On the outside looking in


In a comment to a recent posting of mine, Chris suggested that I should consider giving the Unitarian Universalists a try.

My response to that is that I have dabbled in UUism at various times in my life. In many ways I think my outlook and values are a pretty close match for Unitarian Universalism. By that I mean that my iconoclasm, my belief in religious pluralism, and my appreciation of the value of the religious journey in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty, all seem to fit in rather well with those values. Yet, I decided some time ago that it just wasn't the church for me. I respect those who are involved with the UU denomination and I am sure that it is a good fit for a fair number of people. But not for me.

I think there are two reasons for this. For one thing, its proclaimed inclusiveness is a double-edged sword, and I have been primarily interested not so much in eclectic religion as I am in progressive Christianity. This means that UU eclecticism is a bit removed from what I am looking for; I do have some interest in other faiths, to be sure (including, for example, Jodo Shinsu Buddhism), but my main desire has been to orient my worship, week in and week out, around the traditions and spirituality associated with Christianity--albeit in a radically progressive way. That alone is problematic for me, but there is another issue that has kept me away from Unitarian Universalism. Despite its official aspirations of inclusiveness and respect for all religions, I think that in many cases, the reality is something a little different. What I have found is that, for many UUs, all religions are respected as long as those religions aren't Christianity. The UU minister Peacebang, herself a Christian, identifies this as UU Christophobia.

One of her commenters has said a couple of interesting things about this subject:

I marvel at how a denomination that is so proud of its inclusiveness should be so bitter and exclusive to the Christians (or even the theists) in its midst. Yet everybody wants that special Christmas Eve service, and to sing the old carols with the original words. I suppose Jesus, who advocated a radical form of inclusivity based on loving others, is not so radical or his teachings so alarming when he is kept eternally in the manger.
Another comment by the same person:

One of the reasons I was so excited to work in a UU church was the chance to explore and experience truly inclusive worship. To my dismay, that’s not what’s happening. Nobody stays home from church when a sermon on the Buddha is advertised. But they do stay home on the rare occasions that Jesus’s life or teaching is the topic. If they came, they might find healing, because I have never heard Jesus talked about in quite the same enlightening way as I do from our ministers here, when they speak about him at all.

Sometimes I think that “the Church” (whatever that means) is like the stone on Easter morning. Roll it out of the way! Get it off of Jesus and let him out from under it! Give him air, let him breathe.

I was hoping a UU church might be a place where the edifice of Christianity might be rolled away, because Jesus has something loving to say, and we can’t hear him when he’s all covered up.

A long time ago I realized that I felt caught between a rock and a hard place. I feel like I am too Christian for most of Unitarian Universalism and yet too iconoclastic for the progressive Christianity of most mainline churches. Ultimately, when given two choices that are both unsatisfying, I tended to come down on the side of a more focused spirituality grounded in problematic theology rather than an intellectually challenging but spiritually unfocused deconstruction of faith. Thus I started exploring mainline Christianity where I hoped that progressive faith might have taken root. I looked to people like Spong, Borg, and Crossan as inspirations for how progressive Christianity might work for me within these mainline churches. So far, this has not proved to be very satisfying either. Which is why, at this point, I remain one of those whom Spong calls "believers in exile." Up to this point, it seems that I would rather blog about religion than practice it on Sunday morning.

There is a piece of me that still holds out hope for finding some kind of community that I can identify with. But unlike progressive Christians who have some kind of denominational identity that they can hold onto while fighting the good fight, I was brought up in a hopelessly fundamentalist church that I long ago rejected. For me, there is no denominational loyalty to ground my faith in. Thus I am perpetually on the outside looking in. I've done the church shopping thing, but it has all been window shopping. Then again, maybe that is my calling. Maybe religions need people like me, who stand on the outside and who just don't quite fit in.


Gary said...

What you have written here certainly gives credence to your chosen name as Mystical Seeker. Like yourself, I cannot let go of Christianity, and it is the mystical path that I pursue. Here's an interesting quote from Karen Armstrong's recent TED talk:

I began to realize that belief, which we make such a fuss about today, is only a very recent religious enthusiasm. It surfaced only in the West, in about the 17th century. The word "belief" itself originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear. In the 17th century it narrowed its focus, for reasons that I'm exploring in a book I'm writing at the moment, to include -- to mean an intellectual ascent to a set of propositions -- a credo. I believe did not mean "I accept certain creedal articles of faith." It meant, "I commit myself. I engage myself." Indeed, some of the world traditions think very little of religious orthodoxy. In the Qur'an, religious opinion -- religious orthodoxy -- is dismissed as zanna -- self-indulgent guesswork about matters that nobody can be certain of one way or the other but which makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian.

