Oops, I went to church.

I'm becoming a big fan of the universalist "heresy" lately.

After shopping around for a few years, Melinda found a church she wanted to go to. From their FAQs and principles, they appear to not hate gays. That was a main selling point for Melinda. This one sounded really weird, because they talk about having pagan members, agnostic members. They welcome everyone and they don't have a creed that you have to swear to.

Melinda has talked about going to church off and on in the past, but this time she was serious. She called the minister of this local church, explaining that she felt like an agnostic right now. The minister said that was okay, because the minister is agnostic too! When I heard that, I joked, "Agnostic? When she preaches, does she stand up in front of the congregation and just say, 'Maybe'?"

At first I said I'd drop Melinda off at church and pick her up afterwards. But I thought about how Melinda talks to almost no humans in person and basically sits at home 5 to 6 days per week while I'm at work. She needs a social life that is not implemented through the computer. If she feels more comfortable with me sitting next to her in church, and if it helps her make friends or socialize with people instead of computers, then I'm willing to suffer through it.

That was my reasoning when we went the first time. After the second time, we were learning more about the church, and Melinda was starting to worry that they are too accepting! It doesn't really feel like the kind of church we're used to. We heard sermons about Martin Luther King and an influential minister of the Unitarian Universalist denomination. Melinda felt she wasn't learning much about Jesus or the Bible. I said that mysterious feeling was a good thing. It was the absence of someone trying to tell you what you must believe. It doesn't feel like church unless someone is cramming dogma down your throat. I don't know if this is church, but whatever you call it, I like it.

The Unitarians were a sect that believed the holy trinity was just a man-made interpretation of scripture. I haven't read much about them, but they merged in the Sixties with this other Christian group, the Universalists, and those are the ones that have really interested me. Universalism is the idea that all people might be saved, no matter what they say or do or believe.

Get this: what if God is so loving that he did not actually taint us all with original sin? What if he is going to save us all? What if you don't have to hate, or distrust, or believe in the damnation of Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or atheists or agnostics, or even weird Christian groups that believe differently from you? What if all humans have some basic kernel of goodness which is worth saving? Or what if you believe all that usual junk about damnation in the Bible, but God gives you one last chance to change your ways after you die? What if he blasts you with an understanding of what's good and bad, and then gives you the choice? What if everyone makes the right choice at that point, and no one ever goes to Hell? What if all those ideas are still compatible with being Christian?

I'm not sure which of those ideas most Universalists believe, but the basic idea is that everyone is saved. That means we're not a bunch of dirty, lousy, tainted monsters who need magic to make us good. It means there's goodness in all of us, and sometimes it just needs dirt and crust brushed off us to let it show through. That means you don't have to hate this world and wish for the next one. You can see the goodness in this world and strive to make it better without worrying about the next one, without worrying yourself sick with guilt. It's a different way of looking at the world and at people and at yourself.

We've attended church four times now, and we enjoy it. We're planning on becoming regular members instead of just visitors. The thing that was tripping me up is that I'm still atheist. Does it make sense for me to become a member of a church just because I want to be part of a community and because they organize to do things I agree with? Here's how I rationalize it:

I look at things from a materialist perspective and come to the conclusion that the potential for goodness in humans is the valuable thing that we should shape our morals around. It leads me to be a humanist. Universalist Christians find something in the Bible or other religious experiences that lead them to the same conclusion. I don't have a big enough grudge against Christianity to keep me from working with them towards humanist goals. They don't have a big enough grudge against atheists or anyone else to keep them from working towards humanist goals.

Some of the people during a church service in the UU church may believe that they are keeping the Sabbath as commanded by the Bible. They feel the presence of God and sing to worship him. I sit and stand and sing next to them, and I'm there because it's a nice prose and poetry reading and sing-along, because it feels good to hang out and talk with them, and because we can work together to feed people or raise funds or volunteer for good causes. Sure I could find other secular organizations to volunteer in, but what if this one is the most comprehensive one I've come across? If they don't mind me being an atheist and participating in their community, why should I avoid it just because they're theists?

I can't remember if it was in a sermon or something I read on the web, but one of the criticisms of the UU church and its policy of wide-open acceptance is that it doesn't count as a religion. It's more of a social club. In fact, a state official in Texas stripped a UU church of its tax exempt status because they claimed it did not have "one system of belief." The decision was later reversed, but you can see why orthodox religions would be confused by this unorthodox religion.

Look at it this way. If some of the members use it as a religion, and other members use it as a social club, and if they're all conscious of that and okay with it, then what's the problem?


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