Friday, August 28, 2009

A couple of questions about covenants

1. I can totally see the "Covenant Initiated by God" concept working in Biblical times when God was pretty vocal about what God wanted. But if we're to have covenants these days, then how are we to know that God is initiating them if God is silent on the matter?

2. Also, how do we have a binding agreement between parties without the consent of one of the parties (i.e. God)

3. Assuming PB's idea that one cannot have a covenant per se without reference to God catches on, and it might well do that as she is a well-respected and convincing person, then I assume that covenants will not be used in UU churches much as most UU churches have at least some atheists and for the church to think of itself as "A people covenanted with God...and those guys" probably wouldn't work. As the word "covenant" has been used for secular agreements for a long time, I don't see why we can't stick with that, but if we can't it would be nice to come up with another term for the process of a church coming together to talk about who they want to be as a community and to make agreements with one another because the process still strikes me as a sacred one even without God's direct involvement. The best I can do for a name for that is "Pact," yet I find that "Pact" has Faustian* overtones.

4. As an aside, if we use "covenant" the way it is used in property law, PB's definition can still more or less work. Covenants in property law are rules that govern the use of the land set by a seller** or giver of the land, so I suppose one could say that God is giving the church to the people provided they obey God's rules. But it is unusual for those rules to be discussed and put together by the recipients of the land without direct input from the original owner.


* Fausto-ian overtones I could live with. I think.=

**For a simple example, you can sell your land to someone with a condition that they will never cut down your favorite tree or move the grave of your dog Fluffy. If they violate the covenant, then you can sue them. The most evil and the most famous kinds of restrictive covenants are the kinds that don't allow houses to be purchased by black people, but those covenants have been found unconstitutional by the SCOTUS (Shelley v. Kraemer) and thus unenforceable.


Bill Baar said...

My Church's convenant says we have associated ourselves together.... I've never thought of God (or Gods, or Godess, or Godesses) participating in our associating, but I suppose members could believe (and feel) God's joining in that association each Sunday.

I'm not sure if anyone in my Church would find the theology behind this one of much interest either. No offense here. It's just not a buring Q for us.

I get the feeling in Chicago at least the majority of UUs are humanists, and the rest of us follow a non-theology of what works.

The Covenant is enough, but if someone feels God's presence in the association, good for them; it works.

PS Time permitting this fall I want to visit services at as many UU Churches as I can around Chicago. I know they all have different characters and histories, but I'm guess the majority of active members pin a humanist label on themselves and the services will reflect that.

Any Chicagoans want to correct me on that please do.

goodwolve said...

This tickled me... "those guys".

How about:
Commitment, Decision, Rule, Bargain, Treaty, Handshake

Thank you for the legal context. I was unaware.

By the way - our church uses the word covenant. Which is why this has really knocked my socks off.

TogetherBeth said...

I've never thought of a covenant as having to have God in the loop. Unless the covenant is actually with God. So, tonight when YRUU comes up with a "draft covenant," do we call it a covenant, rules to live by, pact, agreement? I like "covenant." It's a nice tidy word that pretty much covers the intent of the rules list.

Kari said...

Oh I know that this is a very serious discussion and needs much thoughtful, even prayerful attention. But bare with me....the legal reference gives me this image of God leaving a note stuck in my front door about how I'm violating our covenant, JUST like the homeowners association does when I let mold grow on the roof!

Thanks for the thoughtful and mold free discussion!

HSofia said...

I think you've touched on the problematic piece - if God isn't talking to us (through a prophet, for example) like he "used to," then who are we to create a covenant that we say is between us and God?

I can see a lot of churches just creating a covenant and then just tacking God's name on there - esp. as a way to make it "more" sacred/holy/important-sounding. I hate when people invoke the name of God as a means of asserting legitimacy and if you tell a bunch of UUs (or anyone, even), "your covenants need to be between you and your God(s)," what is that even going to look like?

What is different about a vertical covenant compared to a horizontal one? The only thing I can think is that either your covenants will need to be styled after the biblical covenants between God and religious communities - using similar language and promises - otherwise, you're just making stuff up and saying God's on board.

OR ... maybe you have to have a panel of biblical scholars at your church who know what a proper covenant should look like and they come up with something for the rest of the church to agree with.

Neither of those approaches interests me. Personally, I just think there should be more effort in actually living out the existing covenants. It's like making more laws when you're not enforcing or following the ones already on the books.

Chalicechick said...


This was me being way too blogosphere-centric.

The issue of God's place in covenants comes from this post on Peacebang:

See you tonight!


Jess said...

The problem with insisting that there has to be a vertical component to a covenant is that a covenant is also by its definition a two-way agreement -- and, as you say, if God isn't making God's presence known, one cannot assume that God's on board.

And anyone who calls "Blasphemy" if they are disagreed with doesn't get the whole point of UUism to begin with, which is faith without creed, covenant without dogma, and celebration and embrace of religious diversity in community.

And for the record, most of the UUs I encountered while in Chicago, visiting all of the area churches and spending a lot of time with seminarians, were not specifically humanist -- in fact, many were crying out for *more* spirituality (shortcut word, no, I'm not saying humanists aren't spiritual) in their communities than for less.

Bill Baar said...

When we say our covenant each Sunday, I've always understood it as a covenant among the whole congregation. We're a Congregation aware of our History too so I'd wager for many of us it's a covenant renewed each Sunday with our past too.

Much more than a two-way deal.

