Posts Tagged ‘Unitarian Universalism’

I’d be lying if I tried to continuously assert that faith issues and spiritual experience issues were the only things holding me back from committed belief in anything. There are major parts of me that are reluctant to decide for God or for Christ because I don’t want to decide for God or for Christ. Simply put, I have a religious/spiritual fear of commitment.

I’m not talking about the stereotype of the unbeliever who is unwilling to change his life, so he chooses atheism in order to live a life of immoral license. For me, the hard thing about being a Mormon was never the commandments. I’m not saying I never sinned, but I generally wanted to do the right thing, and I was generally successful in repenting of major wrongdoings and staying on the right track. The hard thing was never all of the rules. It was always intellectual.

What I’m trying to say is that Mormonism was so intellectually complete that it was stifling to me. There was no room for the unconventional, or the speculative. That may sound strange in light of rampant “Mormon folklore” and elders’ quorum-style speculation about Kolob, but I assert that it was/is nevertheless so. Sure, there was “room for speculation” in one sense, but it was always limited to certain narrowly defined directions, and even then you’re encouraged to focus on the essentials and warned of the consequences of straying too far out of bounds (just ask the September Six!).

I don’t really feel like I’m articulating this very well, and I’m sure that be failing to articulate it well, I’m inviting well-meaning Mormons to completely disassemble what I’m trying to say.

I like the idea that anything can be true. I like being able to read science fiction and wonder if that kind of thing will really happen someday (whereas the Second Coming of Christ sort of puts a damper on the voyages of the Starship Enterprise). I like entertaining possibilities. As much as religion appeals to me, uncertainty also appeals to me. Freedom to be as heretical as I please is a precious freedom.

I want to be able to wonder if – or even wish that – maybe some crazy thing is true without worrying that it is somehow beyond the walls of my religious/belief system and I need to repent. I want to be able to entertain any idea without feeling like I have to dismiss it for being unbiblical or unbookofmormonical. Or whatever.

I don’t like the idea of saying “I believe x is true” because it shuts down the possibility of a through w and y and z. To me, that is almost suffocating. I know I want spirituality, a spiritual path even, replete with practices and a way of life, but I don’t know if I am even really interested in a worldview. I don’t want to have to interpret everything I see through the lens of Mormonism, Christianity, or anything else for that matter. Maybe it’s the postmodernist in me that wants to be able to hit the buffet instead of ordering just one thing off the menu. I don’t know. Maybe this kind of thinking is intellectually dishonest of me, but if I am to be personally honest, I have to admit that it might be the biggest thing holding me back from belief of any kind.

Thinking about this, is sounds to me like I’m begging to be a Unitarian Universalist, but I have to admit that I’m not interested in the UU at all. I actually like traditional liturgical Christianity, and even Christian theology. And besides, like I said, I’m not reluctant about a spiritual path or well-defined spiritual practices, or even scriptures or many aspects of theology (by which I mean the philosophy of religion). It’s a stifling worldview that I’m spiritually claustrophobic about. I know it has a lot to do with gorwing up Mormon, but I also know it’s not an unjustified fear, because I see it in other belief systems, even more so than in Mormonism.

So one facet of my spiritual fear of commitment is this panicky spiritual claustrophobia that I don’t know how to deal with, or indeed if I even want to deal with it, and certainly I don’t want to have to deal with it.

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Apparently I think. At least, I think I think. Also, Kay of Songs Of Unforgetting thinks I think, and so does Brendan of Off The Beaten Path. I am, of course, flattered. Since my natural tendency is to be an arrogant sonofabitch, I’m trying to not let it go to my head. The flattery, that is, not the thinking. Thinking belongs in the head. For the most part.

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As a thinking blogger, it is now my duty to tag five other thinking bloggers. My geas, if you will. My onus. Kay and Brendan are of course thinking bloggers, but in honor of playground rules, I observe the ironclad law of “no tagbacks.”

Thus, I chose the following five:

First, my favorite thinker is my beautiful and sexy wife, Katyjane. Is that rank favoritism and perhaps nepotism? Sure it is. I make no excuses. Also, my wife is brilliant, and her opinion means more to me than anyone else’s. I sometimes get frustrated when she doesn’t think exactly like me (did I mention the arrogant sonofabitch part?), but she definitely thinks. I hold her in the highest esteem.  Her blog is funny, offbeat, and thought-provoking.

Second, is my friend Bryant over at Make Me A Commentator!!! It’s a liberal blog where he mostly just pokes holes in conservative columnists’ arguments. But he’s dang good at what he does.

Third, I tag Halcyon over at Halcyonedays. She doesn’t post as often as I do, but I admire her for being willing to think through some scary, imposing, difficult stuff. She’s got guts. Regardless of what conclusions she ultimately comes to, the fact that she’s really, honestly trying to work through life, the universe, and everything instead of just going with the flow and taking the easy pill impresses the heck out of me. It must be her good genetics.

Fourth, I tag Adam over at Daylight Atheism. His analysis is incredibly incisive, and it makes me sit up, take notice, and seriously think things through. He is both reasoned and reasonable, in a way that would make any honest reader take serious stock in what they think and believe- and he tackles tough issues while remaining sensible and nonconfrontational. I would be lying if I did not admit that his essays at Ebon Musings had an incredibly profound effect on me.

Fifth is tough. There are probably a half-dozen other bloggers I would like to tag (and part of me is tempted to give the fifth award to all of them simultaneously as joint tenants, but that’s just the part of me that is taking a Property exam right now). But instead, I’ll give the fifth to Dando at Mormon and Evangelical Conversations, for his even-handed and thoughtful religious dialogue.

