Rieux (dr_rieux) wrote,

Born All Right the First Time

A response to
"Born Again Unitarian Universalism," by Rev. Forrest Church
The following is the text of a message (with a few subsequent revisions) sent to Rev. Forrest Church on July 9, 2003:
Hello, Rev. Church.

I write this evening to express my feelings about statements of yours that I have encountered in my exploration of the religion we share.

I have considered myself a Unitarian Universalist for roughly two and one-half years now, after a liberal Protestant upbringing, a relatively painless apostasy and several years of otherwise unaffiliated atheism and humanism. My curiosity about UUism began late in college, when I was dating a religion major who had (and has) a strong interest in American liberal religion. The first book I read about UUism was yours—
A Chosen Faith—and I’m afraid the results weren’t good. As a nonbeliever, I did not react well to matters like the book’s contention that “zealous atheism” is a “demonic pseudoreligion” (though if memory serves, it was Rev. Buehrens who penned that, not you) or cutting quotations from C.S. Lewis and Dag Hammarskjöld. My theretofore piqued curiosity about UUism was seriously squelched: I was extremely dubious that I could possibly feel at home in a group that reacted to skeptical and doubting lines of inquiry as consistently, reflexively negatively as your book does.

Over the next year, my aforementioned Significant Other and other UU friends succeeded in convincing me that I had overestimated the ire my beliefs would draw within UU congregations. Happily, my friends proved correct: in four years of attending services in three different congregations, I have found a broad welcome concerning what I do and don’t believe—even among people who feel differently about terms like “God,” “faith” and “religion” than I do. All in all, my experience has been very positive; it has consistently reaffirmed to me that UUism can be a home for the search for truth and meaning even of those of us who do not find “God,” “faith,” “miracles” or supernaturalism useful in that search.

In recent weeks, my home church’s discussions of terminology have drawn me back to the cathedral metaphor you enunciated in
A Chosen Faith—and especially to your contention that “Skeptics ... conclude that there is no Light” in your cathedral. A Web search this evening reveals that you have re-enunciated the cathedral allegory on many occasions, and nearly every time you have brought in the attendant “skeptics” to dismiss any glimmer of truth or beauty in the patterns thrown on the cathedral floor. (I’ve also found a sermon from a church in Berkeley, California, that revises your allegory in a way that I find lovely.)

The final stop on my Google search was a sermon you delivered in late 2002. I understand that you have given this sermon, “Born Again Unitarian Universalism,” on more than one occasion, including at General Assembly last month.

What moves me to write this evening is the vast disparity between, first, the account you give of Unitarian Universalism in that sermon and, second, my past experiences and future hopes within our religion.

First, there’s the uniform and clear-cut distinction you draw between us enlightened UUs and “[o]ur skeptical neighbors,” a division which seems to me to elide unquestionable “skeptical” currents that have been present in Unitarianism and Universalism for their entire histories—from the denial of the Trinity and of eternal damnation to the formulation of the original Humanist Manifesto to your own refusal to “enshrine” the “tiny god” of the “[f]undamentalists of the right.” To my understanding, skepticism has a long, storied and distinguished history within our religion, and I do not see what drives you to identify it so abjectly with the Other, with the outside. In my experience, there are skeptics aplenty within Unitarian Universalism—skeptics who are leading lives of integrity and meaning. These are not just our “neighbors”; they are we.

Next, you decry the fact that those selfsame “[s]keptics and materialists discount the very idea of miracles,” in light of your observation that miracles such as “the sun shining on the earth,” “the oceans teeming with life” and “a newborn child” are all around us. But do you really believe that skeptics and materialists deny the beauty, value and wonderfulness of the things you cite? Do you really take us to be such cold, heartless people? Or is it merely that you’re put off by anyone who doesn’t find it meaningful to include these things, even though they are indeed powerful and wonderful, in the category of “miracles”? The UUism that I have experienced can handle divergent perspectives on that point.

We next learn that “the skeptic turns away from the Bible and says that it is [not] fact [but] myth. We say, what is wrong with myth?” I ask: what part of that rhetorical question is unavailable to the “skeptic”? Several of the most powerful stories in my life—Thornton Wilder’s
Our Town and Albert Camus’s The Plague, for example—are myth, not fact; but I’m unaware of any kind of real-life skeptical school of thought that would call into question the validity of finding great meaning in these fictional stories. Meanwhile, the greater part of the mythical content of the Bible seems to me very troubling and ugly; to that degree I do indeed “turn away.” Am I allowed this decision?

“Our skeptical neighbors” then return in your sermon to “define religion narrowly and reject it. We,” meanwhile, “define religion broadly and embrace it.” Again, a UU admission test that conditions membership on a broad definition of “religion” is something I hadn’t heard of until today. Imagine a curious New Yorker who feels strongly (perhaps on First Amendment-interpretation grounds) that no belief system should be called a “religion” unless it includes supernaturalism; is such a wanderer welcome among your congregation at All Souls, or does her definition render her one of those “skeptics” who would be better off remaining a mere “neighbor”? I wish you, as a self-declared “evangelical” UU, would see the potent inhospitality your account communicates to potential UUs whose feelings about orthodox religion and its terminology differ from yours.

