On Leaving The Fellowship

The Decision To Leave

It’s not easy leaving a church. We stayed with the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship (KUF) for as long as we did because we valued the friendships we made there. I also very much enjoyed my volunteer duties within the fellowship, which included managing the website and editing the monthly newsletter.

Our decision to leave KUF was several years in the making. Over a period of about three years, our dissatisfaction gradually grew. By December of last year, we both knew it was just a matter of time before we would submit our resignations from the fellowship. That time came in the Spring with the selection of a candidate for settled minister.

Regarding that candidate minister, we read every word on her biography website. We both came to the conclusion that, although she seemed very qualified, and certainly very personable, she was not our minister.

The Theist – Humanist Divide

Unitarians are a varied bunch. One of the biggest challenges for any church is to balance the needs of all of its members. The biggest divide is between the theists who want a more spiritual church and the humanists who generally want a more rational, issues-oriented church. This is the so-called “theist-humanist divide”.

When we first went to KUF back in 2010, its services reminded me of the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, where I sometimes attended service back in the 1980’s. In 2012, I gave a short talk in a series called “Personal Theologies” which reflected my views on Unitarianism: “A Personal Theology – Heresy and Universal Truth”. As far as I could tell, it was well received at the time. Here’s the key paragraph from my talk:

But finally, I come here to be challenged. To me, the most important avenue to personal growth is to stretch the limits of your comfort zone. I don’t just want an environment where people are unconditionally accepting of my beliefs and values. Although we should be respectful of each others’ beliefs, I believe that you honor my beliefs best by understanding them and expressing your thoughtful disagreement with them if necessary.

Since then though, a gradual change occurred. The word “covenant” kept cropping up, defining how KUF members were expected to behave towards one another. I cringed whenever I heard that word, since it was often used in a context of criticizing someone. I often heard people accuse someone of acting not in accordance with covenant.

For us, Unitarianism was losing its edge. Accord among members was being seen as more important than issues. The fellowship was shifting that delicate theist-humanist balance in favor of some sort of feel-good spirituality. And the choice of candidate minister just seemed to shift that balance even more into the spiritual end of the spectrum. This was not the Unitarianism we embraced six years earlier.

We know that many people joined KUF because of social activism. We also know that some people checking out KUF don’t stay since they didn’t find the social activism they expected.

The Wider Context

Over the Summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about what happened. My research led to an interesting finding, that the trend to a more spiritual church was not limited to KUF. Rather, it seemed to be a more widespread trend. The decision to re-brand Unitarianism was made at the UUA back in 2012. This was described in an article in Boston Magazine called “Selling God”. This paragraph sums it up:

What UU needs to survive, he [Dave Ruffin] believes, is a radical rethinking: It needs to stop defending its liberalism and embrace being a religion. “We need permission to be the people of faith that we are,” he says. “We need to actually get religious.”

When I read this, it hit a nerve. After announcing our decision to leave KUF, I often told people that we left when it stopped feeling like a church and started feeling like a religion.

Another article I came across described exactly what I was feeling. At the TheHumanist.com, you can find a piece written by Michael Werner called “Regaining Balance – The Evolution of the UUA”. It’s worth reading the entire article, but here’s its conclusion:

Can humanism in the UUA be revived? I think so, but it must be led by a ministry that sees the need for the humanist lifestance to be unapologetically embraced as it once was. It will require courage and open minds to balance tolerance and reason, heart and mind. This form of humanism won’t appeal to everyone, but a return to humanism offers the UUA a chance to revive itself for the twenty-first century’s secular revolution.

To be clear, I don’t want to be seen as bitter about what happened. I still very much value my experience as a KUF member. And I certainly don’t want to burn bridges. I offer this in the spirit of the Unitarianism I used to know, to encourage people to think about their place in a changing church.

