In the Spirit: Looking beyond labels and embracing relationships

BRYAN EATON/Staff photoNewburyport’s landmark First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist Church on Pleasant Street.

Sixty-nine percent of Americans have no religious affiliation or identify as Catholic or Evangelical.

People are evenly split among these with each group representing approximately 23% of the respondents. (Neil Monahan and Saeed Ahmed, CNN survey, April 13, 2019)

What’s fascinating about this is that 27% of “nones,” or those Americans who do not identify with being religious, say that they believe in God with “absolute certainty.” (Samuel Sigal, The Atlantic, May 31, 2018)

Sigal states that, “The notion that religiously unaffiliated people can be religious at all may seem contradictory, but if you disaffiliate from organized religion it does not necessarily mean you’ve sworn off belief in God, say, or prayer.”

As a person in recovery, I experience this every time that I am in a 12-step meeting. The General Service of Alcoholic Anonymous reports that as of January 1, 2018, there were close to 1.3 million members in the U.S.

Religious affiliation is not a requirement of membership in AA, though a belief in a higher power of some sort is foundational. People are encouraged to develop their own understanding of a higher power; there is no set definition. For some people, that is their AA group, a trusted friend or nature. One of my favorite definitions of a higher power is “reality, as it is, not as I would like it to be.”

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I have members and friends in my congregation with all kinds of beliefs about God and religion. We have folks who identify as theists, agnostics, atheist and humanist.

Our religious identities are also varied and include connections to Buddhism, Christianity, earth-based religions, Judaism, Sufism as well as lifelong Unitarian Universalists. Someone asked the other day if she could be a Muslim Unitarian Universalist. The answer is “absolutely!”

Our theological pluralism or diversity makes space for everyone. It encourages people to keep up with their personal spiritual development and to expect that it will change and evolve.

What all of this asks of us is that we look beyond labels. It is not enough to ask if people are religious or if they believe in God. The answers to these questions are fluid and change for most people many times over a lifetime. This evolution shows that we are open to learning and growing. Our answers to these questions will change over our lifetime.

The great risk in relying on labels when it comes to the questions of religion and God is that people misunderstand each other. We make assumptions based on what we think people mean when they say that they are or are not religious. These assumptions snowball on themselves and can take us down unhelpful paths.

The solution lies in creating relationships. When we stop wondering what church people go to or if they believe in God, we can explore more relevant things. For example, we might discover common interests, shared connections, and ways that we can support one another. We can learn from one another and grow and avoid getting stuck in assumed differences.

As relationships develop, we may decide to talk sometimes about God or religion and in doing so discover that we share beliefs though we use different words. And, on the other hand, we might think we share beliefs about religion or God while having different understandings of theological words or concepts.

For a start, let’s put aside how we label ourselves and instead get to know one another.

The Rev. Rebecca Bryan is minister of the First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist Church in Newburyport.

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