You can find the full message here. I think it is desperately important that we walk a path that is not all about either sentiment or intellectual assent.

PrickliestPear said...

Very interesting. Your comment that UUism is "spiritually unfocused" is, I think, right on the mark. I think it was Huston Smith who said something like, if you're looking for water, it's better to dig one well sixty feet deep than six wells ten feet deep. My impression of the UU church is that it digs too many shallow wells, and no real deep ones.

I wouldn't want to be in a church whose leadership I agreed with completely. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, if there was nothing wrong with the church, there wouldn't be anything for me to do. Not only that, but it would be easy to become complacent.

Christopher Smith said...

sting, Seeker. For the record, I've never been to a UU church. There is one several miles away, but I only have a bicycle and it would be difficult for me to get there. At the moment I don't attend church at all, because I live in Wheaton (evangelical capital of the world) and don't feel comfortable in *any* of the churches within biking distance.

I have heard that there are UU Christian fellowships, but they are few and far between. There are none in my area, or I'd definitely try it out. I feel much the same way that you do: I still identify as a Christian, though I'm hopelessly progressive. I don't know where I fit.

Christopher Smith said...

"sting", by the way, was supposed to be "Interesting".

Frank L said...

I totally dig the line about the well 60 feet deep vs 6 wells 10 ft deep!

My spiritual advisor talked about the problem with going to church as a spectator vs. digging in and belonging to a parish. Too much church hopping (like I have done) and you only see the superficial stuff.

Its like the karate kid--you can blossom better with a stronger root.

Here's the problem: How do you participate in a faith tradition without somehow playing along? Is it possible to drink from the 60ft well without actually jumping in and immersing yourself?

Lilylou said...

As a UU minister and also a non-traditional Christian, my experience leads me to believe that no matter what faith community we land in, our experience of Sunday worship is greatly affected by whether or not we have a personal spiritual practice.

Expecting Sunday worship to fill all our spiritual needs is not a good strategy for spiritual development. We each need a way to come privately to grips with our spirituality, which, in my book, means our store of compassion, gratitude, acceptance of others, and faithfulness to our values.

Sunday worship is a communal act, focused on coming together to share what is worthy in our lives. It's not intended to be our sole source of spiritual inspiration.

So I would respectfully suggest that if one's experience of a Sunday worship service isn't satisfactory, it might be well to take a look at how one's personal spiritual life is being developed.

It took me a long time to learn this and I'm only now realizing how important my years with AlAnon and a spiritual director have been in my ability to find meaning in even the clumsiest and/or conservative worship service.

A personal spiritual practice makes it much easier to find what we're seeking, I think.

Frank L said...

Not sure if I posted this before or not, so apologize if I'm being redundant... but this post made me think of the Catholic priests I know who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus In some ways I envy them. It would be hard for them to take their vows to the priesthood today, but since they were already priests as their beliefs changed, it is much easier to stay in the cloth.

So MS, I understand what you're saying about having a faith tradition to stick with. It would be hard for me to be a new convert to Catholicism, but having grown up and having gone through the rites of initiation as a young person, it is far easier to stay within the tradition now than if I had to affirm it as an adult (that may sound contradictory, because we supposedly affirm our beliefs on an ongoing basis in many forms). But I can go to communion and have a different understanding of what that means today, but I don't actually have to get in front of people and declare certain things to be true in order to take it like I would during a First Communion or Rite of Christian Initiaion program.

PrickliestPear said...


I totally get what you're saying. I'm very grateful, actually, to have been raised in the Catholic Church, because the good stuff -- the mystical tradition, the contemporary theologians like Rahner, Lonergan, Kung, etc. -- are all here, and I might not have been exposed on it otherwise. But I'm not sure if I could have converted to it as an adult. I would feel like a guest in somebody else's house, and I'd feel uncomfortable complaining about anything (and there's a lot to complain about).

Mystical Seeker said...

