Back to Church

September has finally gotten my attention, enough that I plan to leave my disabled wife at home with her caregiver and take myself to church tomorrow.

Not the local UU society to which I belong and pledge, but the first in a series of liberal Protestant Christian congregations where I hope to satisfy my need for deep prayers and regular insight from the book of Psalms.

In venturing out like this, I display an under-appreciated reason why people leave this denomination. Jokers often call us “the open door on the way out of religion”, but for untold many, UUism opens a door back into religion. I know former UUs who have rejoined Jewish synagogues, Roman Catholic cathedrals, and all the mainline Protestant faiths.

So what do we have in common, we who move into traditional faith communities? It goes back to that joke about deceptive farmland, where the topsoil spreads a mile wide and a single inch deep. To delve deeper into something means to limit the scope of one’s field of inquiry. To choose a sacred text, to ponder a particular tradition. Repetition gets a lot of derision, but over time, it also instills a sense of peace. If one is going to hear the same words again, sing the same songs, craft the same decorations year after year, eventually layers of learning will accumulate. Just as my wife’s favorite flower bed has gotten deeper and deeper with three decades of decaying roots and leaves, so one’s religious confidence grows by knowing both what one knows and what one does not need to know.

UUism at its worst neglects that second aspect of religious faith: the right to not know certain things. Over the years, as former UUs have spread out into the mainstream religious environment, we have dropped seeds of openness, tolerance, receptivity into settled faith traditions. But in those places, that openness has limits to what it imposes on us. We are not going to be able to be all things, to meet all divinities, to answer every call to prayer. In UUism, one is never quite sure about the way to respect coreligionists whose primary source is different than our own.

So as the UUA yet again turns its face to finding a way to keep members through better institutional structure, I applaud many of their goals. But I caution that in many cases, what a congregation needs is a way to meet the deeper faith needs of its most committed, at times when they feel especially hungry.

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