Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The other side of the "language of reverence" debate

A few years ago, former UUA President Sinkford set off a minor tiff among my humanist buddies by saying that we needed to go back to a "language of reverence." At the time, I think I said that the words themselves didn't bother me but I had concerns in that:

1. Using the same words different ways makes communication difficult.

From an old post of mine on the subject:

"“Sin” as defined by the shorter OED: Transgression of divine law, a violation of a religious or moral principle. (It being the shorter OED, the actual definition is longer and more complicated, but that’s the jist.)

“Sin” as defined by my office’s receptionist, a Mormon: “Doing wrong. Well, there are different kinds of wrong I guess. I guess sins are wrong that’s against the bible.”

I’d say that if you ask 100 people to define sin, 99 of the resulting definitions would be somewhere in the neighborhood of those two.

CC is one of those people who has wrestled mightily with the subject of sin. If you ask CC to define sin, you’re going to get “It’s something you do, anything you do, that distances you from what makes you a good and useful person. If you reverently and respectfully pull the plug on your terminally ill father to relieve his pain, that’s legally murder, but I don’t think it has to be sin. If you cheat on your taxes and feel so bad about it that it distances you from your life and the good that you do, or makes you feel like doing the right thing doesn’t matter, that’s sin.”"

I don't think there's anything wrong with having a different concept of "sin" and I think they are in the same spirit, but if the Mormon and I wanted to have a conversation about sin, we would have to very carefully stake out what we meant by a term that is loaded on both sides. Perhaps using non-reverent language would make these conversations easier.

2. A lot of the "language of reverence" uses metaphor that makes some traditional assumptions that might not be true.

"God the father" would be a tough concept for a former victim of child abuse.

If your great-grandparents were slaves, then the term "Master" would likely not be spiritually useful, or at least would be loaded for you in a way that it wouldn't be for other people.

And yes, as discussed on the blogosphere at length once, "Lord" raises sexism and class implications that lots of people find alienating.

This is not to say that these terms are problematic for everyone. If you had a great Dad who loved and cared for you, you never really had to apply the issue of slavery to yourself personally and you're ok with what looks to some like grafting a secular aristocratic term onto a man whom God chose to have born in a barn or on to God, then those words work and more power to you. But I think they no longer have the near-universal appeal they once did and I don't think it is coming back.

Humanists pretty much don't win any battles in UUism any more and this is yet another one that we lost and the language of reverence is very much alive in a great many UU churches whether humanists like it or not. (And this theistic humanist admittedly likes it fine most of the time.)

Anyway, in her recent hotly debated post about covenants, PB raises yet another question about spiritual language. When does redefining a spiritual concept and using it for oneself become appropriation? It had never occurred to me that my view of sin (which is massively oversimplified Tillich in the first place) could be read as an appropriation of the traditional concept of sin, not from Tillich, but from Christianity in general. (Who got it from the Jews)

Where does the concept of "appropriation" pay in to the "language of reverence" debate? Does it matter if we are "re-appropriating" a concept that was appropriated by the religion we're taking it from?* Is there an easy guide to "appropriation" that makes it clear whether we are appropriating or not?**

I asked PB in her comments and now I'm asking you.


*Gotta say, it makes me nuts when people accuse each other of "appropriating" the labyrinth from Christianity.

**The best I can do is that it is appropriation when one uses a ritual, term or practice in a way completely divorced from the actual spirit of the thing being appropriated. Gwen Stefani wearing a bindi because it looks cool, for example. But I tend to think it is OK when much of the original spirit is kept intact, (e.g. a day of fasting and meditation and prayer is done in all many religions, and I don't think it is inappropriate for a UU to do the same. Or a child dedication that looks a lot like a baptism.) then it isn't appropriation. But a lot of people do a lot of goofy things in what they perceive as the spirit that the Native Americans intended in the Native American ritual said people are stealing, so I'm aware that my definition is far from perfect.


fausto said...

We're not appropriating something if it is ours to begin with. And there is nothing more genuinely ours in a more genuinely religious context than the concept of a religious community of individuals gathered together in submission to the mutual obligations of a covenanted relationship.

The tempest that PB provoked should not, I think, be framed as a question of misappropriation, but of adaptation or reinterpretation: if our theological understanding has changed, cna/should we adapt or reinterpret or redefine our traditions to conform to our changed understanding? Or must we repudiate our past entirely in order to embrace our future with integrity?

Chalicechick said...

I don't think the relevant question should be whether it is appropriation, but I do think PB talked about it as if it were.


