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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Unitarian fiction watch.

Magazine fiction hasn't been high on my reading list for several years, so I'm grateful to UUWorld.org news blogger Sonja Cohen for calling attention to John Updike's latest short story for the New Yorker. This isn't the first time that a Unitarian has shown up in Updike's fiction — or nonfiction, for that matter — but it's worth pondering the impression Unitarianism made on him (and his narrators).

The narrator's father-in-law was "an eminent Unitarian minister [in the mid-20th century], who preached in a gray neo-Gothic edifice built for eternity near the Washington University campus" in St Louis. This would be the venerable church founded by William Greenleaf Eliot — the first Unitarian church west of the Mississippi — which is to say that Updike is alluding to the Unitarianism that T.S. Eliot rejected. Reverend Whitworth is remembered rather than seen in the story — and he is remembered in his Vermont cabin more than in his Missouri church, where he could let out his inner Thoreau.

Here's the longest passage about Whitworth's religion, a description of the narrator's first encounter with mid-century Unitarianism:

As for Unitarianism, it seemed so milky, so smugly vague and evasive: an unimpeachably featureless dilution of the Christian religion as I had met it in its Lutheran form—the whole implausible, colorful, comforting tapestry of the Incarnation and the Magi, Christmas carols and Santa Claus, Adam and Eve, nakedness and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the serpent and the Fall, betrayal in the garden and Redemption on the Cross, “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” and Pilate washing his hands and Resurrection on the third day, posthumous suppers in an upper room and doubting Thomas and angels haunting the shadier margins of Jerusalem, the instructions to the disciples and Paul’s being knocked from his donkey on the road to Damascus and the disciples talking in tongues (a practice at which the stolid churchgoers of Alton and its environs did draw the line). Our public-school day began with a Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer; our teachers and bankers and undertakers and mailmen all professed to be conventional Christians, and what was good enough for them should have been, I think I thought, good enough for Unitarians. I had read enough Kierkegaard and Barth and Unamuno to know about the leap of faith, and Reverend Whitworth was not making that leap; he was taking naps and building stone walls instead. In his bedroom I spotted a paperback Tillich, “The Courage to Be,” probably, but I never caught him reading it, or “The Master Works of World Philosophy,” either. The only time I felt him as a holy man was when, speaking with deliberate tenderness to one of his three daughters, he slipped into a “thee” or “thou” from his Quaker boyhood.

This is a story laced with nostalgia for intellectual excitements several decades old. The narrator later says, somewhat appreciatively:

His theology, or lack of it, seems one of the spacious views I enjoyed thanks to him. His was a cosmos from which the mists of superstition had almost cleared. His parish, there in the Gateway to the West, included university existentialists, and some of their hip philosophy buffed up his old-fashioned transcendentalist sermons, which he delivered in a beautiful voice, tentatively. Though Unitarian, he was of the theist branch, Deb would tell me in bed, hoping to mediate between us. I wasn’t, as I remember it, graceless enough to quarrel with him often, but he could not have been ignorant of my Harvard neo-orthodoxy, with its Eliotic undercurrent of panic.

Ooh, Eliotic panic: that's good.

The story isn't especially concerned with religion beyond the passages I've quoted: Deb and Jim (the narrator) choose a Cambridge Congregational church as a compromise between his childhood Pennsylvania Lutheranism and her St Louis Unitarianism; they divorce; he grows old. And I don't think Updike's portrayal of Unitarianism differs much from the way it has cropped up in other stories. In fact, Peter Raible's essay "Images of Protestant Clergy in American Novels" (the Berry Street Lecture delivered at the 1978 Boston General Assembly) mentions another Updike story in which the Unitarian father-in-law performs a baptism that includes a joke about holy water. So Updike may be repeating himself. For what it's worth, I didn't find the story very gripping.

