by Rev. Robin Bartlett
I want to talk about growing up UU since our kids are growing up UU, and I know something about it. Not many of us adults know about growing up UU from experience. Apparently, 90% of our congregants in UU churches weren’t raised in our churches. I like to think that my rare experience gives me an interesting perspective on the children entrusted into our spiritual care.
And I want to urge us to be careful with our children’s souls.
I grew up UU in the very late ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s in a church where, as the old joke about us goes, the only time you heard the word “Jesus” was when the minister tripped on his way into the pulpit. I knew very well what words we weren’t allowed to say from a very early age (God, Jesus, heaven, hell, sin, salvation, Ronald Reagan). My mother was the music director, and she would always get complaints if she programmed, say, the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. “Too much God talk,” people would protest. “We may offend someone,” or, “I am offended.” We were an Orthodox church.
I want to be very clear that I think Unitarian Universalism has changed tremendously since that time, but we still have a lot of work to do holding our orthodoxy up to the light, examining it, naming it, and critiquing it. This matters particularly for the children in our churches, because they listen to us. They listen to what we say, what we don’t say, and what we’re not allowed to say.
And I want to tell you the message that was given to me, both implicitly and explicitly, because I believed it with a fervor based on what my church taught me:
People who believe in God and Jesus are stupid. They aren’t as smart or well educated as we are, so they haven’t figured out that God can’t possibly be real. Either that, or they are poor (and that’s not their fault).
I believed this as a child. I also evangelized this. I was an evangelical atheist UU child. And it wasn’t because I was a jerk. I was precocious, but not a jerk. I earnestly believed that if enough people knew there wasn’t a God, the world would start to be a better place because people would be smarter like me, and stop believing in magic and fairy tales that weren’t real. It took me a long time to deprogram myself of this belief that Christians are stupid…to unlearn it. [It’s easy to unlearn this misconception fast if you have the privilege of going to a hot shot Christian seminary like I did. These people–my professors and my colleagues–were all smarter than me. Philosophers, theologians, scientists. Some of the smartest people I have ever met.]
And friends, as an adult I understand that the message I received as a child–that “real” religious people are stupid–was a defense for all sorts of religious woundedness. There were all kinds of hurts happening in that UU church of mine. Former Catholics who were kicked out of the church after a divorce. Gay, lesbian and bisexual people told they were going to hell. All kinds of people done wrong by Christianity; done wrong by God. It was real; this pain. Christianity has hurt a lot of people. So has bad theology. So has God! Unfortunately, kids don’t understand that negative messages get conveyed because there is woundedness and nuance and loss in the religious stories of the adults trusted with their spiritual care. They just hear “religious people are stupid. And dangerously stupid, to boot.” That’s all I heard, anyway.
So I went to school, walked around in the world, interacted with the diversity of humankind, all with the underlying belief that religious people–theists, especially Christians–are stupid. Not educated. Not sophisticated. I don’t think that message I received from my church helped me to be kind or loving. I think that message undermined the real message of Unitarian Universalism: that we all come from the same source, are fated to the same destination, and we are loved beyond belief.
This is why I am very intentional about talking about God and Jesus with our children in my ministry. I worry that we adults will quash their growing spirits by what we refuse to say. Just imagine what ills the message I received might unleash in the hearts of our UU children–when they experience their first yearnings for God. Imagine what ills that message might unleash in the hearts of our children when they experience their first desire to pray, or to make sense of death by imagining another world. “I must be stupid.”
Let’s focus on healing our own religious wounds fast and often so that we don’t keep unintentionally passing this message down through the generations, my friends. Our religious wounds deserve our attention, and even our fury. But our children need our healing message: that Love puts flight to all fears; that God is love; that there is no “stupid” and “smart” in the beloved community–there are only different, unique people in the form of good gifts; that we are more alike than different; members of the same human family.