Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Grandfathering appropriation (Yes, one more on covenants)

Ok, I'm still on this topic, I'm afraid, mostly because it bumps up against subjects that have interested me for a long time.

Part of me has a sense that the solution to all of this is pretty simple.

1. Theists and atheists alike seem to value what they think of as church covenants. Though an agreement where we come together to talk out common values and figure out what we're going to be to each other is not a covenant in a historical sense, it it remains important to people.

2. PB is a scholar of religion, and I ain't. Indeed, most of her critics are not. LinguistFriend is the closest we've got as someone who formally writes for the Chaliceblog and seems to have no inclination to touch this with a ten foot pole. If I had to guess, I'd say he would be torn because he the religion scholar would lean toward PB's side and he the linguist would think that relying on ancient definitions of words is too normative and denies the changing nature of language. But I don't know.

Anyway, if she the expert on this stuff says that "covenant" must be vertical, I can accept that, though my questions about how one can make a binding agreement with a being that never communicates consent remains.

Frankly, I think that puts us a few insincere people away from Homer Simpson praying:

"Dear Lord: The gods have been good to me. For the first time in my life, everything is absolutely perfect just the way it is. So here's the deal: You freeze everything the way it is, and I won't ask for anything more. If that is OK, please give me absolutely no sign. OK, deal. In gratitude, I present you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, give me no sign. Thy will be done."

But anyway, these two premises lead me to the conclusion that the thing to do is to make our own term that is more meaningful than "mission statement," yet isn't "covenant." I was thinking of "pact" and Goodwolve suggested "Commitment, Decision, Rule, Bargain, Treaty, and Handshake." All of those work for me.

At the same time, I am troubled by the churches that have had covenants for decades. Taking away the term from underneath them doesn't seen fair.

And in all fairness, it certainly seems like we grandfather in appropriation after awhile. Pagans aren't asking Christians to cease and desist on Christmas trees, and, to use my favorite example, nobody is asking Chartres Cathedral to take out its labyrinth. Black Christian churches aren't asking white Christian churches to quit singing "go tell it on the mountain" either. Nor are the shakers asking for "Tis a Gift to be simple" to be returned or even sung with its original words.*

We pretty much all agree that appropriation from other cultures is a bad thing. But we pretty much also all agree that after awhile, the appropriated custom/term/song, etc is fair game for the appropriating religion because the appropriating religion has also given it meaning, resonance and history.

So when does this grandfathering kick in? Is there a set period of years? Is it a generation or two or five?

still chewing on this stuff.

*I only know examples from Christianity. I'm sure there are others from other faiths. This is my lack of knowledge about world religions, not an intentional attempt to slam Christianity.


Heather said...

The irony is that the biblical concept of "cutting a covenant" is also an appropriation...from the suzerainty treaties of the authors' neighbors.

Mickbic said...

In a previous posting on covenants I mentioned that Christian Atheism might be one starting point of commonality but it certainly would not work for all. Here's a brief quote from the wikipedia entry on Christian Atheism: "today's culture cannot be subject to the transcendental qualities of orthodox Christianity." That quote would satisfy some, dissatisfy others. Since the seven principles were adopted it seems like older covenants fell by the wayside. Likewise, how do we draw from the six sources when the sources overlap or even contradict each other? Maybe a little Zen would help.

Chalicechick said...

As you are the same Heather who knows what seminarians at Princeton call the Wawa across the street, I won't argue with you there. (This attitude mostly comes from two years of watching people pick fights with law professors and get their asses handed to them.)

While I generally ignore and/or snark on any bitching about UUs appropriating from a source who appropriated the same thing from somebody else, I don't plan to do so here as even if one accepts that the concept of a treaty is the precursor to the covenant and there was appropriation there, then that appropriation happened so long ago that it is clearly covered by the "grandfather clause" that seems to exist around claims of appropriation.*

The secular uses of the term are old, but not nearly as old. Oliver Wendall Holmes was writing about property law covenants in 1881, but my suspicion is that this usage is a lot older than that. If I feel motivated, I will email my property law professor (a Princeton undergrad, but who's counting) in a couple of weeks as he likely knows off the top of his head, but it seems poor form to do so in the first week of school.

So if we accept this "grandfather clause" that I have presumed, the property law version would likely be ok at this point.

I have no idea about the history of "loan covenants" or "covenants not to compete," though those terms are archaic at this point as most people use "loan restrictions" and "non-compete agreements."