("My father's tears," John Updike, New Yorker 2.27.06)

Update 3.13.06: I learned from a reliable source that Updike's own father-in-law was Leslie T. Pennington (1899-1974), who was minister in St Louis and retired to a farm in Vermont, and that the New Yorker story is very clearly autobiographical. Alan Seaburg's biographical entry about Pennington for the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography says:

In 1953 Pennington's oldest daughter married American novelist and poet John Updike. Updike in his memoirs wrote: "My father-in-law, a Unitarian minister, had been raised as a Quaker. I loved hearing him 'thee' and 'thou,' without self-consciousness, in his gentle Midwestern voice, his wife and two daughters . . . Though my gentle father-in-law and I had some tense early arguments, in which I, blushing and stammering, insisted that an object of faith must have some concrete attributes, and he suggested that our human need for transcendence should be met with minimal embarrassments to reason, at bottom I loved him."

See also James Luther Adams's remembrance of Pennington at Herb Vetter's excellent Notable American Unitarians site.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 26 February 2006 at 9:20 AM

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5 comments:

Dudley M. Jones:

February 26, 2006 08:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

I went to the web site of that St. Louis church and look what is coming up in their schedule:

Mar. 1 Ash Wednesday Service, 6:30 p.m. in the sanctuary

Apparently not your typical UUA place

Philocrites:

February 27, 2006 07:53 AM | Permalink for this comment

The St Louis church has been known as a tradition-minded Unitarian church pretty much throughout its history, so the congregation's interest in an Ash Wednesday doesn't especially surprise me. Earl Holt, who is now the minister of King's Chapel in Boston (which uses its own version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer), was the minister in St Louis before coming to Boston.

Errant Frogs:

March 6, 2006 03:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

First Unitarian in St. Louis was my first UU church, and Rev. Earl Holt my first minister, ever. It was traditional, but of a theism that incorporated the best of humanist wisdom. (And we had many Wash U humanists in our congregation.) It was a model for how to maintain one's prophetic voice amidst a diverse theological congregation that I still carry with me today in my own ministry.

I have heard of, but thankfully seldom experienced, the "diluted" theology that is touched on in this passage -- but that danger is present in our ministry when we try to please everyone and stop preaching the sermons that are in our hearts.

Elz Curtiss:

March 13, 2006 11:03 AM | Permalink for this comment

There is a generational element here worth following out. My own Unitarian dad -- very much not an object of nostalgia for me, thank God, as he heads toward 78 -- has been complaining for several years about the emotionalism of the younger UU ministers. Now he has found a congregation someplace in Florida where his brand of intellectualism and huumanism still prevail. I don't know who these good people are or whether they are all older like him, but it is worth noting that there was an era when that intellectualism which had almost cleared out the mists of superstition was many people's best hope for the future. And THAT, regardless of your definition of divinity, is a good definition of religion!

And I might add that although King's Chapel has been my religious home for many years, complete with ashes and Easter, I do appreciate the willingness of that pulpit to seek the truth about God and religion without much recourse to above-mentioned mists and superstition. Please do not confuse Christian practices with pursuit of ignorance.

Philocrites:

March 13, 2006 11:46 AM | Permalink for this comment

I learned from a reliable source that Updike's own father-in-law was Leslie T. Pennington (1899-1974), who was minister in St Louis and retired to a farm in Vermont, and that the New Yorker story is very clearly autobiographical. Alan Seaburg's biographical entry about Pennington for the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography says:

In 1953 Pennington's oldest daughter married American novelist and poet John Updike. Updike in his memoirs wrote: "My father-in-law, a Unitarian minister, had been raised as a Quaker. I loved hearing him 'thee' and 'thou,' without self-consciousness, in his gentle Midwestern voice, his wife and two daughters . . . Though my gentle father-in-law and I had some tense early arguments, in which I, blushing and stammering, insisted that an object of faith must have some concrete attributes, and he suggested that our human need for transcendence should be met with minimal embarrassments to reason, at bottom I loved him."

See also James Luther Adams's remembrance of Pennington at Herb Vetter's excellent Notable American Unitarians site.



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