What to Tell Auntie by Dr. Edward Frost
There was very little conflict in my family about religion. Religion was simply never an issue. Organized religion was not part of our lives. I don’t think my parents had ever gone to church services until I became a minister and they came to hear me preach – not the same as going to church.
What early experience I had with organized religion was with the Salvation Army in England. That was not my parent’s idea, by any means. The Salvation Army was where we kids hung out while our parents slept on Sunday mornings and it’s where we went to scout meetings.
My father had a lot to say about just about everything, but I don’t remember ever hearing him say anything about religion — not even anything as innocuous as president Eisenhower’s statement that religion is a good thing. If anything, my father would probably have qualified as a nature worshiper. He believed in woodland elves and fairies and, like Dr. Doolittle, he talked to the animals. He was disappointed when I became a Unitarian Universalist, but only because he had his heart set on my becoming an Anglican bishop — more for the social standing of the thing than for any theological preference.
As for my mother, to the best of my knowledge she has never had any interest in religion one way or the other except, as I say, when her son is preaching and that has more to do with maternal pride than with any religious interest.
How on earth did I get religion and become a minister? It certainly wasn’t for the prestige. There’s precious little of that left. When I tell people I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister I might as well tell them I’ve just eaten a pint of sauerkraut – it’s odd, but it’s not particularly interesting. But there was my father’s influence, his mysticism, naturalism, his intuition that there’s more to reality than meets the eye. He would look behind the walls to see the gardens and he would look underneath the leaves to find the green shoots of the coming daffodils.
Mostly, however, there was my grandmother. She was the religious one. Was she ever religious. A spiritualist as a young woman, she was converted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and was still knocking on doors, handing out literature and telling people about the coming end of the world a year before she died at the age of ninety-six. She may have knocked on your door in some time and place. If she did, I hope you were kind to her. She simply wanted you to have eternal life. She wanted you to inherit the new heaven and beautiful new earth she believed with all her heart was in store for those who believed.
Ah, there’s the rub. That new heaven and beautiful new earth – that salvation — was, for her and in her faith, only for those who believed. My grandmother’s decades-long sadness, shadowing the bright glory she believed awaited her, was that none of her family would be with her.
When my parents were both drafted into munitions work in England, gone from dawn to late night, my grandmother became my parent. For years afterward, until marrying and moving away, I continued to visit and talk with her for hours, still listening to her stories of the new heaven and earth. My aunt told me that when my grandmother heard I was going away to become a minister, she cried for days.
Though I went with her to many meetings and even did the readings and lessons many times, I never became a Jehovah’s Witness. As if that weren’t heartache enough for my grandmother, my becoming a minister was almost more than she could bear. Her religion taught her that churches and ministers were agents of Satan. I would not
be in the new world with her. She would lose me for all eternity.
I’ll say this for my grandmother’s personal faith of exclusion: there was none of the anger and contempt in it we hear so much from the Christian right these days. It was a deep sadness. A tragic sense of loss.
One of my colleagues speaks of his sister-in-law who told the entire family how deeply sorry she was and how much she would miss everyone, because she was going to be sitting in heaven watching the rest of the family roast in hell. As the late religious educator, Sophia Fahs, wrote in the responsive reading this morning, “Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies.” And, she might have added, separating children from their parents, brothers from sisters, family from family.
How is it that religion tears people from each other’s love? It always has. Bible believers can point to those passages in the Christian scriptures in which Jesus, speaking of the last days, says that, without warning, one working in the fields will be taken and the other left. Where two women are grinding corn, one will be taken and the other left. The faithful will be separated like sheep from goats. The early church stressed the primacy of the faith over family when it told the story in the Christian scriptures of Jesus’ rejection of his own mother. As he was preaching in the street, someone came to tell him that is mother was concerned about his being in the heat.
The gospel of Matthew says,
While he was still speaking to the people, his mother and his
brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to
the man who told him, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?”
And stretching his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my
mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in
heaven is my brother, and sister and mother.”
While their faith may separate them from their own family, the true believers of whatever faith have the assurance that their loss is or will be replaced with the love of their own community of believers. The cult, in fact, successfully exercises control over its members to the extent that it can supplant the family bond with the bond of the community of shared belief.
When we wonder how family members can separate themselves over matters of belief, we must keep in mind two things: first, the over-riding power of faith to convince the
believer that nothing is more important than the beliefs–in God, Allah, the guru, the community of fellow-believers. In the Christian scriptures, again, Jesus says, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, … and a man’s foes will be among those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” There’s more than enough support for the believer sorrowfully or not, to abandon her or his family to the regions of hell.
Second, it stands to reason that there isn’t much point to being saved if everyone else is also saved. If you are going to hold a doctrine of the elect or the saved, it’s important to believe that you yourself are one of them. Universalism – that other wing of our Unitarian Universalist faith – has limited appeal to the masses. One of the ways some people are sure they’re saved is by being sure you’re not.
In the light of all this, it is not surprising that our friends and families act as if we’d sprouted horns when they find out that we have joined something called a Unitarian Universalist congregation. They may be angry. They may be hurt – hurt that you could abandon the faith you were born into, the faith you followed together as a family, perhaps the faith in whose house of worship you were married. And friends and family may be sincerely and deeply afraid for you. If they believe that you are involved in some rank heresy — as perhaps their pastor or priest has told them – they may be afraid for your very soul. What, then, shall we say to Auntie – or to our parents or our friends — about this faith we have embraced or are coming to embrace? What shall we say when they tearfully or angrily tell us we must return to the faith of our fathers or that we must be saved for the sake of our children?
