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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Ah, the language of reverence debate again!

At last, it's the UU Infidels' day in the sun! The Fort Worth Star-Telegram offers a final bit of commentary on the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in yesterday's paper and returns to the subject that had UUs talking about the newspaper two years ago: the "language of reverence" debate. ("Unitarian Universalists Debate God's Place in Church," Jim Jones, Star-Telegram 7.9.05, reg req'd; see also my review of A Language of Reverence edited by Dean Grodzins.)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 10 July 2005 at 9:00 PM

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Matthew Gatheringwater:

July 10, 2005 09:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

I was curious about the workshop referenced in the article, the one about atheists finding a home in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Unfortunately, although the workshop is listed, there is no written report about it in the UUA Website's GA coverage. Would anyone who attended be willing to share their impressions for those of us who couldn't be there in person?


July 11, 2005 02:27 AM | Permalink for this comment

Philocrites, I don't want to overload you with extra work, but could you provide us with a brief summary of what is said in the FW newspaper, so that those of us from outside the Republic of Texas know what they were talking about? Thanks!


July 11, 2005 08:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

Aside from recapping Bill Sinkford's 2003 "reverence" sermon -- which the same journalist had misquoted in the Star-Telegram article that launched the "language of reverence" kerfuffle in the first place -- Jim Jones focuses on the UU Infidels and their atheism workshop:

"We are becoming more overtly Christian," lamented Timothy Travis of Fredericksburg, Va., president of the Unitarian Universalists Infidels Fellowship.

When people passed by his booth, he called out, "Are you an infidel?" If they answered affirmatively, he offered to pin a red, white and blue ribbon on their lapel symbolizing his group's motto of being "free from faith, miracles, myths and supernatural beings."

Nearby, I met James Haught, who addressed a UU Infidels workshop called "Unitarian Universalism: A Place for Atheists?" He said he fears that "old-time agnostics" are dying off in the creedless, radically inclusive American denomination, which takes in people of many faiths and no faith.

"When I first joined our denomination, it was the faith of the skeptics, the nonconformists and the outsiders," said Haught, editor of the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. "Now we are turning more churchy. Our national leaders throw in all this God talk. We are pretty sure it's not the Methodist-Presbyterian kind of God talk, but they won't say what they mean. Our current [UU] president advocates a 'language of reverence' but won't say what he's revering."

Haught, like many others, continues to misrepresent denominational history. But this happens a lot: Whatever a person's individual congregation was like when they fell in love with it is assumed to represent the core and substance of "the denomination," often through time and space, and anything that deviates from it must be some alien pathogen. But "churchy" Unitarian Universalism isn't new; it existed right alongside the chemistry professor fellowships. "God" isn't someone else's word: It has Unitarian and Universalist meanings, too.

If a group is worried that its partisans are dying off, I'd say it's time to get back to basics and figure out what your good news is. Is atheism your game? Then figure out how to sell it to young people. Don't complain that other people are sharing their ideas in more compelling ways.

Two final thoughts: I have a great deal of respect for certain forms of agnosticism and atheism. My liberalism involves a cautiousness about claiming ultimate certainty that has a lot in common with agnosticism. And, as an honest response to the world as one experiences it, atheism can be a position of great personal integrity. But as an intellectual position that demands that other people refrain from using certain words or engage in particular practices, it can also be intellectually arrogant. A liberal religious movement must make space for critical thought, but it must also make space for religious devotion.

Matthew Gatheringwater:

July 11, 2005 09:45 AM | Permalink for this comment

"Haught, like many others, continues to misrepresent denominational history. But this happens a lot: Whatever a person's individual congregation was like when they fell in love with it is assumed to represent the core and substance of "the denomination..."

I have seen this happen and, to an extent, been guilty of it myself, but I don't think it is the whole story or a fair assessment of the theological shift in Unitarian Universalism.

Haught is at least correct in saying that there are changes in our collective theological orientation, correct that the change swings toward vague theism, and correct that the change is most pronounced in the leadership of our community. This isn't just a view of changes within one congregation, it is the conclusion of the denominational assessment of the Commission on Appraisal.

