A Starting Point


When I was in my 20s, I reacquainted myself with the idea of being religious. I had been raised in a conservative Protestant church, and by age 16 I had pointedly rejected not only the religion I was brought up in, but all religions. Yet, there I was, 27 or 28, tentatively seeking some kind of spirituality. It would have to be a spirituality free of the religious dogma of my youth, so I felt myself initially interested in the possibility of Unitarian Universalism. Yet even the idea of going to a UU church was a little frightening to me--it seems ridiculous now, but at the time I was afraid that even UU services might be too religious. On the other hand, some small bit of religiosity was oddly novel and appealing to me. Sunday after Sunday, I would think about attending a UU church service in Cincinnati, where I was working at the time, or maybe Indianapolis, which was mainly the place I called home. I finally found a notice in the newspaper that a small UU fellowship in Indianapolis was having a guest speaker for its Sunday services--the head of the Indiana chapter of the ACLU. That seemed good enough for me.

Much to my relief at the time, the service wasn't particularly religious. I can still recall the speaker making a funny comment about being being asked about whether his views concerning the ACLU had changed after having been the victim of a mugging. His response was, "No, I was against crime before I was mugged, and I still am." After the service, I met with several of the attenders and found them friendly, and I was interested enough to want to attend again. But, as it turned out, I was about to move out of state for good, and I never went back.

In Colorado, I began attending services regularly. In reality, this novel idea of reconnecting with religion, even in this vague Unitarian sort of way, was so compelling to me that I looked forward to each Sunday. After a while, I began taking classes towards the goal of joining the church, but at some point I backed out. I somehow didn't feel quite at home in that congregation. It is true that I was drawn to the idea of UUism as a process of self discovery and seeking, an idea reinforced after having read the book "Challenge of a Liberal Faith" by George Marshall, which is considered the main introduction to the Unitarian Universalist religion. At that point in my life, that was what I needed--something that gave primacy to seeking rather than dogma. Yet, at the same time, I felt I needed something a little more spiritually focused. I was caught between on the one hand a desire to commune with God, and on the other a feeling that I simply could not accept any religious dogma, especially not Christian dogma. I couldn't bring myself to go to most Christian services, although I frequently read books on Christianity as well as Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism. I discussed Christianity with liberal Christians on the computer network where I worked (I worked for a computer company that had intranet message boards, long before anybody heard of the World Wide Web, and such discussions were thus possible at that time for me.) I bought and read books of theology and books on the historical Jesus. I read the Bible. The symbols and canon of Christianity were most familiar to me--they were most like home--and yet I couldn't buy the dogma.

The "dogma", in this case, represented a variety of concepts that I simply could not accept. These ideas that I rejected included the doctrine of the Trinity (which I considered an illogical conception of God); divine ominipotence (which both defies any rational understanding of how the world operates and which makes no sense in the face of earthy evil); the resurrection and the virgin birth; intercessionary prayer (as opposed to prayer for the sake of communing with God); and an emphasis on an afterlife or on salvation.

At about this time, however, I found myself drawn towards the possibility of liberal Quakerism as the means of satisfying my needs I began attending the small Quaker meeting in Colorado, originally with the idea of alternating every other week between attending the Quaker meeting and UU church services, but ultimately I found the Quaker meeting more spiritual--and it had other advantages. The first time I went to that meeting, I was as nervous and uncertain as I had been the first time I went to a UU service. Perhaps one thing that kept me going as well was that its smallness made for an appealing environment where I could be noticed and make a difference. And also the meeting was not particularly Christ-centered, even if some of its members did consider themselves Christian. I also felt closely aligned with many Quaker values concerning social justice and pacifism. I subscribed to Quaker magazines, bought copies of Pendle Hill pamphlets, became extremely active in the local meeting. It seemed like a good fit.

Yet, I eventually left the state of Colorado for Massachusetts, and then I moved on again to California, and somehow in all that moving about I found myself drifting away from Quakerism. Maybe I realized at some point that the lack of much explicit Christ-centeredness in that I found in my first local meeting wasn't necessarily characteristic of all parts of the greater Quaker body, and I felt that there was a tension between these tendencies that made it difficult for me to fully express my own liberal brand of spirituality. Or maybe I just couldn't find a meeting in California that felt like a new home for me.

So where does that leave me today? I have read books by theologians whom I admire greatly--people like John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg, or, to a lesser extent, Matthew Fox. These writers "speak to my condition", to use a Quaker turn of phrase. Yet they are Christian reformists, who belong to Christian denominations and participate in Christian church services. As much as I admire the ideas of these individuals, I cannot participate, as they do, in church services that are steeped in Trinitarian theology and which use the language and symbols of Christian traditions that I simply could not accept. It was wonderful that the Episcopalian Church was broad enough in its theological tolerance that someone like John Shelby Spong could be a bishop; but this same church also had other leaders who came from a quite different, more traditionalist perspective. Being in a church where I would have to constantly defend and justify my right to participate there against attacks from its theological right wing just didn't seem very appealing to me. While I understand that there is a concept that many faithful have of loyalty to a given denomination that allows one to continue to participate as an active member despite the problems--this is a phenomenon we see, for example, with feminist Catholics who grew up in that religion and have to deal with that Church's entrenched patriarchy and sexism--I simply have no basis for such loyalty to a denomination that I have no personal history with. And in any case, perhaps because I did small bit of shopping around before I landed in Quakerism's lap, the idea of this kind of loyalty to a disfunctional religious denomination doesn't really suit my personality.

Perhaps it was just as well that I spent my late twenties and early thirties exploring spirituality in ways that involved a lot of seeking, and in that sense Unitarian Universalism was a good step to take towards that goal. I had a lot of baggage at the time to deal with, and I needed to be free to explore religion and to allow the old scabs of a fundamentalist upbringing heal, without the fear of dogma hanging over my head like a dark rain cloud. And then, after I got past that, maybe it was good to step back for a decade or so and let it all simmer for a while. I had , perhaps, to better understand my own spiritual needs. But now I am again wishing to find some kind of spirituality in my life. And once again, the old conundrums have arisen, as I try to figure out how I can find spiritual community, and how I can find a relationship with the Divine--in a religious life that is intellectually viable without resorting to stale intellectualism, that is spiritually alive without being an empty and anti-intellectual New Age spiritualism, and that is grounded in the Christian religious traditions of the West without the baggage of Christian dogma. It's a tall order to fill. My exploration of this topic is the subject of this blog.


CT said...

Excellent opening MS - you've joined the 5,645,665,646 of us out there in the same boat. Rejecting dogma and untenable beliefs but still with a desire to find ultimate meaning, and most probably held to Christianity by the pearls of wisdom about the human condition that Jesus taught.

I gave up on a Baptist church years ago when I decided that I could not participate as I didnt hold to the 'fundamentals'. And finding an alternative is almost impossible because every faith community will have some beliefs that you don't hold. Then again a healthy church should have a diversity of beliefs and be able to recognise (or celebrate ?) diversity.

Not surprised you ended up at the Quakers - never been to a Quaker meeting but I did a survey on beliefnet.com once and it defined me as a Quaker.