Anonymous said...

"Humanists pretty much don't win any battles in UUism any more "

I may be wrong here, but is it not true that in our most recent election, both candidates were non-theists?

best wishes

Dudley Jones (non-atheist)

hafidha sofia said...

But I think they no longer have the near-universal appeal they once did and I don't think it is coming back.

You hit the nail on the head with this one.

DairyStateDad said...

First: How nice to see someone else describe herself as a "thestic humanist." Just last night I told mainline Christian DairyStateMom that's what I was, and it sounded to her like a contradiction in terms! I admit I rather suspect you and I may have somewhat different understandings of the term; still I won't stand in your way of using it to describe yourself! :-)

Second: I'm really glad you're asking this because it's been bugging me as a question since the "laying on of hands" debate back in July.

I like the notion of a greater sense of reverence in the context of UU spiritual practice, but I also feel for the humanists who find themselves marginalized in the current culture of some UU churches--and for theists who likewise feel marginalized. I wish there was some way for theists and non-theists to find a common ground liturgically that isn't just a lowest common denominator, and I'm stuck as to what that might be.

Back to appropriation:

I attend a UU Church in which several times a year festivals from world religions are celebrated, with children from the congregation and the minister leading brief rituals abstracted from those faiths. These "Life cycle ceremonies" range from Buddha's birthday to Christian Communion at Easter to a celebration of Humanism and many more. [To participate the kids have to meet for an evening the week before to learn about the religion and the rituals they'll be performing.]

I never fail to choke up at these occasions. I am so deeply touched by the exposure my kids -- and our church's kids -- get to world religions via these experiences, however fleeting and on the surface that exposure is.

Are these rituals completely authentic? Candidly, no. Nor, I submit, would a thoughtful observer think that we were trying to pass them off as such. But they do give the kids, and those who participate more indirectly in the congregation, a brief, experiential exposure to these other religious outlooks, and I can't help but see that as good.

So the whole discussion of appropriation is something that I find very complex and filled with ambiguity.

Another example: When DairyStateMom and I married four years ago (tomorrow!) we contemplated incorporating in our ceremony the Jewish ritual of smashing a glass. But we decided that would be an appropriation too far; neither of us is Jewish or of Jewish ancestry. We did consult my Jewish sister and her husband (she's a convert), and their strong sense that it would be inappropriate given our non-Jewish context was the final arbiter (although we were already leaning against it anyway) of our decision not to include the ritual.

So I'm not insensitive to the concern about appropriation.

But as you ask, where is the line drawn? As I said to PeaceBang, one could make the argument that Protestants are "appropriating" Communion because they don't believe in transubstantiation the way Catholics do. For that matter, one could make the same argument about UU Christians who don't believe in the physical resurrection or in substitutionary atonement--they're just appropriating an identity that doesn't belong to them. (And you'll find plenty of Evangelical Christians ready to make that very claim.)

I think your footnote, CC, makes a pretty good initial stab at drawing what seem to be sensible lines. Going back to my church's "Life Cycle Ceremonies," the rituals have been constructed by a minister who's read and studied a lot about the religions from which they're drawn. And they're offered in a spirit of reverence (there's that word again!) and respect and, in my experience, humility, and with some explanation to the congregation about their meanings to the original practitioners.

I do get the concern about cavalier appropriation. But I also fear that this can lead us down some stultified, politically correct [I hate using that phrase but I'm stuck for a better one at the moment] road that accomplishes little.

Mickbic said...

As far as I know it was David Bumbaugh that called for a language of reverence. Sinkford replied with describing an act of reverence he experienced when his son was in the hospital.

I really feel the ball is in Bumbaugh's court and feel it was a faux pas on his part to expect a religious association consisting of such a wide variety of beliefs and behaviors to adopt a language of reverence. Won't happen and probably shouldn't happen.

Mickbic said...

As far as I know it was David Bumbaugh that called for a language of reverence. Sinkford replied with describing an act of reverence he experienced when his son was in the hospital.

I really feel the ball is in Bumbaugh's court and feel it was a faux pas on his part to expect a religious association consisting of such a wide variety of beliefs and behaviors to adopt a language of reverence. Won't happen and probably shouldn't happen.

hafidha sofia said...

DSD wrote: I wish there was some way for theists and non-theists to find a common ground liturgically that isn't just a lowest common denominator, and I'm stuck as to what that might be.

