The Dead Babies Problem and My Path Towards Unitarian Universalism

I don’t remember how old I was when I developed the dead babies problem. I think it was in early high school but it may have been middle school. The dead babies problem goes something like this:

Person 1: If you don’t accept Jesus and get baptized, you will go to Hell.

Me: What if you weren’t here to tell me that? What if I never got that word?

Person 1: That’s why Christians have to tell everyone. That’s why we proselytize and evangelize.

Me: What if I never met a Christian? What if I lived in some country where there were no Christians?

Person 1: Well, that’s a pretty evil place and you need to get out of there.

Me: What if I’m just a small child or a baby? Dying in some poor rural area of some 3rd world country with no Christians in it? I’m going to Hell.

Person 1: Um…..

Me: That’s doesn’t really sound like this “all powerful” and ” universally loving” God/Jesus person you keep telling me about.

And thus was born the dead babies problem as my teenage mind construed it. I’ve since had umpteen Christian recruiters, ministers, and preachers quote Bible versus and spin logic loops at me to try and explain this. But in the end, all semi-tehologically-conservative Christians/Muslims/Jews/Mormons/Buddhists, etc. think that my everlasting salvation/blessing/well-being hinges on the chances of my being contacted by one of their people and having the freedom and capacity to take them up on their offer to join them.

Eventually this led to my realization that whatever happens to people, whatever God/god/gods/goddesses there are that make whatever rules for divine favor…..they must be universal if they are to truly be all powerful and be “the” right one. In other words, all the same rules have to apply to all the people without chance being involved. So this means one or more of the following are true:

  1. No religion claiming to have the “chosen” membership is right.
  2. All religions are right to some degree (i.e. religions of the world are all instruments in the same orchestra).
  3. Something universal (religious or not) happens when you die regardless of who you are or where you are.

I have chosen option 3 for the most part. The rules must be universal and can’t hinge on knowing or not knowing. Hence the importance of ethical practices like “doing the most good for the most people” are important to me. And whatever divine power exists – God, Goddess, Science, etc there must be only one. You can’t have an “all powerful” who plays favorites, that makes the All Powerful sound petty and less powerful. So the divine must also be unknowable (put not un-observable per se) and singular even if that all powerful is just the Laws of Physics. So theologically, I was an agnostic Unitarian Universalist before I ever even heard those words.


Praying for God’s Will: Baseball, Elections, Oxymorons

There it was on my Facebook wall. A post from a friend the night of the election proclaiming that they were “praying this election goes in God’s favor.” It was one of the most theologically oxymoronic things I had seen in awhile. Keep in mind this is the same friend who having lost their job a few months before had proclaimed it to be “all part of God’s plan.”

So if God has a plan, and God is the almighty, all-powerful deity that you believe him to be, why pray that things go God’s way? Won’t God just do them the way he wants to? This is one of the many confusing things of popular Christianity that makes my head hurt in observing it. Either God has a plan or God answers prayers. Am I to believe that God sometimes changes his plans based on prayers? If so, it would seem rather arbitrary as to when he chooses to change his plans. I can already hear my pop Christian friends say “But that is the mystery of God that we can’t comprehend.”

Unless you are a Chicago Cubs fan. Cubs fans get the mystery. The Cubs recent World Series win was the sort of thing that inspires legends and movies. Cubs fans around the world apparently prayed that this would be the year and God apparently heard those prayers. Apparently the Cleveland Indians fans just don’t pray enough.

I also have a similar reaction when people pray for one side to be victorious in war. Or if they claim God is on one army’s side and not another. Given his 10 most revered commandments include that one about not killing, it seems unlikely that he would suddenly grant a group of people a free pass. (Although he himself seems rather reliant on the act. Then again, what parent hasn’t said “do as I say, not as I do.”)

