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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Should you bring imagination to your religion?

UU blogger and science fiction writer Will Shetterly writes about his Unitarian Universalism, his atheism, and the genres of science fiction and fantasy in his UU World essay, "Speculation and Revelation":

I lost my faith in God when I was young because conservative Christians did not offer stories that seemed literally and morally true. Their insistence that I believe made it impossible for me to believe. But my love of fantasy and science fiction helped me see that ants do not need to talk for Aesop's fables to be true, and Jesus' message of sharing and peace does not require him to rise from the dead. My love of these genres took me further: Jesus rising from the dead is no longer an obstacle to my belief in his teaching. That rising is not a supernatural being's show of power; it's a writer's call for me to trust that, when all hope appears to be lost, hope remains.

Conservative Christians would say that fantasy and science fiction led me astray. I say those stories led me home. They made it possible to read the Bible as if it were a new text, without two thousand years of accreted interpretation by people who wanted me to see what they saw or wanted me to see. Those stories made me a Unitarian who believes that God is in everything. They made me a Universalist who believes that love is available for every living creature. They made me a Christian who believes that heaven is in us all, if we only know how to look. Many writers and readers of science fiction and fantasy will tell you there's nothing religious or spiritual in these books. As a Unitarian Universalist, I respect their interpretation. But I still take revelation where I find it.

I also wrote a brief review for the March/April issue about A Language of Reverence, a collection of essays in response to UUA President Bill Sinkford's controversial attempt to get UUs talking about the personal dimensions of their religion. I'm not sure why my essay isn't on-line, but I'll find a way to have it turn up in a day or two. (If your issue has arrived in the mail by now, you'll find my essay on page 57.)

On a related note, Dr Rieux — whom Philocritics met during our discussion of moments in bad publicity for atheists — has done as I suggested and launched his UU blog for nonbelievers, Infidelity ("Reflecting on the intersection between atheism and Unitarian Universalism"). It's chock full of stuff, including a "Climate Watch" page that tracks what Dr Rieux perceives as the sunny-to-frosty reception of atheism by "prominent UUs." I'll be intrigued to see where Will Shetterly's essay lands on Rieux' spectrum — and, if he's looking for more from me, I'd nominate my academic essays "The Reality of the Symbol of God" and "The Religious Availability of John Dewey's God."

Here's my super-brief take on unbelief in the Unitarian Universalist context: People should expect that talking about God will be taken seriously in a UU congregation — so seriously, in fact, that nontheism and agnosticism (and, in its popular form, atheism) might reasonably be expected to come up as legitimate responses to a perennial religious question. What people should not expect is that talking about God will be off limits in a UU congregation. If you need an institution committed to atheism, a UU congregation is not what you're looking for. If you want a religious community where not believing in God is understood to be a legitimate religious perspective, however, Unitarian Universalism could be for you! (I chops my onions fine.)

The basic issue, as I see it, is what tools we think are available to us as religious liberals. I think imagination — moral imagination, conceptual imagination, devotional imagination — is vital to any religion. For me, God is symbolically and devotionally real, and I am not at all surprised that many newcomers to Unitarian Universalism are interested in talking about God. Philosophically, however, I'm a pragmatist, a historicist, and a liberal, none of which has tended to involve the existence or activity of a divine being. I'm not (in philosophical terms) a "theist." What does that make me? A Christian humanist, I usually say.

In my review of A Language of Reverence, I call particular attention to the Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman's essay, "Images for Our Lives," which many people heard as the Berry Street Lecture at the Boston General Assembly in 2003. Although I didn't have space to quote it, here's the section in Hallman's essay that I found most intriguing:

If, as [Suzanne] Langer asserts, language is a relational system, with associations forming themselves around a more concretized concept, then it is hubris for us to believe that we can cut out some words, and put others on the back burner, for they will find their way back into consciousness, often in surprising ways.

As Harry [Scholefield] used to say, "They just put up a hand, saying, 'Wait, I have something to say.'"

What we need to do, then, is to break open these concretized words, to juxtapose them with words that create cognitive dissonance. For it is in the spaces between the juxtapositions that new associations are created.

The first inkling I had of this was when we began to use the pronoun She with reference to God. People laughed nervously when they heard this for the first time. People laughed. It was so strange. So odd.

