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Tuesday, August 31, 2004

General Assembly, better late than never.

I hold back on offering much commentary on the Unitarian Universalist Association's General Assembly here on Philocrites while I'm writing UU World's GA coverage. But now that the September/October issue of the magazine is arriving in people's mailboxes, here's my report — and here's the section on this year's "language of reverence" conversation:

Reverence Revisited. Several workshops and plenary speeches expanded on conversations begun at last year's Assembly about religious language. Last year, a delegate's request opened up forty-five minutes of plenary discussion in response to President Sinkford's call for a renewed “language of reverence” in the UUA. Some perceived his call as a reactionary move toward mainline or conservative Christianity, but others saw him urging religious liberals to acknowledge the spirituality that is already among us.

This year, Sinkford invited the Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, president of the Unitarian Universalist Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, to lead the Assembly in some “deeper reflection” on the subject. Barker invited UUs to ask two questions as they considered religious language. “First, how are you personally deepened by your experience of Unitarian Universalism? And second, what key words did you use to answer the first question?”

Two Meadville Lombard professors then addressed the plenary session on religious language. History professor Dean Grodzins suggested that UUs are focusing too narrowly on how we talk about religion. “Driving this debate is a widespread sense that UUism is not living up to its potential as a religious movement,” he said. “People wonder whether these problems would be eased or solved if only UUs would talk differently about religion.” In all our talk about words, however, Grodzins argued that UUs have ignored the history of Unitarian and Universalist religious behavior.

“Religion,” Grodzins said, “is above all something that you do.” He urged UUs to pay attention to the history of our religious actions—from rituals like communion and chalice lightings to community activities like book groups and sports teams—for signs of Unitarian Universalism's “vital element.”

Meadville Lombard theologian the Rev. Dr. Thandeka told the Assembly that “our reverence for the spirit of life—for life itself—is not a creed, an idea, or a thought. It is not a doctrine. It is a feeling—the feeling of being held, loved, and cherished.” She argued that this feeling comes before words, thoughts, or concepts. Our religious tradition, she said, helps us articulate these feelings in a language of reverence, which she summarized in three affirmations:

First, hold life dearly. Nurture and attend to life, all of it, come what may. This principle makes us a justice-seeking people. Second, love life deeply. Know the worth and dignity of all persons and treat them with respect. Revere life. This rule makes us a moral, compassionate people. Third, cherish life always. Honor life. Honor the life of others. Our ethics of interrelationship begin here.

In other workshops and lectures, the Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, urged UUs to embrace the religious purpose of the church. “We are not a social club,” she said. “We are not a debating society. We are not a place where like-minded people come to confirm their beliefs. We are a religious movement. Every meeting, every class, every Sunday morning service should be framed in the context of our reason for being.” She identified that fundamental religious purpose with Universalism's proclamation of an ultimate forgiving Love.

The Rev. David Bumbaugh, another professor at Meadville Lombard, revisited the controversy he inspired three years ago when his lecture, “Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence,” inspired President Sinkford's advocacy of “reverence.” Bumbaugh lamented that Sinkford and others had embraced words like “God,” which, he argued, have been irredeemably corrupted by a history of ecclesiastical abuse and commercial manipulation. “I do not believe we will find a language of reverence adequate to our times or our own experience of the world,” he said, “by embracing the rituals and language of others or of the past or by rummaging around in someone else's traditions.”

The Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons, minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, responded to Bumbaugh by arguing that there are three legitimate purposes for a language of reverence: to respond to the experience of reverence, to describe the experience of reverence, and to elicit the experience of reverence. “We do not invent love, or even suffering, for ourselves,” she said. “We learn what to do with our feelings by the example and precept of others, who demonstrate what love looks like in action, or how to endure pain, or how to express reverence.”

Gibbons defended humanism and religious naturalism, but said: “To think that we must dispense with all traditional language and symbols and concepts in order to speak about that which is deepest and dearest, the enduring focus of our commitment and the precious source of human good, is to assume that no human beings were ever before so clever, so profound, or so committed as we are, that those who have been down the path of life before us have no wisdom to teach, and that we can learn nothing from all that they have left to us.”

She said she interpreted Sinkford's call as a recognition that “a religious tradition that does not help its members to discover meaningful and satisfying ways of expressing and responding to the human experiences of reverence . . . is missing a crucial and central piece of its function.”

If you have $12 to spend on a recording of one event at this year's Assembly, I'd recommend the session featuring David Bumbaugh and Kendyl Gibbons's essays. It's session 3126, although there's also an extended report about a repeat session at the UUA Web site.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 31 August 2004 at 5:33 PM

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