During the pandemic lockdown, one of the ways I cared for my spirit was by listening to podcasts. Of all of the new-to-me-sources of insight, comfort, and wisdom I discovered, the most powerful was “The Confessional” by Nadia Bolz Weber. A Lutheran pastor whose ministry has always been about serving those whom the Church traditionally excluded, Weber called her podcast “a no BS space for people to talk about the moments in our lives we are least proud of.”
Every episode is riveting, but the one I still think about nearly four years later was her interview with Megan Phelps Roper. Megan was raised in the Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist church founded by her grandfather that’s best known for things like protesting at soldier’s funerals. They believe every bad thing that happens is a punishment from God, and that they are supposed to get America to repent by drawing attention to tragedy.
Megan was raised on a compound with other church members, given signs to hold at public protests with hurtful messages on them from the time she was five years old. A true believer, by the time she was a young adult she saw social media as a tool to spread Westboro’s message. At least until she began actually engaging with people outside her church on Twitter. Some people dismissed her and her hurtful views immediately. But others appealed to her humanity.
A few months into her Twitter evangelism, the first big crack in her belief system began to form. Someone on Twitter sent her a photo essay about a famine in Somalia. The first picture was of a starving child and it really affected her. Her church seemed to delight in these tragedies, but she noticed that people on social media were filled with compassion for the suffering. Compassion seemed to be missing from Westboro’s message, but she was finding it in places like Twitter.
Megan went on to leave the Westboro church, which for her meant also leaving almost her entire family. She rejected the faith she was raised in, letting go of a lot of what she was taught to believe, adding in new beliefs she’s examined for herself. It’s clear that the process has been painful. It’s also clear that it’s given her purpose. She’s now a political activist who speaks publicly in support of many of the groups she grew up protesting.
Megan Phelps Roper’s experience deconstructing and reconstructing faith is much more extreme than most. She had to leave everything she knew in order to follow where truth was leading her. But even most people who didn’t grow up in fundamentalist families or faiths must face the challenge of deconstruction at some point. A lot of people find congregations like this one after they’ve begun their deconstruction, attracted to the pluralism and mutual acceptance and appreciation for diversity of many kinds. Since our faith encourages us to make our search for truth a lifetime project, let’s think a bit about that process.
In the 50s and 60s, a philosopher named Paul Ricoeur developed a three stage way of understanding how people approach truth. The first stage he named the First Naivete. This is a stage of understanding when we simply accept what we’ve been taught, whatever that happens to be. This is a pre-critical stage.
Ricoeur’s second stage is Criticism. People in this stage notice the contradictions between the beliefs they were raised in and the realities in the world and people around them. They no longer accept some or all sacred stories and teachings at face value.
The Critical stage of making meaning can be so difficult that many people stop there. Some seem to stop out of anger, others out of fear, afraid maybe of being misled again. But for Riceour, there is a stage beyond criticism. He calls it the Second Naivete. People in this stage accept the wisdom that criticism has taught them, but then continue searching for truth. In this post-critical stage, sacred stories, texts, and rituals function not as literal truth, but as symbols that point to deeper truth. I’ve heard it explained this way: people who wear glasses don’t look at their glasses to see the world better; they look through them. In the same way, we can look through sacred texts and rituals to perceive new truths.
Deconstruction and reconstruction have been on my mind a lot lately. As this country, and indeed our world, becomes more divided, as people hold ever-more tightly to their positions on the issues,
I can’t stop thinking about Megan Phelps Roper’s story. Because it wasn’t the people who asked her how she could be so stupid to believe what she’d been raised to believe that helped her. It wasn’t the people canceling her, or trying to make her feel bad about herself. It was the people who appealed not to her convictions, but to her humanity, the people who showed her compassion.
