Friday, August 15, 2008

Masters of the Obvious

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.


Anonymous said...

Most non-UUs, for better or worse, are curious about our relationship to Christianity, so something needs to be said about it, I think. Hayes' statement may not be strikingly original, but your description of what UUs believe as "a system of arriving at and exploring belief by refining it through reason" might be viewed as insulting to other religious traditions. Most Christians I know (and Jews and Muslims, for that matter) refine their beliefs through reason.

We may not be the only people who find inspiration both within and outside Christianity, but we're really not the only ones who think about our beliefs, are we?

Chalicechick said...

I don't necessarily think of "Refining belief through reason" and "thinking about belief" being the same things, but I'm going to consider that point carefully and will probably respond at greater length later.


Steven Rowe said...

CC: You didnt say anything about this in your reply, but it doesn't seem to me that you said that UUs were the ONLY ones who refine their belief through reason.

Chalicechick said...

Christians aren't the only ones who forgive people, but Christians are the ones who make forgiveness a central part of their faith.

I was thinking of it that way.


fausto said...

****Immer wundere ich mich selbst, warum mehr Leute das nicht tun.

Chutney said...

Looking outside Christianity for inspiration isn't obvious here in Georgia, and being able to safely say it out loud in public draws a lot of people through our front doors.

Chalicechick said...

So Christian sermons in Georgia never use, say, current events as a jumping-off point and a way to explain a theological point?


Anonymous said...

You say the beliefs people state are pretty self-evident, but are they? I don't know, because I have never been anything other than UU. But most UUs have been raised in some other religion, so if they don't think the seven principles are obvious, there must be some reason. Maybe a lot of UUs were raised in non-liberal religions, and that's the difference?
I think another factor may be that many people today have had no formal training in thinking -- levels and stuff like that, and are confused about what level of answer is appropriate to the question? I don't know, just speculating....

ogre said...

I can think of examples both physical and verbal where "obvious" was obvious only after the fact. Where the solution was as obvious as the full moon--after the solution was worked out and presented.

Mastery of the obvious is derided--but it's rather like common sense; there's not much common about it. "I could have told them that," is one of those statements that is not infrequently applied to things where (when I step back), I have to ask where these geniuses were and why they didn't come forward years ago.

"Post-Christian" is a term that's offensive (and therefore defective and inadequate to our purposes) for pretty much the same reason that Jews bridle at the terms "New Testament" and "Old Testament."

We're not truly post-Christian, any more than we're a post-agricultural society. We still depend heavily on our (Christian) heritage, our (Christian) history, our (Christian) forms, our (Christian) expectations, as well as our large Christian membership and the texts and scriptures of Christianity (but not exclusively) for sermonic materials. It's just that we've opened our doors and minds to invite so much more in--whether we're Christian UUs or not.

When the right term or turn of phrase comes into use... it will be obvious. A year or so later, no one will really remember the struggle to get there, because it's so obvious....

ogre said...

chutney wrote:
Looking outside Christianity for inspiration isn't obvious here in Georgia, and being able to safely say it out loud in public draws a lot of people through our front doors.

May I just say in all snottiness that from what I can tell, looking inside Christianity for inspiration isn't all that obvious in... aw, hell, I was going to write "in Georgia," but it's more widely true, and even in the spirit of snark and snottiness....

Even if there's still a kernal of truth to the snark.

Take it up with me next GA, man.

(I'll probably pay for that backhand by ending up precandidating in Georgia someday...)

Anonymous said...

"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."

Not as catchy as "post-Christian" though, is it?

The Pope (no less) would argue that Christianity is indivisible from "Logos" - this was Rome's way of reconciling the new religion of Christianity to the tradition of Reason handed down by the Greeks. It is also, incidentally a big difference between Christinanity and Islam - Christianity's God is BY DEFINTION Logos - Reason - so would not expect the human to act un-Reasonably.

The God of Submission (Islam in Arabic) is not mediated and therefore must be, as the name suggests, submitted to absolutely, no matter how un-Reasonable his will. Think about it - it helps explain the world we live in.

Anyway, what I don't understand is the denial of the Christian heritage. One could say UU is "rooted" (as it is) in Christianity rather than post-Christian. That's all that is required.

PG said...

If the God of Christianity is the God of Reason who asks only for the "reasonable," why did Jesus say that following Him would necessitate giving up worldly goods and turning against your family? Those don't seem like reasonable requirements. And the God of Christianity must be pretty well divorced from the God of Abraham/ Judaism, who asked people to kill their only sons for no human reason at all.

LinguistFriend said...

I am bothered by "post-Christian"
for somewhat other reasons. It assumes a rather late form of Christianity (Nicean creed), with an insane christology, and a mere bestseller (as the Harvard Jewish scholar Harry Wolfson described Augustine) for a classic theologian. It still might be possible to make Christianity into a reasonable religion, I think at times, compatible with a scientific world-view (as Bonhoeffer and others have suggested), but if this happened, my impression is that few Christians would accept it. A major reason is that most Christians (like most Unitarians) are grossly ignorant about the history and texts of Christianity. What they know about are the practices of the modern form of Christianity with which they have been inculcated. Thus they have no idea of what the options for belief are, which intensifies the agony of disorientation if the practices that they know turn out to be unworkable for them in a logical, emotional, or practical sense. The situation for liberal Christians is often different and less painful, is my impression from membership work.
By way of contrast, classically Jews (regrettably minimized in this discussion) have been much better educated than Christians about their religion, and valued learning much more highly than Christians do, but to judge from my students, the new generation is catching up with Christians in terms of their lack of knowledge about the religion they profess.
In general, it always seems to be easier to drum up enthusiasm and financial support for some rigid form of orthodoxy than for
broad religious inquiry. Inquiry takes time without much immediate effect. This may be partly because of the diffuse character of the resulting effort. But I must turn to my morning's work.