How Jesus claimed me
One Unitarian Universalist's religious journey.
The trouble is, I never considered Unitarian Universalism a religion. I certainly didn’t consider it my religion; it was just a place we went on Sundays. I suppose I thought of it along the lines of a political or social club. My parents liked it pretty well, and we kids liked it pretty well, but it made no real claims on us. Besides, everyone assumed I was Jewish so I thought I was too. Yet to this day I can count my appearances in a synagogue on one hand.
I came out of high school confused about religious identity and mourning the death of my father, my intense, existentialist/Jewish papa. Keenly motivated by grief and despair, I spent my late teens and early twenties searching for a spiritual home and experimenting with different theological orientations. I began my search in earnest at the Hillel House on the campus at Northwestern University, but was rejected by the rabbi (Reform, yet!) who told me that since my mother wasn’t Jewish, neither was I. His opinion was amended by a Chabad-Lubavitcher Hasidic rebbe who kindly informed me, “If you’re Jewish, that’s between you and God.” Blessed by this generous intimation of God’s support of my religious freedom, I stopped trying to be theologically Jewish, left my studies with the rabbi, and continued my search. I discovered feminist spirituality and the Goddess and circled with the pagans for a while.
All the while, Jesus was hovering in the corner of my consciousness, installed there very early in life by a born-again babysitter, hokey old movies like The Robe and The Song of Bernadette, a Russian Orthodox grandmother who used to surreptitiously sprinkle holy water on my sister and me as she tucked us into bed, and musicals like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. A lot of my childhood friends had had Jesus hanging on a cross on their walls and around their necks, a grisly image that they regarded with comfortable complacency. It caused me to quietly jump out of my skin every time I encountered it. I intuited that this Jesus Christ person was either very connected to or synonymous with the spiritual presence I felt pulsing away at the heart of the world, but I had no idea how or why. Furthermore, both my parents and my church had insinuated that people who cared deeply about Jesus were, if not outright dumb, certainly weak, and that Christianity had offered no great contribution to the world that could possibly offset its legacy of prejudice, superstition, inquisitions, crusades, and ignorance. So I kept my distance.
When I returned to Unitarian Universalist congregational life in my twenties, it was more out of exhaustion and a lack of bright ideas than a true sense of belonging or calling. I flitted in and out of various UU churches and fellowships, remaining at the periphery and desperately wanting to be, in the language of the evangelical church, “convicted.” I found the congregations I visited minimally friendly, minimally inspiring, and oriented almost entirely toward a 1960s generational experience of social justice activism whose rhetoric I found intolerant, self-righteous, and theologically empty.
But I was hungry for community and for spiritual growth, so I kept trying to attend church regularly, no matter how much it disappointed me. I tried to educate myself theologically in an intentional course of religious self-studies. I started with mythology and folklore, American Indian stories, the Upanishads, some of the Hebrew scriptures (again), the Tao Te Ching and little books with Buddha on the cover, and works by Huston Smith and Joseph Campbell. I found Jung and Elie Wiesel. I found Elizabeth Cady Stanton and John Donne. Finally, on the advice of a Wiccan friend who said she was tired of hearing me make insulting and ignorant remarks about Christians, I read Thomas Harpur’s For Christ’s Sake, which sent me straight back to the Gospels with a different perspective—a liberal religious perspective—and that stopped me cold.
I was convicted.
I spent about the next year or so feeling simultaneously embarrassed, thrilled, and frightened by my sense of calling to Christian spiritual life. I read and reread what I thought of as the “Jesus parts” of the Bible, and I kept my new passion a secret from everyone but my boyfriend, who patiently talked about Jesus with me far past his own interest level as a lapsed Lutheran. I had found my path, but I feared that it could not coexist with my own and my family’s intellectual orientation, my affiliation with Unitarian Universalism, or my loyalty to my Jewish roots.
I remained a closeted Christian for several years, reading and thinking and teaching myself how to pray, discovering and respecting the troubled sibling relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and giving my heart and soul over to Christ as both man and spirit. I explored some Christian churches but was turned off by their literalism, their supercessionist treatment of Jewish religion, or their lack of commitment to social justice causes. I began to have more affection for Unitarian Universalism, now that I could see it within the larger context of American religious life.