I can’t even count the number of times I’ve asked myself “how can someone believe that?” about one thing or another. And yet, I look back through my own life, my own journey of becoming, and I find plenty of things I used to think that embarrass me. A friend and colleague of mine is fond of saying that humans move through the world like big projection screens, projecting our own fears and insecurities in our interactions with others. So, perhaps when we find ourselves asking “how can anyone believe that?” we are also asking “how could I ever have believed that?” Or maybe “could I have ever believed something like that? If I’d been born to a different family, with a different identity, raised a different way, would I believe that?”
There are a lot of things that make deconstructing and then reconstructing faith hard, but I think the hardest part is the inner work we must do to find humility and compassion, for ourselves and for others. Not for the beliefs. I’m not suggesting we work on finding compassion for the idea that anyone deserves to suffer, that some people are less important than others, any of that. But I’m not sure how to continue growing as a kind, open, loving person without finding compassion for the living, breathing people who believe these things.
We are living in a time when extremism – of all kinds – is growing. And as the climate crisis on this planet intensifies, the threat of extremism will only grow. But our call as religious liberals is not to create a haven for people who think and believe all the same things we do. Our call is to work for our values in our community, both through advocacy at the local, state, and national levels, but also through our personal relationships with our neighbors.
And in that work we are going to encounter people who believe things that make our toes curl. We are going to encounter people who don’t respect us for who we are, or what we believe, or who we love. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that I’m going to hell because it’s a sin for a woman to serve as a pastor. Is it upsetting? Sure. Should I allow that energy to dictate my response? Well, I’m human, so I have sometimes. But if our focus is the work, the building of a better world, then I think we must find a way to engage meanness with compassion.
We can’t control what other people do or say, but we can practice getting in touch with our own minds so we can choose how to respond. We can choose to respond in ways that exacerbate extremist tendencies, or we can choose to act in ways that interrupt and mitigate it.
I hear people all the time ask me why Unitarian Universalism isn’t a larger, better-known religion. I have some theories, but I think part of it is the reputation liberals have for a kind of arrogance. Even if someone manages to make it to the Critical stage of meaning-making, even if they are interested in constructing a new faith, why on earth would they want to join another community that thinks other faiths aren’t as enlightened as we are? That thinks it’s better than everybody else? That’s what they’ve sacrificed so much and worked so hard to heave, just in another form.
The Presidential election campaign is revving up, folks. And it’s going to trigger all sorts of stuff inside each of us. Anger. Fear. Revulsion. Resentment. We are going to encounter people in physical and virtual spaces who will say and do things that will upset us deeply. Have we done the work, the day-to-day work, it takes to stay centered amid what may be coming? Are we prepared to respond in ways that are informed not just by our emotions, not just by our egos, but by our values?
If ever there was a time when the world needs people to be their best selves, it is now and in the days to come. If ever there was a time that the world needs us to be clear about our purpose as a liberal religious community, it is now. If ever there was a time when the world needs people who can do more than just reject old stories and rituals out of hand and instead learn to look through them for new truths, look through them to find God, the holy, truth, deep meaning everywhere, it is now.
Do we exist primarily as a social club for people who fall in the center circle of the liberal beliefs Venn Diagram? Or do we exist to serve something larger than ourselves? Do we exist not just to reject extremism, or to help interrupt it? Because if we want to be about advocacy work to change our community, to serve justice, to make sure all people in our society have enough for their lives to flourish, then we have to find a way to meet even people who hold beliefs we find abhorrent with compassion. And we have to be about making sure our free faith is known not for a sense of superiority, but for our welcome and our love.
May we all find blessing on our journey to construct a set of beliefs we can claim with a straight face, a faith we can believe in without having to cross our fingers. May we all find the time and space we need to center down into ourselves, our deepest held truths, and the peace that is only available here and now. May we all find the humility to remember that we have not always been who we are now, believed all we do now. May we find compassion for ourselves and others, for the people we once were, for the work it takes to move into the critical stage of making meaning. May we grow and mature in our own sense of meaning and self, that we can offer others judgment-free space to demo and reno their own faith. And in so doing, may we help our free faith come to be known for our welcome, for our compassion,and for our love.