I'd be curious with which Church Jess. My experience with Geneva and Unity Temple and what I hear of the others is a distinctly "Humanist" feel meaning not much for God Talk although there are varying degrees of discomfort to it.

I am curious about Micah's Porch which is doing Why God loves Atheists this Sunday but I've been told they are far from a run-of-the-mill UU Church.

Mickbic said...

I am thinking that formulating any type of covenant in the UU church might work if it is tailored towards meeting the needs of Christian Atheists. This might be acceptable to a larger number of congregants.

Some covenants should be with nature: father sky and mother earth. Others might reflect Judeo-Christian, humanist, bahai, etc.

I am not sure if we will ever have a one size fits all manual to covenant crafting. Or need we.

Jess said...

Unity Temple, where my husband was an intern, had many non-atheist features to its liturgy, most notably the pastoral prayer. I found Geneva nicely balanced, certainly not strictly humanist. 2U, on the north side, is probably the most "spiritual" for lack of a better word, though Evanston was also decidedly not majority humanist-feeling either. 1st Church in Hyde Park was a bit of a mixed bag liturgically speaking, but also has a strong contingent of non-atheist members, who are vocal. The most humanist congregation that I came into contact with was probably 3rd UU.

Though in any UU congregation, if you go looking for a specific sub-set of beliefs, you'll probably find it. An ex-boyfriend's mother insisted that UUs were nothing but "witches and warlocks," for example. I don't think it's safe to say that the majority of UUs *anywhere* are one way or another.

But back to the subject at hand. When I said covenant is a two-way deal, I was referring to the idea of the vertical nature of a covenant with God, which is a community of people (one side) making an agreement with their Deity (the second side). It's a figure of speech. The point is that no covenant is one-sided, even if that one side is multiple people, and if someone is going to insist that covenant must include a god-figure on one side, then that god-figure has to be actively agreeing to such a covenant to make it valid.

To bring it back to this plane, if I go up to a stranger and say, "I covenant to treat you with decency and respect even when I think you're being an ass," and she ignores me completely, that's not a covenant, even if I follow through on my end, it's just a nice thing to say.

Bill Baar said...

...if I go up to a stranger and say, "I covenant to treat you with decency and respect even when I think you're being an ass," and she ignores me completely, that's not a covenant, even if I follow through on my end, it's just a nice thing to say.

Can't you covenant to people you think asses and treat them with decency and respect?

That's what being in a covenanted community means I think. When I feel God, I'm hoping he's holding his covenant with me even though I may be an ass...

...this is really the core of our commitment to one another; isn't it?

It's the covenants with people already in my club that go unchallanged and untested, and therefore the strength and depth of the covenant unknown.

Bill Baar said...

...and she ignores me completely...

If your point is the other party does not covenant, then all we have is an offer; no covenant.

That's exactly what Christians believe God offers and it's up to us to respond to the offer.

If I understand it right.

I do think if an asses accepts the covenant though, their character is not an issue until it violates the covenant. If their assness causes them to treat me with decency or respect.

DairyStateDad said...

I say go ahead and claim covenant and be done with it.

I love PB and while she may be historically accurate on this one -- and I question that -- I think she's being unnecessarily pedantic and exclusionary.

Meaning evolves. A covenant among people is just as much a covenant as one that God may have made thousands of years ago, but even that one we have to take the word of God's ghost-writer or spokesperson that it was God doing the covenanting.

So there.

kimc said...

Can I just say that I've spoken with God and she's cool with it? :-)

Steven Rowe said...

For Bill: going by memory, the last time the UUA took a survey, humanists were slightly over 50%.

Jess said...

You got it on the second try, Bill. A one-sided offer is not a covenant -- the assness of the people involved was just part of my example, not a quantifying statement.

Going back to the appropriation question from CC, I don't see how current Unitarian Universalist use of the word covenant, with or without the vertical aspect of involving a deity, can possibly be appropriation since we are direct theological descendants of those who coined the concept in the first place -- our theology has just evolved to include plurality and to not rely upon the existence of a deity.

And to go back to the original question of "blasphemy," which I find ridiculous on almost every level, are we supposed to stay theologically in the 1st century or something? I would dare say that human thought has certainly grown beyond the age when everyone thought the earth was flat, and that includes evolving our concepts of deity and covenant both. To say that this particular word/concept can only be used in one way is to take us back more than 2000 years.

Bill Baar said...

Then you don't have a covenant among a Church Kim. It's just you and the Goddess.

Bill Baar said...

Appropriation (for me) is like ponography; hard to define but you know it when you see it.

kimc said...

so, Bill, are you saying that in "the old days" God speaking to one person held for a group, but in this modern era, God has to speak to each of us separately?

Bill Baar said...

In the old days God made Covenants with whole peoples. The Hebrews, and then in the Christian era, with the Christian Church...

...the notion of autonomous individuals making their own Covenants with God a pretty modern one.

Why would we recite a Congregational Covenant if each of us has his/her own deal order done with God?

kimc said...

I guess I'm imagining that one "prophet" came to the people and said, "God spoke to me, and this is what he said". I'm not imagining a whole people hearing God at once. Is that purported to have happened?

Bill Baar said...

Kim, In a sense, yes. You're taking modern and Western notions of autonomy and placing them onto people who had no sense of themselves outside of their relations with family, clan, and nation (nation in the sense of the people).

The God in History didn't speak to individuals because few people had a sense of themselves as individuals.