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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Don't leave G.A. without your CDs.

One of the peculiarities of my General Assembly-going is that many of the lectures I'm most eager to hear are the ones I can't actually attend. This year, for example, I especially wanted to hear Kim Beach, Robin Lovin, and John Buehrens discuss Beach's new book about James Luther Adams, which I highly recommend. (Here's my review of the book.) But that session conflicted with another, sponsored by the Church of the Larger Fellowship, on Unitarian Universalist evangelism on the Web — a topic central to my day job as well as to this blog. Happily, I discovered last year just how valuable it is to pick up recordings of the key lectures I can't actually hear in person.

Last year, recorded highlights were Laurel Hallman's Berry Street Lecture on religious language and David Bumbaugh and Kendyl Gibbons's lectures on reverence. This year, I already know I'll be picking up Burton Carley's Berry Street Lecture (about which I've heard very grateful comments from clergy who attended); Patrick O'Neill's rhetorically powerful call to prophetic ministry in the Service of the Living Tradition, which I'm grateful to have seen and heard in person; and Paul Rasor's lecture introducing his new book, Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century.

Theology is in the air.

Although a real sense of dismay characterizes a lot of the conversation here — concentrated especially around the abuse and torture of detainees in U.S. military and intelligence prisons and the increasingly punitive and counterproductive incarceration policies of the American criminal justice system — the issue that interests me more is the continuing discussion of theological and religious diversity within the UUA. There's a good amount of theology in the air — including what appears to be some productive humanist and naturalist theology.

The Commission on Appraisal's presentation in this evening's plenary raised a series of provocative questions about a pervasive Unitarian Universalist hesitancy to identify a shared religious core or even to imagine articulating one. Tom Owen-Towle, one of the commissioners, urged the Association to begin a denomination-wide effort to identify and articulate who UUs are as a religious people and to make theology and theological conversation central to the purpose of the General Assembly. Of course I endorse such a call — and will be soliciting your help in thinking of ways to focus and deepen such a conversation through the UU blogs. (More about this soon.)

I also appreciated Earl Holt's emphasis on the "discipline of conversation" — a liberal art that, when it comes to theology and religious commitments, has been allowed to atrophy in many of our churches. Earl referred to the "disagreements that unite us," but observed that this liberal approach doesn't characterize our movement right now because we don't even productively disagree with each other. A parable for our time.

Bill Sinkford's annual report also touched on theology, but my notes are fragmentary and I'll have to wait until the tireless reporters for the UUA website post his address to quote from it directly.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 26 June 2005 at 12:14 AM

Previous: Unitarian Universalists 'invading the Bible belt.'
Next: Commission on Appraisal: Monday at 10:15 a.m.




June 26, 2005 12:25 AM | Permalink for this comment

In rereading what I've just posted, I think it sounds like I'm suggesting that the UUA's internal conversation about theology is more important (or at least more interesting to me) than concerns expressed here about prison policy or the war in Iraq. Actually what I'm pointing to is that in the midst of the General Assembly's typical and commendable interest in social and moral issues, I'm grateful that this General Assembly includes an intensified focus on core theological issues, too.

Joe G.:

June 26, 2005 09:42 AM | Permalink for this comment


Initially, I was a tad confused by what you meant, but then quickly realized you were referring to the Generaly Assembly itself. Yes, I got your point: theological discussions are welcomed at GA if sometimes possibly overshadowed by social issue concerns.

Have a lovely GA. Once again I'm missing Friends General Conference Conference (no, that's not a mistype, it's FGC Conference for short).

By the way, I'm still confused regarding humanistic and naturalistic theology. Are these two distinct systems of theology? Do you know of any where on the web to learn about the distinctions between the two (given that I thought these were one and the same thing). Or am I mistunderstanding you here?


June 26, 2005 10:20 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks, Joe. Yes, the programming that surrounds the business of the General Assembly -- the major addresses and workshops -- often have a way of focusing denominational attention. Strangely, theological reflection hasn't been a prominent part of the General Assembly for a long time.

Henry Nelson Wieman is a good example of naturalist theology in that he attempted to offer naturalistic explanations for religious phenomena without explaining away the phenomena. (A friend of mine is working on a naturalistic theology of grace, for example. Dwight Welch at A Religious Liberal Blog is another naturalistic theologian.)

Humanism sometimes treats religious phenomena, experience, or language as having been made irrelevant by modern science. Many humanists are naturalists, but others are ethical atheists. When humanists engage with naturalistic theologians, I find a lot of openings for dialogue as a liberal Christian; I find it much harder to find common ground with humanists who take as their starting point the irrelevancy of all traditional theological terms and categories, even if they're seen through a naturalistic lens.

