Monday, April 18, 2011

An Atheist in Church-My First Unitarian Universalist Visit

Today I decided not to go to church with Angelina and her family choosing rather to test out some other churches to see if I could find one more to my liking. Now there were several churches nearby that if I decided to visit them I knew exactly what I would be getting into once I walked in the door. They were all various evangelical denominations that shared similar theologies to the one I grew up with and thus would offer few surprises and the fact that it was Palm Sunday made it even easier to predict what the sermon would be. Needless to say none of these churches jumped out as an exciting place to visit. But then I discovered there was a Unitarian Universalist church close to the house. It is about 3.5 miles from the house, which equals about an hour of walking and that’s easy enough for me. Now I had never been to a Unitarian church before though I knew at least a little about it due to previous historical and theological studies. Then during the week I studied the church’s website and looked at some information about the denomination in general and was fairly encouraged by what I was reading. With that said it is always a bit scary to walk into a place where you really have no idea what is going to happen.

Getting to the church was easy enough because I didn’t have to walk. Angelina dropped me off on her way to church the only downside to this was that I was there fairly early so I hung out at a McDonalds across the street reading a book until church started. When I walked over to the church I found out that the church is not a free standing building rather it occupies a space within an office park. I arrived about 15 minutes before the service was set to begin. The main room was pretty big and the chairs were already set up when I walked in. I did not count but I would guess there were around a hundred chairs set up in the room. The second I walked into the door I was greeted by one of the church members who then asked if I had been there before even though I think she already knew the answer. When I said no she offered me an envelope that they give to all the visitors, which simply contained information about the church. The also allowed me to make a name tag for myself to make it easier to get to know people. Everyone in the room had name tags on, which I liked because it really helped me focus on talking to people instead of trying to memorize a bunch of new names.

It did not take long before more and more people came up and introduced themselves to me. Most of the basic questions were covered. I told people I had spent my last year living in Korea teaching English and that I had moved here to be with Angelina and that I grew up in Denver and so on. Now one of the questions that most people asked was where I lived, meaning where in Sacramento did I live? I told them where I was and soon explained that I did not drive but actually would be walking back home. And within 10 minutes of being there I had already been offered a ride home. I couldn’t believe how easy that was and just how comfortable I felt accepting it. Often I feel fairly nervous around new people and I fear awkward situations so usually I do not spend a lot of time, at first, with new groups or people. But almost from the moment I walked into this church I felt quite comfortable and enjoyed each of the people I had a chance to meet and chat with.

Church began with the singing of a few hymns. They sang three hymns but what I found odd was that they only sang the first verse of each hymn. Later on I would discover that the full version of each of the hymns would be sung again at different points in the service and that each of the songs chosen was connected to the part of the service during which it was sung.

After this one the members of the church got up and read the seven principles the church affirms which were beautifully painted on one of the walls. The principles are:
  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
After this the congregation was asked to stand up and to say together a short paragraph describing the purpose of their church, it was like a mission statement. They said, “The ministry of our church is to foster open minds, caring hearts, helping hands and growing spirits in a congregation of all ages. By living and sharing Unitarian Universalist values, our spiritual and intentionally diverse community seeks to bring compassion and justice to the world.”

Now both this purpose and the principles of the church were things I felt quite encouraged by and made me think this was a place I could actually see myself going to and enjoying. Clearly the value of humanity took precedence over silly or pointless theological statements of faith that were often detrimental to genuine morality, which made me very happy.

At this time the children in the church were invited to the front of the room. The minister gave a short message for the children and then dismissed them to go to their classrooms for Sunday school. I truly was surprised by how many children were in this church they must have been about half the congregation.

Next there was a time where the floor was opened up for anyone in the congregation to share any joys or sorrows that they were experiencing in their lives or for others. The word prayer was used a few times but some people used phrases like “keep this in your mind or heart” rather than “pray.” There was then a time of silence allowing for prayer or reflection. I really appreciated this time because silence really is vital to genuine thought and it was always in silence were I felt God’s presence when I was a Christian more than in loud services. There had almost never a moment of silence in the Assemblies of God church I had been attending for the last five weeks.

Next they passed the offering plates while a lady read a poem called “Jesus Dies” written by Anne Sexton. Here’s the poem.

