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Pennsylvania Dave and the Temple of Nothing

OK, let’s talk about religion.

I was born and raised Jewish. We weren’t terribly religious when I was growing up, and our family friends – Jewish or not – weren’t either. I never really encountered virulent anti-Semitism. I'm lucky, and I recognize that the absence of immediate threat and personal trauma probably made me more complacent than I have a right to be. 

I was always intellectually curious about other religions because, in my view, God exists (or doesn’t) completely irrespective of man’s constructs and customs. Flawed as it is, that manmade part is religion and that’s what’s kind of interesting to me. Not why something happened, but what we decide to do about it.

My wife was born and raised Catholic. Like many Catholics, she was raised with careful attention to the auditable details: attend mass every Sunday, check the box, sign the attendance list, and then live life more or less the same as you would have anyway – not always necessarily the way Jesus would prefer.

When we got married we asked ourselves how we could craft a ceremony that would be palatable for both sides. Understand, we weren’t concerned about how to build a foundation for our lives together. That felt like the easy part. We were focused on escaping the evening mostly unscathed.

Accordingly, we started off trying to find both a priest and a rabbi to co-lead a ceremony of our own construction. Finding a priest was deceptively easy: my wife selected one she knew from her parish who was basically a social work leader for the diocese rather than someone with ministerial duties. He was on board. In looking for a rabbi, I found there are essentially three types of rabbis with regard to performing interfaith weddings. They are:
  • Rabbis who won’t perform interfaith weddings;
  • Rabbis who will only perform interfaith weddings for full-time, appropriately invested members of their congregation; and
  • Rabbis who will perform wedding ceremonies between a Jew and a zucchini for a thousand bucks.
Ultimately we were able to impose on the non-denominational chaplain at Lafayette College, where we had booked the Colton Memorial Chapel for our service, to represent the Jewish bits. He did a great job, including passing along the secret that they don't break glasses anymore: they use light bulbs, which are cheaper and give a more satisfying "pop." 

When we had kids, we reassessed the benefit of having some kind of religious affiliation. I imagine many parents do this in some form. We are fine with screwing up our own lives but, entrusted with the lives of other actual human beings, the stakes are much higher. Specifically, how do we ensure the fundamental ideals we uphold, or want to uphold, are reflected in our children’s lives somewhere outside of hearth and home?

So we went on tour, to a handful of different houses of worship. By and large, the low point of the tour was Christmas mass at our local Catholic church. It was me and my wife, our nine-month-old daughter and my mother-in-law. In his homily the priest spoke about all of us, we humans, being born without light. The best we could aspire to, in his view, is to reflect Jesus’ light. Like the moon reflects the light of the sun; it only appears to glow.

At which point my wife went bananas. She stood up, in the middle of the service, took my daughter and marched out. As she left she said, loud enough for Jesus to hear, “No one is going to tell my daughter she has no light!”

My mother in law looked at me like it was somehow my fault, but when you’re the only Jew in the pew this is to be expected.

One of the more promising stops along the Hallelujah Tour was a nearby Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. The organization (it’s not a church, congregation, parish, what-have-you) is called a UU (“you-you”) and governed by the UUA, or Unitarian Universalist Association. The UUA is a “church” (not) with curb appeal; it shows beautifully in brochures and websites. Check this, grabbed from the Thomas Paine UU website:

In Unitarian Universalism, you can bring your whole self: your full identity, your questioning mind, your expansive heart. 

Together, we create a force more powerful than one person or one belief system. As Unitarian Universalists, we do not have to check our personal background and beliefs at the door: we join together on a journey that honors everywhere we’ve been before.

How do you like them apples? Sounds like it was written for a young family with parents of diverse and mutually exclusive backgrounds, right? As a marketing professional, former copywriter and (at best) religious pragmatist, I had to admire the market segmentation done and the overall effectiveness of the advertising – I mean spiritual – copy. This rang our bell.

I was clearly in their target demographic and their messaging resonated with me powerfully. But what makes a strong brand? Academically, a strong brand is one that supports a consistent message, a value proposition, across every audience, all the time. For example, when you think Volvo, you think “safe car.” That’s a strong brand. Whether you go to McDonald’s in Tokyo or Leicester Square, I can tell you with confidence, and from personal experience, there are local tweaks to the menu but the overall customer experience is the absolute damn same. That’s a strong brand.

I say this because when you look at the seven principles of UU-ism, there isn’t a clunker in the bunch. There’s not one idea you could reasonably argue against. Go ahead, I dare you to try. Their seven core principles are:
  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person; (good start!)
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning; 
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; 
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. (Apparently there was a vegan at the meeting when they adopted these.) 
If “peace, liberty and justice for all” didn’t seal the deal, the UU chapter closest to my home is named after Thomas Paine, the American patriot who penned Common Sense. Game. Set. Match.

