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Monday, February 12, 2007

This week at Our theological center.

UU World cover, Spring 2007"Unitarian Universalism often plays better to a graduate-school crowd than a middle-school crowd," writes Galen Guengerich, co-minister of All Souls Church in New York City, but UUs do themselves — and their children — a disservice by keeping things complicated. He proposes centering Unitarian Universalist theology on an idea that children and adults can practice every day. "In the same way that Judaism is defined by obedience, Christianity by love, and Islam by submission," Guengerich writes, "I believe that Unitarian Universalism should be defined by gratitude." His essay is featured in the Spring issue of UU World, which goes in the mail later this week.

In the news, Jane Greer profiles 14-year-old UU Annie Arnzen of Andover, Mass., who has raised more than $10,000 for a Botswanan orphanage where she volunteered last year. I report on the January meeting of the UUA Board of Trustees, where President William G. Sinkford introduced a plan to increase ministry opportunities for people of color. And Sonja Cohen rounds up a week's worth of Unitarian Universalists in the media.

Update: In honor of Charles Darwin's 198th birthday, here are a few articles from the UU World archives about evolution and Unitarian Universalism: "Church offers classes on science of evolution," Don Skinner (4.28.06); "Welcome to the ecozoic era: The wonder of evolution," Amy Hassinger (2.15.06); "Human origins and human futures: Darwin and bio-engineering," Dan Cryer (3.1.04); "Science and its metaphors," Christopher L. Walton (11.1.03).

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 12 February 2007 at 7:44 AM

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February 12, 2007 11:57 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for highlighting the article by Rev. Guerenrich, it's fabulous! He inspired some reflection of my own, too. ;-)


February 12, 2007 01:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

Psalm 118 actually says in English: "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it."

Apparently it is still hard for us to be clear about who we should be grateful to. And if we are not clear, then all these efforts about elevator speeches or playground speeches are useless.


February 12, 2007 02:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jaume is reacting to something at the end of Galen's essay, where he suggests: "Each evening at dinnertime, pause for a moment, clasp hands if someone is next to you, and repeat these lines from Psalm 118, which conclude the benediction we say each week at church: 'This is the day we are given. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.'"

I suspect Galen doesn't find it hard to name whom he's grateful to. But is it especially important to insist on saying "the Lord," given the generally humanistic orientation of most Unitarian Universalists? I doubt it. It seems more important to help establish a bridge between the biblical tradition and contemporary liberal religion, and between the spiritual insights of that older tradition and the experiences of people today. That bridge may infuse new meaning into an ancient name, sure, but I'm not sure that's the ultimate goal.

(Very little scripture is quoted precisely in a UU context anymore. Free translation and paraphrasing are widespread, no matter the source.)


February 12, 2007 04:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ah, that liberal bent of liberal religion.

But I take Jaume's point about how we dance around these religious words - there has to be some way of reclaiming and redefining and speaking a religious language that resonates and is also authentic.

For me, "the Lord" is not authentic, and feels funny in my mouth, however original or historically significant it is. "The day we are given" leaves room for those who would say "the Lord" and also for those who wouldn't, without being painfully vague.

At least he didn't suggest "This is the day we may or may not have been given by or not by the spirit that some call creator or god or goddess who may or may not have made this day, and maybe we just live it because we inherently deserve it, and let us be glad or merely apathetic in it."


February 12, 2007 06:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

Well, I am a UU since 1990, and I found many, many instances of this paraphrasing, particularly in hymns, so I am not really surprised.

But my point is not whether we should turn to "the Lord" or not. What I mean is that, if we say we quote Psalm 118, we should quote it. Really. Or we do not quote, and we say exactly what the minister wrote and add that our text is inspired by the psalm, or plagiarized, or whatever. But as it is, it sounds to me like having a taboo that does not allow us to quote fully.

If we quote a Buddhist text about Buddha Amitabha, for example, would we avoid mentioning Amitabha in our quote just because we do not want to offend any non-Buddhist believer in our midst? I doubt it.

It seems that we are afraid about some kind of taboo against quoting the Bible as fully and accurately as we would quote the Tripitaka or the Tao Te Ching, and I can't find many things as alien to the liberal spirit as having taboos (at least, those which are not directly related to obscenity).


