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Sheridan Unitarian Universalist Talks


Does God Care About Your Pajamas? or

The Trouble with Tolerance

By Janelle Gray

Oftentimes these days I find myself wondering how the heck we got here. I mean, the last thing I remember is the Berlin wall coming down, Bush, Sr., looking at his watch in the Presidential debate and me knowing Clinton had it, and being able to say "neener neener neener" to my conservative relatives for 8 years (if only in my imagination). Now, suddenly, here is another George Bush in the White House. And when I drop my kids off at school, little well-dressed kids get out of great big SUV’s with stickers on the back that say "Bush-Cheney ‘04" and "Support Our Troops". And the doors to these SUV’s are being shut by young parents, fresh-scrubbed and educated and I just KNOW they believe the most preposterous things. Meanwhile, executions speed up and we’ve become a blood-thirsty country that sanctions torture—TORTURE. Our government policy is to dis the poor, help the wealthy and pray to God, the one true God, that is.

How did this happen? I don’t know about you, but I feel like I went to bed one night and woke up to THIS. How did we get here? Well, a book that Jerry loaned me called "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris sheds considerable light on this. But I’ll get to that later. . .

This talk originally started—in my mind, anyway—as a ‘This I Believe’ and was titled "Confessions of a Jesus Freak." Most of you will not know (although Jerry will) that I was a Jesus Freak in High School. I went to the Wesleyan Church twice a week, hung out with people from the church, carried my Bible to High School and doodled "Jesus Saves" and "Jesus is #1" all over my notebooks.

I am sure I was fairly obnoxious.

In college, my Freshman roommate hated being trapped in the same room with me and my religious fervor. Late at night, she and her boyfriend would wake me and bait me with theological questions that sounded profound to our freshman ears, questions like: can God build a stone big enough that he can’t move?

All of this ended the summer between my first and second years of college, precipitated by a break-up with a Christian boyfriend. I’d somehow got my faith and this relationship so entangled that when one ended, the other started to crumble, too.

But the seeds of doubt had been there from the beginning. I remember in High School trying to feel "Jesus in my heart." An inner voice scoffed at this sentiment even then: why heart and not head? Is the soul in the heart? Jesus was a man, and he’s dead; how can he be in my heart? I’m supposedly saved, why don’t I feel any different? What does this expression mean, anyway?

These doubts were alarming. Not only were they unwelcome in my crowd, they opened a yawning chasm of emptiness. I’d given my passion to this belief; if it was a lie, then so was my life. So I pushed those thoughts aside HARD, and plowed forward, blinders on. I tried not to think such things again.

When I left Christianity, I left with anger and bitterness. I filled the void with the words of Emerson and Thoreau and other existential—and although I didn’t know it at the time, Unitarian—writers. It was exciting to be able to think freely, to question, to learn. It was a new beginning, but always underneath was a simmering anger.

When I was a college senior, I moved in to a house with 5 other women. We referred to "our" house as the House of Mung—a name which came from my health food kick (yes, even then!) and the mung beans that I was sprouting! Everyone thought this was totally hilarious, and it didn’t hurt that a substance that could be referred to as "mung" was constantly showing up in the basement shower!

That was one of the most fun years of my life. On the face of it, we six would not seem to belong together, though we still are friends. Anne was deeply involved in the religion department and campus ministry. One of the three Mary’s was an evangelical Christian, another Mary deeply but quietly Christian and the third a believer but not extreme. Mort, my ally, was, I assumed, agnostic if not atheistic. And I, of course, was angry.

My anger was puzzling even to me. My roommates would quietly have prayer meetings and bible studies in the living room and I would be infuriated. I would think: how dare they do that in my house? Yet it wasn’t like they were trying to convert me; they were never pushy and they accepted me as I was. And I am certain they would not have felt a similar anger if I’d been sitting in the living room cussing and drinking! What was it to me? Why couldn’t I live and let live?

It was a question I never answered. And, over time, the anger dimmed to mere annoyance. Thus, in the early 90’s I was able to take a job playing the piano for a United Methodist Church in Wenatchee, Washington.

