Your Belief Here
Mrs. Lovejoy: [sees the empty collection plate] “Everyone turn around and look at this!”
Grandpa Simpson: “What is it? A Unitarian?”
For me, trying to arrive at a religious identity was like the set-up of a joke—what do you get when you breed a Jew with a Methodist?
My mother’s family is Jewish, which technically makes me Jewish too. Even though I agree wholeheartedly with the philosophical underpinnings of Judaism, I’ve never been tempted to practice and my mom never forced it on me; she brought me to the synagogue in town once, for a reason I don’t now remember and probably never understood. I’ve mangled the Hanukkah prayer plenty of times—I enjoyed anything involving fire in those days—but I only vaguely knew that the ritual had something to do with the survival of the Jews. I don’t put ketchup on my latkes and if I ever want to marry a Jew, I’m good to go—that’s really the extent of my Jew cred. My dad’s family is Methodist and his brother is a minister. For a long time I had no idea what that meant, other than that I couldn’t swear in front of my grandparents. To be honest, I still don’t know what it means, and I’ve never been all that inclined to find out. As far as I know, my dad never was either.
But even as a child, I knew God wasn’t for me. I believed in people, aliens, and also in something intangible and ill-defined. I wasn’t aggressive in my beliefs and didn’t call myself an atheist, but I adopted the term agnostic before I reached double digits.
This put me in the distinct minority. Crosses were popular accessories back then. Girls held their necklaces out near their chins and moved glittering religious charms back and forth across dainty chains. The popular girls shopped together for church clothes, their friendships solidified by Sunday school, Bible study, and prayer camps. Even though being Christian was “in,” and although I was aware that most people seemed to consider themselves Christian, it didn’t appeal to me, no matter how left out I felt.
I remember walking home from elementary school with a friend of mine, Amanda, who constantly chastised me for not believing. Once, she lifted the cross from around her neck and said, “do you even know who died here?” And in all seriousness I replied, “Jesus Christ, Amanda, of course I do!”
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I wonder if my parents too felt left out or confused at not being affiliated with a church, if my mom felt guilty for not being a better Jew, or my dad for leaving the family religion behind. Whatever their motivations were, when I was in the fourth grade, they settled on a compromise: Unitarian Universalism, that church with the seemingly elusive credo that often serves a punchline on The Simpsons, such as when Bart Simpson plays “Bible Blaster” with Ned Flanders’ ultra-religious kids:
Kids: Convert the Heathens, Convert the Heathens!
Bart: Yeah! I got one!
Kids: No, you just nicked him. Now he’s Unitarian.
It’s true: Unitarianism is a glass that can be half-full or half-empty. A Unitarian might be acceptably half-religious or unacceptably half-atheistic (or worse). Unitarian Universalists strive to lead lives governed by compassion, justice, and equality and have historically viewed science and religion as compatible. Religious freedom is paramount, as is the exploration of different beliefs and ideas in a lifelong quest for growth and knowledge. UU strives to cultivate and appreciate differences of opinion and lifestyle, believing that diversity leads to a healthy world. Unitarians generally believe that Jesus existed and that he was a great man and possibly even a prophet, but not himself divine. There are about as many types of Unitarians are there are types of Christians. There’s a Biblical denomination and an Atheistic one. Different countries have different Unitarian movements.
The original movement began in Poland back in the mid-1500s when a member of the Minor Reformed Church challenged the Trinity doctrine. Those who agreed with him were given the ultimatum to convert to Roman Catholicism or leave. Most of them went to Transylvania, which is where they first used the name “Unitarian” to describe themselves. Unitarianism came to the U.S. in the 1780s; Boston’s King’s Chapel was its first church. Many Unitarians, including the ones who attended church with my family and me, refer to themselves as Universalists. The term originally meant universal salvation, opposing the idea that God would punish or not save anyone.
According to Unitarian Universalism (UU), ethical living is the true manifestation of religion. That it isn’t mutually exclusive to any thoughts or belief systems is the beauty of it, but is also what sometimes confuses and alienates people. Religions often deal in labels, categorization, and credos, but UU is the slippery un-religion.
Father Shawn: I can only absolve you if you’re Catholic.
Homer: So how do I join? Do I whale on some Unitarians?
Unitarianism can be as unusual in practice as it is in theory. Before each service, our Unitarian minister would spin morally ambiguous tales to stimulate our imaginations. He even came up with a year-long serial that he continued each Sunday and that featured a non-Satanic villain called the “Klar.” After story time, one of us would light the chalice, which looked like a pewter goblet. A flaming chalice is the symbol of Unitarian Universalism, uniting the traditional religious icon of a sipping cup with that of sacrificial fire that symbolizes hope, courage, and illumination. About a dozen seven- or eight-year-olds fought for this honor—we’d race to the chalice in front of the entire congregation and whoever grabbed the candle lighter first won. Eventually, the church implemented a rotating system so we wouldn’t fight. Sometimes the older kids would use up all the butane lighting their farts behind the church, which would lead to some embarrassment at chalice-lighting time. We all regularly practiced for our turn using the long lighters at home, making sure the trigger wouldn’t trip us up. I’d never been more grateful for my expertise I’d gained lighting the Menorah.