"...among all these dreamers, I, too, who 'know,' am dancing my dance; that the knower is a means for prolonging the earthly dance and thus belongs to the masters of ceremony of existence; and that the sublime consistency and interrelatedness of all knowledge perhaps is and will be the highest means to preserve the universality of dreaming and the mutual comprehension of all dreamers and thus also the continuation of the dream." ~Nietzsche

I take that a bit out of its context, but in it lies my answer to this "dilemma" that keeps coming up over and over among UUs.

I thought UUs believed we "all have a piece of the truth?" That we should embark on a "responsible search for truth and meaning?" That we believe in co-existence and interrelatedness, and all of that. That we are NOT about creed, but covenant? Why then, do we keep coming back to this issue of "how can I get something worthwhile out of my religious services when the spiritual beliefs they express don't mirror my own?"

I would much, much rather listen to a sermon about someone's authentic, truly held beliefs about WHATEVER tradition they come out of and LEARN something that can inform my consciousness, or be TOUCHED in an unexpected way then just have someone up there who parrots my beliefs. I don't see why UU churches can't be chalices for the honestly held beliefs and ongoing spiritual journeys of every member, and minister. We should be celebrating the paths we're all on, instead of always criticizing each others beliefs, and pointing out how they're wrong, misguided, offensive, etc.

And at the SAME time, if someone points out to us that our beliefs or practices are jacked up, wrong, misguided, sexist, etc. that is ALSO part of the journey, and that is also part of engaging in community.

Otherwise we could all stay home and read books.

Mickbic said...

I tried posting a comment here earlier but think the post has so far failed to show up so I will try again. Forgive me if it is redundant.

It was David Bumbaugh who called for a language of reverence. Sinkford responded with telling of a time he experienced reverence when his son was in the hospital.

I am not too confident that we will ever be able to create a culture of reverence. There is a proverb that states that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That leaves a lot of people out that the UU faith wants to break bread with. I think the UU faith has tried to be all things to all people which some might understandably call a recipe for disaster.

Chalicechick said...


Comment moderation means that I have to physically approve your comment before it posts. I try to do that frequently, but you're going to need to give me more than an hour.

Bumbaugh did call for a language of reverence though he seems to have meant something slightly different by it than Sinkford did, but Sinkford did call for it too in a separate sermon.

From the UUA website's ad copy for a book about the debate:

In January 2003 Sinkford preached a sermon in Fort Worth, Texas, in which he said: “I would like to see us become better acquainted with the depths, both so that we are more grounded in our personal faith, and so that we can effectively communicate that faith-and what we believe it demands of us-to others. For this, I think we need to cultivate what UU minister David Bumbaugh calls a ‘vocabulary of reverence.’” Sinkford explained that “‘religious language’ doesn’t have to mean ‘God talk,’” and added, “I’m not suggesting that Unitarian Universalism return to traditional Christian language.” His own 45-second “elevator speech” about Unitarian Universalism, however, upset some UUs because it did use God talk. “The Unitarian side of our family tree tells us that there is only one God, one Spirit of Life, one Power of Love,” Sinkford said. “The Universalist side tells us that God is a loving God, condemning none of us, and valuing the spark of divinity that is in every human being. So Unitarian Universalism stands for: one God, no one left behind.”


Robin Edgar said...

"So Unitarian Universalism stands for: one God, no one left behind."

Coulda fooled me, and any number of other victims of U*U clergy misconduct of various kinds. . . To say nothing of other victims of diverse U*U injustices and abuses. In fact I seem to recall UUA President Bill Sinkford doing a great job of leaving me behind himself. . .

Believe it or not the WVC for this comment is disses. I dare say that I will take a screen shot of this to have some "hard evidence" to support this internet synchronicity. . .

James Andrix said...

Wikipedia says the biblical terms meant 'to miss the mark'. and I think that's at least a useful concept.

This leaves open the question of what standard we're falling short of.

It also makes me wonder what it means for this to be washed away.

And if the target is impossible, is missing it actually immoral?

Chalicechick said...


1. Congratulations on your anniversary! TheCSO's and mine is also coming up.

2. TheCSO and I also considered smashing the glass a truly awesome and joyful ritual and also decided that it would be disrespectful to use it in our own wedding.


Chalicechick said...

FWIW, I reread a portion of PB's thread and she had written "For UUs to redefine the word in a secular fashion and to argue away its history and meaning is just another case of us reappropriating sacred tradition for our own use."

So she does see it as an issue of appropriation. Which given the way she views the issue seems pretty natural.