practice of spiritual centering, which we call worship. It asks that we care about those outside our immediate kinship circles, which we call coffee hour (just kidding, sort of) and pastoral ministry. It invites joy and a sense of meaning, which staves of existential despair. It includes all generations, makes space for multiple experiences, and does not “look backward or tarry with yesterday” (Gibran). A sense of responsibility to respond to the awe we feel gathers us out of our solitudes and gathers us into faithful community.

At the end of her essay, Kris Wilcox reveals a deeper grounding and belonging in the Unitarian Universalist faith than perhaps she has allowed herself to claim, in offering this beautiful coda to her reflections, a pastoral word to herself and to her child,

As an atheist – if that is what you are – you are not denied a beautiful vision of the world. You do not have to be anti anything,  you are not “Non.” The world, in all its wonder is revealed to you as much as to anyone. Therefore, rejoice.

That the world is, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, a place that lends itself to wonder, and that this wonder is revealed equally to all living beings regardless of inner conviction or outer condition, is a foundational faith claim of Unitarian Universalism. In her last line, Wilcox actually restates in a contemporary context, the old ontological optimism that is the inheritance of Unitarianism and Universalism with which I personally grapple.

“Therefore, rejoice.”

It would be good if we could continue to build an identity and communities based on that premise. It would be good if we could hearten each other with that reminder, and with arguments supporting the proposition of rejoicing rather than fretting so much about definitions of God. It would be good if we could do good work to make a life of rejoicing possible for many more people. It would be good if we could do it together and call ourselves Unitarian Universalists and be known by this.




3 Replies to “Contagious Theism And Reason To Rejoice”

  1. Yes!

    I demur when it comes to our go-to philosophers–so many of mine were misogynistic, transphobic or racist, and many others whom I think are beautifully enlightened will no doubt look quaint at best to a later generation.

    And I have my doubts as to whether the five-year-old WAS picturing a sandal-wearing guy in the sky. There’s only one way to know: ask the child, “Tell me about God,” and then you can say whether YOU believe the god they describe is real (though it’s never too early to tell them that others disagree with you). Children are concrete thinkers, yes, but they are also often mystics. How wonderful to simply ask them what they are imagining.

  2. One of the profound religious experiences in my life was meeting believers who didn’t believe in the same god I didn’t believe in. That line meant a lot to me, and continues to mean a lot to me.

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