In class, which we never called Sunday school, we talked about the difficulties of growing up. We focused our frenetic energy on creative projects. When I was in the sixth grade, we had a sex education unit. And it’s a good thing we did—I got to ask all the questions I never could or would have asked at school. My “health” unit in elementary school consisted of snickering at badly drawn naked bodies and culminated in a classmate asking if he could “borrow my vagina” so he could finish labeling his diagram of the female reproductive system.
One year, our church class performed a play about the theories of creation. We presented a skit about evolution, one about seeds, and one featuring Adam and Eve (replicating the big bang was beyond our set budget). I played Eve. “God” stood on a ladder while another boy played the tree and held up a bright red apple. I tempted Adam until he took the forbidden fruit and God banished us from Eden. I felt pretty badass. No one ever told us which theory to believe. They only assigned parts and handed out costumes and scripts. Without ever saying so explicitly, they trusted us to decide for ourselves, knowing we couldn’t arrive at a “wrong” conclusion.
Since Unitarianism doesn’t outline or demand a specific belief in God, some people claim that it’s religiously empty.
Reverend Lovejoy: … try a bowl of this Unitarian ice cream.
Bart: But there’s nothing in it.
Reverend Lovejoy: Exactly!
The lack of God in Unitarianism was its saving grace for me. Sermons involve spirituality, relationships, nature, communication, activism, politics, morality, and other non-deific subjects. But to others, the cognitive dissonance of a religion with no God is just too much. One Sunday when I was about twelve I brought my friend Jackie to church with me. This was my big chance. Jackie, who came from a fairly strict Christian home, would understand that I wasn’t so different from her, that I went to church, that my parents and I stood for something. But, as I had never been to a traditional church or Sunday school, I had no idea how strange and offensive my Unitarian experience would be to her. Maybe it was because we watched half of the movie New Jack City that day (admittedly, a dubious call for any gathering of children), maybe it was the kid who talked incessantly about war and video games, or maybe it was the sludgy hot chocolate, but suffice it to say that Jackie was appalled. Wide-eyed, her hand over her mouth in constant shock, she quietly took in everything. I can only imagine what she told her mother afterward, but I had some idea what her mother must have said back.
The next day at school, someone asked me what my favorite number was. I said 17, because it was, and because I was too naïve to see where this was going. It took me at least a day to notice the 666 scrawled on the side of my desk. A couple kids asked if I worshipped Satan. Even though I understood the power of rumors in the sixth grade, I just laughed. No one could possibly believe that.
Except they did. They started asking questions. “Do you believe in God?” “Do you pray?” “How did we get here?” I tried to be a good Unitarian and reason with them. That’s when I realized that reason often has no place in religion. That’s also when I decided that Unitarianism wasn’t really a religion, which was exactly why it made sense to me.
Still, my family’s attendance at the Unitarian church grew sporadic. My dad wanted to golf on Sundays and my older brother, who was the most involved, graduated from high school. As I got older, I pursued other interests, such as sleeping in on weekends. I didn’t set foot in a Unitarian church again until after 9/11, when I was living in New York City. New to New York City, disoriented and alone, the church was the only place I could think to go. They gave me a red visitor’s ribbon and received me warmly. The sermon that day was about James Baldwin, whose father called him “frog eyes” and forbade him from reading anything other than the Bible. Baldwin, black and gay, would walk shoeless into restaurants knowing he wouldn’t be served, confronting his limitations so he knew exactly what he had to overcome. He serves as an example of spiritual and artistic transcendence, the minister said. The odds stacked against Baldwin dwarfed mine as an aspiring writer, and if he could be brave enough to stare them down, well, then I should at least attempt to do the same.
The service ended with this offering: “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.” The organist played Ray Charles’ “Bit of Soul” as we filed out. Even though in a single hour I gained perspective and calm, I didn’t feel the need to go back. Which, Unitarians would be the first to assure me, was my prerogative. Maybe simply knowing the church was there if I ever needed it, ready to welcome me regardless of my motivations, was enough. Or maybe that visit confirmed that I didn’t need to be in attendance every Sunday to know who and what I was. Still, I’d be surprised if that turned out to be my last visit to a Unitarian church.
Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, is a Unitarian. Only someone with a deep understanding of the interstitial territory Unitarianism occupies in the religious landscape could so accurately (and humorously) depict its strange place in the minds of those who prefer a more easily decoded belief system.
The Simpsons is right to point out that some regard Unitarians as freak shows, half-breeds, or the common enemy of legitimate religions, but they only hint at why. While Unitarians often avoid categorizations, designations, and congregations, it’s not because we’re cagey—it’s because we value space. The right to be dichotomous, confusing (and confused), and even inconsistent is important to me and to most Unitarians. Is there a better way to learn about ourselves?
Joelle Renstrom teaches writing and research at Boston University. Her blog, www.couldthishappen.com, about the relationship between science and science fiction, received a 2012 Somerville Arts Council Fellowship Grant and a 2013 Nonfiction Fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston. A staff writer for Giant Freakin Robot, her work has appeared in Slate, Guernica, Carousel, Briarpatch, Sycamore Review, and others, and her collection of essays, Letters to Ray Bradbury, will be published by Aqueous Books in 2014.