Cheers! Hans

 

 

 

I Am An Atheist

Some four decades ago, I read a book, a collection of essays by some famous scholar. In one essay, he promised to offer a proof for the existence of God, and I must admit, I got rather excited. I eagerly turned the page and continued reading. But I still remember my disappointment when the “proof” turned out to be nothing.

Frankly, no one would be more pleased than me if there were solid proof for a supreme being. I’ve often wondered if there is something just beyond what our senses and instruments can observe. Sometimes I wonder if I have some sort of “guardian angel” watching over me. And sometimes I wonder if there is some higher purpose to my existence.

But over time, I’ve come to accept the conclusion that there’s no proof for any supernatural deity. Indeed, no proof is at all even possible. How can there be? The best tool we have at our disposal for understanding the world around us is science. And yet, science can only deal with issues in our natural existence, not in some vague concept that exists in some hypothetical supernatural realm.

There is simply no evidence for anything supernatural. Over time, every phenomenon that was once assumed to have a supernatural origin has been found to have a natural cause. Consider lightning for example. It was once believed that thunder and lightning were caused by demons in the clouds. Churches, which were often the tallest structures in most towns, were often struck by lightning. Frequently, these structures caught fire. And bell-ringers, who were called upon to drive away the demons, were often electrocuted.

But eventually, one scientist, Benjamin Franklin, determined the true nature of lightning. Franklin used that knowledge to invent the lightning rod. Churches were reluctant at first to use this simple invention. But soon, most churches recognized the usefulness of this scientific advance.

Over time, my own level of atheism has changed. Since any concept of any possible supreme being is untestable, there’s always the possibility that such a being (or beings) might exist. But since such a being is not making itself obvious to us in this natural realm, it’s useless to belabor the point. The only reasonable conclusion is that there is no God.

Richard Dawkins proposed a seven point scale, where 1 represents a strong belief in God, and 7 represents a strong conviction that there is no God. For a long time, I was a 6. That is, a “de facto atheist”. But lately, I think I’m moving ever closer to a 7.

This is a big topic, and I’ll have more to say later.

Cheers! Hans

 

New Age Woo

I’ve always been interested in religion. I even took a course in comparative religion in university. During that course, I became interested in some Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism. And I enjoyed reading the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi.

But over time, I realized that, no matter how noble the original intentions of any religion are, inevitably all religions become corrupted. And that there’s nothing as dangerous as religious leaders and teachers who seem to feel ennobled by their “holiness”. Many may well be sincere, but even the most sincere can be corrupted.

Yesterday, in my wanderings through cyberspace, I came across Naropa University, a liberal arts school in Boulder Colorado. Initially called Naropa Institute when founded by Chögyam Trungpa in 1974, the school offers a unique “contemplative liberal arts education”. Although it claims to be secular, its programs are heavily influenced by Buddhism. It’s reputation is, however, questionable since its credits are not recognized by any other university.


By BuddhaNU (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL]

 

Chögyam Trungpa is an interesting character. Although revered by many, he clearly suffered from human failings. Here is a excerpt from the Wikipedia story on Trungpa:

In some instances Trungpa was too drunk to walk and had to be carried. Also, according to his student John Steinbeck IV and his wife, on a couple of occasions Trungpa’s speech was unintelligible. One woman reported serving him “big glasses of gin first thing in the morning.”

The Steinbecks wrote a sharply critical memoir of their lives with Trungpa in which they claim that, in addition to alcohol, he spent $40,000 a year on cocaine, and used Seconal to come down from the cocaine. The Steinbecks said the cocaine use was kept secret from the wider Vajradhatu community.

Trungpa’s successor as head of the institute, Ösel Tendzin, was no angel either. He lied about his HIV positive diagnosis and transmitted the virus to at least one of his students. Worse, Trungpa told Tendzin that as long as he did his Vajrayana purification practices, his sexual partners would not contract the virus. (See Controversy.)

There’s more. According the RationalWiki article on Naropa University, one student fell under the spell of her dance instructor, which, it is believed, led to her psychological breakdown and suicide. In response, her parents established the organization Families Against Cult Teachings.

