Children Will Listen

children-will-listenI want to talk about growing up UU since our kids are growing up UU, and I know something about it. Not many of us adults know about growing up UU from experience. Apparently, 90% of our congregants in UU churches weren’t raised in our churches. I like to think that my rare experience gives me an interesting perspective on the children entrusted into our spiritual care.

And I want to urge us to be careful with our children’s souls.

I grew up UU in the very late ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s in a church where, as the old joke about us goes, the only time you heard the word “Jesus” was when the minister tripped on his way into the pulpit. I knew very well what words we weren’t allowed to say from a very early age (God, Jesus, heaven, hell, sin, salvation, Ronald Reagan). My mother was the music director, and she would always get complaints if she programmed, say, the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. “Too much God talk,” people would protest. “We may offend someone,” or, “I am offended.” We were an Orthodox church.

I want to be very clear that I think Unitarian Universalism has changed tremendously since that time, but we still have a lot of work to do holding our orthodoxy up to the light, examining it, naming it, and critiquing it. This matters particularly for the children in our churches, because they listen to us. They listen to what we say, what we don’t say, and what we’re not allowed to say.

And I want to tell you the message that was given to me, both implicitly and explicitly, because I believed it with a fervor based on what my church taught me:

People who believe in God and Jesus are stupid. They aren’t as smart or well educated as we are, so they haven’t figured out that God can’t possibly be real. Either that, or they are poor (and that’s not their fault).

I believed this as a child. I also evangelized this. I was an evangelical atheist UU child. And it wasn’t because I was a jerk. I was precocious, but not a jerk. I earnestly believed that if enough people knew there wasn’t a God, the world would start to be a better place because people would be smarter like me, and stop believing in magic and fairy tales that weren’t real. It took me a long time to deprogram myself of this belief that Christians are stupid…to unlearn it. [It’s easy to unlearn this misconception fast if you have the privilege of going to a hot shot Christian seminary like I did. These people–my professors and my colleagues–were all smarter than me. Philosophers, theologians, scientists. Some of the smartest people I have ever met.]

And friends, as an adult I understand that the message I received as a child–that “real” religious people are stupid–was a defense for all sorts of religious woundedness. There were all kinds of hurts happening in that UU church of mine. Former Catholics who were kicked out of the church after a divorce. Gay, lesbian and bisexual people told they were going to hell. All kinds of people done wrong by Christianity; done wrong by God. It was real; this pain. Christianity has hurt a lot of people. So has bad theology. So has God! Unfortunately, kids don’t understand that negative messages get conveyed because there is woundedness and nuance and loss in the religious stories of the adults trusted with their spiritual care. They just hear “religious people are stupid. And dangerously stupid, to boot.” That’s all I heard, anyway.

So I went to school, walked around in the world, interacted with the diversity of humankind, all with the underlying belief that religious people–theists, especially Christians–are stupid. Not educated. Not sophisticated. I don’t think that message I received from my church helped me to be kind or loving. I think that message undermined the real message of Unitarian Universalism: that we all come from the same source, are fated to the same destination, and we are loved beyond belief.

This is why I am very intentional about talking about God and Jesus with our children in my ministry. I worry that we adults will quash their growing spirits by what we refuse to say. Just imagine what ills the message I received might unleash in the hearts of our UU children–when they experience their first yearnings for God. Imagine what ills that message might unleash in the hearts of our children when they experience their first desire to pray, or to make sense of death by imagining another world. “I must be stupid.”

Let’s focus on healing our own religious wounds fast and often so that we don’t keep unintentionally passing this message down through the generations, my friends. Our religious wounds deserve our attention, and even our fury. But our children need our healing message: that Love puts flight to all fears; that God is love; that there is no “stupid” and “smart” in the beloved community–there are only different, unique people in the form of good gifts; that we are more alike than different; members of the same human family.

Be love.


12 thoughts on “Children Will Listen”

  1. I gotta say though, as a UU with liberal Christian sympathies who likes to mix it up with fundies and biblical literalists over on the Beliefnet “Christian-to-Christian Debate” board, there are more than a few of them who genuinely are not only strangers to the (very Christian!) concept of “grace” but also, shall we say, developmentally challenged in the critical thinking department. They do exist. They are not merely figures in a folklore myth. That being the case, the reciprocal challenge for UUs is in recognizing that those ones are not necessarily a valid archetype for the entire religion.