The sermon eventually returns to your cathedral allegory and the everpresent “[s]keptics” who, “perceiving the bewildering variety of windows and worshippers, conclude that there is no Light.” I’d like to think that I could remove your vitriol on this issue merely by pointing out that nonbelievers in fact object to certain designs on certain windows, not to the existence of “Light” in other parts of those windows. We often question whether said “Light” comes from outside rather than inside the metaphorical cathedral, but of course you’ve noted the complexity of that issue yourself.

Any “skeptic” who flatly denies the existence of goodness, love and meaning (“greater than all and yet present in each,” as some would say) would be a very sad nihilist, and I guess that description just doesn’t fit any of my “skeptical neighbors.” Unfortunately, I fear that you know all of this—that you’re perfectly well aware that you are woefully misrepresenting the “skeptics” of your allegory. But I don’t understand why you do so.

Finally, the “demonic pseudoreligion” spirit rears its head anew:
There are fundamentalists on both right and left on the religious spectrum. Fundamentalists of the right enshrine a tiny God on their altar. Fundamentalists of the left reject this tiny God, imagining that by so doing they have done something creative and important. Both groups are in thralldom to the same tiny God. Whether Unitarian Universalists believe in God or not, we do not reject religion but extend its compass. That our orthodox neighbors should circumscribe wonder and meaning in too small a circle doesn’t force us to abandon wonder and suspend our search for meaning. Instead, it prompts us to expand our circle of inquiry. To those standing fiercely within a narrow circle this may seem like heresy; from those standing without, it may seem unreligious, for they too have defined religion no less narrowly.
These comments seem to me deeply offensive and hurtful. For untold years in innumerable faith traditions, millions of apostates have gone through the process of breaking away and admitting their dissent from the tradition of their upbringing. For many of these, the “coming out” process is agonizing, and it can be accompanied by losing one’s job, earning the scorn of (or violent retribution from) one’s peers and even being disowned by one’s parents. Even for those of us for whom the process is relatively painless, the forthright rejection of the “tiny god” beliefs you are so contemptuous of is frequently a struggle of powerful tradition against personal integrity. Neither these experiences nor the decisions we reach within them deserve the demeaning and dehumanizing epithets you hurl at them. All I “imagine,” Reverend, is that the liberal Protestant beliefs I was handed in childhood do not fit the way I now see the world of fact and value. I again fail to understand why you have so little sympathy for people whose religious journeys take them to that point.

Of course, you explain quite clearly above your expectation—your demand—that our journey go much further, that we “extend [the] compass” of “God” and “religion,” among many other terms. Anything less, it appears, would be to “abandon wonder and suspend our search for meaning.” I strongly disagree that minor differences of terminology have such vast consequences. Surely it’s evident to you that millions of people on the planet experience “wonder” and “search for meaning” outside of what they consider to be “religion”—and without reference to their “tiny” notion of what “God” means. Is there any value to any perspective on those two words other than your own? In the cathedral of religious terminology, can you imagine that there are windows other than yours through which the light of meaning and understanding can shine?

To conclude: you laudably state in your sermon that “Unitarian Universalism enshrines freedom of thought,” but the Unitarian Universalism you describe appears to me to do nothing of the kind. Your sermon depicts a doctrinaire sect, aligned by definition (better, by definitions) in bitter opposition to benighted “skeptics” who fail to use religious language in the way you deem worthy.

I am very sorry that this is your vision of our religion. I am very thankful that my two-and-a-half years of exploration of Unitarian Universalism have revealed a group of diverse people who do not fit your description. I am very happy to have met many UUs of many different theologies who are only too glad to grant me space (a gift I readily return to them) within our religion for my free and responsible search for truth and meaning. After reading much of your work, Rev. Church, it seems to me—and it saddens me—that you are willing to extend me and my fellow “skeptics” no such courtesy.

I protest.
Rev. Church sent a polite one-paragraph response, apologizing (not implausibly) that he lacked the time to respond at length. He noted that he had changed some of the mentions of “skeptics” in the sermon to “secular materialists” before delivering it at G.A. 2003, though he predicted (correctly) that that might not “satisfy” nonbelievers either.

Indeed, we might note that the G.A. version still Others “our skeptical neighbors.” And the transfer to “secular materialists” doesn’t do much to improve matters: the “conclude that there is no light” line in the Cathedral of the World allegory is still a lie (“secular materialists” being no more nihilist killjoys than skeptics are), and I fail to see how it benefits innocent nonbelievers to be baited with “gulags and crematoria” and Church’s beloved “fundamentalists of the left” epithet under one philosophical label rather than another. Secular materialists don’t deserve Church’s dehumanizing attacks any more than anyone else does.

And rendering the whole issue all the more absurd is that, since G.A. 2003, Church has returned to lying about “skeptics” per se in his regular citations of the Cathedral allegory. I guess my protest didn’t take.
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