Michelle Murrain:

June 27, 2005 01:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for filling us in on the GA stuff going on. Right now, I'm pretty interested in the theological conversations going on. Any idea if they'll put the talks up on the UUA website, or send/sell the CDs to those of us that didn't make it?


June 27, 2005 05:40 PM | Permalink for this comment

A written report describing Saturday evening's plenary, in which the Commission introduced its report, is still not available -- although you can watch the report. Skip ahead in the RealVideo one hour and 26 minutes.

Matthew Gatheringwater:

June 27, 2005 11:18 PM | Permalink for this comment

How exciting! This is the first GA when I've had broadband and could take advantage of the streaming video feature. I'm so glad this available, since I would never have been able to afford to attend in person this year.

I wonder if there is a difference in perception between those who attend events in person and those who watch the events on the Web. For example, the Commission on Appraisal's report is a critical examination of UU culture. Again and again, the speakers mentioned the anxiety that surrounds theological discourse: they talked about breaking taboos, fear, high stakes, about conflict avoidance, etc. The general impression was that we have a hard time talking about what we believe. I was therefore surprised that the speakers would often be interrupted with wild applause and ululations of approbation. I'm not sure how to explain this. Was the applause widespread, or centered around the recording devices? Is the COA's presentation simply restating what has become conventional wisdom within UU culture? (Although I agreed with most everything they said, I wasn't hearing any of it for the first time.) Or is it that the GA attendees are not a representative sample of Unitarian Universalists? (Or something else altogether?) I'd be curious to know how someone who was actually at GA would explain the apparent enthusiasm with which UUs applauded the discussion of their taboos.


June 28, 2005 11:14 AM | Permalink for this comment

Matthew wrote:

Again and again, the speakers mentioned the anxiety that surrounds theological discourse: they talked about breaking taboos, fear, high stakes, about conflict avoidance, etc. The general impression was that we have a hard time talking about what we believe. I was therefore surprised that the speakers would often be interrupted with wild applause and ululations of approbation.

Yes, I was struck by this phenomenon this year, too -- and I think it can partly be explained by the fact that UUs who come to G.A. are more highly invested in Unitarian Universalist evangelism than many people in their congregations. Talk about growth and change seems to go over much better in the General Assembly than it does in most local congregations, for example, where such words often evoke anxieties about losing the congregational culture longtimers love. G.A.-goers often regard themselves as change agents -- and they have the most personal investment in denominational leadership because they watch them up close.

It was interesting that the "breakthrough congregations" that were introduced as models of dynamic growth had not (with the possible exception of the Quimper Fellowship) gone out of their way to "grow." Growth in numbers was something of an unintended consequence of other congregational goals or accomplishments. But at G.A., you'll watch hundreds of people cheer at every mention of growth, the importance of evangelism, and the need for greater commitment from members. In other words, some of the phenomenon is rooted simply in the distinctive enthusiasms of denominational enthusiasts -- UUvangelists, as one charming new T-shirt puts it.

But something else is happening that is worth watching: Four years ago, Bill Sinkford greeted delegates the night of his election to the UUA presidency with a short speech outlining his goals. One of these goals was received rather coolly:

"We live in a world of hurt and we have a healing message," Sinkford told a cheering crowd packed into a Renaissance Hotel reception room late Saturday night after the election results were announced. "It is our job and it will be my job as our new president to make this healing voice heard far and wide." He challenged Unitarian Universalists to a program of congregational growth, spiritual deepening, youth and young adult outreach, and visible engagement in public life.

The crowd responded enthusiastically to Sinkford's advocacy of "a new concept of family values one which honors the transformative power of love, wherever it may be found." They cheered loudly when he said the UUA will continue to champion "racial justice and gender justice and equal rights for our bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender brothers and sisters," as well as responsible environmental stewardship and economic justice.

They were much quieter, however, when Sinkford continued in a decidedly universalist tone: "As people hear this message and join with us, the artificial barriers we have placed around gender, age, and ability will give way to the reality that nothing can separate us from the love of God."

What strikes me most about this General Assembly is the way religious language itself has caught the imagination of large numbers of delegates and attenders. Much of this could be attributed to the way the new Songbook has been introduced this year. It's notably more emotional, and the good buzz from the music seems to be spilling over into more receptiveness to words like "redemption," "good news," "calling," and even "God" -- words that provoked much louder protests in years past than anything I heard this year.