    1. Absolutely, Scott. Amen to that. I know that these religious wounds people come to us with are real and deep. Truly. But as moms everywhere say, “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

  2. And, I should add, perhaps an even greater challenge for some UUs is recognizing and appreciating that our own denominational heritage genuinely draws its values and outlook from an authentic strain of Christianity that is a very different strain of Christianity from theirs.

  3. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

    I desperately want the people who guide my daughter’s religious education to take these words to heart. Thank you.

  4. There is real cause for concern about arrogant atheism as discussed by American Humanist Association director Roy Speckhardt in a recent Huffpost piece:

    But, on the other hand, many including myself are concerned that the pendulum in Unitarian Universalism has swung too far in the other direction, away from reason and toward “radical anythingism.” You write: “the real message of Unitarian Universalism: that we all come from the same source, are fated to the same destination, and we are loved beyond belief.” I’ve heard this before and it is a nice sentiment. But what does it really mean? Would you care to unpack it a bit?

    1. Well, that statement is purposefully broad theologically so that people can unpack it on their own, using their own spiritual understandings, both humanist and theistic. Do you want me to unpack it using the religious symbols that hold meaning for me? There is one God, and that God is love, exemplified in the person of Jesus, and in all people. We are all brothers and siblings in spirit as children of God. We are all fated to one sacred destiny: death. It is up to us to build the kingdom of God in this lifetime, which is already inside of us, and not yet here. Love conquers death because we live on in spirit. But your mileage may vary.

      1. I find this to be beautifully stated. Although I am among those who do not use the word God, I can feel the conviction in your words, and I understand your perspective and find it resonates with me deeply. I have explained to my own children that what most people think of as “God”, I believe is Love (and, in fact, I capitalize the word Love as a matter of course in my writing, as others would capitalize the word Him, when referring to God).

        I thank you for articulating your own spiritual understandings with such clarity and eloquence.

  5. We grew up at the same time in the UU church and I have kept my radical humanism… it is ok with me. What I see happening in the UU church has led me to walk away right now. I don’t want Jesus in my church… there area million churches where he is welcomed, but none for me. What happens when all of the humanists leave the UUA? What will it become then? Believing what you believe doesn’t make you superior – it just makes you who you are and I am sad that those of us who grew up being ok with not believing aren’t really acceptable right now.

  6. It will be a very sad day when all of the humanists leave UUism. I don’t think that will happen anytime soon, but I believe that all UUs are humanist, and there would literally be no one left.

  7. Thank you for your prophetic words, Robin. I think there’s a developmental lens that can be helpful here, too. I’ve been reading about how children form and enact white identities in the excellent book _What if All the Kids are White?_ by Derman-Sparks & Ramsey. They talk a lot about how kids form judgments about their identity group vs. other people’s identity groups as a developmental means of claiming their own identities. I admit that when I was a kid I too thought I belonged to the only “enlightened” religion. Perhaps the judgement of other religions’ people as “stupid” came primarily from us kids and not from the adults. As kids, perhaps we were just enacting our developmentally-appropriate (yet ill-founded) elevation of our group. This is, after all, the age at which Christian kids might tell their non-Christian friends they’re going to hell…

    Kids can pick this kind of thing up without any adult ever expressing this attitude. In one study, referenced in the book Nurtureshock, teachers simply dressed schoolkids in red and blue shirts for a few weeks and didn’t say anything about it. They didn’t group the kids or separate them. After a few weeks, when questioned about who was the best team, the kids would identify their own shirt color team and make all sorts of claims about it being better than the other.

    So, all of this leads me to wonder… what if we assumed our kids were going to develop these superiority-complexes (white racial, religious, etc.) unless we explicitly acted to disrupt them? How would that change our practices, in our congregations and in our families?

    1. Sarah, SUCH an important point. It is largely developmental, which is why we need to actively disrupt them. And, I would argue, it is hard for a lot of humans to grow out of these proclivities as they age.

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