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.


Memorial Day: The Cost of War

There is a paradox between Unitarian Universalists and the military that may never be resolved. While there is both strong history of Unitarians and Universalists in the military, since becoming UUA there has been a cultural chasm that seems to have developed. There are a few of us sitting in the bottom of that chasm, existing somewhere between the two.

Memorial Day began in the United States after the Civil War as a means to recognize the sacrifice and high cost of war on both sides. It was not then a commercialized three-day weekend or nominally-patriotic outing to a park. Decoration Day, as it was often called back then, was practiced by laying flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers, even in places where the disdain for the issues of the war had been as high as Columbus, Mississippi. Various locations observed various dates, but it was Union Veterans themselves who argued for May 30th as the date, since it therefore didn’t coincide with any particular battle either won or loss. Because it was about recognizing the loss on both sides. It was about holding a place for death and loss and grieving.

Memorial Day is the time that we should recognize and consider the high cost of war. Not the billions of dollars spent but the number of priceless lives lost. The children who will grow up never knowing their parent. The mothers who will never see their children graduate college or start families. The brothers and sisters who will forever keep a picture on a mantel.

That cost of war is so high, that we cannot and should not go into it lightly. Memorial Day should not be practiced as a day of pride about military conquest or blanket glamorization of all military deaths, but as a day of remembrance about the cost of war. A day to recognize the price we pay as a people for the failures of our politicians. Failures for which they are rarely held accountable, but ones which every battlefield commander is judged by.

To those who want to advocate for a national day of recognition for all the civilians and non-combatants killed in war, I support you. To those who think more should be done to recognize the courage and impact of Conscientious Objectors, I agree as well and you have my vote. Conscientious Objection is as old as the first colonies in the US and is an important part of the American military and political landscape. But don’t let your desire for these things react to the blind nationalism and commercialism to which Memorial Day often succumbs. Allow yourself to recognize the cost of war paid by the blood of those who served, willfully or unwillfully, in the military.

We used to say in the military that “War is not about dying for your country. War is about making the other guy die for his.” US military deaths are not the price of “freedom.” They are the price of war. War in our country has rarely been about freedom. But war is always about death. Memorial Day is about those deaths and the legacy of pain and suffering they leave for the families, the friends, and the fellow soldiers. And no amount of patriotic, nationalistic, jingoism will ever fill the spaces left by those deaths.

There is no way to make you feel better about this.

There is no happy ending to this story.

But for this moment, sit in your gloominess and melancholy.

Know that hundreds of thousands of families, friends, and surviving veterans, live in this state on a regular basis, some for the rest of their lives.

This too is part of the cost of war.


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.

The dogmas of Unitarian Universalism

For people unsure of many thing and rarely fans of absolutes, UUs are sure convinced of a few – the way the order of service should be laid out, how the chairs and tables “must be” arranged for coffee hour, and even the type of materials used for religious education classes can all be causes of debate and consternation.

For a people unconvinced that anything happens after we die, we are convinced that the font used on our name tags is part of the world’s problems.

For a people unsure what should be taught in the religious education program we do know there is a “right day” to start the RE program.

For a people unsure what to say to newcomers, we are sure that the people talking to them should use special coffee cups when talking to them.

I think our uncertainties about many things lends us to focus on minor attributes associated with them. It gives us a feeling of comfort to know that uncertain things are handled with certainty. We don’t know where the path leads but we know that we must take certain things with us on the journey.

Worse yet, at times, we fail to convince others of our certainties. And though we tout democracy, we are unable to comprehend and handle when we get outvoted. The cattiness that comes from these discussions is rather heated at times. Folks even get mad and leave the church over them. It is as if we have replaced dogma with catma.

We struggle to journey together when we realize others aren’t handed where we think we want to go.

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.

Religion as a matter of identity

Last night I was doing work around the house and had the tv on as I heard an interview with Reza Aslan. Aslan is a professor of religion at UC Riverside. I found his statement so intriguing and thought provoking, I stopped rewound it several times and wrote it down. Here it is:

The thing about religion that people have to understand is that it is far more a matter of identity than it is just a matter of beliefs and practices. I mean, those things are important, but when you say “I am a Jew,” “I’m a Muslim,” “I’m a Christian” you are making an identity statement far more so than a statement of the things you believe. I mean, let me put it this way: 7 out of 10 Americans call themselves Christian. 7 out of 10 Americans. Think about that for a minute. 7 out of 10 Americans. 7 out of 10 Americans. That means that 7 out of 10 Americans go to church on Sunday, or 7 out of 10 Americans read the Bible on a regular basis, or that 7 out of 10 Americans can tell you anything about Jesus other than he was born in a manger and died on a cross. No! Of course not! The vast majority of that 70% when they say “I am a Christian” they’re making a statement of their identity that includes their nationality, their ethnicity, their world view, their politics, all of those things are wrapped up. And so religion is about who you are as a person as much as it is about what you believe and the rituals you practice.

This is nothing new to me. I’ve argued this point for some time now. However, he says it in a much more concise and illustrated way than I have ever been able to say it. My only addendum is that when you look at the current confluence of politics with “Christian” identity in our society, you see why so many progressive and liberal people are hesitant to identity openly as Christian because it is identified with conservatism. Unfortunately, until progressive and liberal Christians are able to reclaim their own label from the conservatives, this may remain an issue for some years to come.