Thanks for all the great comments. Chris, by all means, if you've never visited a UU church, I would not discourage you from trying to pay one a visit some time, if it is at all feasible. I think it is true that some UU churches are Christian in orientation, but I think they are rare.

Ms. Kitty, you raise a good point about, at least for UUs, not being the sole (or perhaps primary) source of one's spiritual inspiration. This does raise a really good question, though. What really is the purpose of church? And is it possible that different kinds of worship experiences exist to meet different kinds of needs? A UU church service might indeed be, as you put it, "a communal act, focused on coming together to share what is worthy in our lives." Maybe services in other denominations serve different purposes? When an Episcopalian or Catholic worshiper receives Communion as part of the service, does that provide a different kind of purpose for them?

Maybe I was done in by my experience with Quakerism. I think that in the silent worship experience I felt some kind of deeper connection with God. That is also why I like Taize services, I think. Maybe I'm looking for an altered state. Maybe worship is for me a kind of drug, a way of existing in communion with the Divine for a period of time. It's like going to a massage therapist, except it is a massage for the soul instead of the body.

Somehow, just being alone, by myself, and trying to institute a spiritual practice isn't enough. Perhaps this explains my restlessness. I am hoping that in a structured, worshipful experience, I can feel elevated in ways that I cannot when I am by myself.

And maybe not everyone is looking for that in a church experience.

Mystical Seeker said...

Frank and PrickliestPear,

I have a friend who was brought up Catholic. After years of shopping around at various churches, she ended up in the Catholic Church again, even though she has major issues with a lot of things. It is what feels like home to her. She just ignores the parts of the service she doesn't agree with.

This is hard for me to relate to, since I was not brought up Catholic and feel no attachment to it, or any other denomination. So as an outsider, I look at various denominations and congregations not from the point of view of "my" church, but more in terms of a list of pros and cons that I try to evaluate objectively. This makes my head spin because everything has its cons.

Frank L said...

MS, the times when I have found what you describe have been when I was in out-of-the-way places. Peace vigils, mountaintop retreats, service trips. I've also sought out community in some intensive groups, such as the various Catholic Worker communities or bruderhofs and such. There's pros and cons of such an intense approach, but for a week or so you can really find that peak experience. I've always had trouble turning that into a long-term relationship, though. I, too, feel just emptiness practicing or praying by myself, but with a group I come alive.

My spiritual advisor recommended picking a parish and belonging to it long term and quit my church shopping ways. I think he's right, but its hard. If one's faith is on the cutting edge (not in the sense of being superior, but a real living, breathing, urgency), you almost have to find a community to match.

Tit for Tat said...

Good post

I like many of the tenets of Christianity, but after much research I question much of the translation we find in the Western View of it. After all early Christianity is an Eastern religion. With that said I do enjoy the communal aspect of gathering, but I tend to stay on the fringes because I dont buy it all. I like this quote, which I believe has its origin from Sanscrit.

"Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names"

Anonymous said...

MS. We are all aliens in small ways, exiles from the way we think we should be or the way we think everyone else is. Your exile is religious. Others are exiles in sexual identity, politics or cultural outlook (try living in Alabama without supporting one or the other of the state's college football teams!)
Being a person without a spiritual or religious outlook can be awkward as well. I sometimes envy those who seem so comfortable with conventional religion although I bet they feel just as exiled in some ways as I do.

I look to the wisdom of the great theologian James T. Kirk who once said, 'I need my pain!" I try to embrace my exile as part of who I am without letting it run my life. In similar fashion I try to embrace the contradiction of participating in communion when I have no belief in the truth of Christianity and very little regard for its metaphorical value. I like to say that by embracing it, I have transcended hypocrisy.

I can only hope that at 44 years old I am experiencing the beginnings of wisdom and self-peace that I would never have been able to experience as a twenty-something. Then again, to paraphrase the words from the only one of C S Lewis' books I have read that I would give 2 cents for (A Grief Observed), sometimes our assumptions are wiped away like a house of cards. Unfortunately, one can't go around without assumptions. So we keep moving forward.

Mystical Seeker said...

Scott, sometimes I wish I could just receive the damn communion and be done with it. :)

I do appreciate your quoting James T. Kirk, however. :)

philomela said...

Myself and a friend have just set up a blog carnival for progressive Christians
The home page is here http://withoutachurch.wordpress.com/ I thought you might want to participate. This post would be really good as the theme for the next one is "community" but If you have another one that fits better thats good too.