Rivalry to Inclusion by Rev. Jonathan Rogers
[Put on Red Sox hat]
For those listening to the podcast, I started this sermon about faith development by donning a Boston Red Sox hat. It was a powerful symbol of devotion in my family growing up. We started going to a UU congregation when I was seven years old, but by that point, I had been listening to and watching Red Sox games for years. I vividly remember sitting on the carpet of our congregation’s sanctuary and hearing children’s stories that made me think about the world in new and different ways, but even more vividly I remember the voices of announcers Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano, creating an imaginary venue for the game to be played in what former commissioner Bart Giamatti called “the green field of the mind.” I could rattle off Boston’s batting order at a much earlier age than I memorized the seven principles, and when I traveled to China in the summer of 2004, the thing that angered me most about their censorship of the internet was not being able to read articles about Nomar Garciaparra getting traded.
So, when it comes to understanding Fowler’s levels of faith development, it sometimes makes more sense for me to think in terms of my sports allegiances than my religious ones. James Fowler, late of Atlanta, was a Methodist minister and theologian who theorized that human faith development can be broken into stages from zero to six. Adulthood and maturity are most commonly marked by stages three through five, and so I will focus on those for now, using descriptions adapted from our UUA’s Tapestry of Faith RE curriculum called “A Place of Wholeness.” Stage three is known as Synthetic-Conventional Faith, and typically lasts from ages 13-18, though it can go on for one’s whole life, potentially. People at this stage claim their faith as their own instead of just being what their family does. However, the faith that is claimed is usually still the faith of their family. One other important note about this level is that for all people in this stage, religious authority resides mostly outside of them personally. What all this meant for me as a teenage sports fan was defending my team to the haterz at school on my own terms, and living into the emotional roller coaster that inevitably ended in bitter disappointment during those years. I had very much claimed this identity as my own.
So that was stage three. Stage four is known as Individuative-Reflective Faith. People in this stage start to question their own assumptions around the faith tradition, as well as the authority structures of their faith. This is often the time that someone will leave their religious community if the answers to the questions they are asking are incongruous with what they have come to believe for themselves. They gain greater maturity by rejecting some parts of their faith while affirming other parts. In the end, the person starts to take greater ownership of their own faith journey. In 2011 I privately renounced my baseball and Red Sox fanhood, following an epic late-season collapse for the team which was publicly blamed on some players eating chicken wings and drinking beer. During the games. I questioned my faith in the team so foundationally that not only did I stop listening to the games, I once borrowed my friend’s Yankees hat and tried it on.
[Put on Yankees hat]
For those listening but not watching the service, I put on a Yankees cap just now. My brother was there the first time and gave me such a look of disgust that I will never again have to wonder what it feels like to represent heresy in another person’s eyes. This allowed me to affirm the idea that baseball could still be a way of communicating with my family members, while rejecting the notion that allegiance was more important than my dignity as a fan. This affirmation has only grown since then, as baseball games have been the setting for conversations with family ranging from the rights of transgender athletes to condolences on the passing of a loved one. As for rejecting the idea of allegiance over dignity, let’s just say I left my Patriots shirt at home today; I may still be at level three when it comes to football. And it’s possible and OK to be at multiple stages at once!
Which brings us to stage 5, known as Conjunctive Faith, and not usually reached until a person is in their early thirties. This stage is when the struggles and questioning of stage four give way to a more comfortable place. Some answers have been found and the person at this stage is comfortable knowing that all the answers might not be easily found. In this stage, the strong need for individual self-reflection gives way to a sense of the importance of community in faith development. People at this stage are also much more open to other people’s faith perspectives. This is not because they are moving away from their faith but because they have a realization that other people’s faiths might inform and deepen their own. In baseball terms, this has meant that I accept the power of a game to bring people together.
[Put on “42” hat]
These days, the only baseball hat I wear, the one I just put on, is an homage to the great Jackie Robinson, born in Cairo, Georgia. He re-integrated professional baseball in 1947, and represents courage and integration during times of segregation and virulent racism. He was the first athlete to have an entire league retire his number, not just one team. So whether it’s bringing me together with my family members, or bringing together a nation divided by racism and hatred, it’s baseball’s capacity for unification that I want to celebrate.