Elaine Pagels spoke for more than an hour about early Christianity and the "heretical" Thomas community to an audience that surprised me by staying put well past 10 o'clock. Take a look at the way Sinkford framed the invitation to bring Elaine Pagels to G.A. -- he links it directly to the need for UUs to learn to re-engage some of the "traditional religious language" in ways that are deeply compatible with Unitarian Universalist values. And I've heard from a lot of people who attended that these are not unwelcome developments.

Granted, there's nothing like an emerging consensus about what makes any particular approach to religious language or any particular expression of religious experience authoritative or legitimate within Unitarian Universalism. Some people clearly disagreed with or were dismayed by some of the renewed interest in theology -- but as I mentioned in the original post, some of the renewed theological conversation came this year from humanists and religious naturalists. The reengagement takes the form of renewed exploration of religious vocabularies and practices that aren't only critical.

Some of the favorable reaction you heard to the Commission's report, in other words, seems rooted in a growing conviction of many UUs that our difficulty talking about theology has imperiled us. People aren't sure how to begin the conversation, but they're grateful, I think, that the Commission and President Sinkford have urged them to start.

James Field:

June 28, 2005 12:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

Chris: I meant to ask you in Texas about your opinion of the SLT sermon. I was curious how it worked for you given our relative political differences.


June 28, 2005 05:45 PM | Permalink for this comment

I was disappointed in Patrick O'Neill's sermon and will be blogging about it as soon as I return from hiatus. My basic premise is that *plenty* of ministers are preaching in a way that challenges middle-class privilege, but that it makes no --or very little -- difference in most of our congregations. Why? Because of UUs' inability or dislike of working in teams and in coalitions, and because there's no theological grounding under all the so-called "prophetic" bluster.

(I know of one minister who preaches almost nothing BUT what he feels are prophetic criticisms of the Bush administration, and yet this minister's suburban white congregation can barely remain civil to one another through a Welcoming Congregation program. And anon.)

I weary -- oh, how I weary-- of Unitarian Univeraslist silence on the need to partner with other progressive faith communities in the work for justice. Patrick O'Neill, as much as I love and admire him (and I do), never mentions the fact that Unitarian Universalists are just one more liberal faith community among many. Again, we come across as a lone liberal presence howling in the wilderness.

Matthew Gatheringwater:

June 29, 2005 01:06 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Philocrites. I'm still waiting for my copy of the report from the COA, so I can't speak to more than was presented in the online video. On the basis of what I saw, I'm happy with the stated goal of engaging in a conversation about UU theology. Conversation sounds good. Tolerance sounds good. Getting swept up in uncritical emotional acceptance of religious language scares me a bit. The spirit of the change you describe (but don't, I think, advocate) often comes across to me as defiant and authoritarian. Professional and institutional rather than grassroots and lay-empowering. It goes along with language about "old humanists holding us back" and complaints about the "tyranny of the minority." I can't remember: Who talked at GA about seven people leaving the pews while others feigned indifference and many more were waiting to come in? That's the kind of talk that sets my teeth on edge; as if some people in our congregations were superfluous or replaceable, and it is the job of the minister to steam ahead with change, bolstered by the notion that *they* are true prophets. I'd feel more comfortable with the promoters of a language of reverence if I more often had the impression that they have something really great they would like to share. Maybe if this new UU language of reverence is imagined as a gift, it could still be politely refused by those UUs not yet convinced of its merits.

My hope isn't merely that humanists and non-theists will be able to continue to find a home in Unitarian Universalist communities, but that they will provide positive input into our conversations about religion. I was disappointed, therefore, to read the report of the humanist workshop that, far from articulating humanist theology, suggested that we abandon theology altogether! That didn't seem very hopeful. In any case, what is getting called a language of reverence now seems a far cry from the language described by Bumbaugh's original call. If the ululations are any indication, the pendulum has already begun to swing, and I wonder if there is really anything that can be done to moderate its oscillation.

Peacebang: I too had some misgivings about the O'Neill sermon. The macho tone reminded me of some of the 19th century advocates for "muscular" Christianity! There was one phrase that really sticks in my mind, the part where he says Unitarian Universalism doesn't have room in its pulpits for "retreatants" or scholars or poets. It was like hanging a "prophets only" sign over the gates of the seminary! I can't agree with that. There have been so many times in my life when a poem or painting or a well-written book seemed to contain more reality and more to say about reality, than any amount of activism. And these things were available to me during the times in my life when *I* was the underdog, not someone in a position to demand the world sit up and listen and certainly not someone who had much to offer. Besides, O'Neill's pulpit preference seems ironic given the fact that many prophets were also contemplatives. Where does he think they got the strength to be prophets in the first place? It also provides an odd contrast to the language of reverence enthusiasm: where is that language going to come from, if not from a happy union of scholars and poets?


