Wednesday, July 08, 2009


Linguistfriend wrote this, I'm just posting it -CC

In the fall 2008 issue of the UU World, there is an interesting and generally useful note from Bill Sinkford about "Learning from the interfaith world" (p.7). The winter issue of the UU World prints comments on Sinkford's note; the present response to Sinkford's discussion was held back until it appeared that some important aspects of it would not be addressed in the UU World. Recent discussion makes it relevant again.

Towards the end of his note, Sinkford combines in one paragraph several points that are not all as clear as the preceding remarks on interfaith events and interactions. He writes "Finally, we need to get over our Christian-phobia. Unitarian Universalists will joyfully chant the Buddhist sutras, delight in midrash of traditional Jewish texts, recite Native American prayers, and sing Gospel hymns. But ask many Unitarian Universalists to join in reciting the Lord's Prayer and you are in big trouble." This theme is expanded in his next paragraph, with particular reference to the Lord's Prayer. "We must be able to respect [i.e. recite, apparently - LF] the Lord's Prayer", he writes.

Sinkford's first general point here is an important one. Christian-phobia is a chronic and serious issue, common in the UU world, which can paralyze and isolate not only individuals but whole congregations. I have sometimes felt it a great advantage that, not having been brought up as a Christian, I gain a great deal from exploration in Christian sources. I do not have to fight those fights. But for those who do have to fight them, they are very real. Sinkford seems to ignore the fact that to recommend participation in a ritual of a religion from which one has turned away may be an exquisitely painful suggestion for those UUs (the majority, probably) who have left Christianity with great personal loss and distress in dealing with friends, family, and a former religious community

Going on to Sinkford's next point, a number of UUs are comfortable in adopting the prayers or other forms of liturgy of other religious groups. To the contrary, it strikes me as illegitimate to adopt the forms of a worship in which one does not believe, outside of cases of compulsion or some extreme pastoral situations. Where a worship form takes place with which one cannot honestly agree, an alternative is simply to be silent and wait for something in which one can more comfortably share. To adopt such forms insincerely is no compliment to those who do believe in that worship, and it is easily imaginable that such quasi-worship could backfire in interaction with other religious groups.

A side issue, generally and strangely ignored, is that there is nothing inherently Christian about the Lord's Prayer, although it has been adopted as a central text of Christianity. I have pointed out on this blog, and it is widely recognized, that its text is a conglomerate of elements of Jewish prayer. Synoptic studies suggest that the shorter version in Luke (11:2-4) probably is closer to the source than the liturgically adapted usual version in Matthew (6:9-13) and the closely related version in the second-century Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, VIII 2). To treat such a text as Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer as a fetish of Christian belief is even stranger for Unitarian-Universalists than it is for Christians.

Finally, Sinkford's recommendation flies in the face of the freedom of belief which is central to Unitarian-Universalism. For him to state that UUs should be ready to participate in the worship of a religion to which many of them have no adherence is disturbingly consistent with occasions on which he has spoken for the UUA on political issues without any mandate to do so. Such conduct suggests a Roman concept of religion, according to which potential Christian martyrs were released if only they would express their worship of the emperor publicly. Apparently Sinkford has no understanding of why so many of them did not do so.


kim said...

Unitarian Universalists will joyfully chant the Buddhist sutras, delight in midrash of traditional Jewish texts, recite Native American prayers, and sing Gospel hymns.

this is not true for me. I have always been as uncomfortable with these things as with Christian prayers. I dislike singing songs in a language I don't speak. and there are verses in our hymns I don't sing because I disagree with them. On the other hand, I sing the Messiah every Christmastime quite happily -- ignoring much of the import of the words and going for the feeling.
I used to have a quote on my wall that said, "I have no obligation to be consistent, but a desire for continuity."

Robin Edgar said...

"Such conduct suggests a Roman concept of religion, according to which potential Christian martyrs were released if only they would express their worship of the emperor publicly."

Well that's one way to show that the former U*U "emperor" had no clothes on this issue to say nothing of a few others. . . President Sinkford was right about Christian-phobic U*Us needing to get over their Christian-phobia it's unfortunate that he waited until late 2008 to say so. I had suggested years earlier that President Sinkford should firmly and forthrightly address the anti-Christian and broader anti-religious intolerance and bigotry that is indeed "a chronic and serious issue, common in the UU world." Oh well, better too little* too late than never. . .

* Too little in terms of failing to address the broader anti-theistic intolerance that is also a chronic and serious issue.

Transient and Permanent said...

I have to admit that to a ritual theorist, the argument that the bare text of the Lord's Prayer contains no decisively Christian elements and therefore isn't inherently Christian is frankly bizarre. In my discipline what counts is the usage of a text in determining "what it is." It is fair to say that the Lord's Prayer is pretty much only encountered in Christian settings, where it is in engaged in as a consciously Christian activity, derived from scriptures understood as specifically Christian, recreating the words of the Christian savior. Granting that it does not say "Our Father, who art in heaven, and who I, Jesus Christ, am, as well as the Holy Spirit, hallowed be thy and our name and names," from the perspective of my discipline it is just about unimaginable that one could find a MORE Christian text/ritual, and to argue that it should not be seen as essentially Christian is disingenuous, unlikely to convince anyone.