February 12, 2007 07:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

I don't think it's so much taboo as squeamishness. The Bible has been claimed in a pretty hard core way by some very unpleasant factions, and many people who turn to Unitarian Universalism are reacting against that. In the attempt to differentiate ourselves from those "others," I've observed that Unitarian Universalists are more likely to place value on religious/spiritual texts and concepts from other cultures just because they are from other cultures - it's the cool, "in" approach to religion.

So, yes, I agree with you that we shouldn't put words where they're not or take them out without mentioning the changes. But I think some adaptation is absolutely appropriate, with the addition of proper attribution.

[Sidebar - the words to most of the Christmas hymns in the UU hymnal could certainly benefit from a better interpretation of the originals. . . "Joy to the world, the WORD is come," indeed. That's one occasion I'll sing "Lord" with gusto.]


February 13, 2007 05:11 AM | Permalink for this comment

Agreed, Jess. I won't discuss your main point, although I still think that there is a taboo about the word and concept of "Lord", which as you know is itself a taboo in the Jewish world that avoids mentioning God's name "in vain", as the commandment says.

As you said before, it would be worse if the quote was vague and compromising like the "some believe this, others believe that, others believe something weird that I do not understand what it is about, and we all say this together because we are in the same room" formula.

Of course I could commit the same intellectual sin and say the blessing this way:

"We are grateful to that Ultimate Reality that has had many names and has been imagined and depicted in different ways by the religions and cultures of the past and present, and which in the Judeo-Christian tradition that we recognize as one of our Six Sources, is traditionally and respectfully called "the Lord", even though no patriarchal innuendo should be understood in our particular UU context."

Or we could simply quote faithfully and say "the Lord" with no complex and "squeamishness" (a difficult word for me to spell and even worse to remember, arggh...)

Ron Robinson:

February 14, 2007 01:55 PM | Permalink for this comment

While I echo Jaume's response, but do so more with a sigh than anything else since I also agree with the "UU contexts" you all also remind us, I was more intrigued by the effort in the sermon/essay, nuanced though it was, to "define" us by disciplines. As is the case with the P&P, I don't see how gratitude is distinctly "us" and not Jewish or Christian as a discipline. Love without gratitude? Obediance without gratitude? He mentions this overlapping situation in passing, the fuzzy boundaries of things in different traditions, but I think if recess on the playground goes a minute longer, the original question and confusion on how to answer it in a way that creates a difference between us and others will still be there...

Since we are dealing with "traditions" here, maybe that is a clue to the struggle about theological centers. Outside of particular churches within our association who do have enough of a history to have and reflect a "tradition,' perhaps the Association itself is just really, practically, "too new" to be able to say it, as an "it," has a tradition yet. Maybe we should table all angst and attempts to define "UUism"'s center, focusing instead on local churches and their traditions, and wait to see what time will tell about this "UU" thing. Teach our children on the playground what it is for our local church and leave it at that.

From one who has used up a lot of ink, and/or bandwidth, thinking I have the key too...


February 15, 2007 03:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

Guerenrich is perfectly honest is explaining that he is not describing what UUism actually is, but what he would like it to be. His naturalistic gratitude-based religion sounds like Shinto. (Indeed, "itadakimasu" expresses precisely what he is trying to get at with his editted Psalm.)

His daughter got it right. Unitarianism is about egoism, the belief that the self is the ultimate arbiter of the universe. That was the philosophy of our saints, Emerson and Thoreau, and is what we teach in RE. Guerenrich is right that this appeals mostly to refugees from authoritarian traditions. This is presumbably why so few of our children become UUs as adults. Since egoism is practically the state religion of American capitalism, you don't need to go to church to hear about it.

Dudley Jones:

February 16, 2007 12:11 PM | Permalink for this comment

Check out "The Epic of Unitarianism" by Dave Parke. It gives a somewhat different view about Unitarianism. (If the G word upsets you, then skip this comment and that book.)

The 2nd edition is somewhat updated but has terrible binding. Mine is only a few years old and the pages are starting to fall out. I expect better from Beacon Press.

Kim H:

February 16, 2007 03:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

I wonder how much of this is about our relegation of Universalism to the sidelines. A good counter to the egoism of Unitarianism is the ideas of trust and sacrifice of Universalism.


February 19, 2007 03:11 PM | Permalink for this comment

I would never confuse self-respect and egoism. Just as I would never confuse altruism with self-hate.

But if people go to church because they want to hate themselves and feel unworthy, miserable, etc., then they better stay outside of church (as they are increasingly doing, BTW).

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