Ron Robinson:

July 11, 2005 10:51 AM | Permalink for this comment

Matthew, I wonder if "vague theism", rather than being a new development among us, is not more of a return in visibility to the prominence of what Samuel Eliot a hundred years ago called "lyrical theism" to describe the predominant theology of at least the Unitarians of that time. Something to me seems wonderfully emergent and fresh about that term which sets it against "vagueness" which smacks of the concerns of modernism. I found my best expression of it in Jesus and Christianity, but find it flowering in others through other ways. blessings, Ron

Matthew Gatheringwater:

July 11, 2005 11:59 AM | Permalink for this comment

To be clear, I am speaking of vague theism in a Rortian sense and I am not in any way suggesting it is something new. I agree that it has parallels in our theological development. All I am saying is that the COA reports a shift in emphasis toward this kind of theistic orientation within the congregations of the UUA. In fact, far from seeing it as new, I have to wonder how you see an echo of the last century's Unitarian theology as "wonderfully emergent and fresh" instead of, well, just old. If we envision liberal religion as a communal quest toward spiritual truth that makes progress, what is so wonderful about a demographic shift back to where we were a hundred years ago? (I'm hoping you are going to tell me. Maybe I'll learn something.) Sometimes I wonder if our theistic shift really address the concerns of modernism or just ignores them.

Say, are you the same Ron Robinson who leads the UU Christian Fellowship and founder of an exclusive Christian UU church in Okalahoma? How's that going?

Scott Wells:

July 12, 2005 07:54 AM | Permalink for this comment

"Exclusive," Matthew? A typo I hope.


July 12, 2005 08:00 AM | Permalink for this comment

Matthew, you're right that there's a shift taking place -- but distress isn't a useful response to it, even when it's an honest response. Something more helpful and, well, leaderly is needed from the people who think the movement is headed in the wrong direction.

Some of David Bumbaugh's writing on the issue at least tries to understand the cultural, religious, and psychological reasons for the shift -- and he is trying to offer some humanist good news in response. I don't find his response or his analysis as useful as Kendyl Gibbons's or Laurel Hallman's, but it is a step in the right direction. My hope is that religious humanists will step up their creative responses to our current cultural situation, because I think they would find a receptive audience.

I have not yet perceived a "good news" response from the Infidels, who seem to want the larger culture and Unitarian Universalism to stick with the triumphal secularism of the mid-'60s. To look for a church home for secular humanism strikes me as a category error.

Do changes in our religious culture and practice deserve critical scrutiny? Yes. That's why I wish we had more theologians and philosophers and sociologists examining these trends. But theology follows practice -- and I just don't find much use in complaints about other people's religious language. If people have religious, psychological, and social needs that are met by religious language, then the challenge for people whose theology is thoroughly non-traditional is to find a religious language that meets those needs.

In your later comment, you presume that vague theism today is a throw-back, an anachronism, the reemergence of a dead species. Chew on that thought some more. The past doesn't repeat itself. What we're looking at now is different -- just as whatever viable form of non-theistic humanism is also emerging right now won't be a reappearance of 1930s-style Humanism, much less the "free religion" of the 1870s. Cultural and religious trends don't work that way.

This point is important to me, because even the liberal Christianity that has shown such resilience lately is not, by and large, a reemergence of 19th-century Unitarian or Universalist Christianity. (Even the forms that look anachronistic would have to be interpreted by a sociologist in terms of their contemporary situation; neo-traditionalism is always an innovation, and worth scrutinizing as such.) Let's say we're living in a post-modern context: That changes what it means to speak any particular cultural language or engage in any specific set of cultural practices because we're surrounded by and engaged in a much broader set of cultures than our predecessors ever were. UU Christianity today is enmeshed in an interfaith and pluralistic context in ways that no 19th-century Unitarian or Universalist could have been; that changes things.

And the cultural context of today's "vague theism" is extraordinarily different from the lyrical theism of the early 20th century. Context is everything. Don't look at surface patterns -- the word "God," the emphasis on feeling. Look at deeper patterns. As my counseling professor liked to say, "Listen for the music, not the words." What about our times is leading people to respond in the way that they are? And how can you craft your message to reach them, meet their needs, and transform them? That's the important question.