From up here in the crow's nest
I see a small crowd gather.
Why do you gather, my townsmen?
There is no news here.
I am not a trapeze artist.
I am busy with My dying.
Three heads lolling,
bobbing like bladders.
No news.
The soldiers down below
laughing as soldiers have done for centuries.
No news.
We are the same men,
you and I,
the same sort of nostrils,
the same sort of feet.
My bones are oiled with blood
and so are yours.
I want to kiss God on His nose and watch Him sneeze
and so do you.
Not out of disrespect.
Out of pique.
Out of a man-to-man thing.
I want heaven to descend and sit on My dinner plate
and so do you.
I want God to put His steaming arms around Me
and so do you.
Because we need.
Because we are creatures.
My townsmen,
go home now.
I will do nothing extraordinary.
I will not divide in two.
I will not pick out My white eyes.
Go now,
this is a personal matter,
a private affair and God knows
none of your business.

It was then time for the sermon for which I was fairly excited. I can honestly say this is the first sermon I was excited about in at least a year. And the minister did not disappoint. I discovered that the lady who spoke was not the head minister but she was a wonderful speaker who was engaging and clearly thoughtful. She began by saying that today she was going to preach using Christian themes despite the difficulty that would create for many there. It became clear that the sermons did not always rely on Christian scriptures or lessons but rather drew from other religions and systems of thought as well, which I found very encouraging. It was also clear that many of the people in the church had come to that church to escape from more traditional and evangelical Christian churches. I figured this meant I would most likely be listening to a message that would be considered unorthodox by all of the churches I had grown up in, which excited me and brought me great reassurance about the value of  how I was about to spend the next hour of my life.

On the program the sermon was titled “Darkness before Dawn.” Under the title there was a short paragraph which read, “In the Christian story, the events that precede Easter reflect the darkest depths of the human experience: disappointment, betrayal, torture and execution. UUs (Unitarian Universalists) often avoid thinking about the crucifixion of Jesus and what it represents because of the ways that violence and suffering have been glorified in our Christian dominated culture. Is there more to the story than those damaging messages? Can we deepen our understanding of the Easter myth by confronting what comes first? Come explore the possibilities.” This was her invitation and it is one I’m glad I accepted. Now I did not actually read this part of the program until much later in the day after I had already gotten home but it is a solid introduction to the message shared that day.

The speaker then explained about her personal background and when she stopped being a Christian in the traditional sense, it was only years later that she would become a Unitarian. It was her first year of college and one of the main reasons was in fact the Easter story. She said she could just no longer escape the horrors of the Easter story. The blatant message of child abuse and needless suffering coupled with a blood thirsty God who was unable or unwilling to simply forgive people. Many of these themes and the theology that sprang from them are things that the Unitarian church rejects. Being Unitarian she said she does support the rejection of these doctrines but she then explained that she felt the Unitarian church in its dismissal of the obviously false parts of the Easter story often ends up going too far, sacrificing too much of the Easter story to its own detriment. She explained that there was in fact a difference between the Christian stories of Easter and the traditional Christian interpretations of Easter and she wanted to encourage the church to keep the former while rejecting the later. She encouraged the congregation to look at the Easter story with fresh eyes.

First she recounted the last week of Jesus life from Palm Sunday up until the crucifixion. She was clearly well read on the historical situation of the time and the various views of modern scholarship surrounding the Easter story rather than merely just what the texts said. She discussed the various expectations held by those in the crowd celebrating when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Whether it was the expectation of Jesus being a king sent by God to overthrow the Romans and restore Jewish self-rule, or that Jesus was a prophet like those from the scriptures sent by God to call Israel to purify itself and follow the ways of God as described in the law or that Jesus was an apocalyptic messenger sent to warn Israel of God’s imminent judgment of the entire world. All of these expectations would of course be dashed by the crucifixion and death of Jesus. But the failure brought by the crucifixion was not in fact the failure of Jesus but rather of the people themselves and their mistaken expectations of who Jesus was.

