My friend Lloyd Marshall posted the image below to Facebook last week. It prompted this post reflecting on “the spiritual but not religious” meme we hear regularly in post-church society.
Let me begin by noting that I am an atheist. It god did exist, she would be way to busy starting new universes to worry about my sins or to be interfering in our lives. But I am also a Unitarian Universalist and thus choose to live (at least part of the week) in a religious fishbowl.
Let me start by explaining that Unitarian Universalists have hundreds of years of “religious” history, but have also long made room for atheists, agnostics, humanists and a variety of other non-theists. Unitarian Universalist (UUs) are non- credal – a religious term that means that we don’t have to believe any particular set of believes. Modern UUs do affirm seven principles. You will likely agree that they are pretty “motherhood and apple pie” type statements that almost any decent and well-meaning person ascribes to. For example the 7th principle is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” This principle acknowledges our interdependence with all components of life, thus endorsing a positive ecological understanding of our place in nature and further, it encourages us not to screw it up! UUs also acknowledge six ‘roots” of our beliefs and actions – ranging from acknowledging the value of rationality and science, to affirming knowledge from “earth centred” or pagan religions.
So, why do a choose to live within a fish-bowl rather than swim freely as implied in the cartoon? My Father (a devote Baptist and golfer) used to quip that “certainly a person can experience God on a golf course rather than a church – but do they?” I don’t describe myself as a particularly spiritual person, but I do enjoy singing with others, listening to Bach, being in ‘sacred’ spaces and listening to inspiring speakers – in churches, on the radio and on podcasts. So, attending a UU Sunday service gives me a special place to go to and many of the things I enjoy happen there.
But most importantly I like the fishbowl for the community that swims with me in the bowl. Now, I am NOT saying that all UUs are bosom buddies – some drive me nuts! But, if I think of those individuals who I count as friends and that I see on a more or less regular basis, likely half of them I’ve met at UU churches. I also like the community because it empowers me and amplifies my effort to do more than I could by myself. UUs have a fairly strong sense of social justice – our tag line at Westwood is to “rest, grow and serve the world”. That service ranges from fund raising, to supporting women’s shelters and services for the homeless. I also donate money outside of the UU community, but I get more inspired and educated by noting and USUALLY supporting the social justice issues that are highlighted at Westwood. Finally, the fishbowl community gives me a place to stretch my mind. For example, I lead the monthly FreeThinkers’ Book Club at Westwood – a time and place that we discuss some very interesting books and at the same time enjoy each other’s company and in pre-covid times, homemade cookies!
For some the fish bowl also creates a safe space and churches have long offered sanctuary to the oppressed. I’m fortunately not feeling personally unsafe, but I do know others who value the acceptance and safety to swim as the type of fish they really are in the UU fishbowl.
I might also add that unlike real fishbowls, UU buildings have an exit door. An old joke is that UU’s are the only people that god trusts enough to take summers off from Sunday services. Unlike the Baptist church that I grew up in, UUs seem to come and go with some regularity. Many play active leadership roles and then seem to drift away or disappear. And that is OK.
So does the fishbowl restrict or distort my life in the sea? I prefer to think that it serves as a fine set of swim goggle allowing me to see the ocean and the creatures that abide within it more clearly. Or as a yellow submarine:
“And our friends are all aboard
Many more of them live next door
And the band begins to play
We all live in a yellow submarine” Paul McCartney