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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Back to the reverence debate!

Rebecca Parker, president of the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, has launched what appears to be a new round in the public conversation about UUA President Bill Sinkford's call for a Unitarian Universalist "vocabulary of reverence." Her open letter to Sinkford, published [pdf] recently on the freshly re-designed Starr King School for the Ministry Web site, includes these paragraphs:

Can Unitarian Universalists speak of God? Some outside of Unitarian Universalist circles would find the question itself astounding. "If you can't mention God in church, where can you talk about God?" But we have been wary of God-language and for good reason. God-talk has often aided and abetted injustice and oppression. Unitarian Universalist theologian William R. Jones, in his ground-breaking book Is God a White Racist?, argues that traditional theology which speaks of God as requiring redemptive suffering has blessed white privilege and sanctioned social structures that multiply black suffering. Feminist theologians have noted that patriarchal patterns in society have been authorized by imagining God as Father, King and Ruler. The struggle for racial justice and the rights of women and children continue. Why resurrect language and images that have caused so much harm?

Over the course of the past 200 years, in the name of justice and liberation, religious liberals have hastened the death of God. We have presided over the funeral of God the King, God the Father, God the Unmoved Mover, God the Old White Man in the Sky, the Able-Bodied God, the Straight God, the All-Knowing God, the Leave-It-All-to-Me- I'll-Take-Care-of-It- God, and more. In place of God, we have emphasized human responsibility. We know it is in our hands to create justice, equity, compassion and peace. As Marx said, faith in God too often becomes a way for people to abnegate our responsibility, deny our power and become passive in the face of a sacrosanct status quo. The way the name of God has been so easily on the lips of those who bless acts of war is only the most recent example of people leaning on God to rationalize human actions that are far from holy.

Your call for a renewed religious language is heard by some among us as a threat to this hard-won sobriety in the face of religious language that sanctions injustice and obscures human responsibility. But I hear something else in your call. It is not a call to return to old ways that we have learned are inadequate. Your call is something new—something that could only happen in the wake of the death of God.

Those who have moved through the death of God find themselves entering a new space—a space in which the divine can be experienced in a fresh way. The baggage of oppressive images has been left behind. In the ensuing openness, a sense of sacred presence emerges and invites articulation. People come again to the realization that in the face of overwhelming threats to our lives and the life of all we love there is a source of sustenance, resistance and hope that moves within us and beyond us. In a recent essay on the postmodern debate in theology, Michael J. Scanlon comments, "The central meaning of postmodern contemporary thought on God is the breakthrough of God's reality, no longer constrained by the modern logos. Postmodernity has brought a strange return of God to the center of theology. This re-entry of 'the hidden-revealed God now comes through . . . those ignored, marginalized, and colonized by the grand narrative of modernity.'" . . .

Scanlon is quoting David Tracy who makes the case that new language about God emerges in particular from those who have been historically oppressed by the old images. The "strange return of God" to the center of Unitarian Universalism, if it happens, will be a sign to me that we have moved not only from adolescence to maturity—the metaphor you have invoked—but from a church of the privileged seeking to help the oppressed, to a community of those who have found a new experience of the divine in the space created by the death of God. This development would take us beyond benevolent paternalism towards an embodied covenant of compassion and justice that surpasses old dichotomies of oppressor and oppressed. It would mean that the fruit of our Unitarian Universalist passion for justice is a renewed and deepened experience of the holy at work among us . . .

("An open letter to the Rev. Bill Sinkford, UUA President," Rebecca Ann Parker, Starr King School for the Ministry, n.d.; pdf)

There's more in the letter, including several questions for Sinkford — who apparently plans to respond on the Starr King Web site.

Update 4.4.04: Be sure to read Chutney's excellent critique of Rebecca Parker's letter at

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 31 March 2004 at 6:13 PM

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April 1, 2004 11:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm not going to comment on most of the letter, because I'm obviously coming at this from a wildly different direction than the Rev. Dr. Parker. But I will respond to this:

But we have been wary of God-language and for good reason. God-talk has often aided and abetted injustice and oppression.

This argument has always bugged me, and I've just realized why. The problem is, this is exactly the same as one of the most common arguments against homosexuality. Reformulate the sentence this way, "But we have been wary of homosexuality and for good reason. Homosexuality has often aided and abetted the spread of AIDS and pederasty," and what you're left with is a wildly offensive statement. It is even true that gays have a somewhat higher rate of AIDS, just as it's true that religious language has been used to oppress, but ultimately that's irrelevant.

Tom Schade:

April 1, 2004 11:54 AM | Permalink for this comment

Poor God! Alive or dead depending on whether Rebecca Parker believes. Parker mistakes the movements of her own mind for external reality. Her opinion of the character of God has changed, not the character of God. Having decided that God was an obstacle to her revolutionary humanism, she found that the divine was still present. But instead of seeing her revolutionary humanism as being limited and wrong-headed, she has concluded that something new has emerged. It is as through the Prodigal Son returned home, but decided that he was being met by a new father.
If God is only who we think God is, then we are still in the "far country" in the language of the parable.

Nicholas Watson:

April 1, 2004 06:58 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm with Chris on that.
Yes, God language has been badly misused, so has talk about white people, but I still talk to my Dad.
Some people would have you believe that being white requires you to hold a set of beliefs that I think is racist. The yare wrong, just like people who think that believing in God means that you have to hate liberals.
My real thought here is this:
A lifelong UU, I've never had a problem with God language and it seems to me that the only folks that do are people who come to us from other religions, which most UUs today have done.
My problem with Reverend Sinkford's language of reverence was the piece about the Elevator Speech. I cannot and won't learn to explain my beliefs in an elevator. If someone is sincerely interested, I'll take a few minutes to talk about it. But 30 seconds isn't enough and if you try to do it you do your religion you will do it a disservice.


April 1, 2004 08:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think Nicholas knocks down the whole discussion rather deftly.

Becky's little letter shows her to be both theologically ignorant and self-involved, while Bill's was superficial.

Better questions, please.


April 2, 2004 02:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks, Nicholas and Melanie!


April 4, 2004 10:12 PM | Permalink for this comment

Melanie, a meta-comment: I find it unnecessarily dismissive to transform somebody's name — Rebecca Parker to "Becky" — just because you disagree with her. It's a cheap shot. Let's argue content here.


April 5, 2004 01:49 PM | Permalink for this comment


When she introduced herself to me, that was the appellation she chose. I tend to use the names people select for themselves. Don't impute motives, Chris.

You will also note that I called Rev. Sinkford "Bill," as that is his choice, as well.


May 25, 2004 02:09 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bill Sinkford's response to Rebecca Parker is now available at the Starr King Web site: "Language of Reverence: A Response" (pdf).

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