Friday, March 18, 2005

CC responds to Peacebang and Fausto

When CC was in high school, she was an editor on the school paper. That paper, as high school papers dom always ran a “senior quotes” edition where the seniors could put in a quotation that inspired them. (CC’s was George Bernard Shaw’s statement “If the world were a perfect place, there would be nothing for us to do.” Tell me she wasn’t a UU in spirit even then.)

Anyway, one girl chose a quote by Richard Nixon. Even better, a quote by Richard Nixon where he wasn’t saying anything very unusual. He was praising the virtues of sticktuitiveness or working hard or something that thousands of other non-Richard Nixon famous people have said.

CC knew this girl and asked her “Um… What’s the deal with Nixon?”

Her response was that she just liked the quote and thought it was true and she didn’t see what the source had anything to do with it. CC said “well, yes, but a lot of people have said that same sort of thing.” And the girl responded that she liked the Nixon version.

Ok, whatever, case closed. The Nixon quote ran, though CC privately thought the girl was pretty silly.

CC does not think that Peacebang is silly. Nor Fausto.

However, she doesn’t see why Peacebang, Fausto and many other intelligent people insist on doing what she sees as a similar thing.

Most of the good stuff in the bible is cliché at this point.

Did it start with the bible? Maybe. Sometimes, probably yes.

But it certainly hasn’t been said by the bible alone.

Now I don’t mind the occasional bible reading, but I don’t think we need to be so upset with ourselves over the fact that all things bible rarely comes up.

After all, I’d say the works of Shakespeare contain as many useful insights as the bible does, with a lot less crazy stuff. (I mean, come on, in Shakespeare, when somebody wants to get a message across to the king, that person goes and talks to the king. They don’t send the angel of death to wipe out the first born children of the king’s entire country.)

God, as I perceive God, is not the God of the bible at all and I find that the bible gives God rather bad press much of the time.

The girl I knew in high school did not have to “assiduously avoid” a quotation by Richard Nixon to use something similar written by someone else.

I don’t think the bible is the only place where insights about humanity taking care of one another and living just lives can be found is the bible and I find myself sort of resenting the implication that I am “preaching the gospel” when I’m talking about love, service and justice.

The Mormons I know seem to have great respect for love, service and justice, yet I suspect that most UUs, UU bloggers included, would take it rather badly to hear that they were “preaching the book of Mormon” because they were expressing the same ideas.



Art said...

Oddly enough, CC, you are in agreement with C.S. Lewis on this one. He thought that identifying morally examplary behavoir with "being Christian" was insulting to both Christians and non-Christians alike.

Art said...

Oddly enough, CC, you are in agreement with C.S. Lewis on this one. He thought that identifying morally examplary behavoir with "being Christian" was insulting to both Christians and non-Christians alike.

fausto said...

Ah, but CC, you're still reading the Bible the way you were taught to in Presbyterian Sunday School, as if it were God's perfect revelation of divine nature and divine will, internally consistent and eternally unchanging.

It isn't; it's in fact quite the opposite. It's a record of the changing human perception of God, further constrained and filtered through the experience of one particular people and their particular cultural tradition, which is why you feel drawn to reject it.

Nevertheless, your own, seemingly different, personal perception is fully consistent with the continuous evolution and shifting in perceptions recorded in the pages of the Bible. The God perceived in the Psalms, Prophets, and Gospels is a very different perception from the God perceived in the Torah, Chronicles and Kings. Moreover, the human attempt to perceive and understand God in all the various books of the Bible is also the same striving found in the Upanishads, the Qur'an, and (yes) even the Book of Mormon.

I can't speak for other UUs, but if a Mormon heard me and told me I was "preaching the book of Mormon", or if a Taoist told me I was following the Way, or if an imam told me I was an unwitting Muslim, I would take that as evidence that I was on the right path. Those observers would have recognized something in me that was consistent with the most reliable truths for living as they understood them.

The Bible is not itself the Source. It is only a flawed human witness to the Source, and only one among many. But among many others, it is the one that uniquely and comprehensively informs our Western culture, and the one that is still commonly accepted as reliable by a broad cross-section of our own society. Ultimately, It's All One Thing, and nothing can contain all of it. But we may still profit by using the tools our culture and traditions have handed us.

