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[Chalice] Religious Education: [Chalice]
Paradox or Paradigm?

Presented February 11, 2001 by Sherryl Lang

Recently, I have been thinking about what we Unitarians teach our children about our faith. As a parent and member of the Religious Education Committee, I have worked with the committee's members trying to search out curricula that would introduce the children to the world's major religions. We chose this approach so that we could give the children a concrete foundation for religious thought. I thought we were doing pretty well until our son mentioned that he and several other kids were interested in witchcraft. Like a good Unitarian, I tried to be open to his personal quest for spirituality and tried not to appear judgemental and mentioned several people in our own community who would be good sources for information. I did ask what he found attractive about witchcraft and he really didn't know enough about it to answer my question. While his interest in witchcraft is not particularly disturbing to me, he did shock me when he said that he really didn't know what we believe in our church.

This statement made me feel uncomfortable because it strikes at the heart of my own failings as a Unitarian. I have been attending this church sporadically at first, then with increasing regularity for five years. After all this time I still feel ill-equipped to answer the question, "What do Unitarians believe?" Any responses that I formulate are filled with negatives - we don't believe in dogma, most of us do not identify ourselves as Christians, we have no set theology. These statements all reflect what we are not but avoids the questions what we do believe. Given our diversified beliefs, there is no one true statement that encompasses our theologies. Furthermore, this church is filled with people who are thoughtful, well read and articulate and I would not be so presumptuous to assume that I fully understand their spiritual paths well enough to explain them to a 12 year old. I have misgivings about attempting to define the nature of our church; is it any surprise that my child also seems tentative and uncertain?

I decided to query the other children in my son's R. E. class and they too, expressed bewilderment about who we are as Unitarians. These same children have been in classes with my son for years. When I think about the curricula we have used, I realize that we have focused heavily on giving them information about many different religious traditions but in taking this approach did we somehow overlook our own traditions? I continued questioning the children and asked them to share their ideas about the nature of God or the divine in the world. Their ideas ranged from theistic concepts of a deity that is neither male or female to a divine spirit that is present in all of creation. We discussed their beliefs about death, the concept of heaven and the accuracy of the Bible. I found them interested in the discussion and well informed. No one had a dogmatic approach and no one tried to convince anyone else that his or her truth was the only correct way to think; in short, the children's approach was consistent with the majority of the adults in our church. Many of the kids enjoyed talking about their beliefs and had definite ideas about what they believed yet all proclaimed not to know much about Unitarianism.

I was struck by the parallel between their views and my own. Like me, the children can articulate their ideas about the nature of the divine but seem ignorant about the traditions within Unitarianism. In terms of personal theology, I have been reluctant to share many of my own religious beliefs with our children because I cannot prove their truth and I want them to develop their own ways of seeking a spiritual life. Moreover, any statement of my faith is always changing as I experience life more fully and deepen my understanding of what it means to be human. What words can I use to convey these thoughts to my children who will have a different world view even as their world is so different from the one I have experienced? Has my reluctance to give my children my personal take on religion left a void making them receptive to anybody's theology no matter how ill-conceived?

Because I am typical of many Unitarians, I decided that the answer may be found in a book and I found, The Chosen Faith written by John Buehrens and Forrest Church to be helpful. In it I found this passage that articulated my quandary perfectly.

Most of us who are active Unitarian Universalists don't know anything close to "enough" about our faith. We often don't understand where the Unitarian Universalist Association came from and, as a result, we cannot have a vision of where we might go. We struggle to speak our Unitarian Universalism to each other and, particularly, to the interfaith world beyond the walls of our societies. We are hampered by our ignorance. We are fettered by our lack of theological education. How could people who value learning so much find themselves knowing so little?

And I would add to this question, how could we seemingly have so little to teach our children?

