What I’ve Believed: A Personal Religious History

2016, besides being the most turbulent year in memory, has heralded a return to my roots. I’ve thought a lot about deep-seated issues: the reasons for what I write and why; my current profession as a web developer; whether my character is as good as I think it is. 2015 was about deconstructing my life to its essentials; 2016 is about starting to rebuild.

For various reasons, I’ve thought a lot about my interior spiritual life. A requirement of membership at my UU church is a description of your childhood beliefs, and I thought it time to try this exercise again.

I write this post as a stick of incense burns nearby. Incense has always had an emotional connection to the sacred in my mind, even before I bought my first sticks and lit them for ritual, some nine years ago. I like to think it’s something primal, that our evolutionary ancestors associate wood smoke with safety and prosperity. That association has stuck with me through several different changes in faith.

1985-1997: Childhood Faith

I recall a 12-volume illustrated children’s bible I read in elementary school. Bearded men in robes walked with animals in a desert landscape. My God was Michelangelo’s: bearded, heavenly, all-powerful. I also believed in angels — as personal guardians, not heavenly messengers. I had some conception of Heaven and Hell, but I also thought (as did some family members) that those who died could guide the living and possibly be reborn. Later, I was introduced (inadvertently) to Buddhism and Taoism through A Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick, but didn’t consider that I could be either a Buddhist or Taoist.

1998: Strident Atheist

For six months, I was a secular humanist. Like my young people at that age, I challenged my childhood faith in every way. It didn’t stick, but humanist ethics would continue to guide me later.

1998-2001: Liberal Christian

My family began attending a Methodist church, and I joined the youth group there. After a brief “altar call” experience at a youth con, I became a liberal Christian. I was very interested in Gnosticism, the gender of God, and whether Jesus was human, God, or both. My perception of Christians was colored by my interactions with others at school and in the community, which veered towards the fundamentalist. My home church was very open-minded, but I needed a new home for my changing theology.

2001-2009: UU Neo-Pagan

I’ve spoken about my discovery of the UU church in a short reflection I gave a few weeks back. At the same time I began attending a UU church, I was seeking a way to incorporate the feminine divine into my practice. The Goddess and the God of Wicca fit that need for many years. I studied everything about religion that I could get my hands on, taking classes in world religion, existentialism, philosophy, death rituals, biblical studies. I also became an environmentalist.

2010-2014: UU (Zen) Buddhist

However, the Neo-Pagan traditions couldn’t offer solutions to problems I was facing: questions of suffering, existentialism vs. essentialism, “do what thou wilt” coming up short. The meditative practices I found in Buddhism spoke to me. It offered understanding, but not comfort, and comfort was something I would need.

2015-Present: UU (Reluctant) Theist

I’ve ended up where I began my UU adventure: a theist rejecting rigid theological constraints, reluctant to use the word “God” except when necessary. C.S. Lewis, describing his conversion to Christianity, depicted a struggle, as though God were stalking him. That’s similar to how things went for me: I needed “God”, in some part of myself, but was too caught up in definitions and philosophical/theological elegance to let myself believe. In a moment of crisis, I needed that more than I needed things to make sense.

I’m a Unitarian in the classical sense, believing in one God but not the divinity of Jesus. I won’t touch the Nicene Creed with a ten-foot pole. (Maybe a 20-foot pole!) If any of us can find enlightenment by staring through a telescope, contemplating koans, chanting sutras, taking communion, or praying five times a day, how could anyone possibly narrow everything down to “We believe in one God, the Father almighty…”? I sure can’t.