The idea that metaphors that have suffered misplaced concreteness can be brought to life by simply juxtaposing them in surprising ways is almost too simple. It creates a cognitive dissonance in the listener that breaks them open—not to new definitions of God, or whatever element of mystery you are attempting to point toward, but to a small portion of reality that they have experienced. Remember, we're talking about the religious existential dimension of life, not rigid definitions. We're talking about the products of the imagination here. We're pointing, not positing. (34)

And then she adds, at the end of the essay:

We not only need to invite poets into the rooms of our hearts, but we need to invite our spiritual ancestors as well. They are raising a hand, wanting to be heard. If we say, "We'll listen, but don't use any words that have become solidified in the meantime, no matter how fulsome [sic] they were for you," we will have cut ourselves off, not only from our spiritual DNA, but also from one part of the conversation that we desperately need to have. (39)

This approach makes a lot of sense to me. I suspect that Dr Rieux, as a composer and singer, might even say some sympathetic things about the imaginative power of sacred music even if he sees no philosophical merit in the lyrics as statements of axiomatic truth. Is there a way for nontheists and theists, spiritual seekers and philosophical skeptics, to be part of a congregation that engages in imaginative, existentially rich, fruitfully dissonant religion? I don't see why not. (I sure hope so.) Given the right opportunity, they might even be able to sing a hymn together. At any rate, Rieux, welcome to the Interdependent Web.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 23 February 2005 at 7:00 PM

Previous: Bill Sinkford talks with Boston's 'Bay Windows.'
Next: Why liberal Christians should read 'The New Republic,' part 1.





February 23, 2005 08:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

Word, ya'll, two thumbs up on Rieux's new blog. Welcome home, Philocrites. Word up. To the mother. I'll stop now.


February 24, 2005 04:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

I increasingly feel that this UU Atheism is an American phenomenon that will not succeed in other countries. As we well know, Atheism as such is only relevant in America and Europe, in other places it is limited to the Westernized elite intellectual classes. So let's talk about the cultural gap that separates America and Europe. In the suburban American culture, social life tends to develop around some specific public places: workplace, shopping center, and church. Therefore some American Atheists feel attracted to participate in church life as a part of their socializing process, as long as they feel accepted, of course. That's where the UU church, and quasi-churches such as Ethical Culture, come into play, because most churches reject them. Thus the UU church is like a sanctuary. But in Europe, an Atheist has given up religion, period. Even more, s/he is *against* religion, any religion, as a symbol of superstition and a threat to rational, democratic societies and values. UUism, which is a sanctuary for American Atheists, is paradoxically seen by European Atheists as the Trojan Horse of religion coming into the citadel of Culture and Reason. It is a real threat for them, as it also shatters their preconceptions about what religion *really* is (i.e. idiotic superstition). However you may be an agnostic intrigued by religion, or a non-theist (perhaps pantheist) liberal religious person, and then UU may be acceptable for you, but never for a full-fledged European Atheist.


February 24, 2005 06:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

(((As we well know, Atheism as such is only relevant in America and Europe, in other places it is limited to the Westernized elite intellectual classes. )))

Umm... Asia not count? The Japanese are typically either Shinto (animistic religion without God in the sense that most of us imagine it) and Buddhists (who are often non-Thiests.)

There is some theistic religion in China, but not a lot comparitively.

Etc, etc,

I'm not sure about most of the other generalizations you made, either.



February 25, 2005 10:06 AM | Permalink for this comment

No, Asia does not count for this discussion because, as you correctly say, Asian religions do not deal with a personal God that you need to affirm or reject.

Shinto is an animistic religion, much like the European pre-Christian religions about spirits that live and can be found in nature, mountains, springs, rivers, etc. It also has a rich mythology. In a way it is a politheistic religion.

Buddhism was originally a religion without a god. This is still so for educated people. Popular Buddhism is now also a politheistic religion, particularly in the Mahayana traditions. Buddhism as practiced in the West has little to do with popular Buddhism as practiced in the East.

I would appreciate if you can be more specific about my "other generalizations" and why you disagree with them.


February 27, 2005 04:51 PM | Permalink for this comment

Just a short comment: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were originally Asian religions as well. The third one keeps a majority in many Asian countries or is a relevant minority in most of the others.


March 4, 2005 12:03 AM | Permalink for this comment

I posted a link to the Shetterly piece on the UUI mailing list. The consensus response, in a "Climate Watch" context, is that it's neither here nor there. It's kinda sorta positive early on and kinda sorta negative near the end, but neither one in significant measure.

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