In our society, the Bible's authority rests not on its supposed divine provenance but on its common human acceptance. Let me say that again: it derives its authority from a consensus of human affirmation, not from any innately divine quality. When you appeal to Biblical authority, you are not invoking a divine proof, but rather a shared human basis of acceptance. It may have been silly of your friend to quote Nixon if the same idea might be found in a more widely admired authority such as Shakespeare. By exactly the same token, though, it is silly to argue for the validity of moral, ethical and spiritual insights by citing (say) Marianne Williamson or The Urantia Book or what-have-you if the same idea is found in the Bible.

The same ideas may indeed found elsewhere, and when they are that lends them especial weight, but in our moral and spiritual culture the Bible remains the Big Dog. It is the standard of reference against which everything else is compared. Nothing else comes close.

Chalicechick said...

I understand that to hear from a Mormon that one was preaching the book of mormon might be a compliment.

But I still wouldn’t like it if a Mormon (or someone of any faith) took a “They’re saying what I say, but why don’t they attribute it to MY faith, the silly geese,” sort of attitude. And that is the attitude I’m seeing on y’alls blogs.

If we’re looking to attribute things to the first person to say them, then most of what is in the bible should be attributed to early Jews anyway.

Maybe the bible is accepted as reliable by a broad cross-section of society. But other things are, too. And I don’t think I’m unreasonable in assuming a rough inverse correlation between how reliable one finds the bible and how likely one is to be UU.

I think your response confuses the weight the bible has overall culturally with the weight it has among people likely to listen to our message. I like reaching liberal Christians, too, but there are other ways to reach them.

We have lots of other shared bases of acceptance. We like Shakespeare. We like Mark Twain. We like dictionaries. We like the declaration of independence. None of these has anybody being manipulated by their God into almost killing his beloved child, only to be stopped by angel, God’s way of saying he was just screwing around with you.

If we’re not treating the bible as sacred, then there are a lot more non-sacred books around that don’t have its baggage.


fausto said...

I'm arguing precisely that we should treat the Bible as sacred, and that the rest of society does.

What makes it "sacred" is the lofty deference and respect afforded it by a human consensus, however. That is a very different thing than calling its authority "divine", but it still places the Bible in a different category of authority altogether from writings like Shakespeare's or Nixon's that are not generally recognized as sacred.

We UU's vigorously defend "the right of private judgement", i.e., the freedom of personal conscience and discernment. Within the scope of that freedom is our freedom as individuals to deny the sacredness of the Bible. However, this discussion began on another blog with the question of what is required to be a "prophetic" church, not what freedoms must be afforded to an individual seeker of personal Truth. My proposition is that no church can claim to speak prophetically, or expect to be heard as speaking with a valid prophetic voice, if it also refuses to identify itself with or validate the tradition of Biblical witness.

Chalicechick said...

If were looking at sacredness in that sense, I think you're defining it too tightly.

I don't see that there is a human consensus affording sacredness to the bible. I think that there's a human consensus that there is a lot of great wisdom to the bible, but I think Shakespere and the Declaration of Independence have exactly that level of sacredness too.

People deify the founding fathers in many ways. I'd say they are pretty sacred to us at this point.

I'm willing to give up the term "prophet." It has soured on me anyway.


fausto said...

It's your right to find the idea of prophecy unhelpful. As it is your right to approach the Bible as secular rather than sacred literature, or to find a private, personal sense of sacredness in unconventional places that hold special meaning for you.

(As an aside, though, I think that if you were to seriously assert in a public forum that Shakespeare and the Declaration of Independence are considered by general popular consensus to be no more and no less sacred than the Bible, I expect you'd get a strong response, but not one of assent.)

However, the UUA has for many years, quite self-consciously and assertively, wrapped itself in the mantle of the "prophethood of all believers", a phrase coined by Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams. It is not wrong to say that the denominational leadership fancies itself and the entire denomination to be at the vanguard of a prophetic movement and speaking with a prophetic voice. It is appropriate to question whether it is useful for the UUA to continue to conceive of itself as "prophetic". It is also appropriate to note the ironic inconsistency of presuming to prophesy in any effective sense without being willing to invoke and embrace the genuine language and context of traditional prophecy.

Chalicechick said...

(((What makes it "sacred" is the lofty deference and respect afforded it by a human consensus, however. That is a very different thing than calling its authority "divine",)))

I don't think asserting that in a public forum would get a happy response either.


fausto said...

An important point you made that I overlooked yesterday is this:

But I still wouldn’t like it if a Mormon (or someone of any faith) took a “They’re saying what I say, but why don’t they attribute it to MY faith, the silly geese,” sort of attitude. And that is the attitude I’m seeing on y’alls blogs.

