I've been participating with great enthusiasm in the debates about UUA spokesperson Janet Hayes' use of the term "Post Christian" to describe us in the Washington Post.
Over at Infidelity, the Administrator was asking what the deal was as he/she saw it as a legitimate description, and I answered as follows:
I’m of the camp that no matter the theological accuracy of the term, it sounds really snotty.
The comparison I used at Radical Hapa was the word “Niggardly.” Now “Niggardly” comes from Norwegian, means “stingy” and is a perfectly grammatically correct term to use if you want to describe, say, Uncle Scrooge.
That said, it is a term that SOUNDS offensive to the average audience and spokespeople shouldn’t be using the term because it distracts from the message by drawing a lot of attention to itself because it sounds like it means something offensive even though it doesn’t.
Much like you can say “niggardly” all you want in Oslo, the term “post-Christian” is perfectly OK in theologically educated company that knows what it means. (There are smart people on both sides of the question of whether it applies to UUism, but it is, at least, something that can be argued.)
But if you’re using the term, say, in an interview with reporters, and not explaining it, you are likely needlessly pissing people off and if you’re a spokesperson, you shouldn’t be doing that.
Steve Caldwell pointed out that Hayes had given the term the following explanation:
“We include the teaching of Jesus and we appreciate the wisdom of the Bible, but we don’t limit our sources of inspiration to the Christian faith.”
And the frightening thing is, a lot of people who go to our churches probably do see that as sufficient justification for giving ourselves a new name, e.g. "post Christian."
The fact that looking beyond the Christian faith for inspiration is really freaking obvious even to (non-post) Christians seems to go unnoticed. I mean, my Dad is a serious Christian, but if you had asked him to name five inspiring things, I can guarantee you that he would've responded with five peices of music.*
Along similar lines, I am constantly urging UUs not to answer "what do UUs believe" with the seven principles. Because the seven principles are, well, obvious to most people who are even remotely relgiously liberal. I again invoke my parents and the Chalicerelative, because I know their take on Christianity pretty well. None of them would bat an eyelash at the Seven Principles.
Looking over the seven principles, once you get past the "What does inherent dignity mean and are you sure Hitler has it?" discussion that everybody always wants to have, the only point I can see as being even remotely controversial is "use of the democratic process within our congregations," and that's only controversial in churches where the polity really differs from ours.
Some people really like the seven principles, but I'd say they are pretty meaningless as definitions go.
My answer to "What do UUs believe?" varies with my perceptions of the audience but is usually along the lines of "I can't tell you what all UUs believe, because we believe different things. I can tell you what I believe, and I can tell you that UUism isn't so much a belief system as a system of arriving at and exploring belief by refining it through reason."
And then I wait for the "Well, do you believe in...?" questions to begin because people never quite get that on the first hearing.
But returning to the intended central point of this post, I am flummoxed by how often people will define us in these loose, weird ways and by stating beliefs that are really pretty self-evident.
I've observed in the past that sometimes really smart people have a poor grasp of what's obvious to the rest of us. One of the smartest people I know once very carefully and slowly explained the concept of what was essentially "immortality through one's work" to me as he'd thought of it himself and he wasn't sure I could get it. I mentioned Woody Allen's take on the issue* and it seemed to surprise him that the idea was popularly understood.****
But I don't think us all being too smart to get what's obvious is really the issue.
Any ideas on what is?
*When he could talk, but that's another story
**Also, because the seven principles are an ideal that we don't live up to. I don't have a problem with UUs not always living up to their principles, I haven't ever run across a religion where everybody did, but I tend to like to answer questions from outsiders within a more reality-based framework.
*** "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying."
****This can also work the other way. LinguistFriend and the future Mrs. Linguistfriend once slipped into German at the breakfast table, not noticing the flummoxed expressions on the faces of everyone else at the table. It was adorable.