Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A religion for hard times?

I have been pondering Doug Muder's UUWorld article by that title, and his blog follow-up , which sums up the article nicely: "What I want to call faith -- and I think I'm being consistent with many major religions here -- is a third response to uncertainty, one that senses a way to move forward without demanding promises about how it will all come out. That kind of faith is independent of dogma, and many UUs have shown it at some point in their lives." He asks in the article, "Does Unitarian Universalism provide, support, or engender that kind of faith?", and asks those of us who have survived hard times to testify about our experiences.

Like many others, I'm a hyphenated UU- in my case, a UU-Pagan. My Pagan faith does not guarantee that everything will be alright in this world. Nor does it provide certainty about the afterlife, if any; the only thing I'm sure of that in respect is that the Divine is not small or petty- if I make myself worthy of this world, I need have no fears about the next. In a way, my Pagan divinities have something in common with a good general or political leader... a good leader does not promise victory; he gives his followers the tools needed to win, then asks them to do their best.

What tools am I given? My Pagan faith tells me that I am loved. It gives me a place in the universe- "Like the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here." It gives me techniques to still panic, find calm, and banish despair. It shows me how to take that calm, gather energy, and address my problems. It sets boundaries, what situations and solutions are acceptable, and what is beyond the pale. This prepares me well for what Doug calls "the third response", moving forward without demanding promises; indeed, to my faith, that is the first response.

But that is after the hyphen- what about the UU part? There are echoes of much of my credo in the Principles and Purposes- though the PPs are stated as suggestions rather than truths. My spiritual life has been greatly enhanced by my UU experiences- making community with a far more diverse group than I had known before, invaluable discussions, small groups, fascinating forums and blogs, But despite having been an enthusiastic UU for more than a dozen years, I'm afraid that UU itself is still like monosodium glutamate in my life- a flavor enhancer for what I already had, rather than a stand-alone religion in its own right. For me, the answer to Doug's question is that UU does not provide or engender that faith. It does support it- although even there I have to ask whether UU supports the faith, or merely provides a venue to meet the friends who support that faith.

But I also realize that I come to this question with my own preconceptions, so I will repeat Doug's question to all of you with a different slant to it. This is directed at the unhyphenated UUs; those who were raised UU, or came to UU completely unchurched, with no previous faith tradition, and have survived truly hard times: Did Unitarian Universalism give you what you needed to persevere through those dark times, or did it merely enhance and assist what you already had? Was it the entree, or the monosodium glutamate? What did it give you?


Chalicechick said...

Two devout Catholics (or devout Buddhists or whatever) can get into very similar situations and it can affect them in profoundly different ways even as they both consider their faith in their response to crisis.

On that example alone, I would say that no religion "gives" you the tools to deal with hard times, though all religions offer ways of using the tools you already have that work for some people and don't for others.


Joel Monka said...

You have a point, CC, and many would say that it is more accurate to say that one's religion facilitates access to one's resources, rather than "giving" you resources. I remember a fascinating discussion with an atheist friend who said, "Of course Wicca works! Just the preparation for ritual alone- the meditation techniques, the controlling of the body through breath and muscle control, the visualization exercises, they are all powerful tools for taking control of your life. And any ritual can be a powerful mnemonic device and mood altering tool, completely aside from any possible deity."

So let me rephrase the question: If all religions offer ways of using the tools you already have, what ways does UU offer?

Chalicechick said...

All religions are made of imperfect churches and imperfect people, so of course I'm speaking of ideals here, but I'd say...

1. The freedom to explore a variety of rituals to find what works for you without getting a sense of "Oh, we don't do that"
or "you're not one of us if this doesn't work for you."

(I don't think anybody who thinks Water communion is silly gets grief for saying so though others might disagree. But I think it's safe to say that saying in a Christian church that you think regular communion is silly would not be greeted with such nonchalance. At the same time, I'm a humanist who does find some spiritual value in walking a labyrinth. Most humanists don't get it but nobody bugs me about it.)

2. Acceptance that emotion is a central feature of life, but encouragement to use reason as an approach to things first and to refine one's beliefs through reason. This isn't necessarily salvific in hard times, but it usually helps a lot to pull back and examine what's going on from as objective and long-term a perspective as you can muster.

3. General consensus that while the question of God(s) is something that can be debated among us, the general truth of the matter is humanity is at least in some senses on its own and if God is doing good works, God is likely dong them through the efforts of human beings. Therefore, taking care of each other must go beyond prayer and into action.

Three works two ways in that it encourages us to care for those having hard times in tangible ways, and also nothing helps one through hard times like helping out someone who is going through a harder time than you.

4. A cultural focus on education, questioning and discussion that lends itself to problem solving. If you're used to turning to a variety of books, websites, friends and experts to help you figure out questions of faith, it's going to be that much more natural when, say, your mom gets Parkinson's disease, to look to those and similar resources for information and support.

None of these are completely unique to UUism, but at the same time, I don't think any other religion's list would look exactly like ours.

You will note also that most of these are more practical problem-solving things than spiritual make-you-feel-better things. This is probably a reflection of how I personally tend to approach dark times in my own life and other people might have very different answers.


ogre said...

Well, I grew up UU. It's gotten me through the horrible night (and following week) when my second child, newborn, was "one of the two sickest kids in the hospital," through the death of grandparents, close friends, and my mother.

One of the incredible strengths and joys it offers is one that's too easily dismissed, I think, and one that's pretty close to unique;

When we change our views, our minds, our beliefs, we are not faced with the requirement to abandon one of the things most important to human beings--the community we are part of--or to deny our inner truth and play hypocrite.

I've seen too many people, face to face, in tears of joy at finding this, a community and safe harbor where they won't face that brutal choice again. I grew up with it; I'm not sure I "get" how profoundly important that is, on an emotional level.

I'm seeing remarkable things happen in my own congregation; 20% of it -- and not the "usual suspects," these aren't the leadership folk (well, maybe one or two are, but they're just there in what seems to be an almost random sample...) -- decided to take the Building Your Own Theology course. Consider that, last year, the number was 5-6% who did. And the group's sliced through, on a couple occasions, to some profound stuff, holding a conversation where some of the almost-furtive Christians asserted themselves as being there, and were met in non-confrontational ways by some of the congregation's old-line Humanists, Jews, and Atheists.

We -- like any faith tradition -- fall short of our ideals; that's not a surprise. You hold up an ideal as a target, an objective, and you struggle to get there.... But of late, I'm seeing the walk come closer, at least here at home, to matching the talk. Acknowledging differences as a strength AND as something to be open about, and to engage in and around, not to mince around the edges of. And not just religious/theological/ belief issues, but political ones were dragged out....

Lovingly, carefully, and consciously.

Joel Monka said...

"When we change our views, our minds, our beliefs, we are not faced with the requirement to abandon one of the things most important to human beings--the community we are part of--or to deny our inner truth and play hypocrite."

I really get that one- the knowlege that you always have a place- an important reassurance for the psyche. It's easier to act when you know that whatever the consequences, you still have a family. Especially when it's the family you choose, rather than the one you're born with. That relieves one of an extra background fear during a crisis, which would definitely help one stay calm.

What other strengths does UU bring out in you?

Strange Attractor said...

Ogre, your post hit me so hard I actually felt a physical reaction.

When we change our views, our minds, our beliefs, we are not faced with the requirement to abandon one of the things most important to human beings--the community we are part of--or to deny our inner truth and play hypocrite.

This is such an integral part of why I am exploring UUism, but I never had anyone spell it out quite like that. I can't tell you what it means not to be separated from others because of your beliefs.