Unlike other churches we don't teach children any set dogma having determined that there are no universal theological truths. Unitarianism and Universalism began as two different traditions brought to America from Europe in the formative years of our country. At that time most Protestants believed that all people were born sinful because of the original sin of Adam and Eve. It was further believed that not everyone would be saved and only God know who he (yes, at that time God was described as being male) had selected to go to heaven; the rest would go to hell. The Universalists perceived God as full of love and rejected these ideas choosing to believe that everyone had a chance to be saved. Unitarians regarded Jesus as a wise and loving teacher but did not accept him as part of the division of God into three parts; father, son and holy spirit. In 1961, these two organizations merged forming the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Because we have no set theology, some people maintain that we cannot really be a religion. And if we have no specific doctrine to teach our youth then what do we give them to help them find a positive model for their own lives? To find some answers, I re-read the 7 principles written by a group of lay and ordained women and enacted by the General assembly in 1986. These principles state that the UUA affirms and promotes:

I would like to look at these goals individually and consider them in relation to our own community, the larger UUA, and more specifically the potential meaning of these statements for our children.

The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Simply stated, we believe that all people are worthy of love and respect and that no one has the right to mistreat or abuse anyone else. It is evident that the people in this congregation have a commitment to each other and to the larger community of Quincy as evinced by the countless individual acts of compassion and caring. There is a spirit of openness and tolerance not felt many other places, and this church has been a haven for me. It is here that I have found others who think similarly to me and no longer do I feel like the lone charlatan among a sea of Christian believers. But we too have our biases. Sometimes we assume an air of superiority because of our liberal faith creating barriers between us and Christian churches. While the UUA has practicing Christians in its ranks, I question whether we, in this church, make those who are Christians feel welcome here. What possible detriment could this have on children for whom Christianity may resonate? Is it possible that we can show more tolerance and a greater spirit of inclusivity towards our Christian neighbors?

Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Many Christians believe that after death people go to heaven and it is there that true justice and fairness will be found. I, like many Unitarians, profess no knowledge of what follows this life; therefore we feel it is our obligation to try to make this world a better place. It is hard for me to find evidence that there is a God who oversees the needs of all people since there is so much injustice and cruelty in life. In our own church we try to create an environment of compassion and equity for all. One way I see this played out is in the strong presence of women both in our congregation and in the UUA. More than 60% of UU ministers are female and in our congregation, the work is balanced between genders. Men and women see themselves as partners and equals in a comfortable symbiotic relationship. What we seem to miss in our congregation is diversity. We are largely comprised of well-educated white, middle-class people. When attending the General Assembly meeting last summer, I learned that this is fairly typical of UU churches and has been true throughout the history of the Unitarian church. But I can never understand why we have little appeal to the gay and lesbian community or to the growing ethnic minority populations in Quincy. It may be as simple as our low visibility in the community or the fact that we don't proselytize, that is we don't try to get new converts to our way of thinking. While many of us work as individuals for social justice, as a community we do little to promote equity and social justice for others. We are all deeply committed to these ideals, however one of the greatest models we can provide for our children is to work towards the changes we envision.

Quincy is as deeply segregated as any town in the old South. In the elementary schools, children are separated from each other by where they live. Our minority populations are small compared to the rest of the population and children can grow up having minimal contact with someone from a different race or ethnicity. I would like to see us develop relationships with members of the black community. Only by knowing one another can our children appreciate the inequities that result from the accident of birth and the privileges that come with white skin, loving families and adequate income. We as a community must model the commitment we have to each other at all times of the year as well as at Christmas.

Acceptance of one another and the encouragement to spiritual growth. In our congregation many members are willing to give talks and reveal their thinking on a variety of subjects. This kind of "open mike" approach enables us to learn more about each other and creates a forum for heightened dialogue through talk-backs after the service and coffee hour discussions. I feel privileged to have found a community so open to a plurality of religious approaches. The children also benefit from this tolerance when they create and perform their own stories. I am always struck by the presence of those who are long past their own parenting days and the rapt attention and support they give to our budding thespians. Our Organist said it best when she said that this community can provide something as important as unconditional love and that is unconditional interest in our children.

