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Religion and Public Education, pt. 1: My Spiritual Journey

Here is an Indigo Girls song that relates to some of what I talk about here. (Although I liked college and have never been much of a drinker.)

Many people judge ideas more by their source than by the merits of the ideas themselves. This is why political and religious discussions in particular are often unproductive. People who are comfortable with their particular world view find it relatively easy to reject outright anything that is said by someone with a different perspective. Therefore, in the interest of saving certain people time and trouble, I am going to begin my series of posts related to religion in public schools by laying out my personal spiritual beliefs. This way potential readers can determine for themselves if I am a person with ideas that are worth any consideration.

I was raised in the Catholic Church, and like many people who are brought up in a particular religious belief system, I more or less accepted without much questioning the basic tenets of my faith. The only problem was that I did not know very much about the faith that I was supposed to believe. I knew the basics: there is one true God; Jesus was the Son of God (whatever that meant); Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead; and there was an afterlife in which all people would be judged. I knew that I was supposed to do my best to be a decent human being, go to church every week, fulfill the sacraments, and pray regularly for forgiveness and guidance. But I never read much of the Bible on my own or spent any significant time studying Catholic theology, and this was basically fine with me.

Then I went to college, and for both social and spiritual reasons I began going to meetings and Bible studies that were put on by different Christian student groups on campus. Now, before I knew it, I started to study in depth this faith that I believed but did not know much about. Over time, I became convinced that certain Catholic Church doctrines and practices conflicted with some of the things found in the Bible. I was then forced to consider the possibility that the faith I was raised in might actually be flawed. This was an extremely difficult process to go through, and I can understand why so many people do their best to avoid even considering the possibility that their world view could be incorrect. First of all, you have to deal with the “fear of God.” Was God mad at me for questioning him, and would I be punished in some way for my unbelief? When the idea of a just God – and of his enemy, Satan, who was always trying to drag people down – is thoroughly ingrained into your consciousness, it can be very hard to even allow yourself to experience certain thoughts. In addition, there is the sense of disappointment that you might create in family and friends who are watching you being “led astray.” Still, there were certain “truths” that I was confronted with in the Bible that I could not deny, so I overcame these fears somewhat and was baptized as an evangelical Christian during my freshman year. Over the next five or six years, I would attend and lead numerous Bible studies, go on retreats, read lots of books on theology, and even spend a summer on a missions trip in Africa.

There was a problem, however. Once you allow yourself to question your basic world view in a significant way, it is difficult to avoid pushing yourself even further. I had already rejected one version of Christianity for another, but what if Christianity itself was untrue? I knew very well that I had been conditioned to believe in a single God who had a son named Jesus, and I also knew that the majority of the people on earth did not accept the basic tenets of Christianity. What if they were right and I was wrong? Had I ever even seriously considered that possibility? It seemed silly to settle on a world view as a twenty-year-old, a world view that I had been largely conditioned to believe, without even seriously considering other possibilities. And when I switched to Social Science after my first year of college, I was exposed to a mass of information that fed into these doubts and questions. Of course, this may have been information generated by liberal, godless scholars who were trying to drag me down with them. Fear, once again, could be a powerful force working to keep my beliefs intact. But does it make sense to continue believing something out of fear?  In addition, if the Christian belief system had any merit, it should be able to hold up in the face of doubts and questions.

So even as I wholeheartedly devoted myself to various Christian activities during my college years, the doubts were always there. I tried to fight them off in various ways - reading books, talking to Christian friends, prayer – but they never went away fully. I did not want to reject Christianity. It seemed more plausible than other alternatives that I was familiar with. I was also having a great time with many of the fun, thoroughly devoted Christian friends that I had made. But when I graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and switched to Cal State Long Beach in order to get my teaching credential, that social tie was not there so much any more. I then felt more free to stare these doubts in the face and ask myself if I really believed this stuff. I managed to hang on as a Christian for a few more years, but eventually I concluded that the Bible was probably not literally true. I now had a new problem, however: What did I actually believe?

For the next several years, my wife, who went through a similar experience, and I were not involved in any kind of organized religion. Then something happened that caused us to revisit spiritual questions that we had been brushing aside: we had our first child. Now we had to think about the beliefs and values that we would try to instill into our kids. And we both agreed – my wife in particular – that children should be exposed to some form of spirituality. But what the heck did we actually believe? After a couple of years of pondering this question without taking any real action, our second daughter was born, and now it was time to get more serious. We then turned to the resource that is the source of all wisdom in our culture – the internet – in order to discover our religion. There are a few web sites – I can’t remember which one we chose – where you can take a multiple choice quiz which will determine your spiritual beliefs. For both of us, the test told us that the religion we were closest to was called “Unitarian.” The only problem was that we did not know what the heck that was.

So we turned back to the internet, and we eventually found a web site for the “Unitarian Universalist Church in Fullerton.” My wife listened to a few sermons that they had posted, and she told me that they sounded interesting. (She was still more “gung ho” than I was.) So, after many years of hardly setting foot in any kind of church, we went off for the good of the kids. There, to my pleasant surprise, I finally found a place with people who reminded me of me. This church was filled with other doubters and questioners, and instead of discouraging this type of behavior in the name of adhering to the proper creed, this church celebrated doubt. What a strange concept: a church without a creed.

