Coming of Age, UU Style

This past Sunday, our congregation had its annual Coming of Age worship service. I've been thinking about this since Sunday, and have hesitated to make a big deal out of it because: 1) there is so much other painful stuff going on right now; and 2) I suspect that this will hurt some people, including people I care about. But I'm going to talk about it anyway, because things keep calling me back to it.

Let me start by saying that I am all for rites of passage, communal rituals that mark changes in our lives. In fact, I think UUism should have more of them.  That is why I attended our congregation's annual Coming of Age worship service, even though I suspected that I would be squirming in my seat for the same reasons that I've squirmed during previous ones I've attended.  I've been a member of two congregations, and the annual Coming of Age worship service has essentially been the same in both, so I infer that both congregations are following some kind of curriculum/blueprint that is either association-wide or at least prevalent. I don't know what the curriculum is leading up to the annual service - having never taught (non-adult) RE - and some people might argue that means I don't have the right to be critical. But I would argue that an outsider can see things that people enmeshed on the inside cannot.

In every Coming of Age service I've attended, the youth (who are always great! - this is in no way a knock against them!) each present a short homily on what it is that they believe, and within that statement of belief there is almost always a mention of whether they believe in God (yes, no, or I don't know). And more often than not there is reference to having learned about other religions and a compare-and-contrast about what elements they liked.

I squirm for so many reasons. For one thing, I do not care whether or not you (proverbial you) believe in God, whether you are an adult or a youth. Why do we teach our kids that this is the most important question to ask themselves?! (That was rhetorical. I know that this is a fixation of North American and Western European liberals.)  Whether or not you believe in God or gods has no bearing on what kind of person you will be; it's what you believe that God/those gods call you to do that shapes your behavior.  So tell me about what you're going to do with your beliefs. *IF* you believe in God or gods, what do they inspire you to be like? If you don't believe, what are you inspired to be like? 

For another thing, it is good to learn about and appreciate other religions. Orders of magnitude better than remaining ignorant and suspicious about them. But the impression I get - and I can see this happening so easily given the UU emphasis on "deciding for yourself" - is that it's almost like going shopping. "I've looked at all the religions, but none of them really fit my needs." Or "I like the generosity of Islam and the compassion of Buddhism and the earth-centeredness of Paganism and the..."  Religion is not a product, like laundry detergent, where we read the ingredients and claims of various brands and then decide which one we like best. That's a consumerist mentality into which we've all been indoctrinated. It's also a colonial mentality, to think of different cultures as just things that we can adopt to suit our needs and tastes.

And third, while I heard a lot of appreciation for the congregation being an accepting place that allows spiritual exploration, what I did not hear was a sense of belonging, a sense of UU identity. Personal statements of belief are very individualistic things.

Again, I'm not criticizing the youth - they did a great job with the material they were given. (And if they think of our UU congregation as a safe place from which to explore other religions, well that's our fault, not theirs.) Nor am I criticizing the teachers. Hell, I'm not really criticizing anybody. I used to do all of the above. I used to think answering whether I believe in God or not was important. I used to compare and contrast the positives and negatives of different religions to try to decide which one to choose.  These are the waters into which we've all been inculturated.  I squirm in my seat in recognition and alarm that we're training/indoctrinating another generation to make the same mistakes.

Ironically, it was becoming a UU, along with studying religion at Georgetown, that turned me around.  It was committing to a religious community that helped me to realize that community is more important than individual beliefs.  After doing a survey of different religions and not finding any that matched my exact criteria, I settled on UUism as the "least bad" of all the options.  "At least," I thought to myself, that since UUism has no dogma, "there would never be anything in it to offend me."  Boy, was I wrong!  But having made a commitment to UUism I learned to stay even when things are said that offend me, even when there is difference of belief.  

Within our congregations we have Christians and atheists, Jews and Buddhists, Pagans and Muslims, Hindus and just plain UUs with no other religious identity. We of all people should know that it's not a set of beliefs that makes a religion.  Through interfaith work that I did as a UU, I have met atheist Christians who claim the Christian identity as part of the culture that they were born into and the community that they continue to be in covenant with, evn if they don't share certain core beliefs.  It was also through UUism and our ongoing racial justice work that I came to see that culture permeates religion.  (UUism is White Anglo-Saxxon Protestant in culture, regardless of how many athiests and/or Pagans sit in our pews.)  Religion isn't just a set of beliefs. It's culture. And it's community. Figuring out what it is that you personally believe is important, but equally important is a sense of UU identity - a connection to the larger tradition and to the community.

Again, I am all for rites of passage, communal rituals that mark changes in our lives. I think UUism should have more of them. But is this really is how we want to mark coming of age for our youth - to stand in front of the congregation and make a statement about individual beliefs.  Admittedly, the program does a good job of enculturating them into the the dominant UU white culture, which emphasizes individualism and intellectualism.  But is this really what we most value? Is this what we want to teach our kids to value?  Can we envision a different coming of age program that instills a deeper sense of UU identity?  What if, instead of asking each youth to write about what they personally believe we asked them to write about what they see for the future of UUism, what role they play in it, and what role UUism plays in the world?  

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