My family was converted to Unitarian Universalism by the Mormons. In 1982, when I was seven, we moved from eastern Washington to Salt Lake City, Utah, and my parents were urged by friends already living in Zion to pick a church—any church—because Salt Lake, as you may have heard, is a bit of a religious town. My parents had been married by a UU minister, so we washed ashore at First Unitarian Church.
Was it like being a Muslim in Rome? Yes. No. Sort of. It was really good for me in some ways, and really lonely in others. Even though I lived among Mormons for a long time, I felt to some degree like a houseguest, and a suspect one at that because of my peculiar choice of religion—something that sounded like vegetarian, but wasn't, exactly.
Here's a little bit of what I understood my church was about, as a little kid. These are not the words that adults spoke to me, but my childhood translation of them. I think they reveal something key, and very tricky, about our faith:
“Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they want, or nothing. Nothing is more common. This is because we're smart, and we got away from places where we were told what to do and what to believe. We are very lucky. Everyone would be happier if they could get here, but not everyone is as brave or as free as we are. Is there a God? Not really. God is like Santa Claus. He lives in your heart, and he is only a story.”
But what does it mean to believe anything you want, when no one's ever suggested to you that you believe something specific? The Seven Principles, to my childish ear, made a lot of sense, and sounded exactly like the admonishments and ideals I heard in other places. They did not define a faith to me. Especially not in the environment that I was in: They were no answer for the questions I got on the playground. “Does your church have a God, or do you worship Satan?” I knew it wasn't a simple matter of god-fearing versus devil-worshipping, but when I put these same questions to the adults in my family and my church, they had answers about all the world's other religions—and nothing to say about our church.
I'm still trying to work out a faith for myself that is something more than just a way of fending off the faith of others. The liveliest questions of my faith, as a nearly lifelong Unitarian Universalist, have precisely to do with the things many other UUs left at the door when they arrived: “God” and other religious language, worship and tradition, faith.
At the Unitarian Universalist congregation I now attend in Cambridge, Massachusetts, these words from the Book of Micah are part of nearly every service: “What does God require of thee but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” I love these words. I love repeating them, knowing them by heart, rolling them around like a handful of colorful pebbles. They are a comfort and a challenge. They are also directive.
What draws me is not so much the word “God,” though it was pretty mind-blowing the first time I heard it spoken within the walls of a UU church without qualifiers. It's the word “require.” God does not appeal to my reason, does not suggest that I be just, merciful, and humble. God requires. Period. At last—an instruction! I can love those words and the idea of a God with requirements because I've never been told to submit to a God with mean or impossible requirements.
In his brilliantly crabby essay, “Against Joie De Vivre,” Philip Lopate complains about the kind of brainless zest for life that is unquestioning, that does not admit any doubts or lingering hunger for something more. In his griping I can hear some of my own frustration with the believe-anything-you-want form of UUism. Lopate insists that he still hungers, and it's hunger that keeps things interesting. I agree. In my religious journey, I'm glad to be free, but I am still hungry. I've read the menu, and I know it to be virtually limitless—but I want to sit down at the table and eat.
The Indigo Girls sing, “the sweetest part is acting after making a decision.” The sweetest part of life, that is. And it's a rare sweetness, a rare pleasure, in a UU life, which requires that we consider a lot of options before we act.
And just so I don't sound like too much of a curmudgeon, let me say that I am deeply grateful for a faith that requires me to consider carefully, even laboriously, before I choose, and walk the humble path of uncertainly. It makes every choice so much sweeter.
From a sermon delivered to the Boston staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association, January 20, 2004.
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