When I tell people that I go to a Unitarian church, there are a couple of typical responses. First, there is the standard question: “So what do they believe?” Second, there is the response of people who think that they know something about Unitarianism: “Aren’t they the people who believe that all religions are true?” Both of these responses indicate a lack knowledge about Unitarians. So what do we believe? The simple answer is that Unitarians do not share any single theology. Instead, Unitarians share a belief in certain core principles. We think that people should treat others the way that they would like to be treated, that you should be tolerant of all beliefs and behaviors that do not infringe on your individual rights, and that people should be encouraged to seek truth from as many sources as possible. In other words, Unitarians share beliefs about how people should behave, not beliefs about theological ideas that no one can be sure of anyway. Theological ideas, after all, are only significant if they impact a person’s behavior. So if a person’s spiritual beliefs lead them toward positive behavior, then Unitarians would argue that those beliefs are a positive thing. If beliefs do not lead to positive behavior, then they are a bunch of words, and if beliefs lead to negative behavior, they may need to be altered. The key is the behavior, not the theology.

Here is a simple way to find out if you are a fellow Unitarian. Imagine that you knew a Muslim and a Christian who clearly believed and lived by certain core beliefs and ethical principles that led them to live out the golden rule. Then, imagine that you knew two Christians (or two Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims) who would recite the same creed if asked but lived completely different lives. One clearly lived out his or her faith, and the other was a complete ass hole. Who has more in common? Is it the Muslim and Christian mentioned in the first sentence who share a lifestyle but not a theology, or would it be the two people who claimed the same faith even though only one actually lived it out.  I don’t think that I have to tell you what the Unitarian answer would be.

So do Unitarians believe that all religions are true? If you are still asking yourself that question, then you have not read very carefully. As I said earlier, there is no single Unitarian answer to that question. Unitarians believe different things. I think that most, however, myself included, would argue that none of the major religions are completely true. They all have valuable insights, but they also, inevitably, have a “dark side” as well. Unitarians by and large would argue that different religions should be studied in order to learn as much as possible from people of various cultures who have grappled with the same great spiritual questions. It would be foolish to not tap into as many resources as you can. But are any of them – or all of them – literally true? Our minister has used a great line a few times that grows in meaning for me as time goes on: “It’s not the facts that matter; it’s the truths.”  All religions, like great literature, express great truths through stories and metaphor. Asking if the Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita, or Tao Te Ching is true is similar to asking if the works of Shakespeare or The Illiad and The Odyssey are true. They all contain valuable insights, some semi-historical fact, and, of course, some occasional pure garbage. There is no question, however, that they are worth reading.

All that you can do when trying to explain the unexplainable is use various metaphors that might capture some aspect of the truth. The problem is that most human beings want straightforward answers described in literal terms. For years, I was one of those people. I did everything I could to try and achieve some degree of certainty, but I never came close. Eventually, I learned to embrace the inevitable uncertainty that seems to be part of the human condition. Personally, if I was the creator of the universe, I would have made things easier. I would have identified myself in some clear way and told people what to do. For years, part of the reason that I stuck with Christianity was its teaching that God clearly revealed himself through scripture and by coming to earth as a human being in the person of Jesus. Of course, if I was the creator of the universe, there are a lot of things that I would have done differently. I would have created a world in which there was no possibility of hurricanes, earthquakes, tapeworms, smallpox, rape, torture, child abuse, starvation, dysentery, and all sorts of other horrific things. I cannot base my beliefs on how I think the world should be. I have to face the world as it is. And if religious metaphors are the best we can do, and if uncertainty is apparently an unavoidable fact of life, then I need to learn to live with it. And if more of us human beings truly came to this realization, there would be a lot more humility in the world, and we might listen to each other a little more.


  1. Great stuff Paul ! I never understood the explainations for the existence of suffering (I mean, like kids being raped etc.). Nothing justifies that ! I mean if I can set limits for my kids because I love them and don't give them complete free will, why can't God put limits on his children too (isn't that part of love?). My kids have free will, but to an extent. So makes me wonder if there is a God who is all powerful...if I was all powerful, I'd stop that kind of stuff definitely. Anyway, great insights, keep writing !

  2. Paul, I found this post and your story of becoming a college professor fascinating, touching and beautiful. Thanks for sharing it!

    - Chris

  3. Jesus loves you always and forever. At the end of road, He's all that really matters.

  4. I don't know about that. I can think of a lot of people in my life that matter.

  5. I went to a Unitarian service once. It was an Easter service and I found it rather dry, but then again I find Catholic Easter services dry as well because they preach to the people who almost never show up and try to get them to come more often... I think our paths are very similar, except that I have found Catholic masses more intellectually stimulating than Protestant Bible Studies. I think it just depends on the individual priest or group you meet.

  6. Unitarian churches vary a great deal. Our minister is one of the better speakers that I have ever heard. When I grew up Catholic, I would occasionally hear some good homilies, but most of the time, I didn't get very much out of it. To each his (or her) own, however, is pretty much the Unitarian philosophy. So if it works for you, cool.

  7. Brilliant! UU's definately share the same inportant beliefs that all religons share yet some of them forget. Love for fellow man. UU's are the only ones you live that to the core. =)


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