Religious Impasse

© Barbara F. Meyers 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 13, 2006

One of my favorite professors and mentors in seminary was a Roman Catholic sister named Rosemary Chinnici who taught pastoral counseling. I know it may sound strange for a nun to be teaching in a Unitarian Universalist seminary. But in fact, it worked beautifully. Today’s sermon is based on some of her teachings, in particular her teaching on “religious impasse”.

Let me define this for you. Rosemary contends that most people have a time in life when their inherited faith comes up against their life experience in a way that creates a crisis. She calls this experience “religious impasse.” The old ways of belief simply cannot be maintained in light of one’s experience. This might be for example when a person raised in a “creationist” religion becomes a scientist and realizes she can’t believe what she was taught as a child. Or when a person raised as a strict Catholic is divorced. Or, when a person is molested by a minister.

At moments such as these Rosemary maintains that people have three choices:

  1. They can comply with their belief system and deny their own hopes and needs;
  2. They can abandon their faith and cut their life loose from the ties of religious community; or
  3. They can become a theologian. Becoming a theologian means engaging in the difficult and creative task of reworking your beliefs in light of your experience.

It is in such engagement that faith traditions grow and change. And it is where individuals become active shapers of religious heritage – instead of passive recipients of received truth.

Rosemary recommends the third option, and I agree.

In my role as a mental health minister, I have come to believe that there is a connection between religious impasse and mental health problems. Religious impasse, like mental health problems, often comes at a time of conflict or tragedy in one’s life — when all doors seem closed. The great pioneering psychoanalyst Karl Jung once said:

“Among all my patients in the second half of life – that is to say, over 35 – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook.”

I believe what Jung means is that overcoming such problems, among other things, involves engaging with faith, coming up with a renewed religious outlook on life – assessing for yourself what is really important to you, what you will do on this Earth with your precious life. This is part of recovering from mental health problems, and this, I think, is what Rosemary meant by “becoming a theologian.” In fact, if truth be told, this is why I have dedicated my life to a mental health ministry.

I’d like to tell some stories about Religious Impasse.

The first story is about me. When I was 20 years old and in college, I was engaged to a young fellow student named Mark. Mark had some mysterious intestinal problems and an exploratory operation was done to determine the precise issue. He was recovering when he suddenly and unexpectedly died of a blood clot in the lungs. Of course I was devastated. My childhood religious faith, had been one of attending a Protestant Sunday school and church every Sunday. I found it inadequate for the situation. The God that I had been brought up to believe in wouldn’t have let this happen. Gradually, I drifted away from religion and then from God. I became a computer scientist and believed that everything in life should be logical and rational. I turned my back on my religious up-bringing and religious community. Essentially I had taken Rosemary’s second choice when coming up against a religious impasse: I retreated from religion and religious community.

This way of life worked out fine until I had a post-partum depression following my daughter’s birth. I found myself in the psychiatric ward mental of the local hospital surrounded by people who had serious mental difficulties. Something was deeply amiss with my working model of the world. Eventually, after years, I came to terms with my situation by undergoing psychotherapy and engaging in spiritual work. I could see that my situation had a religious dimension and engaged in the hard work of reworking my personal theology, my way of living in the world, so that it served my new life. In other words, I had moved to Rosemary’s choice #3. I became a theologian.

The next story is from Rebecca Parker, the President of Starr King School for the Ministry. It is from a sermon she delivered on “A Woman’s Right to Choose.”

She says that unwanted pregnancy can be an occasion for a woman to become a theologian. She relates that during her ten years as a parish minister, she counseled women who had spiritual and ethical questions in connection with a pregnancy they, for one reason or another, were considering aborting. Here is one of her stories:

“Not everyone I counseled about abortion talked to me in person. I especially remember an unnamed woman who phoned me. She was ashamed of the situation she was in and didn’t want to face anyone. The nameless woman had had an abortion in the past that she deeply regretted. She felt she had sinned and was depressed for months afterwards. She vowed that she would never get pregnant again without planning for it. But now she was once again facing an unplanned pregnancy. She was furious with herself for getting pregnant and felt she deserved to be punished. The worst punishment she could imagine was to abort the pregnancy. She felt if she sacrificed the child she was carrying she would have performed adequate penance for her failure.

The unnamed woman’s belief system about guilt, punishment and self-sacrifice was intense. She had deeply internalized the religious idea that pain and suffering could atone for sin. She would choose abortion, she said, like Jesus accepted the humiliation and pain of the cross, believing that imitation of Christ’s suffering could redeem her. I told her I hoped she might come to see that it was not necessary to punish herself. She could make a different choice. But she slammed down the phone. I lost her.

. . .

What happened to this nameless woman? She found me almost two years later. She came to church and waited in line at the end of the service to talk with me. “You won’t recognize me” she said when she grasped my hands, “but you might remember me. I only talked to you on the phone. I was pregnant.” “You wanted to punish yourself,” I said, finishing her sentence. “You told me I had a choice,” she said. From behind her in line, a man stepped forward, holding a little girl in his arms. “I wanted you to meet our daughter. Her name is Jenny.” Jenny’s father handed her to me and I lifted the child into my arms. “So this is what you chose,” I said. “How wonderful.”

Parker also relates stories from other women, including herself, who struggled greatly and chose abortion. The difficult choice was a struggle in which a pregnancy was lost, but a larger heart was born and, an awareness that life’s deepest pains need not be suffered in isolation.

My last story is from the book of Job in the Old Testament. It is a story of how traditional theology harms. Briefly for those of you who don’t know the story, God and Satan enter into a wager as to whether the good and honest man Job can be made to curse God. Satan wagers that he could be made to curse God and God wagers that nothing could make him do so. Job loses first his property, then his family and finally his health, but still doesn’t curse God. His friends tell him, “You must have done something very wrong because God wouldn’t be punishing you if you hadn’t.” And Job partly believes this.

