Get ready to be surprised, flabbergasted, astonished, and amazed.
I went to church today. No, really. Not for a wedding or a funeral, but for a Sunday service.
An article in last week’s Hot Springs Village Voice newspaper included an article entitled “Being Good Without God: Coming Out as a Humanist.” The title, the subject of a talk to be given at the church on Sunday, intrigued me. The content of the article intrigued me. My favorite wife expressed an interest, as well. So we decided to attend. It was an interesting experience.
The event began at around 9:30 a.m. with coffee and cookies in the church’s community center. We were welcomed by several people who expressed genuine interest in our presence (it was obvious we were guests, as we had stick-on hand-written name tags, while most others wore lanyards with printed name tags). Many of the same questions we got from the first person who introduced herself were repeated by others: Where are you from? How long have you been here? Have you been involved in a Unitarian Universalist church elsewhere (the church is the Unitarian Universalist Village Church)? And almost everyone we met assured us we would find a very open-minded, intelligent, welcoming congregation.
When it was time to move from the community center, someone flipped the lights on and off several times, signaling us to move into the room in which the services were to be held.
Having been absent from “normal” church services for probably 45 years, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. We slid past a man sitting on the aisle of a pew about mid-way into the room and took our seats. A few minutes later, he passed a sign-in sheet to me; both of us signed in. I noticed that the row in front of us had its own sign-in sheet, so I turned to the man and asked what I should do with it. He and a woman sitting behind him explained that we should pass it to the aisle (him) and it would be picked up at the conclusion of the service.
I began reading the program for the service and found the language used somewhat different than I expected. Though the Unitarian Universalist Village Church is, indeed, a church, I suppose I was surprised to see the words “minister” and “worship” and “hymn” and “chalice lighting” and “prayer” and “benediction” in the program. I suppose I was expecting more secular language.
Then, the president of the church spoke briefly. And the following words were displayed on the screen and the congregation was asked to read them aloud:
Affirmation of Covenant
Love is the doctrine of this church
and the question of truth its sacrament,
and service its prayer.
To dwell together in peace,
to seek knowledge in freedom,
to serve humankind in fellowship;
to the end that all souls shall grow
into harmony with the good.
Thus do we covenant with one another.
Thereafter, a few other ceremonial comments were spoken and, then, ten new members were welcomed to the church; the leader of the welcoming ceremony read a brief biography of each new member, after which they were asked whether they would accept the obligations of membership in the congregation.
Following that ceremony, another member came forward to encourage contributions to “share the plate,” wherein congregants put money in a collection plate. “Share the plate ” is done the first Sunday of each month, with the funds collected being donated to a specific local charity; this month, the charity to which the funds collected will be given is Habitat for Humanity of Garland County. I have no idea how much others gave; we offered $20.
A small choir sang hymns (and congregants were asked to sing, as well), but these hymns were decidedly not “religious” in nature but, rather, more humanistic expressions of commitments to serve others and do good. (Later in the day, I read that some traditional hymns are used as the basis for hymns in the Unitarian Universalist church, but with modified words.)
Finally, the “sermon.” It was delivered by Reverend Barbara Prose, who is an assistant pastor of a Unitarian Universalist church in Tulsa, OK; several people in attendance today said it is the largest UU church in the US, maybe in the world.
Listening to her words, it quickly became evident that this was, indeed, a sermon, but it was unlike any sermon I’d heard or seen before.
She told a story, at the beginning of her talk, about conversations she has had with other people, trying to explain humanism and how it is possible to be good without the oversight of a supreme being. “Belief has nothing to do with it; you can believe anything you want, what is important is how you act.” In that way she introduced the exhortation to accept people of all backgrounds, based not on their beliefs but on their actions. She pointedly said there is no room in a collective of humanists for a person who believes religion is at the root of all violence and conflict in the world. Actions, she said, are the currency of humanism, not beliefs.
I thought it interesting to hear her say there is a very real distinction between what she suggested are anti-theist atheists who define themselves by what they are NOT and what they do not believe and humanists, who define themselves by what they say they are and by what they believe is their obligation to humanity and the planet.
Though some of her comments did not mesh with the way I think, most of what she said made perfectly good sense and helped me to get a better sense of the tenets of Unitarian Universalism. Unless I badly misinterpreted her comments, it is clear that she has no belief in a supreme deity and that she puts no stock in the supernatural elements of any religion. She emphasized, several times, that behavior, not belief, is how we define ourselves.
Later in the day, I read some interesting material about Unitarian Universalism and about humanism. Aside from the book from which Prose took the title of her sermon (Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg Epstein), which I very much want to read, I found some other interesting material online that piqued my interest in reading about and talking about humanism versus atheism and the differences between them (Prose made it clear that humanists can be atheists or Christians or Muslims, etc., but some religions make it harder than others). One particularly interesting bit I found online was written by a guy named Eric Stetson, who wrote an article on his blog entitled “Unitarian Universalists Need to “Get Religion.”
These paragraphs from his article were particularly interesting to me, addressing how Unitarian Universalists should (in his opinion) define themselves and their beliefs:
“Unitarian Universalism is the belief that all the great religions have truth and wisdom to offer. Each individual has a responsibility to learn from them, add to the ongoing discovery of universal truth that transcends sectarian differences, and contribute to the progress of humanity by working for what is right and standing up against what is wrong.”
…going on to say:
“We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We believe it is right for people all over the world to live together in peace, with justice for all, regardless of our differences of race, nationality, religion, gender or sexual orientation. We believe the earth is a sacred trust that must be cherished and protected, because it is the only home for human beings. We believe that discrimination, inequality, and environmental destruction are wrong, and we are fighting for a society in which greed and exploitation are held in check by an enlightened social consciousness in people’s hearts and society’s institutions. We believe that this fight is a sacred calling and the moral duty of all.”
All in all, it was an interesting two hours this morning. Will I go back? It depends. But I think I might.