And yet, I will add one piece of possibly conflicting data. I grew up reciting the Lord's Prayer in my Unitarian-Universalist church. We still recite it every single Sunday. I feel entirely comfortable with it, and in fact feel comforted by it. Nevertheless I am not and have never been a Christian, nor does our church understand itself as Christian. We are Unitarian-Universalists (stress on the Universalist, since that is our church history), whose ancestral history was Christianity but which we have politely put one foot outside of so that we might participate in the wider realm of human religion and fellowship. We know that the Lord's Prayer comes from Christianity, and that it held Christian content for our Christian Universalist forefathers and mothers, but today for us it has become Unitarian-Universalist prayer, ritual, and scripture instead. So, here is non-Christian usage of the Lord's Prayer. But, crucially, it only appears after about 1,950 or so years of usage as a Christian text/ritual, and among other things serves to tie us to the best of our treasured but outgrown (not meant in a condescending way) Christian past.

LinguistFriend said...

Kim, I have to agree with you in
recognizing the wonderful contributions of Christianity to art and music. One beloved Israeli friend of mine, with a deep training in music, seems to think that the Lutheran Bach is the Messiah. And the great cathedrals are among the most wonderful manifestations of the human spirit.
Robin, I agree that there is much that is useful and positive in Sinkford's message here. But I must say that even in interdenominational work in South Carolina, where religious feelings are strong, my colleagues of other persuasions never asked any religious statement with which I was uncomfortable. The group was too diverse, and we had too much work to do.

Bill Baar said...

@Kim: ditto your comments.

Regarding Phobias, I have a Phobia about appropriating medical language like "Phobia" or "Healing" when describing disagreements instead of pathologies.

Rev Sinkford used Christophoia as a dodge to working through the arguments you've given here CC.

You don't want to say the Lord's Prayer, well, you're a Christophobe, your sick, nuff said.

We lose a lot of depth dismissing stuff that way. We ought to break the habit.

LinguistFriend said...

T&P, you and I approach the text from different points of view, both valid. You focus primarily on ritual, while I was originally trained as a philologist with an extensive immersion in Greek Christian texts. Thus I spoke of the prayer from the point of view of the elements that went into composing the text. That is an entirely different issue from the use of the text. Although the text of the Lord's Prayer was assembled from Jewish elements, I would be very surprised to learn that it has been used in Jewish worship, after the earliest days of Judaic Christianity, because of its association with Christianity.
Thus its origin and its use are independent issues. Your discussion makes clear that the text can migrate across traditions; that is an issue for the ritual theorist. I discussed this, by the way, in my earlier post on the Lord's Prayer.

One can take a different point of view, however. You state that
"the Lord's Prayer comes from Christianity", but of course Christianity comes from Judaism.
The Lord's Prayer (in its older form in Luke) is the answer to the request "teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples" (Luke 11:1). I see Jesus partly as a figure of the transition from the temple system to the rabbinical system. The Lord's Prayer provides part of the ability to engage in worship independently of the temple system. In this context, for unlearned peasants to learn to engage in personal prayer is an empowering step.

Transient and Permanent said...

LF, we're on the same page--it's a difference of perspective based on separate training and thus alternate concerns and methods. I'll stand by my assertion that few if any folks in the pews will be meaningfully swayed by the argument that the Lord's Prayer isn't Christian because it lacks explicit Christian content or has pre-Christian roots.

To clarify, when I said that the Lord's Prayer comes from Christianity, I of course meant that it comes _to us_ from Christianity, not Judaism or some other source. I think we could say that monotheism comes originally from Judaism, or perhaps Zoroastrianism or some other source, and only later goes on to give rise to Christianity, but it seems foolish to say therefore that the monotheism of North American religious history doesn't come from Christianity. Or, I could start calling us all African-Americans since our species originates in Africa, but I don't find this to have practical value. Likewise, Jewish roots of the Lord's Prayer don't _mean_ very much to someone like me in my discipline who is concerned with how texts have been used and brought to us in their primary form. This is not meant to invalidate those people or disciplines that do find meaning there.

Robin Edgar said...

I was agreeing with pretty much everything you said LF. I was uncomfortable with certain aspects of Christian prayers and hymns etc. as a child and my mother wisely suggested that I simply remain silent when I encountered something I could not say with integrity. I haven't stopped doing that by any means. I agree 100% that non-Christian U*Us, perhaps especially atheist U*Us and U*Us from a Jewish background, should not be expected to participate in a reading of the Lord's prayer or any other traditionally or specifically Christian prayer or hymn. Respect is one thing, participation is another. That being said, I am one of those people who have a problem with the word God being expunged from numerous U*U hymns, prayers, and other readings in order to accommodate non-theist U*Us to the detriment of U*U theists.

