Continuing thoughts from The Cross in the Window
When I first wandered into the UU church a few years ago I found it both deeply familiar and wondrously strange: A “three-hymn sandwich” service in a building with a (vestigial) steeple on the top — and a complete absence of fire and brimstone, no hell or damnation to be found in the place at all. As I wrote to a net.friend at the time, “I am really not sure what to think of this. It’s shaped like church, but it’s, like, made of chocolate or something.”
I have been fortunate to land in a relatively healthy congregation. (Churches aren’t always. I am sure the cautionary tales I find in the corners of the internet are only the tip of the iceberg, the ones fit for circulating in semi-public places with the names and particulars carefully filed off.) It is, as I have mentioned elsewhere, an eclectic and accepting community – Gay? Lesbian? Trans? no problem! Buddhist? Pagan? Atheist? come right in! But in time I came to notice that, even here, while God and the Bible got the occasional mention (though an extraplanetary observer might have assumed from the readings that our prophets were Rumi, Mary Oliver and Thich Nhat Hanh) any explicit Christian references were rare and often met with awkward silence in the pews. Old familiar hymn tunes had new words – or were played by the pianist for a postlude.
There’s a great opportunity for cognitive dissonance when faced with a church where the reaction to Jesus is “Ooooooohhh, don’t touch that, radioactive!”
Now I will openly admit that at the time I started going to the UU, you couldn’t have gotten me through the door of any other church with a bulldozer AND and offer of free coffee. And having had so little experience with liberal religious practice in a church setting that I was skeptical such things existed, I can easily imagine that if I’d found Jesus waiting for me in the UU church I wouldn’t be anywhere near one today, much less preparing for the ministry in it. I’d very likely have run as fast and far as my fat little legs would go, and been grateful, if disappointed, for the escape from a close call.
That is what authoritarian religion does to the soul.
It’s a fine point that I think gets missed sometimes, or underestimated at least, by the UUs who were raised in liberal faith – or those who come into the liberal church without having been raised religious at all. It’s disappointing (and, I think, disrespectful) to Christian UU’s to be on the receiving end of the “Your God is radioactive and not really welcome here” message that is one of the failure modes of our pluralism — but without exposing innocent lay people to the spiritual sickness that is the authoritarian church I’m not really sure how to explain why an otherwise gentle and spiritually curious person would recoil at the mention of Jesus Christ. (I specify lay people because I expect liberal clergy to have acquired some understanding of toxic spirituality somewhere in the formation process. I am probably optimistic on this point.)
I still flinch and I haven’t set foot in a Southern Baptist church in twenty-five years. And the one I grew up in was comparatively liberal, which is to say they were much closer to “conservative mainline” than the several rude ways to describe “aggressively fundamentalist” I’ve typed and deleted. Anger, much? I am not so angry on my own behalf as on behalf of all the people I’ve known who ended up so more broken by the authoritarian church than I did. The people who, ten or twenty years out, still whisper of nightmares about going to hell for being gay, or for just doing it wrong. The people for whom church is a dirty word and for whom clergy are dangerous people.
They too are worthy of grace and healing. If they can’t come to us, then where can they go?
Some of the time people escape from authoritarian religion and become, for lack of a better description, fundamentalist atheists (or fundamentalist pagan, don’t laugh) – rejecting the parts of religion they can’t stand, within the all-or-nothing framework that authoritarianism builds, means ditching the whole thing: a shift from “all of it has to be true! (for fear that none of it is)” to “all of it has to be false! (for fear that none of it is…)” Either way you’ve got a spiritually wounded person lashing out, from fear.
These people can, without question, be difficult to deal with in a congregation (or any other pluralistic society.) I can’t help seeing two eddies in the same vortex of suck when, in the same week, I’m seeing Christian UU’s wondering why they stay in the tradition (or having the same wondered at them, or on their behalf) and Atheist UU’s complaining about how mentioning God in church is totally unwelcoming and unfair (and if I surf the internet long enough I will find Pagan UU’s complaining about either overwhelming Jesus or disrespectful Atheists but really? I don’t need to go there.)
I will again reference PeaceBang’s series of posts last year for a thoughtful take on the subject with which I largely agree; my comments are not so much a “No, but…” as a “Yes, and also…” We (in the liberal church, and particularly and specifically UU’s) need to take stock of our own behavior and move away from the great sucking vortices of my-way-or-the-highway that are the failure mode of our theological pluralism.
It’s a point where my congregation does okay – I’ve never witnessed the kind of thoroughly obnoxious behavior that informs PeaceBang’s articles – but I have seen enough that we can do better. Compared to where we were five years ago, I think we might be making progress. Certainly there has been conscious effort on the part of congregational leadership toward the expectation that, whatever else we may be or do or believe, we will exercise a commitment to treat each other with kindness, fairness and respect.
There are worse places to start than applying the First and Second Principles to how we interact with our beloved community.