Instead of giving up what his life has taught him, what he knows about himself, Job valiantly fights back. Rebecca Parker says: “Job does two things: he argues with his friends, and then he confronts God. In other words, he becomes a theologian.”

How does this affect you? Many Unitarian Universalists are people who in one way or another have come to a religious impasse. Most UU congregations are full of people who grew up in many different religious traditions. Our congregation is no exception. I’ll never forget when I was teaching the Old Testament class here and asked each participant to tell their religious background and why they were taking the class. You might remember me telling this story before, but I’ll tell it again. In the class the religious backgrounds included: an Atheist, a Pagan, a child of a Protestant minister, a person originally from a fundamentalist family, a Buddhist, an Agnostic, a Universalist, a Unitarian, a Catholic, a Lutheran, a Christian who had converted to Judaism, a Jehovah’s Witness, a Quaker, several from other Protestant sects, and some who were unchurched as children. Where else but in a faith like Unitarian Universalism would you be able to find a group like this in church?

People who become UUs leave the faith of their childhood for a variety of reasons. One of the main reasons cited is that many of them are looking for a faith where religious questioning and exploration is encouraged. You may remember that one of the UU Principles and Purposes is that we encourage a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Unitarian Universalism didn’t invent this principle out of whole cloth when it came into being 40 some years ago. In fact, our religious forbears were dissenters who rejected and refashioned the conventional theology of their times. [This can be traced to the 3rd century with Origen of Alexandria who was our earliest Universalist forebear because he believed that all souls would be saved. He reshaped some pagan beliefs into his concept of Christianity. In the 4th century Arius the Presbyter believed that Christianity had one God, not a Trinity. After the Council of Nicaea when his ideas were rejected, Arius and his followers were persecuted. At the time of the Reformation, after personal study Michael Servetus became convinced that the Trinity was not contained in the Bible and wrote a book called “On the Errors of the Trinity” for which he was persecuted and eventually executed by John Calvin. ]

The Unitarian faith in the United States has contained many examples of people pushing the envelope of theological thinking. This begins with William Ellery Channing and other ministers who broke away from the Calvinist church in New England, largely over the issue of freedom of Biblical interpretation, thus beginning American Unitarianism in the early 1800s. It includes Ralph Waldo Emerson who challenged the next generation of Unitarians to accept primary religious experience as a central truth. Also included is Theodore Parker who denied that the miracles in the Bible were factual, and also denied the authority of the Bible and of Jesus. In the 20th century, Religious Humanism emerged rejecting supernaturalism and relying primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion. These beliefs were all very controversial at the time. Some of them are still controversial today.

The Universalist thread of our faith has also had people who swam against the theological mainstream. John Murray was born in England and became convinced that salvation was universal after coming under the influence of Universalists there. When he came to this country he established the first Universalist church in Gloucester, Mass. His battles with the authorities of the town eventually led to a court decision that established his right to form a dissenting church, an important step in the religious history of the United States. In the next generation of Universalists, Hosea Ballou rejected the orthodox argument that the death of Jesus was designed to appease an angry God, and replaced it with the idea that God is a being of eternal love who seeks the happiness of his human children.

There are also examples of women in both traditions challenging the belief that God is of the male gender and that only males should be ministers. Obviously, I agree with these women!

With a history such as this, after the Unitarians and Universalists joined together and were coming up with the Principles and Purposes of this new religion, one can see why they came up with the principle about a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” This is what people in our dissenting tradition have always done – looked for truth and been unafraid to speak it. This is also a key difference between our faith and other faiths that have an established creed. Rather than being threatened by differing beliefs, we respect and encourage this exploration. This is a very important promise to members and to each other: Spiritual exploration is encouraged here. I think my old professor Rosemary would say that this means “Theology happens here.”

What better place for someone experiencing a religious impasse than a place where spiritual exploration is encouraged; indeed it is part of the principles of the religious faith itself. UUism provides a space that holds people in those experiences of religious impasse and opens a space for life beyond that impasse.

What can be done at times of Impasse?

Rebecca Parker suggests that in any situation of impasse, conflict, tragedy — when all doors seem closed — it matters that we ask ourselves:

  • What choice can I make in this situation that will allow something of value to come to birth?
  • How will I choose life in this moment? Every choice we make that brings greater life to birth is a blessed choice. Even when we fail and our choices don’t bring about the outcome we so deeply desired, life presents us again and again with the opportunity to choose life.

She says that “when your inherited theological ideas or the cultural notions that have shaped how you view the world come up against what you’re actually experiencing of life, you have to argue with your culture and your religious tradition – and you have to go back to God. You have to argue with God.” If you don’t believe in God, she says “you have to argue with whatever it is that has been ultimate for you. This kind of religious impasse happens in a lot of lives. It’s at this point that human beings may become theologians. You become your own interpreter of life.”

Forming your new theology, you ask, “What is it in my religion, my culture and my life experience that I am passionate about; that I need to live a life of integrity?”

These questions are alive in our society today. There have been several recent books by prominent scientists [Francis Collins, Owen Gingerich and Joan Roughgarden, Lewis Wolpert] that discuss their spiritual journeys from the religion of their childhood to a belief that embraces both religion and science. Books by other scientists [Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett] do not agree with this interpretation. The debate has been engaged. It is a good time to be a Unitarian Universalist.

As the poet Mary Oliver said in our reading this morning, we need to know when to hold on and when to let go. It is in practicing this wisdom that we continually build and re-build our theology.

As Rosemary taught us, it is how we grow our religious tradition.

It is how we grow our lives.

So be it.