Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Unitarian Universalist Conversion Experience

Once upon a time in a younger universe my wife and I were in the long-distance dating phase.  It was the first trip where I had flown to her city.  On Saturday, she asked if I would be willing to go to church in the morning.

Church!?  Huh!?  She's cute, she's smart, but she has a religion thing?  Deep breath.  What kind of church?  Unitarian.  What kind of religion do you believe in?  I think of myself as a kind of Christian.

OK, bring out my personal way-back machine.  In my high school years I had what William James refers to as a Variety of Religious Experience.  (And as a good nerd I promptly read James.)  I interpreted this experience in a cultural context and got baptized.  A nice civilized Methodist water-on-the-head baptism in my mother's church, after my girlfriend's Lutheran minister wisely refused me.

In college I discovered the group Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF.)  IVCF was right up my alley.  They had a an emphasis on careful reading of the Bible with analysis of the historical background and meaning of a passage, not just quoting Bible verses.  I went on weekend retreats to learn to do Bible study and then lead a study group in my dorm room.  I was a self-professed Jesus Freak.

But I never really got to the point of "witnessing" and attempting to "bring someone to Jesus."  The pull to me was that the Jesus I was studying in the New Testament was not the insipid twit of my childhood surrounded by lambs and lions with a sickly sweet smile.  This Jesus talked about justice and tough commandments to love everyone.  And in a slap to the moralizing modern Christians, his very first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding when Mom tells him the drinks are running out; and the wine was so good that everyone noted how odd the host was for holding back the good stuff until the end of the party.  Great moral teacher, cool miracles.

While IVCF emphasized the reading of scriptural texts, we all knew the answers in the back of the book.  Jesus might be clever, tough, loving, and critical, but we all knew he was part of the Trinity, was born of a Virgin, and rose from the dead.  Just like good Marxists, analysis was encouraged, but it all had to stay within the confines of overall correct doctrine.

As the years stretched into graduate school, the IVCF model didn't really provide anything for me, and I felt no need to attend any church.  I reset to a vague mystical-atheist stance - I suggested that I thought that there might be some kind of Deity on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; I was comfortable with the Tao and Buddhism.

Pop out of my way-back machine.  There I am sitting with Mary asking me if I'll go to church, and claiming to be some kind of Christian.  From the very start, our relationship was always intellectually engaged.  Let's see what the hell she's talking about.  Take a deep breath and walk into this intellectual minefield.
Christian, huh?  So do you believe in the Resurrection?
Virgin birth?
But those are standard Christian doctrine - if you say you're Christian, you have to believe in those.
Unitarians don't.

Pause.  As a good liberally-educated nerd, I knew the name vaguely.  I hadn't parsed it.  Unitarians - I knew of Anti-Trinitarians.  But that was a battle of centuries past.  Wait a minute - you're a heretic!  I thought they were all killed off a long time ago.  Nope - we've got a whole church full.  Some think of themselves as Christian, some Buddhist, some Pagan.  The ministers refers to a fair amount of Buddhism in his sermons.

Hmm.  This is a whole different kind of church.  Heretics, that's OK.  All right, I'll go to church with you.

* * * * *

More than fifteen years later I'm in still in that church.  It's my community - the people who visit me in the hospital and bring over food to us when I come home.

My home church falls far short of its potential.  The larger UUA movement is maddening and infuriating and possibly fatally flawed.  But I am reminded of Thomas Jefferson who wrote "I rejoice that that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief … that there is not now a young man living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian."  His forecast was off, but his position sound.  Unitarian Universalism is my theological home - where else could I go when starting from a position of  Reason as arbiter of belief?