In the meantime, I shall give a general shout (and very honorable mention) out to the very worthy Peter at For Peter’s Sake (for always having a thoughtful point of view, and having good taste in women), WhoreChurch at Whore Church (for boldly tackling the ugliest bits of religion while maintaining a close relationship with God and a love for Jesus Christ), Jonathan Blake at Green Oasis (for generally being good at what he does, and always being interesting) Bored in Vernal at Hieing to Kolob (for being feminist and Mormon, and brilliant), and Random Goblin at The Goblin’s Lair (for being one of the most intelligent human beings on earth, as well as a cruel, arbitrary, arrogant sonofabitch- of course these days he writes abject nonsense instead of politics). There are probably plenty of others that I am seriously offending by not mentioning. Oh well. I am cruel and arbitrary (much like many people’s conception of God). Really, though, everyone in my Blogroll and/or Links is worth reading. But if somehow getting two thinking blogger awards justifies me in handing out two sets of awards, then they get them. You may decide for yourself. Blogging Law is not one of the classes I have taken at law school.

Normally, I try to keep away from this kind of thing on my blog and stick to the substantive stuff. But hey, like I said- I’m cruel and arbitrary. I do what suits me at the moment. What can I say?

(oh, also- don’t forget Jeff over at Druid Journal. He’s good enough to have gotte nmy third thinking blogger award twice! But I think he’s gotten one before).

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For awhile last fall my wife and baby and I were attending a Quaker meeting for worship over in Bethesda. It was a “liberal” unprogrammed-style meeting, which means you sat in silence and listened to the Inner Light. The idea is that you sit and listen, and nobody says anything unless they are moved by the Spirit (which they usually call the Light, I guess).

It was actually really cool, and we had some intensely spiritual experiences that I’d like to talk about. But I also had some serious reservations, which I would likewise like to talk about.

The first time we went, our baby was making a little bit of noise. I had this overwhelming feeling that as a baby, he was so much closer to the ultimate source than we are as adults. He is totally unburdened by culture, society, philosophy, or even language–just completely pure, and as such what he had to say was probably so much more meaningful than anything the rest of us would say, filtered as it would be through established cognitive frameworks, etc. It struck me very powerfully. I also kept thinking of the music to “Candle of Life,” a fantastic song by the Moody Blues that captures perfectly the kind of cosmic awe that I was feeling at the meeting.

I also was attracted to the Quaker testimonies: their commitment to peace, to equality, and to integrity seemed to be the very heart of what Jesus Christ was trying to teach us. And I got the impression that Quakers were actually genuine about it, and not hypocritical.

Quakerism also handily deals with the question of how there can be so many different religions the world over. Their answer is that in every person there is some of that which is God, and anyone can listen to what it has to say and be inspired by it. In other words, nobody has a monopoly on the Light. That was nice as far as I was concerned. It meant that, as someone considering leaving the Mormon church, I didn’t even have to give up the Book of Mormon! Even if it wasn’t a factual record of the ancient Americas, it still can be inspired by God.

In many ways, Quakerism seemed like a true universal religion: all-encompassing enough to really take in everybody, but grounded in their testimonies in a way that, say, the Unitarian Universalists are not (I consider the UU’s fairly bland and wishy-washy). Quakerism seemed like the kind of religion that could not only be universal to all people, but in all times as well–it’s the kind of religion we could take to the stars and have it be still relevant, or even more so.

At the core Quakerism is about the mystical experience, and as a Mormon that was not unfamiliar territory. But it is also incredibly egalitarian, and a religion where the individual is really responsible for his own relationship with God, not needing a human intercessor of any kind.

But I did have concerns. We actualy stopped going to meetings because we were offended by the way one lady told us to put our baby in the nursery and not bring him to the meeting. My only real experience with church had been with Mormonism, where noisy babies in the service are just a part of things. Looking back now, I realize that most churches have child care during the worship service, and while it’s nice to be able to worship as a whole family, it’s also really nice to not be distracted by a fussy baby, as much as you may love him. A downside to the Mormon approach is that parents constantly have to take their crying children out of the chapel, which means that parents with babies often miss more Sacrament Meetings than they get to sit through, for years at a stretch.

The Quakers were nice about it–after the incident, they sent us cards apologizing, and they even called us to talk about it. We took the opportunity to look elsewhere though.

My biggest concern with Quakerism was the noticable lack of emphasis on Jesus Christ and on the Bible. Honestly, I’m still not sure if that’s important because like then, I am still trying to figure out how I feel about Jesus. Maybe the Quakers have it right! Maybe they’re dead wrong. In either case, the noticable lack of Bibles and Jesus was a little discomfiting. At a bare minimum, I saw nothing transformational about Quakerism, at least not in a divine sense. Jesus might have even been acknowledged, but I didn’t see where his Atonement fit in, and I certainly didn’t see any real sense in which His Atonement works directly in the life of a Quaker. Again, given how wishy-washy I am about Jesus, you would think this shouldn’t necessarily matter to me. And maybe it doesn’t.

Another concern I had arose over time, and that is a concern with the nature of mystical experience itself. C. S. Lewis said, in Mere Christianity,

In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F. an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, “I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!”

Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is only admittedly coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.

Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God-experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion–all about feeling God in nature, and so on–is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.

And I wonder if that isn’t particularly applicable to Quakerism. Yes, there’s plenty of the mystical experience there to satisfy the most God-hungry soul out there. But it is practical? Does it lead you anywhere? C. S. Lewis makes the argument in favor of the traditional Christian creeds. Do the Quakers’ testimonies accomplish the same thing (i.e. are they a map that gets you somewhere)? Maybe so, but it seems problematic to me.

In any case, I wouldn’t be against going back to a Quaker meeting. I haven’t completely written Quakerism off yet.

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