Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
September 25, 2005

 “We’ve Got All the Right Questions”

Rev. Catherine Torpey


I used to teach theology in Catholic girls’ high schools. For three years, I taught at a very wealthy, overwhelmingly white school in Greenwich, CT. But prior to that I taught for one year at a school in the East Village in Manhattan. The girls at the New York City Catholic school were almost entirely first generation children of immigrants. Their parents came mostly from the Dominican Republic or Haiti, but there were children whose parents had come here from Poland, China and a wide variety of countries. These parents were not wealthy, and it was a great sacrifice for them to spend the money to send their daughters to a private institution. The school where I taught was a high school only, so these girls had all gone to various junior high schools, mostly Catholic ones.

At this school in the East Village, I taught Bible to ninth graders. I walked into the classroom on my first day, looking forward to sharing with them the fun of exploring spirituality and theology, sharing their experiences and thoughts and giving them what guidance I and their Catholic tradition could offer. As I was beginning my lesson, one young lady raised her hand. I looked forward to her insight into the lesson I was giving. “Yes, Yolanda?”

“Miss Torpey, is it a sin to tell my brother to stay out of my room?”

Stunned silence on my part. I could not see the connection between this question and my lesson on the Genesis account of creation.

“Well, Yolanda. I think you probably have a right to privacy, and in general he should probably stay out of your room if you want him to. But I hope you try to say it nicely. Now, as we were discussing, on the second day, God created the…”

“But Miss Torpey, is it a sin?”

More stunned silence from me. “Well, Yolanda,” I tried, “not if you and he have an agreement and he is breaking it. In that case, it is not a sin to ask him to stick to the agreement. Now, as we were discussing, what does the book of Genesis say that God created on the second day?”

I saw a hand go up.

“Yes, Maria?”

“Miss Torpey, is it a sin to go to a movie and pay the child price even though I’m over 12?”

I did my best to field the query. Francesca asked, “Miss Torpey, is it a sin to kiss my boyfriend?” Simone asked, “Miss Torpey, is it a sin to let my friend cheat off my homework?”

Now, I had been hired to teach at this school despite my lack of Catholic credentials because I had a Masters Degree in Divinity and had worked as a youth minister, and they couldn’t find a Catholic person who had as good credentials. I was happy to get the chance to teach in a classroom setting, and believed that I knew enough about Catholic theology to do a good job, if not an ideal one. Over the course of that year, and the following three years at the school in Connecticut, I came to have a deep respect for Roman Catholicism, for its disciplined and reasoned theology, its commitment to a global perspective, its concern for the poor, and the richness of its tradition.

This barrage of questions from my young students, however, was indicative of one kind of Catholic instruction that did not impress me. Of course, for many of these girls, the motive in asking me questions was simply to distract me from giving them work to do or information to learn. But even accounting for such illicit motives, the nature and assumptions behind the questions were disturbing. It was sad to me that their idea of a religious educator was someone who had the correct answers to every question of morality and human interaction. Their idea of religious education was learning rules. They became frustrated and baffled when I would ask them to reflect on their questions. “But Miss Torpey,” they would frequently cry, “I just want you to tell me, is it a sin or not?” Also troubling was the frequency with which they asked the question not in order to guide their own behavior, but in order to condemn the behavior of others. For instance, “Miss Torpey, there’s a lady in my neighborhood whose boyfriend lives with her. That’s a sin, so is she going to hell?” Or, “My sister is diabetic but she ate ice cream last night. She sinned, right?”

It took a long time, but over many months, the girls came to know that I would not answer their questions in the way that previous instructors had apparently done. I was not going to answer yes or no, not going to hand down the judgement from on high in black and white terms. They also came to know that I would not assist them in determining whether or not God was planning to send certain people to the burning pits of hell. The ambiguity of my answers was a great annoyance to them. Especially when they began to ask really good questions. There was one young woman, Monique [all names, by the way, have been changed to protect the innocent], who was not very strong academically, not very disciplined and was constantly in trouble in school. Monique, more than any other girl, asked what I came to call in that class, the “big questions.” “Miss Torpey,” she would ask, “How am I supposed to know what to believe?”Good question, Monique.

or, “Miss Torpey, how do I know whether or not God even exists?”

Good question, Monique.

or, “Miss Torpey, if God loves us so much, then why do things like Hurricane Katrina come and then Hurricane Rita, while people are still down?”Good question, Monique.These kinds of deeper, more heartfelt questions emerged more and more as they learned that I would not give them any simplistic answers. However, they continued to be frustrated and baffled, because as the questions got more important, the answers continued to be ambiguous. The more worthy of real contemplation the questions were, the more likely I was to say, “That is one of life’s big questions, my dear. Why don’t we all write a paper to see what we think the answer might be?” I felt that my biggest accomplishment as a theology teacher was in helping to usher the girls toward using their own experience and intelligence to seek answers to life’s most important questions. I am proud that I have had the chance to plant seeds of religious liberalism in fields where religious conservatism had strong roots. I hasten to say, however, that there are many Catholic teachers in Catholic schools who teach much the way I did, so I do not wish to make my experience a condemnation of Catholic religious education. While unfortunately in most traditions, there will be much bad instruction, it is also true that great educators are found in every tradition as well, and I know from my experience that there are many out there. The nun who was my supervisor, for instance, was fully supportive of my methods.

Questions. Most of us have a lot of them, and we come here to our religious community in the hope of finding some kind of answers.