This parttime job—which, make no mistake, I took for the money—was perfect for me. Brenna and Ben were babies. It got me out of the house a little but I could stay home with the kids most of the time.

For 4 ½ years, I played for that church. I put my filter on and listened to the sermons, heard the joys and concerns, followed the words of the Christian hymns. My filter allowed me to sift out the God-talk and look for the spirituality that was common with my experience.

Yet I could not bear to bring the kids to Sunday school. I did not want to have to undo what they’d be taught about religion. But I was lonely on Sunday mornings, wanting a religious experience I could share with my family. So, after 4 ½ years, I quit. The very next Sunday, Phil and I took the kids to the Cascade Unitarian Fellowship. When they asked new members to sign the membership book, we didn’t hesitate.

I am sure all of you can identify with the "AH" of finding that Fellowship. Finally, I could turn my filter off. I could listen to all that was said without cringing or rewriting. I knew the language, things made sense. I felt my mind and soul stretch, in relief, glad to be unhindered.

And that is the way I still feel today--especially today, living in this country that is fast becoming a theocracy, in this dauntingly extremist community, among my employees who are almost to a person radically conservative, it is nice twice a month to be able to turn off the filter.

Unfortunately, I found my filter on again last September when I attended the 25 year reunion of the House of Mung.

My roommates were unchanged, still thoughtful and socially active. Those that were Christian then are still Christian now. (And those of us that weren’t, still aren’t.) And all of us—save one—are still liberal. Remember when Christians WERE liberal? It was Christians, in fact, who led the Civil Rights movement, a fact we will be celebrating on Martin Luther King Day. But the liberal Christianity of the 60’s has been replaced by something a great deal more sinister.

My friend Anne is a campus pastor and social worker at a Catholic college. She went to seminary after college, married a young man headed for priesthood, and went on to share pastoral duties with him. She sticks with the Catholic church, she says, because of its impressive history of social action. When I talked to her, I felt she was Unitarian at heart.

But with the evangelical Mary, the filter came back on. Any major life decision was referred to as "God putting a call on me". Any crisis was met with "praying to the Lord." Even the matter of the new pajamas bought for the reunion was rife with god-speak: she said that in Target, she’d said a quick prayer. "Lord, if you want me to have new pajamas for this reunion, show them to me." And lo and behold, new pajamas!

I enjoyed the reunion immensely. But I kept replaying the god-speak of the evangelical Mary. Certainly I can relate to her experiences. Decisions that she took claiming "the Lord put a call on her" seemed similar to major moves that I’ve made that just "felt right". And who has not found the perfect pair of pajamas or the perfect gift for someone or the perfect whatever when they just relaxed, stopped trying to force things and let it be?

So, with the filter working, I got it. But I also thought: who in their right mind can believe in a deity who cares which pajamas some woman wears to her college reunion at an out-of-the-way, unremarkable Midwestern liberal arts college?

But wait: my Unitarian principles tell me that I should encourage others to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Mary is my age. Isn’t it reasonable to believe that she, like all of us, has arrived at her conclusions through thoughtfulness and cumulative life experience? Isn’t that valid?

But come on: a deity who cares about PAJAMAS?

And so it went, back and forth. Eventually I admitted to myself how sick I am of God-speak. Like the religion it springs from, God-speak IS exclusionary. It is a language developed to express a certain fundamentalist belief system. Most Fundamentals, in my opinion, either hope that the lingo will convert the non-believer, thus fulfilling one of their religious mandates, or assume that everyone shares their beliefs. And woe unto her who disagrees . . .

Years ago, out of the blue, I received a letter from a dear friend, who I knew from my Jesus Freak days. In my reply, I confessed that I no longer considered myself a Christian. I never heard from her again.

In our circle at Bev’s house, we explored the reasons evangelicals seem to be so afraid of Doubters. If one’s whole life, one’s spirituality and passion might be ripped away by the questions of a non-believer, then perhaps it is self-preservation to draw away, just as I backed sharply away from my doubts back in my Jesus Freak days.