So we started going. We had both kids at that point, and they were small – too small to get a vote. Everyone was nice. Everything was just as welcoming and non-judgmental as advertised. As the website allows, “Though Unitarianism and Universalism were both liberal Christian traditions, this…led us to an inclusive spirituality…from scriptural wisdom to personal experience to modern day heroes.”

In other words, no Jesus here. I mean, sure, they employ storytelling and a particular story could be something cribbed from the Bible. But it was equally likely to be Old Testament, or to feature Buddha, a deck of tarot cards or Iron Man. I’m kidding about the last one, but to be fair the MCU wasn’t yet a thing when we attended service there.

Part of the UU service each week was dedicated to audience participation. Basically people could line up to speak, and address the members of the fellowship directly and en masse about pretty much anything. It was a general sharing of news and issues, and though it sounds like it could turn into a complete rat-hole, especially with today’s societal issues and divides, in our experience it ran pretty smoothly and pleasant and benign. Just like the rest of the experience. 

Like chocolate pudding: Hard not to like it; hard to get excited about it.  

And then one day – this was maybe 20 years ago – a guy got up and he said something like this: He said, “Most of you know my mom. You were all so helpful when she was in the hospital with her cancer. It really helped to know we were part of this supportive group. It played a big factor in her getting better.” And then he shuffled his feet and continued, “But the cancer’s come back, I guess. We just found out this week. And I was just hoping. If everyone could. I was…I mean, you know, if you could send along…not, you know, prayers or anything but…you know, good, positive…thoughts. Good thoughts and…you know. Just if you could….” 

And he stopped. Because there wasn’t anything more he could think to say.

He could have said, “Hey you know my mom? She has the cancer again, and I’m totally freaking out. Would you all mind saying a little prayer that she rebounds like last time?” At least I think he could have said it. But for whatever reason, he didn’t feel like he could.

All of a sudden, it was clear to me. Heartbreaking, and clear. He was in palpable pain, in a room full of people he knew, people he believed cared for him. But the rules of the house don’t allow for prayers, per se. You’re not supposed to talk about Jesus or even God, because God may not be an old white guy, and he might not even be God. He might be Nature. Or Chi. Or the fucking Force, whatever. The picture in everyone’s head is different, isn't it? That's how we ended up with more than 4,000 religions

By inventing a place that promised, and delivered, consistent, rigorous and universal respect and tolerance, the UU’s had cleverly devised a religion that exists in name only. By being faultlessly inclusive, equally committed to everything that everyone brings with them, they ultimately brought nothing to the table. 

When you think about it, Unitarian Universalism is the Seinfeld of religions; it’s a religion about nothing. Now I love Seinfeld, I’m a lifelong fan. I love it for the razor sharp writing and the running gags and the guilty pleasure of watching self-absorbed people who are still likable. I wouldn’t consult Jerry and Kramer and George in search of inner meaning, though. I wouldn’t give my toddler to Elaine to babysit. 

So it was my turn to walk out. I didn’t grab the kids and leave in a huff. To be fair, nothing that ever happened within those walls inspired that kind of passion. We just drifted out after the service and didn’t come back the following weekend. 

* * *

When I started writing this blog I found myself wrestling with this whole idea that, because I don’t agree with everything you say, to the Nth degree that you say it, then my opinion doesn’t count. I am wrong. Plus, probably, I am an asshole.

I don’t feel like an asshole most of the time. I know some assholes, Senator, and let me say for the record, I am not one. Most of the time. 

My daughter, whom I subsidize with the express condition that she be my sounding board and millennial/Gen Z culture consultant, said, early on, something constructive like, “Hey nice job! You discovered something that everyone is already talking about! It’s called ‘cancel culture,’ and it’s a real thing. You might want to rest, you might pull something.”

And because I try hard to be a glass-half-full kinda guy in a glass-half-empty kinda world, I allowed her the supremely-woke/morally superior eye-roll, congratulated myself for being smarter than a 5th grader, and moved on. 

Then recently I remembered the UU and how, as a younger man, everything about its pillars appealed to me. A place welcoming of everyone. A place without bias, without judgment. A place of fellowship and support, committed to the greater good – to common sense.  

And I remembered that poor guy, how he couldn’t form the words to a simple, heartfelt plea for some spiritual healing. He could see it in his mind, the latent healing energy from a room full of people, queued up and ready to wash over him. He needed grace but he lacked the glossary, the secret decoder ring, to form the request. 

No current member of a UU fellowship will cop to what I’ve said here. They would tell me, “Of course he could have just asked for prayers for his sick mom, and everyone would have embraced him.” 

Just like no one actively involved in shaming people of my generation for allowing the world to devolve to what it is now will ever admit they are advancing cancel culture. 

Ethics aren't generational and cancel culture isn’t new. We all want better; we want to be better. For ourselves, sure, but mostly for our children. If it was easy, we would have done it already. Over the years some people have tried and, I’m sorry, we’re just not there yet. Hey, sometimes you don't see the fly in the ointment until you've been using the ointment a while.

But don’t count us out.

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