So what is prayer? What good is there in asking that the odds, no matter how slim, go in your favor when you also believe that everything that happens is the will of God and done for a specific reason? I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to that. It makes no sense to me. There is a side of me that wants to believe that your God may occasionally grant such miracles to the most deserving. But if such a thing did happen, that “most deserving” would be the saints and top 1% of believers. Your momentary humbleness in the midst of a largely immodest and unrepentant life, seems a bit much to ask. In fact, it seems your God would be more willing to grant such things to those too humble to ask themselves or too busy living out their Christian values to take that moment to ask.

The problem is that logic loop in which prayer exists. When you pray for something, say a pony for instance, and you get a pony, then you are convinced of God’s favoritism towards you. When your prayer isn’t answered, you say it is part of some master plan and not some form of punishment. After all, God only punishes your enemies and non-Christians.

Having not asked that your God’s plan be changed in this election, I missed my chance to evaluate my status with your God. I’m left to believe that Trump must be part of your God’s plan. Or maybe America is just being punished. Or maybe, your God has nothing to do with elections. Just baseball.

Unpacking your bags

I’m always amazed when I look at other people’s luggage while traveling. Especially when I am stuck behind someone checking in or going through security when I am feeling impatient. I’m fairly utilitarian and spartan in my approach but others clearly are not. Many seem to just accept they will pay extra so they figure, “why limit myself?” They bring things they probably won’t need with the attitude of “you never know.” (Not true. You don’t need a sweater in Hawaii.)

For many people, their religious identity and spiritual journey process is much the same way. They bring baggage (and carry ons) that are often haphazardly packed to go to an unknown destination. They bring language and feelings and biases that reflect their other travels or places. Language and emotion linked to language are their biggest space holders. People have emotional feelings about words like “minister,” “church,” and “faith.” For example, despite adamantly denying a Christian belief system, they feel a need to attend a place called a “church” and could never go to a place called a “temple” or “society.” Despite their lack of Christian belief they feel a psychological need to attend something called a church even if the word has negative emotions associated with it. So they refuse to journey at all.

It is theological and cultural baggage that limits their travel options, costs us more (psychologically, if not physically), and often agitates our fellow travelers. We need to unpack our bags, think through what is packed in them, and decide what really needs to travel with us. If we don’t, our journey may never take us anywhere and may simply exhaust us to the point where we give up on travel.

Photo vs film? How do you see your congregation?

Our church is what it is the moment you joined it. At that moment you agree that you accept it and it accepts you. After all, who joins a church for “where it is going”? People join a church for “where it is” socially, culturally, theologically, spiritually, and physically. From that point on, any change, difference of opinion, or adaptation to circumstances means a derivation of what you both agreed to on the day you joined. And if all parties don’t agree, then obviously they have the option of leaving. No one is forced to stay.

I like to think of that moment as a photograph. A beautiful photograph capturing a special moment. A moment now locked in time and not able to be changed. And a picture is further limited. You can’t look just outside the frame or see what is going on behind the camera. Nothing comes or goes from a picture.But, we need to stop dwelling on those photographs. They are beautiful, informative, and fun to reminisce about but their limitations limit us. We need to start filming movies. We need to tell stories over time with actors and occasionally a plot twist. Your opinions of characters, ideas, and sub-plots change as the movie goes on. A movies is constantly full of new revelations about characters, places, sub-plots, and even the main story often from places outside of the view of the first camera angle.

Our church story never ends and we try to keep it constantly moving towards a happy ending. Our members should all be actors not bystanders or extras. We all need to take a role and help work towards that happy ending. Use our photographs to look back and tell the back story in the movie but we won’t spend the whole movie staring at them.

Pictures are worth a thousand words but they are words locked in time. We need to think of our church as a ongoing movie to which we are walking into as actors. We are not limited by a single photograph of ourselves (we all had that awkward phase) why should our church be? When we constantly try to keep only that first photograph as our view of the church, we not only limit the church, we limit ourselves and our own opportunities for growth.