First, I would urge you not to respond to your family and friends on their own terms — that is, do not argue the merits of their religion and faith. You will get nowhere on that track. You are not going to be converted back to your family religion by argument, reasonable or otherwise, and your family is not going to be argued out of their faith. Furthermore, while it is true that your family really has no right to attempt to argue you from your religion, you also have no right to argue them from theirs — even if you could. In religion as in any other sphere, two wrongs don’t make a right.
Second, I recommend that you respond to religious judgments or entreaties positively. “Bless those that persecute you,” as, ironically, Jesus said. Say to others, “I’m really happy for you that you have beliefs and a faith that makes your life meaningful and that gives you hope for the future.” Then you can go on to speak positively, not defensively, about your own religion and your own beliefs.
I had the Purposes and Principles of Unitarian Universalism printed on the cover of our Orders of Service this morning because they can serve as a guide to what it is that we stand for in our faith. And we do have a faith. Affirming and Promoting the “Inherent worth and dignity of every person” is faith – it assumes that humankind is inherently good apart from race, color, faith, social position. Our faith begins with the bedrock positive commitment to the unproveable, faith proposition that we are inherently blessed – not damned, blessed – yes, saved.
Oh, we don’t believe we are saved by Jesus’ blood, Auntie, but our religious principles teach us that we have freedom – freedom of will, freedom to choose our own ends, the freedom to live by values, principles and ideas that we believe brings us and others alive.
Tell your family and friends that your religion encourages you to trust your personal experience, your conscience and your reason beyond any authorities in religion. And you know that your personal experience, your conscience and your reason do not lead you in the same direction or to the same conclusions as others. For that reason, Unitarianism has been a religion of toleration for hundreds of years: yes, Unitarianism has existed for hundreds of years.
The Transylvanian Unitarian theologian, Francis David who convinced King Sigismund to proclaim an edict of Toleration in the fifteenth century said, “We need not think alike to love alike. Sanctified reason is the lantern of faith.” And Francis David said that the most important spiritual function is conscience. “Conscience,” he said, “is the source of all spiritual joy and happiness.” And he said that if other religions offered something better than his beliefs, he would gladly learn from them.
I would suggest that you not argue with your family and friends about what the bible says about your beliefs, your soul or your sexual orientation. Unless you are a
biblical scholar, the chances are that you could be just as mistaken about what the bible says as they probably are. It has been said that the devil can quote scripture to prove a point.
Again, avoid religious argument and debate, especially with your own family. Whenever you enter a discussion about religion, do not enter it to win. No one ever wins an
argument about religion. Our understanding of the world and of who we are is too tightly bound to our faith assumptions to give them up and declare another “right.” It is far better for you — and for those others – to declare positively, with strength and even with passion, passion equal to that of the believer, what it is that you believe to
be true and ultimate.
If the bible is not your guide, speak of where you do find truth, encouragement, and guidance. Talk about what being a Unitarian Universalist means to you. Talk about what being part of this congregation means to you. Talk about the ways in which your religion works in your life, your work, your family.
True believers, fervent believers – perhaps like some of your family and friends – experience their religion as being primary in their lives. They talk about their religion. Maybe they talk about it a lot — more than you like to hear. But, consider this: if you have nothing to say about your religion, if you are quiet about the values, principles and
convictions that constitute your faith, others can conclude that you don’t have a religion to speak of. Concluding that, they feel perfectly free to try to give you something you apparently don’t have.
Ardent believers assume that, if one doesn’t share their faith, one doesn’t have a faith. If you make it clear to others that you have a faith that is as important to you as their faith is to them, you will not be continually offering yourself as a dry vessel needing to be filled.
Remember this, though. Others can talk so much about their beliefs because – whether we agree with them or not – they know what their beliefs are. They can proclaim their faith because they know what their faith is. You will not be convincing if you are trying to make something up as you go along. Calling yourself a Unitarian Universalist is not having a faith. Even coming here to services regularly is not having a faith. You have to do the work of learning about your religion and of setting yourself on a path of religious discovery.
I want to close with a portion of a letter one member of our congregation wrote in response to her family’s painful antagonism toward her Unitarian Universalist religion.
I have always respected your
beliefs and the life you have chosen. Your faith serves you and you
serve it admirably; I would never question its rightness for you. I
am very proud of the career you have made for yourself in teaching
–you and your daughters. All that you are shines in your children
and your children are awesome. They are beautiful, bright, kind and
gentle, happy with themselves and each other.
My family and I are equally
committed to our faith; it is right for us and it gives our lives
direction and meaning. We are all committed to growing in our
faith, to learning more, and living more fully in it. My
congregation is my other home and the people in it my larger
family. It has been my congregation and my faith for almost thirty
years. I cannot imagine my life without it.
This is also not open to
challenge or questioning. In my understanding one person cannot
possibly presume to know another’s personal relationship with
God, much less judge that relationship.
So perhaps now we know each
other just a little bit better and so can love and respect each
other a little bit more.
The letter begins by affirming the faith of the other and showing respect for recognizing its value for the other. It then proceeds to affirm her own faith, showing clearly that it, too, while different, is equally valuable and central in her life and in the life of her family. The letter demonstrates a life filled with faith where others might have previously assumed an emptiness. And it closes with the understanding and the sincere hope that in sharing the differences of their faiths in respect and understanding, rather than in judgment or self-righteousness, they can come to know each other in important ways that may be the foundation for renewed love and friendship.
Our best intentions may come to no good end. As Sophia Fahs wrote, it is the need of some faiths to build walled gardens. But if our intention in discussing religion with friends and family is to understand and affirm and to be affirmed and understood, we will have exemplified the principles of our own faith.
That is all that our faith, conscience, and reason ask of us.