Some Comments on Liberal Spirituality

An acquaintance of mine, a Facebook Friend, commented on a post and shared it on FB.  It is a two-year old post, but it is still circulating and causing some reactions, mostly among Unitarian Universalists and freethinkers, and some open-minded liberal Christians. Here is the link to the original post:

 http://wondertwisted.com/2011/08/06/a-dear-john-letter-to-unitarian-universalism/

The post was written by a former Unitarian Universalist (UU) who has decided that UUism isn’t working for her, and has decided to seek another spiritual path and another faith community. It is well written and while I disagree with much of it, I support the writer’s freedom to her own opinion.  It brings up some of the issues we UUs discuss from time to time, about exploring various spiritual paths, examining what we believe, our individual guiding principles, living a chosen life, deciding what works “for me personally,” etc.

First of all, I made a mistake in reading this in the middle of the night.  I don’t think I’ll do this again.  I got up in wee hours of the morning to go to the bathroom, and my cell phone is sitting there on my bedside table, and I use it as an alarm clock.  Foolishly, I thought I’d check the Facebook posts as long as I was awake and came upon this shared item.  Then I couldn’t turn my brain off and didn’t sleep well after that.  Warning to others – don’t read FB posts or email in the middle of the night!

One of my thoughts upon reading the blog was that perhaps this person was throwing out the baby with the bathwater, in a manner of speaking.  So UUism isn’t perfect.  Maybe there were some aspects she could still embrace.  It sounded like some of her issues had to do with individual personalities that rubbed her the wrong way, as much as she was disillusioned with what she perceived as the lack of depth or passion in the denomination.

I guess, for me personally, what I like about UUism are some of the very components and aspects that WonderTwisted took issue with.  There are hundreds, thousands even, of large and small denominations, permutations, and stripes of Christian congregations out there, some liberal, some Evangelistic, some middle of the road, some of the born-again variety who believe in the literal words of the Bible (with all its contradictions).  And then there are the more extreme versions of faith communities – Catholicism and orthodox leaning Judaism.  And all seem to appeal, in some way, shape or form to “believers.”  If you are a believer, wherever you are along the continuum of liberal to conservative, you have many choices.  You can shop around, visit many churches, and find one where the fit seems right for you – much like Goldilocks did in the fairy tale.  You look for the right combination of beliefs, tenets, hymns and services you like, plus a place where you find people you are comfortable with, who think like you, and are most likely from the same socio-economic strata as you, enjoying similar books, movies, TV programs, and enjoying dining at the same eateries and coffee houses you frequent.  It is a trait of the human animal to be drawn to those who are most “like us.”  That is our comfort zone.

So here is my “dilemma”:  the search and trying on process I’ve described is just great for the believers, but the freethinkers, skeptics, agnostics and atheists have fewer viable venues to visit in looking for a “spiritual home.”  No I don’t think this is a contradiction – that  non-believers or skeptics can be spiritual and yearn for some way to experience spirituality in the absence of a belief in a supreme being.  You can be a non-believer, grounded in science and reason, and still experience awe, wonder and amazement over events in nature, in the cosmos, the sunrises and sunsets, in meteor showers, in the animal world, in the beauty of trees, forests and plants, in icebergs in Greenland and whales migrating in Baja.  You can be moved by poetry, art, drama and literature, Greek architecture and Roman ruins.  You can be amazed by the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the ruins of Pompeii, or the woodworking of Sam Maloof.  You can be bowled over by the theology of Forrest Church or Teilhard de Chardin or CS Lewis, even if you don’t agree totally with everything they say.  You can be moved by a Mary Oliver or a Kay Ryan poem.  Or maybe you are one of those souls who have a foot in more than one world – questioning this idea and that, such that one day you think maybe there is a divine plan, and the next week you think such a notion is poppycock.  Maybe you vacillate back and forth from time to time, depending on whose book you read recently, whose sermon you listened to recently, and which NPR program you heard this week on your commute to or from work.

For years I never knew about UUism, and more’s the pity.  There are limited places that freethinkers and questioners can go to find the spiritual.  So it doesn’t work for WonderTwisted, but it is a touchstone for many of us.  Yes, you can go to college lectures, hang out with professors and college grads, attend a lecture series at Cal Tech, you can watch PBS and listen to NPR, but maybe you still want just a bit more.  And UUism provides it for many of us.  Yes, as with any group of thinkers, you find some arrogant, know-it-all types who think they have all the answers, who lack humility and social graces, but I find those kinds of folks in other places as well, including the work place.  But my odds of finding “like minded” people have improved substantially since I hooked up with the UUs.  Do I find it an absolutely perfect fit?  Not always. 

I have found some ministers whose sermons amazed me, consistently.  And I encountered some who didn’t appeal to me.  But, by and large, it is the best milieu I have found for intellectual stimulation and meaningful conversation, perhaps since I left academia.  I found a book group, a movie group and traveling companions for foreign trips.  I’ve had more amazement and “aha moments” in the last ten years than I had in the previous ten years.  I’ve had many, many thoughtful conversations in homes, restaurants, diners and coffee houses about books and ideas, current events, politics, science and religion.  If all the people whose company I truly enjoy moved away, maybe I would have to find another congregation.  But in the meantime, it works for me.  I value it.  Maybe I just got really lucky and landed in a congregation with a lucky mix of individuals.  Or maybe I’ve worked some to create my own luck by striking up conversations with people and probing their minds to see what I could find.  I probably took some risks sharing opinions with a few people – many have agreed with my viewpoints, but not all.  And that’s the chance you take. 

Who knows – maybe I’ll think differently five years hence.  Maybe I’ll have one of those “on the road to Damascus” moments where I experience the sacred in a mug of hot chocolate when the marshmallows form the shape of Christ’s face, or I hear voice speak to me from a date palm tree in the desert.  Or maybe not.  But in the meantime, I’m thankful for UUism.  It has filled a void for me and fed my mind and my soul.  And it has given me much enrichment, many laughs and great friends.  And in the modern world where many are feeling isolated and alienated, that is saying a lot.  Perhaps I’ll have more to say at some later time as I ponder more about life, the universe and everything.

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About Connie

Connie Pursell is a baby boomer and a technical writer in the world of healthcare claims. Did Jesus Have a Cat? is her first book of essays.

Connie misquotes Shakespeare: “Some are born quirky, some achieve quirkiness, and some have quirkiness thrust upon them.” She thinks she was born quirky but didn’t find her voice or full quirky potential until her later years.

She grew up in Lancaster, California and earned a BA and an MA in English from Cal State University, Long Beach. In addition to essays, she also writes poetry – a couple of poems are included in the book.

She is active in volunteer activities, makes beaded jewelry and lives in Laguna Niguel, CA with her three cats.