We Are Not Better

Our 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in the Neighboring Faiths class took a trip two weeks ago to a very large, very vibrant, black Baptist church in Boston; a church with which I have a long relationship. I spent some time processing the event with them after church last Sunday. It was great fun.

The class began with the kids talking about their experience. The service made them feel uncomfortable, especially at first. As the only white people in the room, they felt exposed and different. Not only did their physical appearance make them stick out in the room, but they felt self-conscious and awkward as they compared their reserved behavior in the pews to that of the worshippers around them. “

There was a lot of clapping and hands in the air and yelling.” “It was so loud! And so long.” “People were dancing around and crying. It was weird.” “They think Jesus solves everything.” The other kids giggled.

“Stop. Here’s what I want you to know,” I said, probably a little too forcefully. “We – our church – we are not better. I’m going to say that again. We are not better. Our faith tradition is not better. If there is one thing I want you to learn in this class…one thing I worry that we don’t teach well in our churches…one thing I worry that NO CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA teaches well or at all…We are NOT any better than anyone else who goes to church on a Sunday morning, nor are we better as an institution.”

“Our worship style doesn’t make us better, our theology doesn’t make us better, our history doesn’t make us better, our lack of a need for Jesus doesn’t make us better. We have different ways of doing things based on the circumstances we have found ourselves in. We have different ways of understanding God based on the privileges we hold, or don’t. We have different ways of knowing and feeling and acting. But we are not better.”

The kids looked at me a little stunned, like “whoa, there, settle down, buddy. Who peed in your Cheerios this morning?” Then they continued talking about the experience at the church they visited, with far more admiration and appreciation than they began with. We talked about how important Jesus might be to some people. We talked about why the idea that Jesus triumphed in the end despite persecution might be a deeply held and beautiful belief to those who live with cultural persecution every day. We talked about the desire to worship a God who used prophetic people to free slaves…to lead slaves out of bondage. We imagined why that kind of God might make us cry, or dance, or shout for joy.

Our youth slowly took their armor of skepticism off and admitted that they loved being in that two hour long service. “The music was SO GOOD.” “The people were CRYING and hugging each other!” “I think they really healed that man. I believe he was healed.” “We felt so welcome.” “There was so much spirit there.” “I felt the energy.”

They talked about the things we held in common with the church members there, like the beautiful baby dedication they witnessed, and the doxology after the offering. They found beauty in the abandon with which people approached worship. “The people that worship there didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of them while they were in that building! I wish I could be like that at school,” they said.

We are not unlike our youth. I know I’m not. We spend a lot of time “church shopping” for the church that makes us feel most comfortable, most known, most un-offended, most alive. And we care deeply about the values and the theology our church claims. This is good and noble and understandable. But we are not better, and we need to tell ourselves this. We need that humility. When we see every other neighboring faith through our own lenses, we start to lose our ability to look for understanding; to access genuine curiosity. We lose our empathy, and a little bit of our humanity. We fail to live faithfully.

Sometimes our UU churches, just like every other church I have encountered, have a tendency to hold up our unique way of doing religion as superior, and more evolved. To that I say “nonsense.” We don’t go to church to attend a pep rally for Unitarian Universalism. We go to church to remind ourselves that we are not the center of the universe. And then we go again next week, because we need that reminder as much as we can get it. We are not the best, nor are we the center of the universe. And thank God for that.

We are a flawed community of people just like all the rest. In fact, this is the heart of our saving message. We are more alike than we are different; connected in our sins, our suffering, and in our capacity for good. We are all just trying to get through this life as unscathed as possible, with as much opportunity to feel as possible.

Let’s all try to live that truth and love with more abandon, and a little more humility. Our souls deserve to have their armor removed, and so does the soul of our world.


11 thoughts on “We Are Not Better”

  1. Bless you for peeling away such young cynicism and opening eyes to the beauty of inter-religious dialogue and appreciation.

  2. Cynthia Landrum

    You write, “We are NOT any better than anyone else who goes to church on a Sunday morning, nor are we better as an institution.”

    I don’t endorse feeling like we are superior people for choosing this religion. We are not better than anyone else as individuals.

    But… as an institution? Not better than anything? Even ones that endorse violence?

    Do I think it’s better to choose love than to choose hate? Yes. Do I think some religions choose hate as part of their core belief? Yes. Do I think Unitarian Universalism is better than the Westboro Baptist Church? Yes.