This dialectical process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of identifying with our family of origin faith, questioning its tenets and practices, and arriving at a place of deepening our own spirituality is one that is repeated not only in the lives of many individuals, but also in the life cycles of our faith communities and movements. I have seen this pattern play out in many places, perhaps most successfully in our advocacy for marriage equality, which I will speak about in a moment. We saw one example right here at home that we are still wrestling with: those of you who attended the UUCA history event on January 28th heard a theological theme emerge from our congregational timeline. It’s a big one. I would describe the trajectory as us coming out of two thoroughly Christian traditions in Unitarianism and Universalism, going to the other extreme where for a long time our humanism was so ardent that people did not feel comfortable inviting their Christian friends here, and now working with mixed success toward a culture where our goal of accepting all beliefs genuinely includes space for Christians and atheists alike. This is a very difficult and important process. I’ve had times in my own life when I have strongly felt that the divisive, coercive, and exploitative capacities of religion make it something that humanity would be better off without. At other times there has seemed to be nothing more important for the health of movements I care about than greater degrees of spirituality and religiosity among liberals. Today I have accepted some aspects of both those points of view to be true, and am constantly aware of the fact that all the answers to these sorts of questions may not be easily found.
My favorite thing about working with our movement’s youth, is that nobody does that Stage 4 work of questioning assumptions quite like teenagers. For most adults in our congregations, being Unitarian Universalist comes out of their own Stage 4 processes of individuation, of questioning the faith tradition they grew up in and seeking a place that would affirm that process. But for most of our youth, Unitarian Universalism represents the faith they have identified with growing up, and OURS is the faith they will question the assumptions of with their own Stage 4 processes, when they have their Yankees hats on and are getting horrified looks from family members. And we NEED that! If we are going grow and change culturally in our congregations and in our justice-making efforts, in many cases it will be teenagers questioning the current assumptions we work under who will lead the way. If we are truly going to become a spiritually energized, multi-cultural faith community that changes lives, a lot of the blueprint for that work is going to come from the people in our movement who are so young, they refer to ME as the “Cryptkeeper.” If you doubt the capacity for this congregation’s youth to lead our movement, join me at General Assembly in New Orleans this summer and watch Eric Broner, one of our UUCA teens, enact his role as Senior Dean of the Youth Caucus and lead a delegation of young people to the microphone to be one of the most collectively influential voices on many of our most contentious General Session decisions.
AND, at the same time, youth need our help as adults to genuinely live into those Stage 5 commitments of being able to see things from both sides, and to be open and inclusive in your beliefs and actions as a result of it. They need our help in creating that Jackie Robinson space where courageous moments become achievements that transcend the moment itself and usher in a new way of being in the world. Otherwise, what happened with the Occupy movement, where that vision and imagination were there but we couldn’t figure out a way to make it a movement that was open enough to survive and offer a new way of being in the world, but rather saw it fizzle out as another has-been New York institution just like the Yankees, that pattern will continue to happen with our efforts for change. We truly need all of us in this work.
An important note before I express my final hopes about where this dialectical process will lead us in the medium-term future: I am acutely aware of the cruelty of a New Englander using an extended sports analogy to preach to a crowd of Atlantans. The first 17 years of my sports life were characterized almost entirely by anguish and heartbreak. To long-suffering Atlanta sports fans I say: things can turn around in a hurry. None of us up north saw this current stretch coming, and it took a lot of luck. Your luck is going to turn. But, enough pandering to the massive Venn Diagram overlap between Unitarian Universalists and the Chipper Jones fan club!
Going forward in this work, my hope is that we will find more ways to lead the way we did with gay marriage. The dominant, Stage 3 faith narrative that most of us inherited growing up was that homosexuality and same-sex relationships were immoral. UUs pushed back against that narrative with a message of love that transgressed traditional views and was more inclusive, first in our sanctuaries and then in the courts. As we questioned the traditional views on same-sex relationships, and came up with our own different answers, we built communities that simultaneously supported LGBTQ folks AND allowed people around them to become allies in this battle for civil rights. Our congregations became about more than just our communities; they grew to represent the coalitioning needed to advance LGBTQ rights in our country. It was precisely this capacity to welcome both long-time marriage equality activists, and folks who were newer to the movement and needed some help and understanding along the way, that made us successful. We tried not to shame each other for not knowing the right acronyms or using the wrong pronouns, but rather educated each other with the Our Whole Lives Comprehensive Sexuality Education curricula and other resources. There are many, many fronts on which we need to be able to support each other both as justice warriors and as students. We are going to need to have confidence in our answers as well as comfort in our questioning if we are going to make our congregations about more than just the congregations themselves, just as Jackie Robinson made baseball about more than just baseball. We will continue to be prophetic leaders in our country precisely to the extent that we are successful in creating such genuinely inclusive and welcoming communities. Peace, Salaam, Shalom and may it be so.