For more interesting reading, visit the blog The Boulder Buddhist Scam, written by a former student.

A Personal Theology – Heresy and Universal Truth

The following is a short talk I gave at the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship (KUF) back in 2012. Note that although this reflects my opinions at the time, given the changes in Unitarianism during the past five years, I’m not sure if this would be appropriate today at KUF:

I really appreciate the opportunity to give my own personal testimony on the Sunday when the theme is “Freethinkers and Heretics”, because I do consider myself as a freethinker or heretic. Probably many of us here do. When I was young, my mother brought me and my sister to church on Sunday. At first, to the United Church in Collins Bay. Later, to the Christian Reformed Church just a few blocks north of here, presumably because the United Church was not sufficiently orthodox. At that time, I thought I should be a Christian. My first act of heresy, then, was abandoning the faith of my ancestors.

When I first started thinking independently about theology, I thought about the concept of “universal truth”. That is, is there a religion that would apply everywhere in the universe and at every point in time. I quickly came to the conclusion that no Earthly religion could possibly make such a claim. Later, in university, I took a course in world religions. And although Buddhism and Taoism appealed to me in theory, in practice they too seemed to miss the mark.”Freethought”, according to the Wikipedia, is the philosophy that opinions should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, and not authority, tradition, or other dogmas. By that definition, I suppose I am a “Freethinker”. But I’m not really comfortable with the term, probably for the same reasons I’m not comfortable with the term “atheist”. Consider the question of “God”: Science doesn’t really tell us that God doesn’t exist.

Following the scientific method, the most we can say is that God is untestable. And if untestable, there’s always the possibility that there is such a thing. That is, to me, saying that there’s no God seems just as dogmatic as saying there is. Which is perhaps a heresy to most freethinkers.But to be clear, although I can acknowledge the possibility that there may be a God, since it is untestable, I find little use in the concept. Even those who do fervently believe in a God can have vastly different opinions about the deity. And so, at a practical level, I believe we must live our lives assuming there’s no such thing, and use our intellect and compassion to guide us. I like the quote attributed to the Italian heretic Galileo: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

The way I see it, science is the best tool we have to understand the universe around us. But scientists themselves are the first to admit that science has definite limits. (Or they should be.) While science can model how something happens, it can’t explain why. For example, why do some things seem to happen just when we need them to happen? Often, I want to know if there’s some specific reason for my existence. And, I think many of us have some vague sense of something just beyond our five senses. I know there are no definitive answers to these questions. But that doesn’t stop me from pondering them and considering the possibilities.

I first learned about Unitarianism in the early 1980’s from an article in the Toronto Star, and later, I started attending Sunday service at the First Unitarian Congregation, when Chris Raible was its minister. After a few years, I moved further away and stopped attending. So for a while, I considered myself a “lapsed Unitarian.” When we moved to Kingston in 2010, Sylvana suggested that we check out KUF, and I readily agreed. And soon thereafter, we signed the membership book. We came for several reasons: First, we wanted our daughter to benefit from the religious exploration program. Second, as newcomers to the city, we wanted to meet new people. Third, I liked the idea of a weekly spiritual retreat.

But finally, I come here to be challenged. To me, the most important avenue to personal growth is to stretch the limits of your comfort zone. I don’t just want an environment where people are unconditionally accepting of my beliefs and values. Although we should be respectful of each others’ beliefs, I believe that you honor my beliefs best by understanding them and expressing your thoughtful disagreement with them if necessary.

Lately, I’ve been participating in a number of UU discussion groups on Facebook. On-line, I see a lot of diversity among UU’s. So much so that, when I offer my point of view, I sometimes feel like a heretic. But the way I see it, the diversity is a real strength of Unitarianism. Many of us approach the great questions of “Life, Universe, and Everything” through spirituality. It seems that fewer of us deal with these questions analytically. Can we use analytical tools in matters of faith? I believe we can. For example, I think the validity and usefulness of the “Golden Rule” can easily be demonstrated empirically. And it’s the one principle that practically everyone can agree on regardless of faith, or heresy. And so, the way I see it, the “Golden Rule” is probably the closest we can get to the concept of “universal truth”.