But where was Jesus in our UU worship life? I had never once questioned his absence in my childhood church, but I now began to wonder. Since Jesus’ radical inclusivity, love of humanity, and passion for justice was so harmonious with all the “good news” I was hearing in our congregations, why did our ministers and congregants so assiduously avoid the Gospels? I found it comical on some Sundays, depressing other Sundays, and consistently baffling. I could not understand why UUs would allow the perversions of the Religious Right to define the word “Christian” (or “religious,” for that matter), why they would concede religious language to the conservatives, and why they would go out of their way to construct a religion intentionally bereft of theology, rendering themselves a quasi-religion and many of their churches temples of denial and hypocrisy, where every spiritual path but the Christian path was considered valid and where all evidence of a Christian past was removed, revised, and painted over.
It took ten more years of committed Unitarian Universalist life for me to consider that perhaps my dear UUs were the most strangely faithful Christians of all. Having either intuitively or consciously embraced Jesus’ gospel of love, service, and justice, they could not stand to affiliate with any so-called faithful who claimed to have received their inspiration for discrimination, exclusion, superstition, and damnation from the same source. The well, for too many UUs, had been irrevocably poisoned, and they would thereafter drink of the living waters from another source. Any other source, it seemed, but the Christian well. I felt called to abide with my religious community, to remain patient with my own sense of religious difference among them, and to pursue the ministry.
When I entered seminary I was still in the closet as a Christian, having read and found great spiritual kinship with Ralph Waldo Emerson but not yet with the Christian Unitarians of the classical era, whose nascent promise had been so damaged by the practically immediate rebellion of the Transcendentalists. That kinship with the “cloud of witnesses” would come later, after I had snuck into a meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship in 1994, hoping to remain invisible on the sidelines, and been beckoned into the circle to take my first Communion with other Christians of my own stripe. There was no closet after that; there was a flood of learning and the shock and joy of discovery as I devoured thousands of pages written by our foremothers and forefathers who were religious liberals, Unitarian and Universalist Christians in theology and praxis, and whose heir I had been called to be.
Who is Jesus Christ to me? He is both a teacher of the Way, and the Way itself. For one who has always had a hard time grasping the concept of God, let alone developing a working definition of God, Jesus both points me toward a definition of God and then lives that definition. Jesus Christ is the freedom that laughs uproariously at the things of this world, while loving me dearly for being human enough to lust after them. He is my soul’s safety from all harm. He is the avatar of aloneness, a compassionate and unsentimental narrator of the soul’s exile on earth, and proof of the soul’s triumphant homecoming at the end of the incarnational struggle. He is not afraid to put his hands anywhere to affect healing. He mourns, and weeps, and scolds, and invites. He is life more abundant and conqueror of the existential condition of fear.
“By their fruits ye shall know them,” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. There are indeed degenerate branches on the tree of Christian life, but this does not keep me from Christ. There are even disagreements among Unitarian Universalist Christians about the appropriateness of this or that perspective, practice, or teaching—debates that I regard mostly with affection, if occasionally with irritation. We have so much else to do.
My daily Christian practice, although it changes frequently and is augmented by wisdom and practices from other traditions, consists mostly of clumsy efforts to love my God with all my heart, all my mind, all my soul, and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. That’s work enough for this lifetime.
I call myself a Christian because I am a disciple of Jesus Christ—not just Jesus-that-great-guy-and-teacher-with-the-long-hair-and-sandals but Jesus the living avatar of the great God and Jesus the Christ of Easter morning. I have always said that I am a mystic at heart, and that if I had been born in pre-Christian times I would have been a devotee of the mystery religion of that time and place; perhaps the Eleusinian or Orphic rites. Christianity is the mystery religion of my time and place, and I am a devotee of it.
This last point, of course, distresses my rationalist Unitarian Universalist friends to no end, and I understand and accept that with affection and forbearance. But when we say that our living tradition draws from “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life,” I think of that original community of disciples, who had a direct experience of the risen Christ that I revere and respect. It matters not at all whether I believe a dead man can be brought back to life or not, and although I used to research this question with some energy at the beginning of my Christian journey, today I have lost interest in exploring the scientific or historic whats, whens, and hows of the first Easter. Do I believe, then, in the resurrection? I believe that the original community of disciples had a direct experience of one who was truly dead, and who soon thereafter sent them out to love the world, to serve, to heal, and to overcome the forces of hatred and oppression.
And I am convicted.
Adapted with permission from Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism: Contemporary Essays, edited by Kathleen Rolenz (Skinner House Books, 2006). Available from the UUA Bookstore. See sidebar for links to related resources.