What is the meaning of life?

What is the purpose of my life?

Why am I so lonely when I have people around me who love me?

Or, why do I get to be so happy when there are so many who are not?

How do I give my children spiritual grounding?

How do I give myself spiritual grounding?

What do I mean when I say “spritual”?

I want to do more. How can I do more?

I want to do less. How can I do less?

How can I get other people to do more?

How can I be happy when there is so much to be upset about?

I could go on and on.

Here in this spiritual home, we don’t claim to have simplistic answers. And, like those ninth grade girls, we are all likely to feel how frustrating it is that no one who is a responsible person can hand us simplistic, black and white answers. You are unlikely to be told while here at SNUUC that kissing someone or eating ice cream constitutes a sin. And what is most beautiful to me is that you are unlikely while here at SNUUC to hear any of our children asking if telling their brother to leave their room is a sin. Today, Susan Nykolak and I are beginning our class on Parenting in a Unitarian Universalist context. Many parents admit to feeling frustrated or even inadequate when their children ask questions of a religious nature. We love this faith because we are encouraged to ask. But there are times when many of us feel the way my students felt: “Please stop telling me it’s a great question: give me a great answer!”

Let me tell you that there are far more answers within these walls than you might know. I have been here only a matter of weeks, and the inspiration and modeling of great living that I have observed here has been amazing. Especially inspiring to me are the long-time members whose work day in and day out for this congregation, working at the Thrift Shop, or leading the choir and or making crafts on Thursdays at Unicrafters in order to enjoy the fun of creative activity, fellowship, and making money for this precious institution. Theirs is a profound example of faithfulness over the years and in many cases over the decades. In simple conversations, with both old-timers and newcomers, I have been inspired by how selflessly you live your lives, with constant attention to what is best both for your own souls and for having right relationship with others. The lessons available to us here are as great as any sacred text or religious doctrine.

And we have Unitarian Universalist history and theology to give us guidance as well. Last week, I spoke about William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the authors of the Humanist Manifesto of the 1930’s, and our own Lon Ray Call. Our forebears have given us their answers to some of our big questions. What is beautiful about Unitarian Universalist theology, though, is that, as the great Unitarian Rod Serling used to say in the Twilight Zone: UU theology is “submitted for your consideration.”

The girls in my Bible class had hoped that their tradition would give them final answers. And, in their junior high schools, apparently their teachers were in the habit of providing yeses and nos. And for us as Unitarian Universalists, there are times when we might feel like it would be easier for someone to give us an answer. But, really, it doesn’t matter whether or not you have been handed answers; when the moments of truth come in our lives, we must wrestle on our own, like it or not. Building a liberal religious institution helps us learn to wrestle with our wrestling, and to depend on that which is truly dependable, not things that promise dependability but fail to deliver.

If we expected the answers handed to us to give us comfort, we will be sorely disappointed. It is not easier to be in a religious institution that hands out pronouncements. In my ministry, I have seen people of every religious stripe having to wrestle with what life has handed them, and finding the answers they had been given completely inadequate to the task of helping them cope. I had my own experience which taught me this lesson. As many of you know, I was raised Methodist, and while in high school, I went through a period of time where I was a fundamentalist Christian. During a Bible study given by a member of our church at her home, she taught me a very narrow understanding of Jesus and his mission, and I came to believe that I needed to accept Jesus as my lord and savior. And so I did. For a while, I went through a period of bliss, feeling certain that I had found the key to life that everyone dreams of finding. It was about a year before I had to abandon the fundamentalist theology, and one of the moments that shook up that faith in me happened while I was driving up to Massachusetts. (Terrible things happen in Massachusetts.) My friend Fred was driving. We were going to look at a college together. It was November, and a light snow was falling. Fred, a 17 year old boy, enjoyed driving fast. Suddenly, we went into a spin on I-95. I was petrified, naturally. Luckily, there were no cars near us, and Fred quickly righted the car and pulled us over to the shoulder. He told me later that when he looked over at me, I was white as a ghost and huddled in the corner of the car, near the door. “Are you OK?” he asked. “I’m fine,” I said, “Why do you ask?”

What troubled my spirit most in the wake of that incident was that, even though I, as a “saved” Christian supposedly had a special relationship with God and was under “His” constant protection, I had felt none of God’s comfort or presence during those terrifying moments when the car was facing south on the northbound lanes. The theology which I had supposed held the answers to life had done nothing for me when push had come to shove. And it was depressing. I had been promised comfort and confidence and joy and protection, and in that moment when I was alone with my terror, the false theology had proven itself false. When the rain came, the levees broke.


Where can I go, spiritually, in moments of terror?

How would I cope if I were to lose someone or something I love?

Where will I find comfort and security?

Believe it or not, the practice of allowing ourselves to wait on real answers, however tentative and lightly held, is the most strong and reliable foundation on which to base our spiritual lives. The spiritual muscle we develop by our constant wrestling, however frustrating it may be in the moment, is what will develop our strength to deal with the ambiguities and sadness of moments when we face death or other kinds of loss. And we are here, together, to proclaim publicly that your wrestling is the truest of religions. We are here to stand privately with you and to listen to your tentative conclusions, and in the hope that you will hear ours. We are here to dance together in our questions, to sing together our questions, to come and go to that land where we are all bound.

Let it be a dance we do. May I have this dance with you? For all the good times and the bad times, too—let it be a dance.