Cheers! Hans

Where Have They Gone?

Sometimes when I visit my parents, I browse through their copy of The Banner, the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church. Over the past half year, the magazine has echoed discussions going on within that church with respect to LGBT issues. This is not an easy issue for CRC members, and the Banner should be commended for publishing opinion pieces sympathetic to their LGBT members.

Before continuing, some disclosure on my part. I belong to a Unitarian church. Furthermore, I am a member of its board of directors, although I don’t speak on behalf of the church or the board. Over the past few decades, Unitarian congregations (or Unitarian-Universalist in the United States) have been on the forefront of promoting progressive policies towards LGBT rights. Unitarian churches were among the first to bless same-sex unions well before same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada and other jurisdictions.

An article in a recent issue of the Banner caught my attention, called Where Have They Gone, written by an anonymous gay Christian. In the article, the author describes his own struggles with coming out, echoing the experiences of many others in the Christian Reformed Church, as well as other conservative Christian denominations. He points out that many gays end up leaving their church, and even their home towns, after learning how their beloved church deals with them after coming out.

Where do they go? Some of them find a welcome in more progressive churches. Within my own church, there are a couple of people with similar experiences, people who actively contribute to the vibrancy of church life. To us Unitarians, there’s no controversy. Indeed, the first principle of our religious faith explicitly states that we affirm and promote “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”. The third principle also applies: “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”. These principles are true for everyone regardless of sex, race, or sexual orientation.

Will the Christian Reformed Church adopt more progressive policies, and accept all LGBT people without any reservations? And will the CRC ever allow LGBT pastors? Judging by past experience, any change will almost certainly be very slow in coming. Only a few decades ago did the CRC allow women to become ministers. This progressive advance (among a few others) did not come without struggle, and even resulted in schism. Many CRC churches couldn’t accept the changes, and split. Twenty years ago, many of these joined the United Reformed Churches. (Not to be confused with the United Church of Canada, a progressive Christian denomination). Recently, my mother’s church hired a woman pastor, and I’ve been told that three families left in protest.

To get back to the questions posed in the previous paragraph, I don’t expect any progressive policies any time soon in the Christian Reformed Church, which bases its theology on the teachings of John Calvin. Compare the first principle of Unitarianism (that is, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”) with the first of the five points of Calvinism: “Total depravity”. That is, Calvinists believe that every person is infused with sin. As the Calvinist Corner website puts it:

“Sin has affected all parts of man. The heart, emotions, will, mind, and body are all affected by sin. We are completely sinful. We are not as sinful as we could be, but are completely affected by sin.”

To many of us Unitarians, this doctrine is absolutely abhorrent and unthinkable. Given that doctrine, it’s not surprising that reformed Christians judge anyone not conforming with their high standards as immoral and unwelcome. But it gets worse. Calvinists believe that all of us are “fallen” not because of any explicit sin, but rather because God wills it. The contradiction is glaring: Gays are shunned, but they were created that way because that’s God’s will.

If the Christian Reformed Church is to become more progressive, it has to do something that’s almost certainly unthinkable to them: They must move away from strict Calvinism. As a start, they must understand why Thomas Jefferson wrote the following words in a letter to John Adams:

“I can never join Calvin in addressing his god… his religion was Daemonsism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5 points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin”.

Harsh words, indeed.

To end this essay, LGBT people must know that they don’t have to put up with the regressive attitudes and policies of their conservative Christian church. There are progressive congregations where they will be welcomed unconditionally. If there’s not enough emphasis on God and Jesus in your local Unitarian or Unitarian-Universalist congregation, check out the Progressive Christianity movement.

Cheers! Hans