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The necessity of religion

We need a way to pull everything together and celebrate wholeness.
By Galen Guengerich
Winter 2013 11.4.13

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Some years ago, I made a hospital visit to a woman named Monica, who had been diagnosed with a relatively rare and extremely persistent form of cancer. Monica had come to this country from Malaysia before her then-12-year-old daughter, Jordan, was born and had raised her as a single parent, without the benefit of extended family. Monica and Jordan had been attending the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, where I am senior minister, for about a year.

During my visit, we talked about the challenges Monica had faced in her life, and especially her frustration that the cancer was not diagnosed earlier. Hers was a story I hear too often, especially from women: her doctors (some of whom were also women) had brushed off her early intimations of trouble. By the time someone started paying attention, it was too late. Within several weeks of my initial hospital visit, Monica would be dead.

Mostly, we talked about her daughter—about the arrangements she had made for Jordan to remain in this country and the hopes she had for her as a young woman. It was a difficult conversation for me, since Jordan is about the same age as my daughter, Zoë.

Midway through the conversation, Jordan walked into the room from one of her first days in school. I liked her immediately: strong, smart, and delightfully bold. We talked about the courses she was taking and her new teachers—which ones were on the most sought-after list and which ones were not. We talked about whether her new hairstyle made her face look square (my answer was no). We also discussed whether Ashlee Simpson is musically more talented than her older sister Jessica (my answer was yes).

During that conversation, a line from the poet W. B. Yeats came to mind, in which Yeats speaks of a ceremony of innocence. My conversation with a dying woman and her daughter was, in its own way, an attempt to gather up everything that mattered to the three of us and hold it close, even make it whole. The fact that Monica was dying did not mean Ashlee Simpson was irrelevant to her daughter, nor did Jordan’s concern about how her hair looked mean that her mother would not die. Nor did the fact that I was the minister mean that I didn’t hug my daughter and my wife a little more urgently when I arrived home that evening.

No matter how difficult our circumstances or how dire our situation, we need a way to pull everything together and celebrate wholeness. We need to affirm what is true, cherish what is beautiful, and embrace what is lovely. The necessity of religion emerges from this deep-seated and longstanding human need for wholeness.


This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of UU World (pages 19). Excerpted from God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age, © 2013 Galen Guengerich, with permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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