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Unlike many other faiths, Unitarians make no claims as being keepers of The Truth. Rev. Forrester Church maintains that, ". . . religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive, and having to die." It is this fact that compels us to try to find concepts or experiences that are transcendent - that link us to something greater than ourselves. In other words, to find answers to the question, "why are we here?" Given that we have no set dogma claiming to give meaning to our existence, it is each person's responsibility to give meaning to his or her life. We value human reason as the principal tool in the quest for self-knowledge.

The rights of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. Many faiths teach that there is a deity who judges our actions and doles out punishment for sinful behavior. I believe my use of the word sin is one of the few times I have heard this word in our church. Most of us believe that evil is a powerful force in the world and that we are all capable of vicious deeds. We believe the intellect, the ability to reason and know right from wrong, is the guiding force in our actions, not the threat of punishment. Our governance of the church is determined by processes that allow all of us to have a voice in decision making. Many times there are disagreements and we struggle to find resolutions. Our children watch it all, ask questions, and provide color commentary. Over time they learn that the means that we use to make decisions are chaotic, and slow but ultimately, fruitful.

The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. In this era of the Internet, our children have a keen sense of how closely linked we are now. The UUA strongly encourages its members to become involved in the pursuit of social justice not because we should do it, but because we want to make the world more hospitable to all who share it with us. Much of the R. E. Curricula emphasizes our role as stewards of the earth and conservation of natural resources. Many of the children are already working with other organizations to improve the environment because they recognize the mess that has been made. Their stories often reflect the petty nature of humans and the threat we pose to our world. Our national association is actively involved in conservation efforts and while we may not reflect these efforts in our own church, we should make the children aware that there is work being done to make things better. They need to know that the legacy we leave includes the activism to restore health to our environment

In our church services we have few rituals with the exception of the chalice lighting. Recently, some of the kids asked what it meant. I didn't have any idea but I felt certain I could find a book with the answer. It began prior to World War II when the Unitarian Service Committee, headquartered in Boston, was trying to rescue European Unitarians and other liberals from Nazism. Those needing help identified themselves by showing a flaming chalice. This symbol has been widely used for the past 20 years. The chalice now represents wisdom, knowledge and spiritual insight and the flame symbolizes the light of illumination and understanding. We also display a wall hanging representing Taoism, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam to remind us of the wisdom inherent in the world's religions.

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. This principle resonates as an ultimate truth for me. I have never been one to join groups and have never felt comfortable with organized religion. I pursued my spiritualism after a 15 year break from attending church because I wanted my children to learn to touch their intuitive selves, to apprehend their spiritual lives. I shopped around and tried out several different churches which included a rather lengthy stint as an Episcopalian. (But I was really a closet Unitarian, I just didn't know it.) Little did I realize that finding this church would mean so much to me. When I attended the General Assembly last June, I confirmed what I already knew - that I had found my spiritual home not just in Quincy but with the UUA. It isn't just what we do here in Quincy, but it is the collective efforts of others in the UUA which makes changes felt globally. We can be a small part of that work.

When my son and I had our conversation several weeks ago and he challenged me by saying that he didn't know what this church was about, initially I felt a surge of anxiety. As I have spent time thinking and writing this talk, I realize that it isn't up to me to give him the answers. Part of the process of learning about our church is not knowing what exactly it is because that answer lies hidden within each of us. In my heart I feel some of the kids would like concrete answers because on some level we would all like to have the safety of truths. It would be wonderful to believe that we know how things really are. However, the process of gathering self-knowledge is coming to a point of comfort with the ambiguity of not knowing THE TRUTH and allowing our perceptions and concepts to unfold over time. As parents and educators we all want to make things easier for those who are learning but we also know that all knowledge comes when one is ready to learn. It is our job to be present and give unconditional interest when it is needed.

© 2001 Sherryl Lang

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Lang, Sherryl. 2001. Unitarian Religious Education: Paradox or Paradigm?, (accessed July 13, 2020).

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