Jell-O and Faith: Why I want to be both religious and humanist

By Clare Stern

Over the last year I have been feeling as if my spiritual life has been standing on Jell-O. You know – the stuff that’s given to you as a kid that’s fun to eat? Jell-O is a fascinating thing; it can remain firm even after it has been shacked a few times. It can also be molded into different shapes and with other flavors for delicious desserts.

I bet by now you are wondering – why the heck is Jell-O being talked about on an interfaith blog? In my mind faith (or spirituality) is not a state; it’s dynamic. It will shake, wiggle, and form with life events over time.,just like the process to making Jell-O. You start with Jell-O powder, add water, mix together and get sugary liquid and then cool it to form the childhood past time dessert.

Growing up, my mother would tell my brother and me that we could only have one dessert; I would always pitch a fit about it. I never understood why I couldn’t try both? After some time of being involved with interfaith work I still struggle with wanting to have two things or try two things. Because I have seen, heard, and experienced many interfaith events and stories, I can’t help but question some of the liturgy that I have been brought up with, nor can I authentically say I believe in every component of the liturgy. I see who, or what, I think of as The Divine in other religious practices as well as dare I say it…secular practices or philosophies.

Many of the interactions with other Humanists I have had identify as Secular Humanists, Humanism in itself is a philosophy, not strictly for secular persons. Often times this can be misconstrued. There is a small distinction that can be made to understand the difference between Secular Humanism and Humanism. “H” is secular and “h” is the principle practice of humanism.

This year I have been shown the wonderful and, for me, heart-warming philosophy of humanism. A peer of mine at the Interfaith Center, Charles Hack, has shared his personal story and spoken articulately about the Humanist Manifesto. Once I was introduced to the Humanist Manifesto, for the first time in a long time I felt in moved that a body of words rang true in my heart. I do believe that all humans should be treated with the utmost dignity, inherent significance, and that we have a freedom of creativity and thought process. I also believe that contact with nature is integral in forming our lives. It’s one life and one world that we live in, so we should take care of it. We are apart of the ecosystem, not above it.

While I agree with these humanist principles, I have not been able to come to terms with the idea that “The Divine” cannot, or is not, present. To me, I think that there is a spiritual element in relationships with everything and everyone. This is when I resort to my Episcopalian upbringing. While I do not agree with some of the fundamentals of this Christian denomination (specifically about Jesus being my Lord and Savior), I think the denomination that I have grown up in allows for a place to question and explore different elements within spirituality. In the Episcopal Church there are conservatives, moderates, liberals, and every identity in-between even if you do not see them on a daily basis.

Before I took my baptismal vows when I was ten, my mother had our priest, Mother Anne, over for dinner. My mother said to Mother Anne point blank, “Will my best friend who is Hindu go to hell for not believing that Jesus is her Lord and Savior and has a different view of God than me?”   Mother Anne replied, “There are many wells along the river. Who is to say that one well is better than the other? God loves all. We are all his children.”

Another priest and Dean of our church said to my brother and me that if we ever felt that our questioning was being rejected, or that our intellect was being suffocated, then that is the time to walk away from a religious practice, though not necessarily from The Divine, or God. If we believe that humans have the gift of free will, should we not use that gift The Divine has given us the very best we can?

I believe God has given us intelligence, and our own experiences, which we can refer to as “Reason.” We sort through our faith as it relates to our life circumstances.

While, I struggle saying that I am Christian and Humanist to people at times, the words that Mother Anne and Father Edwards said to my family and I forever have been imprinted in my mind.

Something I have come to know as an interfaith activist and humanist-Episcopalian is that your spiritual life is yours and yours alone. No one should tell you otherwise.

Why should I limit my spiritual/religious identity to just being one or the other? Why can’t I have both yellow and orange Jell-O? I want, and choose, to be double in worldview and my dessert Jell-O choice in the shape of a sun.


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