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Fahs Lecture by William J. Doherty, Ph.D.: Home Grown Religion

General Assembly 2007 Event 3047

William J. Doherty, Director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, delivered the Fahs Lecture. Named in honor of Sophia Lyon Fahs, the greatest Unitarian Universalist religious educator of the 20th century, each year the Fahs lecture committee chooses a prominent speaker in the area of religious education.

Rev. Susan Davidson Archer, the president of the Liberal Religious Educators Association, introduced Doherty as "one of the leading marriage and family therapists in the United States." Books written by Doherty include The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Build Family Ties, Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times, and Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart. Archer said she was proud that Doherty is also a Unitarian Universalist, and a member of First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

A "Humbling Story"

Doherty began by telling what he called a "humbling story." Back in 1980, when Doherty had been a member of a Unitarian Universalist church for two years, his seven year old son asked him a question, saying, "What happens after we die, is there a heaven?" Doherty said he responded by saying, "Well, some people believe that there is a heaven, other people believe that when you die you just live on in other people's memories." But his son wanted to know what Doherty himself thought. Finally, Doherty admitted that he didn't believe in heaven, but believed that people do live on in the memories of loved ones. And his son replied, "I'll believe what you believe for now, and when I grow up I'll make up my own mind."

"As a former Catholic, I was wary of imposing my beliefs on a child," Doherty said. But a seven year old child does not need a high-level conversation about the variety of beliefs about an afterlife.

Something Bigger Than a Curriculum Change

Doherty said that now we are better at giving our children a grounding in Unitarian Universalism than we were in 1980. "But we need something bolder, something bigger than a curriculum change," he said. His starting point is that "religion is caught more than it is taught. And it's caught most in the family. Church programs can supplement but not replace what goes on in the home."

But, he said, we don't know as much about faith formation in the home. We do know that traditional Sunday school programs have not provided adequate support for faith formation in young people. In the 20th century, traditional Sunday school had the unintended effect of replacing the home as the locus for religious education. By the middle of the 20th century, churches were essentially telling parents that they should leave the religious education to the religious professionals and to those who were trained by religious professionals.

"Church schools are being asked to carry weight that they were never intended to carry," Doherty said. This problem is not restricted to Unitarian Universalists. In Catholic, Jewish, and evangelical churches, "religious illiteracy grows while church school curricula multiply."

Instead of creating more church school curricula, Doherty advocates a different approach to solving this community problem. In his own church, he has been piloting the use of a "citizen engagement approach" instead of a "service-providing approach."

Twin Goals for Faith Formation

Doherty said he has twin goals for faith formation and religious education. His first goal is "that [children] grow up spiritually alive, free, and engaged with the world," and his second goal is "that they grow up as citizens in our living religious tradition."

His first goal reflects our Unitarian Universalist tradition, and the blending of various elements within that tradition. His second goal mentions citizenship, implying active involvement with local congregations and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), adding that "citizens are engaged stakeholders," not passive recipients of services.

Doherty said there is tension between these two goals. "Religious liberals are nervous about authority," he said. "Parents are afraid to impose their religious views on their children." Furthermore, in the 19th century, Unitarians and Universalists became aware that other world religions had as much validity as our own tradition, and we became increasingly reluctant to emphasize our own tradition.

Connecting with a Larger "We"

"We have to get over our ambivalence, and I think we can," he said. He said he sees a third way between religious conservatism with an emphasis on closed community, and "thin" liberal community, "a third way between authorianism and individualism." Doherty believes this third way is communitarianism, which balances the "I" and the "we."

Communitarians nurture citizens in the habits of the heart and mind, and believe that children have to be educated in democracy; that is, democracy does not just happen in children. For communitarians, all personal beliefs, practices, and experiences are part of communal life.

"It's a fantasy, this idea of getting out of our children's way," Doherty said. "That we will release them to find their own path, it's a fantasy." He added, "The reality is that if we get out of their way, we hand our children over to the gravitational pull of a me-first culture," which can sometimes leads them to more authoritarian religious traditions.

"As they grow up, our children feel strong pulls from the 'culture of absorption' or the 'culture of authority'," Doherty said. "We either raise our children ourselves, or others will raise them for us." Doherty wants us to raise our children ourselves. "We have to offer them citizenship papers in our Unitarian Universalist religion," so that if they drift away from Unitarian Universalism, they will feel a "gravitational pull back to our tradition."

"We start with the home in faith formation or we don't start at all," Doherty said. But the family alone is "too small,” and so families must be "connected with a larger 'we'."

A second venue for faith formation, beyond the immediate family, is community experiences where children, youth, and adults come together. Doherty gave several examples of community experiences that come close to achieving what he is looking for, but each of which miss one or more key elements. Youth camping experiences involving a community of youth and adults, with active participation of youth in forming the experience, are community experiences that typically lack meaningful parent involvement. Intergenerational worship services typically lack "co-creating participation," and most Unitarian Universalist summer camps "are light on Unitarian Universalism."

Therefore, Doherty believes that the central venue for faith formation is "the home linked to an intentional, unembarrassed Unitarian Universalist community." The "key active ingredient" is the spiritual development of parents and other adults, because the parents' spirituality "is what gets caught." Children need to know their parents take this seriously. And parents need to be grounded in the wider Unitarian Universalist tradition beyond the local congregation, in order for their children to stay in the tradition.

Key Challenges to Faith Formation

Doherty identified three "key challenges from the wider culture" that can prevent good faith formation in children:

  • The "me-first consumerist culture." This culture converts our children into being eager consumers as soon as they see a TV screen.
  • The frantic culture of busyness. Doherty said there is a "widespread time famine" particularly in the "achievement-oriented middle class." Doherty believes this is a spiritual issue, one that Unitarian Universalist churches have largely been silent about. He referred to it as a form of violence, saying, "To surrender to too many demands, to want to help everyone and everything, is to surrender to violence."
  • The culture of disengagement, not citizenship. Doherty pointed to the decline of civic engagement in the United States. Similarly, we tend to think of churches as providing services for ourr consumption. According to Doherty, one result of this is that "our religious professional overwork and don't have time to innovate," and that "even large churches have trouble recruiting leaders."

"These three interrelated pathologies," said Doherty, "are a real anti-life curriculum for our children."

"Traditional faith formation programming gets swamped by the larger culture," he added. "We have to start facing the toxicities of middle class life that threaten ourselves and our children."

Doherty identified "a final challenge, a barrier from our history that we have trouble talking about. As post-Christians, how can we pass on Unitarian Universalism if we don't come to grips with our Christian past?" Speaking in the terminology of family systems, he said that "we have a cut-off from our family of origin that keeps us from moving into our religious maturity."

The Family Chalice Project

To address these wider issues, Doherty uses a community organizing approach, not a program approach. He and a team of people from his congregation developed and field-tested a ritual which they call "the sources supper," a shared meal that passes on the stories of the sources of Unitarianism and Universalism. Not unlike the Jewish seder, the "sources supper" is a ritual designed to be done year after year until "its themes, figures and stories get into the minds and hearts" of children, adults and congregations.

Doherty said that in keeping with Unitarian Universalist values, the "sources supper" is a ritual that is never set in stone, but keeps evolving. When approaching Unitarian Universalist history, he said it is crucial to ask: "What do these stories say to us now?"

Doherty and his team also identified a "big narrative frame," which he stated as follows, "The universe is one, it's good, and we are its children. So we are open to all sources of revelation, and we push back with courage against the forces that block spiritual growth and human flourishing in our time."

Doherty plans to spread the idea of the "sources supper" more widely, beginning by finding ten congregations to adopt the program within their families.

Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.