I recently met a woman who has a storied spiritual history. That history includes many things of which I am unaware, but a few things I do know: she lived on an ashram and often her points of reference include Hindu metaphors and guides; she recently attended a weekend workshop with a renown Buddhist teacher; she is a member of a Christian church and kvetches regularly about the vagaries of congregational life.
In other words: a kindred spirit.
Because this friend seems unattached, perhaps even uninspired, by the whole Jesus thing and is ambivalent about the whole personal god thing, I have wondered to myself why she attends a UCC church, rather than a UU one. Because she and I have developed a sweet affection for each other, I decided to ask my question out loud. Not wanting to come across as proselytizing or (too) cheeky, still I asked,
Why aren’t you UU?
Her answer was thoughtful and inconclusive, but more compelling was the question she posed me:
Why are you UU?
It seems like it should be an easy question for someone on the path to ministry to answer. Less so an answer, I offer a story.
I didn’t choose Judaism even though I have some ancestral history and some sibling dedication (my brother is observant in the Conservative Judaism stream), because it was not a familiar enough idiom. Plus, at the time when I was actively exploring a faith home, I was in a committed relationship with someone who had attended Episcopal seminary. Though I only spent one year of my childhood attending church and church school, the Protestant context still seeped into my psyche. I alternately credit and blame this on the saturation of Christian images in secular culture in this nation and because I grew up in a small, rural town where any kind of religious diversity was masked or underplayed.
Unitarian Universalism has felt like home; in fact, it has felt like a home I did not know I was missing. When I first began attending worship services at a UU congregation (a “society,” not a church), I promised myself that I would attend at least five services before allowing myself to stop going. I wanted to give the experience a proper chance of sticking. I fully expected the possibility that I would not like it. Or that I would experience some resistance and would need to give myself the opportunity to move through said resistance. Fortunately, I was hooked in the first fifteen minutes.
Rather than some other liberal religious setting, such as a UCC church, I ended up among the UUs for a whole host of positive reasons. However, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that part of why I ended up here was because of my own judgment and hostility towards mainstream Christianity. I was familiar with radical Christians who I understood to be on the edges of mainstream Christianity – when I lived in DC, in my neighborhood there was a Catholic Worker house and I admired their dedication to social justice and living a life of integrity. However, I harbored (and still do, as some of my fellow seminarians would attest) concerns about the hegemonic and hypocritical aspects of Christianity. I was unable then, and still struggle today, to separate the early liberating message from the history of empire and exclusion. I am working on this.
And those positive attractions to Unitarian Universalism?
In a UU setting – particularly one that explicitly chose not to call itself a “church” and did not identify as Christian – I was more at ease to experience the spiritual impulse, which was still just nascent in me. I needed that safe haven, for it was new to me to give shelter and nurturance to a regular and consistent religious identity, ritual, and practice.
Doing so in a community deeply and out-loudly committed to inclusivity was life-affirming.
Being explicitly supported on a spiritual path that had no creedal box was surprising at first, then utterly empowering. At first I thought this meant that one could believe anything and be UU. Coming from an understanding that faith requires an imposed box, this is a freeing understanding, but also an immature, if necessary, one. I know now that understanding myself to be Unitarian Universalist frees me and binds me, enables me to be on a spiritual path of belief and obliges me to be engaged in spiritually responsible actions to and with my fellow creatures.
There is a UU aphorism that goes something like, “Where others say they have answers to your questions, we have questions for your answers.” It is this cultivation of awareness, of spiritual curiosity, of a reverence for the tentative and the uncertain, that drew me and draws me ever closer. Each spiritual path is not meant to be static, but is understood and honored as dynamic and as having the potential for transformation.
At some point in my love-affair-turned-committed-relationship with Unitarian Universalism, I felt a gnawing absence of something necessary. It turned out to be something that our faith is regularly criticized for: lack of spiritual discipline. I was bored in the pews, bored in the other ways I was involved in the life of my congregation, and felt I had not only plateaued spiritually, but was going nowhere.
Not out of temptation to go astray, but in response to that feeling that something was missing, I took a step towards Buddhism. With no small amount of trepidation, I explored and adopted a Buddhist meditation practice. This has emerged as the heart of much of how I understand myself as a spiritual being; is an ever-renewing bond between me and my husband; is how I begin to approach even the echo of speculation about what happens after we die; is the call that compels me to a spiritual practice that requires more of me than I have and offers me more than I think possible.
It is at this intersection of my spiritual seeking that my friend’s question touches the tenderest place: why am I not a straight-up Buddhist, rather than this amalgam endearingly called “UUBu?”
It’s the companionship that is elemental in Unitarian Universalism that I find secondary in Western Buddhism. Yes, one of the three jewels is the “sangha” or Buddhist community. Yet among UUs, there is a companioning that is along the lifespan; that witnesses human and community rites of passage; that ensures a moral and spiritual embrace for our children and youth I have not seen replicated in any Western Buddhist community. In Unitarian Universalism, there is the unceasing voice for a more just society, and the compulsion to embody our spiritual values on this plane and on this planet. One expression of this is the UU value of inclusivity, which we fail at regularly, but never relinquish as our highest good. I could not accept any religious tradition that did not make this a centerpiece of its existence.
Finally, and this feels about two or three decades late, but it is nevertheless true: I have gifts and talents that can and will serve a collected group of people, from cradle to grave, individually and from a systems perspective, spiritually and pragmatically. I cannot imagine being a Zen priest, and not only because I do not practice Zen Buddhism. I cannot imagine being a teacher at an Insight Meditation center, which is the stream of Buddhism I swim in. I hold my teachers in great affection, but that role requires a level of knowledge about things I do not (yet?) know and seems so restricted in how I understand engaging human and community spiritual needs, at least within the parameters of the gifts I have to offer. Right now, I can’t imagine being anything else but a minister.
Fortunately for me, there is complimentary relationship between these two spiritual paths. Both current versions of these faith traditions go beyond tolerating science, to whole-heartedly embracing it as inextricably linked to that Mystery beyond knowing and sensing. Both are intrigued with that which is larger than we are, but also engage in a healthy dose of skepticism. I know that I will be not only a better person, but a better UU minister, the more I can explore Buddhist “theology” (for want of a better word) and the more I can engage in meditation practices. About a year ago, when I attended a ten-day silent retreat, I departed feeling a deep coherence in my theological engagement. I do not need to choose between one or the other. For that reason, and for the reasons I have written here, and for reasons I cannot yet articulate or know,
I am a Unitarian Universalist.
* Thanks go to my fellow UU seminarians who responded to someone else’s Facebook post about values that define Unitarian Universalism beyond the Seven Principles and from which I drew some inspiration to articulate my own views: Sean, Catharine, David, and Paul.