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Thursday, April 8, 2004

More on mimetic rivalry.

Conversation erupts! Several Unitarian Universalist blogs have already responded to Tom Schade's essay on mimetic rivalry and my post about it.

At the new, improved, and very in-character, Chutney proposes the creation of "Unitarian Universalists for Spiritual Interest Group Feudalism," a liberal religious magesterium charged with affirming and promoting "the inherent worth and dignity of all Interest Groups, their pretensions of being a movement, and their aspirations to become bureaucracies."

Scott Wells says he used to cry foul about the marginalization of Christian Unitarians and Universalists in the UUA, but now he says he just calls it as he sees it — proclaiming the good news. He urges folks in "other theological cohorts" to "stop whining about how they're underappreciated and start doing serious public theology because I'll not slow down for them to catch up."

Tom Schade adds:

If we view the internal conflicts of the UUA culture as an example of mimetic rivalry, the point is that what we fight over does not really matter. We fight over what others seem to want and/or have. Why? Because human beings are more concerned about social relationships, social standing and status etc. than any physical or material objects. . . .

The self-definition of the UUA is that is an evolving movement, not an institution. We view our history as being one in which new avant-gardes emerge, often in contradiction to the institutional leaders and traditions, and that the movement ends up following these vanguards. Where we are going is not being set by our officers or by the traditional leaders, but is being set at the edges, by new vanguards, by our growing edge. Something that is now considered to be unimportant, marginal, or radical will someday be the mainstream, and everyone will be judged by history by how soon they caught the emerging new wave.

So what we really fight over is the mantle of the new and emerging "new thing." What we fight over is to position ourselves as the vanguard and our rivals as the defender of the old guard. What each element fights over is how others in the UUA movement perceive them.

I can't help but think about Harold Bloom's term, "the anxiety of influence," which describes the way one generation represses the shaping role of its mentors in order to assert its own originality. The new generation creatively misreads its predecessors in the process. Examples in our religious history include: the Unitarian James Freeman Clarke, who radically recast the five points of Calvinism as the "Five Points of the New Theology"; early Humanist minister John Dietrich, who appropriated the legacy of William Ellery Channing for the humanist cause; or James Luther Adams, who can be seen to have recast Clarke's "five points" as the "Five Smooth Stones of Religious Liberalism." (Ironically, Adams's editor came up with the five smooth stones by cobbling Adams's essays together — another creative misreading!)

The example I'm most fascinated by in contemporary Unitarian Universalism is the way people have latched onto Universalism as the suppressed warm-and-cozy populist version of liberal religion, a nice contrast with the "corpse-cold rationalism" some see in Unitarianism. It's fascinating because, as far as I can tell, most contemporary UUs are just making it up, picking and choosing aspects of a dimly-remembered and barely-studied past and wishing it into existence as a foil to the religious culture they know. They don't want to be Universalists, and certainly haven't been converted to its doctrines, but they sure like its cachet as the un-Unitarianism. Perhaps we have some mimetic rivalry right there in our name.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 8 April 2004 at 6:51 PM

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Lloyd Ryan:

January 1, 2006 12:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

I hope you "history" of "The Five whatevers" is accurate, cause I'm gonna use it!

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