She then spent time examining and contrasting the two trails of Jesus. First the one in front of the Sanhedrin and second the one in front of Pilate and the Roman authorities. She notes that Jesus’ main offense in Jewish eyes is a theological one. Is Jesus the son of God? He confirms that he is. (There is, of course, a lot of discussion about what that phrase means at the time and many scholars do not believe the term “son of God” meant Jesus actually thought he was divine the way later church doctrines would label him) Then with the Romans the main issue concerning Jesus is a political one; is he the king of the Jews? Jesus also confirms this. On a side note she pointed out the problems with this story’s portrayal of the Jewish leaders and the simple likelihood that it was inaccurate. She also showed many of the crimes committed by the church throughout history based on this skewed views of Judaism. For her the story of Jesus before the Sanhedrin was not about Jewish duplicity, as the church would later teach, but rather about how occupying powers divide people groups in order to consolidate their own power. I have spent a great deal of my academic life studying Judaism and I really appreciated her understanding of the built in biases to the gospel stories and that she openly shared them with the congregation. The fact is the Romans would obviously not have liked anyone claiming to be a king of any sort, but the various accounts go to great lengths to make Pilate look as innocent as possible when it comes to Jesus’ crucifixion. This is of course to keep the early church out of trouble with the Roman authorities as much as was possible. The result is the story throws a majority of the blame for Jesus’ death upon the Jewish leaders despite the fact that they had no legitimate authority or power to cause Jesus to be crucified and this is one of the main sources for the horrible anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic beliefs of the church that would cause horrible crimes and suffering to the Jewish people all the way up to the Holocaust. I discuss this story as found in Matthew and all its horrible consequence at greater length in another blog of mine. See here. And again her ability to share both the story as it is written by the individual authors of the gospels and to explain the actual history and meaning behind those stories was quite impressive.
She notes that in the various stories surrounding the last week of Jesus’ life (Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the trails before Pilate and the Sanhedrin, and the crucifixion) one sees the depths of suffering and pain that is possible in a human life. The capacity for human suffering goes beyond just our biological selves and what we can feel in a physical sense. The fact is suffering is a part of human existence and the Easter story understands this and tries to deal directly with that issue. Dealing with the issue of suffering the minister said outright that she needs a religion that grapples with human brokenness and the darkness that exists in the human soul rather than one that ignores those facts and this is what the Easter myth is about, human brokenness. Now unlike traditional Christian churches she did not believe any of the suffering found in the Easter story (physical/psychological/spiritual) was necessary for her or anyone one else’s salvation. Rather the crucifixion was merely a consequence of political acts of violence. There was no substitutional atonement to be found in this story and it was clear that she understood the danger of belief in substitutional atonement and all the horrible crimes committed in Western history due to that belief. She asserted that people do not need someone else to suffer for their own salvation in fact people do not need suffering to get salvation. The two are not inseparably linked for Unitarians the way they are for a majority of the Christian church, which for me was quite gratifying to see. But suffering remains real and the Easter story sees the difficulty created by the human problem of suffering and with the resurrection offers that there is a hope beyond it. No matter how much pain one suffers healing is possible. Restoration, community and love remain and they offer a hope amidst our suffering. No matter how much one suffers life will go on, love will go on and people will still come together for peace, justice and love.

I will note that one does not need a bloody atoning sacrifice or a literal resurrection for the Easter story to be valuable. The speaker at this church understood that and offered an encouraging and well as thought-filled  sermon showing me that one can be intellectually honest and spiritual deep at the same time.   

After the sermon one of the hymns that we had sung at the beginning was now sung again in its full version. The hymn is called “Wake, Now My Senses” and I found it to be quite moving. The hymn goes as follows:

Wake, now my senses, and hear the earth call;
feel the deep power of being in all;
keep, with the web of creation your vow,
giving, receiving as love shows us how.

Wake, now my reason, reach out to the new,
join with each pilgrim who quests for the true;
honor the beauty and wisdom of time;
suffer your limit, and praise the sublime.

Wake, now compassion, give heed to the cry;
voices of suffering fill the wide sky;
take as your neighbor both stranger and friend,
praying and striving their hardship to end.

Wake, now my conscience, with justice your guide;
join with all people whose rights are denied;
take not for granted a privileged place;
God's love embraces the whole human race.

Wake, now my vision of ministry clear;
brighten my pathway with radiance here;
mingle my calling with all who will share;
work toward a planet transformed by our care. 

Overall it was nice to be a part of a service that encouraged a person to think as much as it encouraged a person to feel. It was clear that my reason was meant to be stimulated as much as my heart. I did not feel like I was being manipulated, either intentionally or not, by the speaker. She was quite open about when she was sharing her opinion and always encouraged the audience to study these things on their own to see what they might find. She felt no need to create some sort of artificial authority for her ideas by saying God spoke to her or that she understood the “true” meaning of the bible. She did not even assert that the bible was an unquestionable source of truth. It was clear that the search for truth superseded the search for higher membership totals or a belief in limited membership in heaven. For the first time in years I can honestly say I enjoyed church on Sunday.  


  1. Hey Zach - I'm so glad you found a church service that you enjoyed. It was nice to read your enthusiasm for the ideas presented in the service and that you were moved by the poetry and song. I hope you can continue to find things that inspire you and find common ground between your beliefs and Angelina's family's beliefs. You made me smile this morning :)

  2. I, too, was quite encouraged to read this. I hope this is the beginning of a journey with a loving and accepting community that helps you feel supported and valued!

  3. Thanks guys, I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed my enjoyment of the service.

    And thank you Jeff for your suggestion to give the Unitarian church a shot because while I had thought about it before your recommendation is what actually solidified my decision to go and try it out.

  4. You should find yourself a proper church, one that actually preaches the truth of the Gospel!