Matthew Gatheringwater:

July 12, 2005 10:40 AM | Permalink for this comment

Scott: You are right; I think the word I was looking for was "intentional." The slip, however, reveals some of my ambivalence toward the concept of "themed" UU congregations. The Website for the congregation in question ( goes out of its way to say it is inclusive, but it is also identifies itself as being for people who believe in God, who believe in Jesus as the "Christ" with all that that implies, and who use the Bible as their primary sacred text and follow the Christian liturgical calendar. I would be surprised to learn that Epiphany attracted many non-Christians.

Chris: I couldn't agree more that whining and complaining are not useful responses to a theological shift and that Humanists need to articulate a creative and positive response to post-modern critiques in order to maintain their relevance. That is why you wouldn't have found me wearing an "infidel ribbon" at GA and one reason why I'm not a member of UU Infidels. I understand and share their concern, but I'm not convinced they are making a positive response. Since that has been my position for some time, you are either preaching to the choir or talking to someone besides me.

Obviously, the cultural context of belief changes, but I don't think it moves in an unbroken line of progress. I think the same religious questions often get asked again and again, by new generations, by new segments of the population, and in the changing context of world events. JLA talks about progress moving "crab-wise." The pendulum swings back and forth and we sometimes spiral around the same issues that were important to us in the past. I don't think it is a mischaracterization to say there can be parallels in the development of religious movements. Conservatives get two Great Awakenings; can't we have a reconsideration of vague theism?

If I may be allowed to work up a little pique: Inviting Ron Robinson to share why he thinks vague theism is more than just old is not the same thing as claiming it is "a throw-back, an anachronism, the reemergence of a dead species." I wouldn't have asked if I didn't suspect he had good reasons for believing differently. Overstating my position doesn't lend weight to your argument, nor do I think it leads to a true exchange of ideas. That is the first time you ever did that with me; you must feel really strongly about this issue.

While taking a class on the Christian scriptures, I used nineteenth century Unitarian and Universalist biblical exegesis. My instructor thought I'd made a typo on the dates in my bibliography because the ideas of those old Unitarians and Universalists paralleled some aspects of contemporary Biblical scholarship. Clearly, religious groups sometimes reach the same conclusions at different times. Universalists were controversial as "early adopters" of universal salvation, but the doctrine lost force as it was accepted by many mainstream religious groups and then it lost relevance and got redefined within its own community. Now, we have a whole new Christian Universalist movement independently making the same arguments we used long ago. I think that what happens between religious groups can also happen within a single religious community and that it has happened within our own.

The problem with envisioning liberal religion as a communal quest toward spiritual truth that makes progress is that the freedom and openness of liberalism doesn't do a very good job of preserving the progress of one generation for the use of the next. I don't think the shift toward vague theism is the result of careful theological reflection; I think it is due to the fact that we haven't done a very good job of teaching the history of our theological development to the majority of UUs who come to our congregations from other traditions.


July 12, 2005 10:59 AM | Permalink for this comment

You're right to call me out, Matthew: Somehow I overlooked that Ron had actually brought up the reference to Samuel Eliot's fondness for lyrical theism, and got it in my head that you had done so. (This is what I get for saving half a comment and coming back to it many hours after reading everything else in the thread.)

The one thing I would add, however, is that "wonderfully emergent and fresh" has often been exactly what people have experienced in the rediscovery of the old -- as in the Renaissance; the Oxford Movement and the Romantic rediscovery of the medieval; the Evangelical "emergent" movement; the Transcendentalists' discovery of "other bibles"; or in your own love for 19th-century English literature. The past, seen through fresh eyes, can be profoundly new.

My apologies for projecting inferences you didn't make.

Matthew Gatheringwater:

July 12, 2005 11:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

"(This is what I get for saving half a comment and coming back to it many hours after reading everything else in the thread.)"

No apology necessary. With your output and schedule, I'm amazed at your prompt and thoughtful comments. I love reading what you write, even on the rare occasions I don't agree with it and your blog is always my first stop on my way into the Web.