    I believe in the morals and values of our faith. I believe some of our values, like Standing on the Side of Love, are better than their opposites. I believe it’s better to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people than its opposite, the inherent depravity of all people, or, worse yet, the inherent depravity of *some* people.

    1. As an institution, I choose the UUA over others because I am a Unitarian and a Universalist and I believe our theology is needed and saving. Our theology is aspirational, not realized, just as all theology in all religious institutions is aspirational and not realized. Our institution is human just like we are; that’s why. So, no, our institution is not “better.” It’s what I choose for the reasons you name above, but we fall short in our own ways just as other institutions do. And we will continue to as long as we are human. I actually find this fact to be our good news. It’s freeing to know we are fallible and so are all institutions. We are not God.

  3. Amen! Robin, what would it take to offer the adults in our congregation some of these same experiences? I would sign up in a heartbeat.

    1. Anne: yeah! Well, I think it would take a conversation with Heather Concannon and Nathan to start. 🙂

  4. Robin, I’d love to use this as a reading for an RE Sermon coming up — will credit you. Alert me if it isn’t a public item I can use for a reading. I want to address the paradox of helping our people passionately love their tradition and church, and also not become chauvinists with saints-identity-complex.

  5. Thanks, Robin. Can you speak to how the subtle or not so subtle messages of “better” and “not better” may be impacting retention of young (second generation, perhaps?) Unitarian Universalists?

    1. I don’t know if I can speak to that, Melissa, just because I think it’s a really complicated subject that I won’t portend to have an absolute answer to. I think a lot of things impact retention of young Unitarian Universalists, not the least of which is the culture that impacts all Mainline Protestant churches in the United States: the Church is quickly losing its status as the voice of human religion. This isn’t Unitarian Universalism’s problem alone. I think it very largely impacts UUism since UU churches used to be the place where you went because it was the only alternative–but that was back when church-going was seen as normative and “what one had to do to be a good person.” I also think that Unitarian Universalists have a hard time, like all liberal mainline churches, retaining their young. This is largely because we churches in the mainline ask very little of our members, and the overwhelming message children receive is that you can “be good” without (God, church, religious community), you fill in the blank. So I think churches like ours ironically contribute to our own demise. Then when you add in the liberal church’s very human tendency toward hypocrisy (we send the message that we have found the one true religion just like every other church does), we have a recipe for disaffected youth, don’t we? Now there are many people who would probably say the opposite is true (including, perhaps the me of five years ago)–that the reason why we don’t retain our young people is because we haven’t given them the message that we are the “better” choice. That we’ve equated all the world’s religions to the point that it doesn’t matter what religion they choose when they grow. I think this is true in the sense that we don’t actually hand down a religion, with a narrative and symbols: so we are passing on some pretty thin gruel.

      Personally, in addition to handing down a sacred text, a theology, and some symbols to engage, I think we would do better retaining youth and adults if we were a little more humble. If we didn’t scoff at the religion of our ancestors so much, or the religion of other people so much. (See my post “Children Will Listen” for more of my thoughts on this subject.) Because overwhelmingly what I find is that people (especially our own kids) can sniff out hypocrisy in churches really, really fast. Just the other day I was over at a colleague’s house with our spouses, and we were voicing frustration about friends and family who were driving us crazy and my 7 year old daughter whispered in my ear “Mommy, Jesus said to love your enemies. You’re a minister now.” Kids are good for this kind of thing.

      We are just as hypocritical as the next guy. For instance, if we say we are a liberal religion that honors all paths to Truth, and then a visitor comes in and asks for a prayer, and we scoff and say “we don’t do that supernatural mumbo jumbo here,” we are falsely advertising a non-Orthodox church. People have to figure out the orthodoxy while they are in the church rather than just reading our creeds, beliefs, etc. on our website before coming. We need to recognize, with humility, that we are as orthodox as any other church. And we need to find freedom in that. It just means we are human with the same tendency to create in-groups and out-groups and cultural norms as any other group of humans. The trouble happens when we self-righteously advertise something we can’t actually deliver. I think retaining our youth starts with being honest about who we are. From many angles. Clearly. Lord, did I say I had nothing to say on this subject?

      1. Thank you, Robin! I agree that this goes beyond the UUA. My background is Catholicism, and their retention is rather poor among young people, too. Hence the “Come Home” campaign.

        But there is a sense of religious ethnicity in Catholicism that may not be as solid in UUA.

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