Why I’m an Agnostic and a Unitarian Universalist

I think I was about 11 or so when I started asking myself difficult questions. I think it was probably brought on by two things. First was my profound wonder at what my friends were doing on Sunday mornings. I grew up “unchurched” and at least nominally a “cultural Christian” so I wasn’t sure what the big deal was about going to church. Second, I went to church. But not just any church. It was a fairly theologically and socially conservative church and it was only for a week long Vacation Bible School. I don’t remember much about it except being really confused about things and coming home on Thursday of the week in tears because me and my whole family were going to hell for listening to “the Devil’s Music” known to the rest of us as rock-n-roll. (To be clear this was 1986, not 1956.) I don’t remember if I went back on Friday or not. I don’t think I did.

And so began my confusion about religion that led to exploring lots of religious beliefs and a continuous journey of looking at mine. It was eventually led me to a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Religion and later still, to Unitarian Universalism.

The question that bothered me most about Christianity at a young age (Christianity being the only religion I was then familiar with) was the idea that if you didn’t “know Jesus” you would go to hell. What confused and bothered me most was that there were young babies and children who died all the time without “knowing Jesus” and I just couldn’t believe that this supposedly universally loving God would allow an innocent child to go to hell. (Maybe my mom sparked this confusion by singing “Jesus loves the little children” to me as a child.) Or even more so, what about people who lived in places where Christianity didn’t reach? Remote inner parts of Africa and South America, Muslim or Buddhist countries, etc. Were all those people, even the innocent children, going to hell? That didn’t fit with this supposedly loving and forgiving person named “Jesus” that the Christians kept talking about. When I confronted adults, particularly ministers, about this problem, I found their answers equally disturbing. They ranged from “well, I don’t know. That is part of the mystery of how God works so I’m sure he has a plan for them.” to “yes, they go to hell.”

By high school, I had so advanced my questioning on this topic, that once accidentally reduced two well meaning door-to-door evangelist young women to tears by the time they left. Apparently their faith was rather shaken by my questions.

The very concept of a “chosen” people who believed that there was only one God, became an oxymoron to me. How can a universally loving God who sets universal standards for all people, then only tell some of them and yet apply it to all of them. Still confuses me.

Later, I would learn many other confusions. Starting with Catholic vs Protestant Bibles, the Bible itself, “trinitarianism” (another of those unexplained “great mysteries”), Calvinism and predestination, etc. In the many years since, I have sought (and still seek) to see what other people’s answers were. Sometimes through experience of their faith practices, sometimes through talking or reading about them, and sometimes through classes, I have looked at lots of versions of Christianity plus Mormons, Buddhists, Muslims, Judism, Sikhs, Zoroastians, Native Americans, African traditions, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, and more. The search continues. Hence why I found myself a Unitarian Universalist where exploring beliefs is not just encouraged but also facilitated and supported. I’m not sure now, that I will ever find anything more agreeable than UU.

Why don’t we share more?

Today we had a guest in our pulpit from the Unitarian Universalist Association. Our guest spoke about the fact that so many people have a hard time finding Unitarian Universalism. Often this is because so few of us share out faith, our beliefs, our existence, with others. This fits with the stories that I have heard others tell about the many people that have said “if only I had known UU was here years ago!”

As I was doing the dishes this evening, I began to ponder why it is that more UUs don’t spread the word. I think some of it is about having a hard time finding the right words. I read a good article in UU World magazine a couple months ago about the language of explaining UU. (Even in writing this blog, I’m wondering if I can say “beliefs” and “faith” in discussing it.)

Another reason some folks don’t share is because they feel like they don’t know their own beliefs or don’t hold strong enough personal beliefs in order to explain them to someone. Which may be true but I would say that this problem also comes from assuming we will have to defend our beliefs which we don’t feel ready to do. We won’t share unless we feel we have a “safe” environment. I understand where this fear comes from but it is one that with practice we can overcome.

