Humanist and Theist in Conversation, General Assembly 2014
General Assembly 2014 Event 434
This report is part of a longer event. Go to General Session VI for the complete video and order of business.
JIM KEY: I want to welcome Meg Riley back to the stage to moderate our next talk, Humanist and Theist in Conversation. Meg, as you know, is the senior minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship. She's joined by Doctor Sharon Welch, provost at Meadville Lombard Theological School and the Reverend Joanna Crawford the new incoming minister of the Live Oak UU in Austin, Texas.
MEG RILEY: OK, gen-x'ers what movie was that? We don't always ignore gen-x'ers be it here recorded. It sounds like the beginning of a joke. An atheist, a theist, and an agnostic walk into a session formerly known as plenary. But here we are. I don't know about you, but sometimes, as a person who is truly open about what language is used to convey the life and vitality and love of the universe around me, I feel as if I am constantly approached by people who feel unheard, unseen, and misrepresented. Theists tell me that they feel marginalized, ignored, discounted. Humanists tell me that they feel marginalized, ignored, discounted.
Sometimes I feel like saying, how about a game of chess? Sometimes I do say, why don't you talk to each other, and leave me out of the middle? So today we want to have a conversation where Doctor Sharon Welch, who describes herself as an atheist, and Reverend Joanna Crawford, who describes herself as a theist, actually talk and listen with one another with joy and attention.
We do this in the hopes that back home you might have similar conversations. Too often we back away from the uncomfortable conversations, from the places where we might have different opinions. And I don't think it's only Minnesota, where we are pathologically afraid of conflict, I think it's true in our congregations all over the place. So perhaps a different game to play is to listen to one anothers stories and search for common ground.
SHARON WELCH: I am a mystic, a political activist, and an atheist. Oh, it's an odd combination, I know, but one that I come to naturally. I was raised in a religious tradition in which spirituality was inextricably bound with politics. In which the motive for prayer and service was not guilt or duty but living fully, deeply, and well.
For my parents and grandparents and many members of their churches, life was spirituality and spirituality was life. Service and belief in God did not require sacrifice of individual will, of aspirations, or intellect. Such religious practice was rather the chance to live out the best of one's talents in response to nature, to people, to the particular opportunities for justice and beauty in one's immediate world. Spirituality was that which brought us into full engagement with the world around us.
For my parents, this work took many forms. Serving as pastors, church administrators, farmers, activists in the little liberal wing of the Democratic Party, members of the hospital ward, leaders of programs to empower teenagers. It was always fascinating to see what new avenues for activism and service they discovered. Their work was filled with laughter, exuberance, and a delightful absence of fanaticism and self righteousness.
While their political activism and work in the church was grounded in a clear sense of the divine, they were aware that they could be wrong. That it was possible to feel led by the Spirit and to misinterpret that leading. They brought two basic criteria, both collective, to their private and communal spirituality. First, do these spiritual practices and experiences make us more loving? Do they help us see the worth of everyone? And secondly, do these experiences change how we live?
I remember as a teenager, my fascination with tales of angels. When I left for college in 1971, one of the stories being commonly told was of people picking up a hitchhiker, the hitchhiker telling them that Jesus would soon return to Earth, and then the hitchhiker disappearing. I told my father these stories certain that he would be thrilled to hear the announcement of the imminent return of the Messiah.
His response, however, was measured and clear. Well, Sharon, I don't know if they really saw an angel or not. What I would want to know is this: did that encounter change their life? Did it make them a better person?
JOANNA CRAWFORD: I am a mystic, a political activist, and a theist. I was raised in an atheist Unitarian family where the focus was on what we did and on our relationships with each other and with everything around us. Spirituality, well that was a word that was never used in my home, but my parents played gospel music. And they talked about their awe and their wonder with science and the natural world.
I was raised to believe that doing right, you know, living morally, extending kindness, and working for justice was simply what you did not because of any god but just because of logic. That if we all did that, that the world would be a better place for all of us, and we would all benefit.
I don't know, Sharon, if you've ever read the book, Are You There God, It's Me Margaret by Judy Bloom. I was just like that title character. Quietly talking to God every night without my parents knowing about it. Growing up UU I was introduced to a range of religious belief, and I cobbled together my own understanding of God and mystery. It all served me well enough until it didn't.
I was an adult, a mom of four, an aspiring minister in seminary, and then my six-month-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. And it all came crashing down. And I was left with nothing. All of my beliefs were stripped away. It's like there should be another word for something even beyond atheist. There was no God. No call. No arc of the universe. No meaning at all. My soul was just dry sand because what kind of a god could there, what kind of meaning could there be in a world where a baby could get cancer?