The article "Who’s Afraid of Freedom and Tolerance?" in the Fall 2005 UU World examined the source of this fear in depth. While fundamentalists grow up expecting to move into certain rigid roles in their families, communities and churches, for liberals, all roles are negotiable. To fundamentalists, this seems like it cannot possibly work: without prescribed roles, how can the family, the community or the church possibly function? What liberals view as their greatest strength—their ability to choose and therefore be committed to that course precisely because they chose it—looks to fundamentalists like a house of cards.

Until I read that article, I could not understand why Phil’s former boss was so up-in-arms when the schools in Wenatchee decided to teach decision-making. Explaining such a fear, the article states, "Choice is the serpent in this Garden of Obligation. As soon as choice exists, I have to look at all the people in my life and wonder what they’re going to do—and they have to wonder about me as well. If other people have choices, then maybe fulfilling my timeless obligations just makes me a sucker. Maybe everyone who does his or her duty is a sucker."

The very nature of Christianity—or at least fundamentalist Christianity—discourages dissent and diversity. As our guest speaker, the Presbyterian minister, reluctantly stated last year, there is very little biblical justification for pluralism. In the Christian faith, you believe as you must to be saved and you go to heaven, or you don’t believe and are bound for hell. There is no middle ground. This sounds remarkably like the brand of exclusionary Islam the 9-11 terrorists practiced.

Sam Harris, in his book "The End of Faith", condemns religious faith for being devoid of pluralism and tolerance. He writes, "It is time we acknowledged that no real foundation exists within the canons of Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any of our other faiths for religious tolerance and religious diversity." And he sees this lack of pluralism as a threat to the very survival of the species. "In the best case," he writes, "Faith leaves otherwise well-intentioned people incapable of thinking rationally about many of their deepest concerns; at worst, it is a continuous source of human violence." The Inquisition, the Crusades, the burning of "witches"—even the attacks of 9-11—resulted from irrational adherence to religious texts.

In all of this, I see Unitarians and other religious liberals trying valiantly to communicate, even when the vocabulary is not the same; searching diligently for common ground, however miniscule it might be; doggedly pursuing tolerance. But I begin to wonder if we should. Are we just watching the parade with the rest of the Emperor’s subjects? Don’t our principles call us to something higher?

When Phil and I first started going to the UU Fellowship, the seven principles, seemed totally sensible, completely logical and so obvious that I could not imagine anyone ever disagreeing with them. Although I admired them greatly, they seemed quite bland. Yet with the horror of 9-11, and the worse threats to our freedom that followed—the Patriot Act, the suspension of civil liberties and the intrusion of fundamentalism into our government—the seven principles suddenly became an extremely powerful call to action. Now, what seemed so universal was clearly radical.

And that’s because there’s a flip side to our principles that we don’t often think about. They’re not just for us to believe. If we think they’re true, which we must if we believe them, then they should be true for EVERYONE. This will undoubtedly make most of us uncomfortable as it borders on proselytizing. Yet, we’re not telling people WHAT to believe, just insisting that the worth and dignity of all people be honored, and that all are entitled to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and so on.

It is our principles, in fact, that compel us to say that, indeed, the Emperor IS naked. Evangelical Christian theology—that stuff that we hear about all day, every day in this country—is nonsense. Evangelicals live in a fantasy world. As Harris puts it, their "beliefs about the world . . . float entirely free of reason and evidence." They refuse to acknowledge truth, and certainly refuse to seek it. As Ronn pointed out, they start with the answer and work backwards. They have a hammer called God and everything they see is a nail. They are the ultimate Conspiracy Theorists.

For instance, my roommate can argue that of course God cares about her pajamas. Doesn’t the Bible say that God numbers all the hairs on our head? Isn’t it beautiful and miraculous and mysterious that God DOES care about the hum-drum details of our lives?

You’ll never convince an evangelical of their wrong-thinking. The beauty of their system is an answer for everything that proves the point they’ve decided on in advance. Things don’t have to make sense because it’s spirituality, man! And while their arguments cannot be proven, they can’t be disproven, either. Therefore, they must be true. For evangelicals, facts just get in the way of belief.

This is undoubtedly a comforting system for many people. Life becomes very black and white. Doubt and choice are banished; pat answers are in. If what you want is certainty and absolutes, evangelical religion delivers.