I think the above two reasons probably represent a significant majority of why most folks don’t share about UU with more people. There is a third reason that comes to mind though. And I’ve known enough of these folks that I feel confident in putting this down here. These are the folks that have come to UU because they had a bad experience somewhere else. And now UU has become a place of refuge for them. A shelter if you will. These folks never seem to embrace our principles fully but instead focus on something that “we are” in terms of something “we are not.” For example, a bad experience with a Christian group makes them come to UU. It may have been a theological, personal, or organizational conflict. They didn’t come here because our beliefs appealed to them but instead because we were the opposite of the previous group. The problem here is that this develops an “us vs them” mentality. Often these folks have a hard time seeing the “inherent worthy and dignity” of the people they are running from.

This last group also breeds fear in a congregation. Fear of what “they” are doing. Fear of sharing, partnering, and working together towards common goals. And any move that these folks see as mirroring that other group is met with anger, exasperation, or stubbornness to change. As example, someone coming from a very hierarchal system of faith may constantly harp on the autonomy of UU congregations and bristle at any thought of doing what the Unitarian Universalist Association recommends a congregation does (be it as simple as following some piece of advice on finances, administrative programs, or ministerial transition). I wonder if it is possible to build a transition program for this last group of folks. A spiritual development program to help them come to terms with their experience. While I appreciate their contributions and I value skepticism, the emotional and visceral reactions that seem to accompany their reactions have significant impact far beyond themselves and ripple out into a congregation.

So why don’t you talk to folks about being UU? How willing are you to share your faith in various settings? And “why” are you that way?

Instant religion vs real faith

This past Sunday, our pulpit was graced with the presence of our high school students. This is an annual event where our youth deliver their thoughts on what our church or Unitarian Universalism means to them. This one focused on the concept of “faith”.

I am also involved in our campus ministry group. While at the service, an email came to our campus ministry account from a Christian website aimed at college students. Their presentation of being non-denominational, open and accepting of GLBT persons, and other liberal Christian ideologies was very well done and the web site in general was very flashy. However, it was their claim that this website “has all the answers” (actual quote) that most intrigued me.

Our youth had done well in their service to illustrate that they were perfectly comfortable in a religion that said “no one has all the answers – if there even are any answers”. So here this stood in stark contrast. In a twist of irony, if you had a question about something, you had to email it to them (no message boards, etc.)

I was also fascinated by a video on the site about why you should choose Christianity. The video (just over two minutes in length) spent the first minute and half focusing on how “difficult” other religions such as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism were and how they required significant lifestyle changes and life-long devotion. The guy in video promised how if I accepted Jesus as my savior right now, I would be a Christian. No more commitment. Nothing to do after that. Instant salvation. Instant blessings. (I checked the screen for fine print just to be certain.)

I think that is the appeal of “pop” Christianity and one of the things that has turned me off to it. The sales pitch is good. “Just say these words now and you are in.” But that means it is very easy to step in and out of “pop” Christianity. Growing up, that was something I saw Christians doing it all the time. And so long as they said the right words moments before they died, went to church, or saw their parents, then they would be just fine and “good” Christians. I don’t think this “faith of words” is the kind that encourages commitment, dedication, or development of moral principles.

I think this is the sort of thing that is turning off so many Americans to Christianity. It just doesn’t mean anything to say you are a Christian. It’s become watered down in meaning. (I’m always more intrigued when someone describes themselves as a Presbyterian or Methodist than as a Christian.)

This got me to thinking – what does it mean to be a Unitarian Universalist? Sure it is a “call to arms” for some folks (as in many other faiths) to take social action based on your faith. But for others, it simply means being able to put a label on yourself. I’m curious what it means to others to be UU. I wish I had time to survey my church and ask. I’d love to see some of the answers. Then I’d love to get one of my Christian friends (and friends of other faiths) to survey their groups and see what they think.

What do the labels you use to describe your faith mean to you?