She got better. Slowly I did too. I didn't believe in God, and yet I would find myself missing God. Not that facile understanding of God that had come before or of a world where everything happens for a reason. That was gone and good riddance. But that connection to something larger than myself, that experience of communion, of relationship, of being called out of my own self to something greater, I missed that.
Now this is where some might patronizingly say, well I guess some people need that kind of thing. Or less kindly talk of imaginary friends or "woo, woo." A more generous UU sent me a quote by John Shelby Spong. He writes, I do not experience God as a supernatural power external to life invading my world in supernatural power. I see no evidence to think this definition is real. The problem is that most people have most deeply identified this definition of God with God. That when this definition dies the victim of expanded knowledge, we think that God has died.
And that gave me permission to explore other definitions.
SHARON WELCH: You know, Joanne, at this point in my life I don't believe in God. I know of no concepts, symbols, or images of God, goddesses, or gods that I find intellectually credible, emotionally satisfying, or ethically challenging in the face of evil and the complexity of life. But I do know, however, of spiritual practices that change our lives that help us see where we are wrong, that propel us to work for justice, and that provide a sense of meaning and enjoy.
There are spiritual practices that are intellectually credible, emotionally comforting, and ethically challenging. Habits of individual and collective attention, meditation, reflection, and physical ecstasy that can sustain us as we work for justice. I don't think that life makes sense. But I do know there can be joy and wonder and the service of beauty and justice. You know, Joanne, as I told my father shortly before his death, you don't have to believe in God to serve God.
JOANNA CRAWFORD: So a couple of years later, the cancer came back. I didn't have the protection of shock and ignorance this time. It was like being the living embodiment of a scream. I was in Hell. Worse. Hell was in me. I've talked and written before about how my goal in life is to try to love the Hell out of this world. This is simply a response to the fact that I feel like this world tried to love the Hell out of me.
The world came to my doorstep. Friends, acquaintances, total strangers. They sent cards. They did good deeds in her name. They mailed us hats, handmade clothes. They said prayers. The world loved the Hell out of us. People of all different income and educational levels, different religions, different politics, they all had love to give. They gave it abundantly.
My daughter was healed by medicine, and all of us were healed by love. For me, God is a process, a persuasive verb, and arc that bends towards justice, if you will, and this force of love, running through all who will open themselves up to it. Calls us, each of us, each of us little events ourselves, to be the hands and feet of God, of love, of whatever you want to call it.
MEG RILEY: Listening to Sharon and Joanna tell their stories, what I hear is that both of you are interested in how people live and how we live ethical, responsible, generous, and joyful lives. You want your faiths and your beliefs to lead you to be generous and justice-centered, honest, ever-evolving, loving people. And you want the people in your community to share those values as well, did I get that right?
SHARON WELCH: Yeah.
MEG RILEY: OK, that's what you want. And what do you want from each other in this process?
SHARON WELCH: Well, Joanna, to be the hands and feet of God. To be the hands and feet of justice and love. The world needs us all. The world invites us all into greater fellowship, into more creative service. I am so deeply concerned about the polarizing politics that are paralyzing our democracy. Every time I hear of another school shooting, another victory of politicians committing to do all can to stop gun control and prevent immigration reform, another threat of war. I remember and I realize how much we need each other.
I learned the values of justice and compassion from theists. And I am now a humanist. You learned them from humanist. And you are now a theist. Can we live our values together as Unitarian Universalists?
JOANNA CRAWFORD: I am honored to walk beside side you as we struggle for justice. Sharon, for most of us, there will come that dark night of the soul. We will lose hope. We will find ourselves without answers, our hearts broken. We will need someone to love the Hell out of us. When I am shattered, when I am in despair, will you sit with me?
I learned the values of justice and compassion from humanist, and I am now a theist. You learned them from theist, and you are now a humanist. Can we now live our values together as Unitarian Universalists?
SHARON WELCH: Joanna, I am honored to sit beside you when your heart is broken.
MEG RILEY: So I would like to know from you, from all of you. Will you work with Sharon and Joanna to address the polarizing politics that are paralyzing our democracy? Will you stand shoulder to shoulder with atheists and humanists to work for justice? If so, shout out, we will.
CROWD: We will.
MEG RILEY: Oh, shout it out, come on.
CROWD: We will!
MEG RILEY: All right, thank you. That's better. And will you be with Joanna and Sharon when they face their hardest times, when their hearts are broken. Will you sit by the side of atheists and theists to love the Hell out of them? If so, please shout it out, we will.
CROWD: We will!
MEG RILEY: Then I think it's official: new game on.