I think you are misunderstanding our point, but perhaps we are not stating it clearly enough. You're drawing a we/they distinction between outsiders who perceive us in their own terms and ourselves who have the right to define who we choose to be. In contrast, Peacebang and I are speaking only to ourselves, within our own denomination, and calling for a more candid acknowledgement of the religious sources from which we draw our principles and upon which they have traditionally rested. We aren't saying "We're Biblical Christians and all other UUs should believe what we do"; we're saying, "The defining UU reverence for individual worth, social justice, personal conscience, and reasoned faith was in fact developed from Biblical principles by people within our denomination who in fact regarded Scripture as sacred. Our present-day principles, values and attitudes are in fact the Gospels, as our predecessors actually did interpret them and hand them down to us, and not only general moral principles that can be found expressed many ways in many cultures."

As proof, let me offer two of the most seminal writings in the annals of our denomination, William Ellery Chaning's Baltimore sermon and Theodore Parker's "Transient and Permanent in Christianity". The central role of reason in UUism today comes to us directly from Channing's sermon, and the central role of personal freedom to choose and discard particular doctrines and dogmas comes to us from Parker's. Both are old-form sermons in structure, tightly argued developments of a single religious idea -- taken from Scripture. In the case of Channing, the verse he developed was I Thessalonians 5:21 -- "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." That's in fact the ultimate source of our subsequent emphasis on "refining faith through reason". In the case of Parker, the verse he developed was Luke 21:33 -- "Heaven and earth shall pass away but my word shall not pass away." That's in fact the ultimate source of our willingness to allow subjective moral judgments in subjective personal contexts; we do so not because we accept that there are no absolutes, but because we are the heirs to a tradition that taught and believed that the absolute is deeper than superficial appearances and circumstances.

Our own faith tradition, not somebody else's, is in fact built upon a Scriptural foundation, including even our cherished freedom to look beyond Scripture for understanding.
We may and should also draw from other religious sources, or find parallels in other sources. However, if we assert that the Bible has become a meaningless cliche and that the same idea was said better by Mahatma Gandhi or Cesar Chavez or Ralph Nader or Deepak Chopra, we are breaking faith with our own denominational heritage, and betraying its demand that we apply discipline and reason in our understanding. We are being dishonest with ourselves. We are choosing to express ourselves in the words of Nixon when Shakespeare is available. In doing so, we forfeit our ability to speak prophetically to outsiders.

fausto said...

An side on the general popular view of the sacredness vs. divinity of Scripture:

The orthodox Protestant (an Catholic, too, I believe) teaching about Scripture is that it is "divinely inspired", not inherently "divine". The way that it is usually described is that the Holy Spirit inspired the human authors to write what they wrote, but not that they served as passive stenographers taking direct dictation from God. It is this "inspiration" that somehow makes it sacred rather than secular. Very conservative Protestants view this "inspiration" to be so strong and perfect as to be effectively indistingushable from divine authorship, but that is a minority, heterodox, dissenting view, rather than an orthodox, mainstream one. Jerry Falwell's doctrine on Scripture is tyical of this latter minority view:

We affirm that the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, though written by men, was supernaturally inspired by God so that all its words are the written true revelation of God, it is therefore inerrant in the originals and authoritative in all matters.... [emphaisis added]

This idea may be flogged to death on AM radio, but it is not the consensus of mainstream Protestant or Catholic teaching, or of academic Bible scholars.

Jeff Wilson said...

It's spring break, and I've been so busy I haven't been able to follow the discussion very closely on the other blogs. So, I apologize if I've overlooked some key components of the conversation.

Fausto, I think your positions are very reasonable. However, I don't think I share your conclusions. I agree that the Bible is considered holy due to a consensus, not any innate divine qualities. I wouldn't go so far as to paint it as a human consensus widely--the average homo sapiens (both the average one alive at this exact moment in time and the average one taken from any point in the past) does not consider the Bible to be a holy book. We just happen to live in one peculiar culture which for particular reasons (mainly related to use of hegemonic power) where many people have a consensus that the Bible is holy. I'm not part of that consensus. I'm part of the smaller but not insignificant consensus in this country, and the much larger consensus in humanity as a whole, which does not consider the Bible holy.

Unlike CC, I don't have Presbyterian baggage. I was raised UU, and it was UUs who taught me to read the Bible. It was UUs who gave me my Bible, when I graduated from fifth grade Sunday School. I have read extensively in it, both for personal spiritual insight and as a way to understand what what Christians in my culture are thinking and talking about. There are parts I like. Overall, it doesn't impress me very much and I've found other scriptures that do much better job speaking to me religiously. Thus, it's been years since I read the Bible for anything other than reference to some quote or idea.