In fact, I often think that the whole of Christian "theology" is an elaborate construct intended to ward off the fear of death. Harris agrees. He says, "Clearly, the fact of death is intolerable to us, and faith is little more than the shadow cast by our hope for a better life beyond the grave." It is "…the search for knowledge on the installment plan: believe now, live an untestable hypothesis until your dying day, and you will discover that you were right."

Fundamentalists of all stripes neatly insulate themselves from the fear of death by inventing a heaven and rules to get in and, in the meantime, attributing all of life’s vagaries to "God’s will". They refuse to take any responsibility for life, choosing to turn it all "over to God".

But life is messy. It is not cut and dried; it isn’t fair. Sometimes it turns out all right, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s LIFE; shit happens. (I can say that here!)

I have understood this best in moments alone in the woods. It is deeply silent—not without sound, but profoundly and primordially still. And I become aware of my insignificance, my smallness in the vastness of nature, the tide of life past, present and future. I do not matter to the woods. My survival will be unremarked. This is not maliciousness, just reality.

The rosy, comforting Christian view of life after death seems to me to be equal parts denial and lack of courage. Death is an awfully big part of life. If you do not face this fact—and this fear—you live in fear. And when you live in fear, you start to make mistakes. You can accept lies because they are comforting, safer than reality. Harris puts it this way, "Whenever a man imagines that he need only believe the truth of a proposition, without evidence. . . he becomes capable of anything." You can believe that there is a God who cares about your pajamas, despite that notion’s utter absurdity. And if you accept that fantasy, why not another? Why not zealously disregard excellent scientific theory—like that of Evolution—on the strength of your church or pastor telling you to? In other words, if you believe god cares about your pajamas, I’ve got some Intelligent Design to sell you! And I might even throw in a Crusade or two . . .

At last, I begin to understand why I was so angry when I left Christianity. It was the empty platitudes, the elaborate theologies adding up to nothing, the wasted time, the absurdity of so passionately believing in something so obviously untrue, the focus not on the here and now, but on the uncertain, fantastical, impossible to believe in heaven, that required you to die to get in.

There are certainly more satisfying philosophies to live by. Victor and others have, from time to time, told a wonderful story about a Rabbi being asked to summarize all of theology in one sentence. That sentence is: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It strikes me that true religion, good religion, is not about what happens after life, but about what happens DURING it. Good religion is about how to have relationships in life that better others, and ourselves. It is about our bonds with each other and with our world. It is about how to live.

The question is, then, should Unitarians tolerate religions that are intolerant, even if we are able to respect the individual members? Can we admit that some people just get it wrong, even if their search has presumably been filled with responsibility? Is it a betrayal of our own principles if we reject their search? Or do we betray our principles more when we refuse to acknowledge that the Emperor has no clothes?

Sam Harris’s position is that there’s tolerance, and then there’s tolerance . . . ! On the one hand, he urges us to "bring reason, spirituality and ethics together in our thinking about the world", an exercise that is, in and of itself, tolerant. But on the other, he blames religious liberals such as us for the worldwide ascendancy of fundamentalism. He calls it "liberalism as denial". "Religious moderates," Harris writes, "are bearers of a terrible dogma—they imagine the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others." Far from happening overnight, our mistaken tolerance of irrationality in other religions has allowed our country to get to where it is today. He goes on to say, "By failing to live by the letter of the [religious] texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally."

The appropriate response to the bin Ladens—and the evangelical Mary’s of the world—Harris says, is to make "the same evidentiary demands in religious matters that we make in all others." "Bad ideas, however sacred, cannot survive the company of good ones forever."

The article in the UU World urges us not to retaliate against the anger of the Christian Right with our own anger, something I may have failed in today. It says, "We need to explain why we want freedom and choice. We need to talk about the committed life and how committed liberals escape the superficiality and nihilism that the Right fears and assumes we represent."

So I answer my own question thusly: we should NOT tolerate intolerance. We should not be doormats when god-speak is employed. I should have kindly questioned my former roommate’s assumptions. And if truth kindly spoken offended her, I should have kept right on speaking it.

Our principles compel us to do so.

Copyright by Janelle Gray


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