Ron Robinson:

July 14, 2005 09:55 AM | Permalink for this comment

Sorry for the delay in getting back. In the midst of a move. But not a whole lot more to add than what has been written.
First, about "lyrical theism" and the past, etc.: What I meant to get at was that in fact Eliot's term itself seems more apt to me to apply to the reemergence of theism among us today than even it did a hundred years ago, so it isn't necessarily a recycling of an old theology (which for all the reasons Chris gave is impossible anyway) as much as it an old term that resonates today. Actually I think of the time period of liberal Christianity of ca. 1905 as more of a "cultural theism" (ala critiques by Niehburs, Barth, even JLA). What I like about the old term "lyrical theism" is the word lyrical; it seems to capture much of the narrative, poetic, pomo, emergent sense(s) about God in a way that didn't apply in the modernist apex (1900-1930s)when the focus was on "theism" and defining, arguing, positioning between orthodox, humanist, process, liberal, neo-liberal, neo-orthodox ruled the day. Well, maybe I had more to say than I thought but then my summer reading has again veered off into the latest from the emergent folks and Stanley Grenz (thank God Jim Burke's latest novel is now saving me from all that!)

Second, yep that's me. About the "particular, but not exclusive" free church: Here, as in Epiphany in Michigan, and as well I am guessing in the more historic Christian churches within the UUA, there are good percentages of folks who come who don't identify as Christian (about a third here and in MI I believe). Not to go into the whole spiel here, but there are lots of reasons people attend churches, and non-Christians attend here for some of the same reasons that Christian UUs attend the other three UU churches here, or UUs attend non-UU churches, etc. And it is always in flux to some degree. The DNA of various churches, the mission, vision, values, may actually be more akin and more important even though they have different worship orientations and different public identities and even come from different traditions. Here we probably have as much or more difference in some ways from the other Christian churches within the UUA, as we do from other UU churches who have their own worship focus. It is in large measure, as it always has been, a matter of how old the church is and what it was responding to when it was begun. And thanks for checking in on us, we are still emerging and hope to affiliate within the year but have a lot of changes and risks going on so feel free to check back with the website every so often to get updates. Prayers always appreciated.

Thanks and though I don't check in as often as I would like, know that many of us are out here encouraged by what you do. ron

Ron Robinson:

July 14, 2005 10:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

Oh and I forgot one of the reasons I was going to respond to this thread anyway about language of reverence redux. We now have CDs of Bill Sinkford's talk on this topic given at the latest UUCF Revival, and the panel response. If you just want the CD that contains the Sinkford keynote lecture and response plus Erik Wikstrom's keynote on Jesus in 21st Century Spirituality, it is just $10. Checks payable to UUCF sent to P.O. Box 6702 Turley, OK 74156. For another $10 you get a CD with Revival sermons by Tom Schade, Anita Farber-Robertson, Danny Reed, plus music. For info on the upcoming Revival see our website. blessings, Ron


July 16, 2005 05:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

Matthew takes up the Commission on Appraisal report in the context of feelings many atheists and non-theistic humanists have expressed about the reemergence of "traditional" religious language in Unitarian Universalist communities. He asks: "[W]here is your tipping point? What are the circumstances in which you'd feel you no longer belong in your own religious home?" Answer over at Coffee Hour.

Matthew Gatheringwater:

July 16, 2005 09:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ron: Thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions and for telling us more about lyrical theism. I will be interested in learning more about your congregation and I hope to visit it someday.

Philocrites: Thanks for pointing out the Coffee Hour discussion. Something I am trying hard to communicate: I don't see this as a theist/humanist debate. I am grateful to the report for acknowledging the need for a pastoral response to the negative aspects of rapid theological change, *regardless of theological orientation.* I think this is just as much a concern for Christians as (narrowly defined) Humanists in our religious community. The concerns of Christians are just as much a part of the context of this discussion as the concerns of Humanists--only the UU Infidels are the ones getting the national press at the moment.

There is one way in which I think the concerns of non-theist humanists is different from the concerns of Christians: Liberal Christians have a larger number of religious communities with which they can identify than do non-theists. To the extent that this is true, I think it lends a greater urgency to the concerns of UU non-theists.

Although I am an atheist and religious humanist, my own position on this issue supports toleration and pluralism within our UU congregations. I value the Christian roots of Unitarian Universalism and I appreciate the contributions and friendships of contemporary UU Christians.

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