Saturday, October 4, 2003
Too much C Major.
I mocked Andree Seu's overwritten diatribe about Unitarian Universalist worship last night. Now for some further commentary. Strip away the precious anachronisms in Andree Seu's prose, ignore the fact that there isn't much of a thesis holding the essay together, and overlook her triumphalistic Christian superiority complex. Is there still a valid bit of criticism in her critique of Unitarian Universalism?
Yes, there is. But it doesn't quite have to do with Jesus.
The flaw in liberal religion as it is widely practiced in Unitarian Universalist churches can be characterized in many ways, but since I'm working on a sermon about the art of worship this weekend, I'll call it "C Major idolatry." Our worship style, which we tend to regard as intellectually sophisticated and rational, is usually thematically and aesthetically unmodulated. We seem happiest practicing our religion in the bright, confident key of C Major ("Joyful, joyful!") while belittling anything that doesn't sound quite so chipper. D minor, on the other hand, is not our cup of tea — so morose, so medieval, so "original sin."
William James poked at what he called "once-born" faith (and the footnotes in The Varieties of Religious Experience make it clear that he's talking about Unitarians): "I mean those who, when unhappiness is offered or proposed to them, positively refuse to feel it, as if it were something mean and wrong. We find such persons in every age, passionately flinging themselves upon their sense of the goodness of life, in spite of the hardships of their own condition" or — he might have added — in spite of what they hear in the news and see around them. Some religious liberals strike me as desperately optimistic, eager to believe in the inherent benevolence of nature or themselves or rationality. We like C Major and clear glass.
We often pick a topic, a theme, and then run it into the ground in our worship services, selecting liturgical texts, hymns, readings, and sermon illustrations all to make a single point. (Moral: It is very good to be good. Voting is important to democracy. Hooray for community!) Last month I attended a service where all three hymns were "gathering" hymns — 358, 360, and 361 — which struck me as just a bit much. There's a rhythm to worship, which Von Ogden Vogt regarded as a dramatic art alternating between inward and outward motions. Or, to stay with the musical analogy, good worship includes major and minor and modal keys, loud passages and soft passages, staccato and legato passages, moments of tension and moments of resolution. The problem with a lot of what passes for Unitarian Universalism isn't just that it's naively optimistic, cheerfully syncretic, or blissfully ahistorical — although these are usually my complaints — but that it's often tone-deaf to the variety and complexity of our actual lives. That's what blinds us to the Christian tradition, because we have identified several basic dilemmas in the human condition as distinctive flaws of Christianity; we don't recognize B-flat minor as anything remotely related to us, you might say, but we see it in the story of Jesus, and so we work to keep the text and the tune out of our churches.
If our churches approached worship more thoughtfully and multi-dimensionally, we'd have much less difficulty coming to terms with the Bible and with our own Christian roots. We also do better at reaching people in a wider range of life experiences.
Incidentally, I'd offer a similar critique of conservative Christianity, which often thinks that the gospel is a praise song (G Major!). "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind" is a tall order, because we're a lot more complex than any tradition I've encountered quite knows how to dramatize.
Correction: I erroneously assumed that Andree Seu is male. I have corrected the pronouns here and on an earlier post about her essay.
Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 4 October 2003 at 2:28 PM