Looking back on the conversations of my youth, I feel an inordinate number of them involved me having to explain what it is I believe.
As a child of a marriage between a fallen Catholic and a non-practicing Jew, I was raised Unitarian, a faith considered by many to be the ultimate compromise religion, a spiritual “big tent.”
But the problem with being a Unitarian child is that very few children, and very few adults, know what Unitarianism is. Another problem is that people tend to confuse Unitarianism with that other unusual religion that begins with the letter “U.” A few months into my freshman year at a private college run by Catholic Jesuits, I discovered that some classmates were amazed at how normal I was for a “Moonie.” “I’m Uni-tar-ian,” I would say clearly, in defense. “Thomas Jefferson was a Unitarian. You’re thinking of the Unification Church and the Rev. Sun Young Moon.”
After a moment of looking relieved, my peers then asked, “But what’s a Unitarian?” I would explain, as simplistically as I could, that Unitarianism is a liberal, Christianity-based religion. I’d explain that some Unitarians believe Jesus is the son of God while others believe he was simply a great, entirely human, man. I’d explain that some Unitarians believe in God, some don’t. I’d explain that Unitarians believe no religion has all the answers, and that since there may or may not be an afterlife, we had all better do our best in the one life we know we do have.
Today, as an adult, I know a majority of Americans consider the United States to be a “Christian Nation.” Now, as an adult, I know I live in a country where the majority of citizens believe in Creationism and damnation and an all-powerful God. But back in my youth, I didn’t know how small a minority I belonged to.
On Sunday evenings at college I’d watch from my dorm as my classmates paraded into the 7 o’clock mass, which was a social event for seeing and being seen. I had witnessed how many of these parishioners were often drunk, dishonest, sanctimonious, cruel and lewd. Visiting me one of those evenings was a young priest I was friendly with. Before leaving for the pilgrimage, which he knew I wouldn’t be joining, he said, “Don’t let them make you feel bad. You’re a better Christian than many Christians I know.”
That I believed, and I still do. I believe that a person needn’t be “God-fearing,” or even “God-believing,” to be good and have good values. I believe that belonging to a particular faith, or publicly invoking God’s name, does not make a person moral, ethical, wise or just. (Our leaders in Washington, and leaders worldwide, are proof of that.) I believe that one’s morality and goodness are reflected not by what someone claims to be, but by their respect for others, and for nature, and by how they truly live and behave.
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