Creedless, Spiritual, and Religious

This blog entry is brought to you by this book review: “Spiritual-Not-Religious or Just Lazy?”

It caught my eye because so many people I know describe themselves as SBNR and because Peter Morales, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has been spending quite a bit of time discussing this group and their close cousins the “nones,” the growing number of Americans who check that box when asked to describe their religion.

Once again, I find myself frustrated by the absolute unwillingness in our culture to accept the idea that a person can be truly, deeply religious without believing in a personified, sentient deity.  A number of years ago I was reading an article in an education journal that described the demographically “average” teacher.  She was described as female, in her early forties (which I was at the time), married, white, and religious.  “What do you know?” I said to my son, who was sitting next to me at the time.  “I am exactly demographically average in my profession.”  To which he replied, “Religious?  That’s pushing it.”

That boy grew up going to church every Sunday, and more often than not, his grandmother and I were his Sunday school teachers.  I had missed family dinners on a monthly and sometimes weekly basis throughout his upbringing to attend church committee meetings and rehearsals for church plays.  And if the problem were merely that he saw me going through the motions of our faith without practicing it, that would be one thing, but my faith infuses every aspect of my life—the way I do my job, the way I interact with my family, and the way I treat strangers.  He questioned my religiosity because I do not believe in a personified, sentient deity and I doubt any kind of afterlife.  He lives in a society that insists that, without this set of beliefs, there can be no religion.

But I am a member of a religion, and I am orthodox in its practice, because here’s the thing, my religion has no creed; it’s all about the practice.  Being a Unitarian Universalist does not require me to believe in any single set of scriptures or any deity or an afterlife.  It requires me to affirm and promote the following:

  • 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.

I would argue that living by these principals 24/7 requires ruthless self-examination and genuine repentance when I fall short.  (In religious terms, which is the context I use here, to repent means to feel genuine remorse and endeavor in all ways never to commit the same error twice).  In short, it requires rigorous spiritual practice.  It must be done religiously.

At work today, a colleague and I got into a discussion we’ve had before.  It’s the general “public education is going to hell in a hand basket” discussion.  The almighty tests are designed to manufacture a crisis in schools, and they’re doing a great job of it.  The ultimate goal of this manufactured crisis is to get schools to be complicit in their own demise so that schools can be privatized and the haves can gain an even greater advantage over the have-nots.  It’s working like a charm.  A more detailed explanation of this would have to be the subject of another blog, because it wasn’t the point of contention today.  My colleague and I agree on this.  The point of contention was whether or not we should just give up.  Her daughter is in 3rd grade (the first year kids take the state test) and had such a terrible experience that my colleague is considering exempting her from the test from here out.

This is an important part of how the test is designed to undermine public schools.  Her kids get exemplary scores.  If she exempts them, the school must average in a zero instead of the high score her daughter would surely earn.  The more parents who exempt their bright kids from the test in hopes of avoiding the passion-killing effects of the damned things, the more zeros average in, lowering the school’s scores and reinforcing the illusion of crisis for those who wish to privatize education.  I was arguing that by exempting her child, she was aiding an agenda that would ultimately leave the poor without access to quality education.

Her argument is that the demise of public schools is inevitable at this point.  The wheels are set in motion; public schools will ultimately collapse, and the best she can do is look out for her own child. She says one person cannot stop this.  I say that every single person who sees this situation for what it is must try.  She says it’s futile.  I say I have to do it anyway.  She is thinking rationally.  I assert that I am thinking religiously.

Yes, that’s right.  I’m a UU who just juxtaposed “religious” and “rational.”  While I don’t think that religious thinking has to preclude rational thinking (in fact, it shouldn’t—that’s the mess many religions get bogged down in), it is a different kind of thinking.  Rationally, I can see my colleague’s argument that the task is beyond her individual influence or even her professional one, and that she has far greater influence over her own child’s progress.  But if I am to live my faith, I must affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.  Since I also believe that strong public schools are necessary to these things, I have to do everything I can to preserve them, including subjecting my own two children to that clusterfuck of a state test every year they were required to take it, because their scores would be helpful to their schools though they were meaningless to them.  Doing everything in my power to preserve public schools is, for me, a religious mandate.  How is that any different from a Catholic opposing abortion on religious grounds?

And don’t try to say it’s different because God doesn’t figure into it for me.  God absolutely figures into it.  I may not believe in a personified, sentient god, but I believe that I am a part of something much bigger than me, that to live in service of that greatness, I must live my faith.  Poetry and mythology have personified death.  The fact that it is not actually person-like does not mean it isn’t real.  I feel the same way about God, and while you may disagree, what it all comes down to is this: we’re talking about religion, so in the context of this argument, what I believe about God is as valid as what anyone else believes.  Other UUs may not use the word “god” to describe what I’m talking about, but they get it, I assure you.  In the end, when I go to church on Sunday, I join in community with others of my faith who serve the greater good, regardless of what they call it, in whatever capacity they can.

We got religion.

About admin

Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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4 Responses to Creedless, Spiritual, and Religious

  1. Bee Adams says:

    Hi Paula – Loved your column. It reminds me what I appreciate about being a UU, even tho’ I have taken a bit of time away at present. Your passion and commitment to Public Education put words around my feelings as well – thanks for expressing it so well.

  2. Kallie says:

    Wow–Paula. You are masterful at putting to words what you believe. I share many of your beliefs, spiritually and educationally (again, that’s another day). Before I read your blog today I wondered if my purpose now, is to fight the fight for public education. I’ll back up. I have been depressed, thinking I need a career change, not because I’m not in love with teaching, but because I’m ready for a divorce from this reform movement. This has been quite a struggle, because I have always wanted to be a teacher. I don’t have a back-up dream. If my purpose right now isn’t primarily to change the lives of my students (which of course I will continue to do) perhaps my purpose is greater even and involves staying on the inside and working to preserve public education . . . religiously. Thank you.

    • admin says:

      As I told LB today, the only thing evil needs to prevail is for good people to do nothing. I can only do what I can do, but I know I need to do it. I have to believe that it’s worth fighting the good fight.

  3. Neal says:

    Amen! That would about sum it up for me, Paula.

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