LinguistFriend said...

Robin, I find that I often like the theistic versions of UU hymns in the older "Hymns of the Spirit"
better than those in the more recent hymn book, although like you I do not claim great consistency in feeling so.
Perhaps my memories of my earlier teacher, friend, and Universalist minister Mounir Saadeh have something to do with that pleasant association.
T&P, thank you for reminding me of the significance of the point of view of the modern minister and the person in the pew. I first got into this textual study from a different chronological point of view, either medieval or in terms of how the text was assembled and grew. I think that on the whole you understand that. Thank you for the discussion.

alkali said...

Sinkford seems to ignore the fact that to recommend participation in a ritual of a religion from which one has turned away may be an exquisitely painful suggestion for those UUs (the majority, probably) who have left Christianity with great personal loss and distress in dealing with friends, family, and a former religious community.

The majority? Really? I recognize that this probably describes some UUs, but the majority of my congregation is not comprised of PTSD sufferers who ran screaming from Christianity because Father Jack touched them in the rectory.

LinguistFriend said...

In the course of a good deal of membership work, what I see vary is the sort of Christianity from which UUs have come out. The UU congregation in the town where I live, with about 70% ex-Catholics, has very different issues from the more common groups which are largely ex-Protestant. I have not known personally anyone who left his/her religion because of molestation, although I see some newcomers to UUism who have left other religious groups because of being appalled at the occurrence and mishandling of that issue. Whether that is an appropriate personal solution is a different issue.

Bill Baar said...

My experience has been among ex-Catholics. It's a different tone than those coming out of Evangelical and conservative protestant Churches.

LinguistFriend said...

My experience of this difference agrees with yours, Bill. And there is yet a different transition for those coming from liberal Protestant churches to UUism, CC tells me from her own experience. Once I wrote a sermon emphasizing the difficulty of the transition from a conservative religious stance to UUism, but I neglected the liberal Protestant group, about whom it seems harder to generalize, when I have thought of revising that analysis.

Comrade Kevin said...

But it seems as though with time people who came from negative Christian experiences (I, being one) will circle back around, to some degree, with maturity. Or at least that was true with me and many others.

When I recognized the universality of Jesus's teachings first and then the true intent of his words, which were absolutely nothing like the narrow interpretation I had been previously exposed, I was recognized the difference between the two.

LinguistFriend said...

Kevin, my impression is that people rarely learn about Jesus. They learn about a particular modern religion, which has derived from texts and traditions about events that occurred nearly two thousand years ago. As a membership person, I have found that one of most constructive things I can do, if the new (or old) members can deal with it, is to help them learn about a few of the crucial events or narratives of the Bible from a historical point of view, to develop thinking tools that they can apply elsewhere on their own. There is time to do this only on limited topics - Pagels does it well, for instance, in "Adam Eve and the Serpent". White's "From Jesus to Christianity" is amazingly good for the overall history of the foundation of Christianity. Or if one learns to use a synopsis of the gospels, that is a key to understanding their composition.

In the course of such reorientation to the texts and the history of Christianity, the material can become less painful,
even though perhaps no less powerful. One can perceive the significance of the texts from a different and more distant viewpoint. It sounds as if your own second contact with the material has brought you to a degree of reconciliation with your earlier self.

kim said...

Different UU congregations certainly have different makeups: the one I went to when I was a kid was about 40% ex-Catholic, 40% ex-Jewish, 10% ex-Quaker, and the other mixed. Later, I went to one that was largely ex-Lutheran. The one I attend now is pretty mixed, but mostly ex-Protestant and a few ex-Catholic and Jews. Even a few of us lifelong UUs.

LinguistFriend said...

The point, of course, is not just demographic, but that those different background compositions of congregations create different expectations, different areas of (hyper)sensitivity, etc.
A procedure to orient newcomers such as "Building Your Own Theology" is individually oriented. At the risk of stereotyping, different religions and religious subgroups have their own cultures and notions of what a religion is, and how a congregation should function, and may produce reactions to how previous congregations have functioned, which carry over into the reaction of newcomers to the UU group. These group factors are as important as the individual ones. Membership people themselves ideally need a broad orientation to what might be expected to be issues for newcomers with an uncommon (e.g. not American Protestant) background. One cannot orient to all of the religions of the earth, but one can learn to be sensitive to what factors are likely to vary and be issues for people who are gradually finding their way and role in a UU congregation. And, of course, there is no stage in this slow acculturation process at which all new members, of whatever background, can be
reasonably expected to be conmfortable with the Lord's Prayer, although for some members it is an important reminder of where UUism comes from, and for others it is a symbol of their own present religious beliefs. On the other hand, it does deserve the same respect as other tokens of our religious diversity.