June 29, 2005 10:12 PM | Permalink for this comment

PB said: My basic premise is that *plenty* of ministers are preaching in a way that challenges middle-class privilege, but that it makes no --or very little -- difference in most of our congregations.

I think you're right, but I'm also struck by the contrast between the ineffectiveness of their message to our present-day middle class and the effectiveness of the 19th-century Unitarian message to a flock that was generally far more privileged than today's.

I think the reason for the contrast may be that today's preachers preach a message of shame and what Christians (correctly, I think) deride as an invalid doctrine of "works righteousness" to middle class UU's who are generally not ashamed but satisfied with themselves and their station in life, while yesteryear's preachers preached a Pelagian doctrine of atonement ("salvation by character") to upper-class Unitarians who knew that they had not earned many of the privileges they enjoyed, and who recognized a personal need, obligation and capacity to engage in the work of atonement -- largely through acts of what we today might call "paying it forward".

Yesteryear's Unitarians shared with mainstream Christians a sense of separation from the holy and an understanding of the necessity of atonement to achieve reconciliation, even while they disagreed with most other Christians as to the means of atonement. Yesterday's humanists likewise affirmed the need for atonement, although they considered reconciliation with the rest of humanity a more meaningful objective than reconciliation with a God that to many of them seemed an intangible, imperceptible, improbable phantom. In contrast, too many of today's UUs, it seems, reject the validity of the concept of atonement entirely, or else judge themselves to have already become sufficiently "at-one" through self-centered methods such as meditation or communing with nature.

Yeah, Emerson preached self-reliance, and we UUs think old Waldo was a pretty cool dude, but here's a dirty little secret: Not everybody can be as self-aware and self-realized as Emerson. If there were only one in every congregation, that would be a whole hell of a lot of Waldos walking around. There probably isn't even one Emerson in every ten congregations, or every hundred. The rest of us still need atonement, in whatever shape it may take, and are deluding ourselves if we think we don't.

If that is the case, though, the UU preachers PB mentions are preaching the wrong message. Rather than urging difficult chores that are likely to be shirked by listeners who are already pretty self-satisfied, they should be preaching about the dangers and follies of self-gratification and self-satisfaction.

Roger Kuhrt:

June 30, 2005 02:30 AM | Permalink for this comment

What a great conversation! I have spun through the COA document rapidly so I will create more significant responses at a later time when I underline it appropriately. My cursory reading is that it restated the obvious, but whoever said it is an excellent collection of UU Culture is right on the money.

I loved the Ware Lecture, but then again I am a mystic! What's not to love?

Re: Patrick (SLT) sermon. Prophet's Only--nope that's not Patrick--he is "the poet" actually. I probably ought not to laud too much because in 1982 Patrick kind of saved my "life" when I just plain fell apart during my Odessey and he literally held me in his arms for about 6 hours as I sobbed over suddenly finding myself fallen into grieving over my father's death which emerged during my speaking. And if you want to see the further context within which his sermon was given (for him) I encourage you to go to the Wilmington, DE website and read his last 3 sermons.

As for the movement--I was a kid in Spokane at the "merger" (LRY titilated me) and moved in and out of Unitarian connections since childhood, left it all for 16 years as a Disc. of Christ and UCC minister and then came back to fill a UU pulpit in 1977. My conclusion about some of what we are discussing--THERE IS DEFINITELY AN OPENING WITHIN OUR MOVEMENT FOR THEOLOGICAL DISCUSSIONS the likes of which I have not seen in my lifetime. As a long time humanist (and mystic born of LSD and Mescaline) I find it refreshing to re-frame my Christian past in "light" of new scholarship and opportunity--thank you Dr. Pagels, et. al. (I was a Gnostic Xian and didn't know it). And thank you Paul Tillich who taught me that theology is only meaningful when it arises from the Existential Questions of one's life and culture AS EXPERIENCE!

Other worship services--well a high point for me was when Barbara Wells tenHove gave the prayer during that worship service. Watch it again. I was watching via streaming video and the camera person(s)?? just did a fantastic job with images elevated almost to IKON.

Well I was stuck at home during GA and I must say this is one of the best GA's I have "attended" and I have a few under my expanding belt.

Cheerfully, Roger Kuhrt

Matthew Gatheringwater:

July 1, 2005 02:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

I've always wondered if the abraxas folks were high; now, I know. I'm curious Roger: have your views on drugs changed over the years? Would you still, for example, consider dropping acid a religious experience?

Thanks for sharing the information about O'Neill's sermons. I thought they were very interesting.

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