I think it is important for UUs to acknowledge that the Bible is one major source for our past theology. It is over-stating the case if we say that UUism comes from the Bible. Channing, Parker, and other early-to-mid 19th century theologians were dramatically influenced by cultural movements not directly taken from the Bible, such as the Enlightenment (with its primary grounding in Classical thought and the emerging scientific disciplines, and its emphasis on natural reason, not revelation) and Transcendentalism (with its grounding in European Romantic thought, heavy reliance on non-Western texts, and appreciation of Nature as source of inspiration), as well as the general flood of Republican ideas into American religion. They definately believed the Bible supported their views (though this was a far more important issue for Channing than Parker, who already just one generation later had a dramatically lesser opinion of the Bible than Channing). However, one can argue that their ideas were formed primarily by non-Biblical strains in post-Revolution America and then read into the Bible.

That Channing and Parker read the Bible as supporting their religious ideas is a good historical fact to know. That UUism is based on the Bible is a more dubious claim, and that because many denominational authorities in the century before the last one looked to the Bible is not sufficient argument for its strong relevance to current UUs. Again, one can make a pretty strong argument (which you are of course free to dispute) that the Bible was not the most important source for Unitarian ideas, but rather functioned more as a seal, symbolically affirming conclusions already reached by other avenues. Secondly, UUism is not Unitarianism, particularly not the 19th century version. It is Unitarian-Universalism, a new faith that got started in the 1960s, with historical continuities with both the Unitarian and Universalist denominations in America and Canada. UUism from the start has had major influences from non-Biblical sources, such as Humanism. And over the decades those additional influences have accumulated at an ever-increasing rate. 1 in 10 congregations has a UU-Buddhist practice group, for instance, and many of the remaining 90% preach Buddhism from the pulpit and celebrate Buddhist holidays, at least on occasion.

There is a consensus among the majority of American that the Bible is a holy book. I'm not sure that one can say there is a consensus among UUs that the Bible is a holy book, not am I sure that it would mean the same thing even if a majority of UU poll respondants answered in the affirmative.

For me, as someone who was not unduly influenced for or against the Bible as a child, I've read it as an adult and decided for myself that it is not a useful resource for my time and spiritual inclinations. The fact that many Americans like the Bible has only a small worth to me. Most cable news watchers have a consensus that Fox News is the best source for fair and accurate information. Most American moviegoers have a consensus this week that "Robots" is the most interesting movie out there. The majority of voters reached a consensus that George W. Bush was the better candidate for president. I don't say these things to be snide or snobbish. I've grown up my whole life as a UU, which means I have never been part of the consensus. I have always watched American culture and religion and known that I was both part of it, and not part of it, that in fact many of the values that I believe are most American and most religious are rejected as un-American and blasphemous by a consensus of other religious Americans. Arguements about consensus have no effect on me.

UUism is a movement. One can argue pretty strongly that it is moving away from the Bible, that it has been doing so virtually from the start more than forty years ago. I can see clear ways in which that movement hurts our numbers, our understanding of our background, and our ability to dialog with the wider society. I do believe the average UU is underinformed about the Bible and the historical place it held in our parent denominations. I do not, however, believe that the average UU is underinformed about the current place of the Bible in UUism, nor do I think it is a holy text and one that deserves particular standing in our denomination. Every individual UU is free to take religious meaning from it (many do; many of them are among the best of us). And every individual UU is free to assert its importance to other UUs. At this time, I choose not to include the Bible among the more important formative influences in my UU path.

PeaceBang said...

Holy sacred scriptures, Batman! You guys just wrote an AWESOME sermon for me! Muchos gracias!

CC, my first response to your post was to be somewhat puzzled, and I thought, "She's comparing apples and oranges."
The Bible was written by a whole wacky committee of unknown people trying to make meaning out of the world, and recording what they believed is God's presence/intervention/involvement in human history.
Shakespeare is one genius guy writing plays that reflect his brilliant understanding of human nature and more than that, his exquisite use of language to reveal the workings of the human heart.
I can't compare the two literarily or religiously and wouldn't try to.
But you did, and what a great conversation you've started!! WHOO HOO!

fausto said...

Jeff started his own blog while I was out of town for a few days, so I've responded to some of these points (and others) there. Among his propositions here that I take issue with there are that UUism is somehow a wholly new "faith" or "movement" created in the 1960's, and that the Bible is either as authoritative as he thinks I am saying or as inconsequential as I think he and CC are saying.