In fairness to PB, every law version of the term "covenant" I know about has a vertical element. People in power extend these covenants and the other party can accept them, negotiate them or walk away. (And presumably buy a house, get a loan or find a job someplace with a covenant they can live with.)

In fairness to PB's critics, I still don't see that religious covenants come from God in any way I can understand because the church folks actually write the covenant. If a church writes a covenant and God doesn't like it, it would seem to be God's place to accept it, negotiate or walk away and God's acceptance seems to be assumed. The religious covenant being discussed retains the vertical element, but as far as I can tell it puts God's worshipers on top and puts God on the bottom.

There are few times when I will admit that anything is harder than attending a top law school**, but this stuff honestly makes my brain hurt and makes me long to crawl back into my homework for selected topics in tort law.

Which I'm going to do.


*I was so tempted to call it an "affirmative defense."

** Other than attending a top medical school. Or being one of those Ice Truckers you see on the Discovery Channel. Or being a Repo Man in a southern city, a job that led an old friend of my husband's to advise me that if I ever had to repossess a car from either a drug dealer or a redneck to go for the drug dealer because "Both have guns, but the redneck can actually shoot." Man, law school is sounding good all of a sudden.

Joel Monka said...

I hope we can be grandfathered in, because our covenant is quite literally set in stone .

DairyStateDad said...

I'm become as much of a crank on this topic from the opposite point of view as PB is from hers...That said, I credit you for wanting to be evenhanded here, but I still don't think it's necessary. No Grandfather clause needed. Your defense of the use of covenant -- and your observations about the flaws in PB's argument -- are more than enough to grant an eternal Grandfather clause in my opinion.

Incidentally, David Pyle at CelestialLands (www.celestiallands.org) has an interesting reinterpretation of "vertical" that I think works well across the theist/non-theist divide.

Jess said...

PB's main argument is that the people can't initiate the covenant, but that God does.

Which is a major problem considering that most liberal religious scholars do agree that the concept of an anthropomorphic God is humanity's invention by which we make meaning in the world.

I don't think that common UU use of covenant is appropriation, but evolution. Most UU covenants that I have read or heard do have some sense of that which is greater than the individual (the larger world, the larger community, etc), but very few of them use the word God. I do agree with PB that "reverent hearts" are important to the covenantal process, but to leap from that to "one must acknowledge a force greater" is insulting to our humanist and atheist members and forebears.

Chalicechick said...

Someone I know told me once about a high school they knew that had the "Mohawks" as a mascot.

The administration, after some requests from students, wrote to the Mohawk nation to ask them if they minded that the school used them for a Mascot.

"Hell yes we mind" was the gist of the Mohawk nation's response.

So the school changed their mascot to the "Hawks" and for the cost of new football jerseys and a Hawk mascot suit, the issue was settled forever.

This strikes me as the reasonable approach here. I like the term "covenant," but I don't like it so much more than I like "pact" or "commitment" that I'm willing to go through a lot of drama over it.

I don't think churches that have had covenants for a long time should necessarily be forced to change, but if people who care more about the term than we do feel we are using the term incorrectly, I have no problem picking another term and moving on.

As long as we can come together, find common purposes and inspirations and define our responsibilities as a community, then we can call it a "SpongeBob" for all I care.

I realize that people who are attached through their churches to meaningful historical covenants do not feel the same way, and I offer the grandfather clause mostly for them.

who having run across covenants a lot in law and having had a job in the past where I worked a lot with Covenant healthcare, has had all the spiritual juice sucked out of the word for her anyway. YMMV.

ogre said...

With all respect for PB, I'm not buying.

She made the point that she was writing for/about Christianity. Maybe the definition is accurate in that context, narrowly construed. But we're not a Christian faith, and to insist that we have to mean by "covenant" what Christians mean and have meant would be like insisting that we use "god" and "salvation" and such language in exactly the same way.

It's a word that comes to us legitimately through our religious heritage. We've used it consistently--and I can't find a single example in Unitarianism where there's a claim that a covenant was offered to our congregations from above. We didn't appropriate the term any more than we've appropriated the Bible; it's our common heritage with Christianity--and we understand it somewhat differently.

So it goes.

Further, a quick check finds the term covenant being used by religious folk--Scots Covenanters on the one side, and English Parliamentarians on the other--to label the Solemn League and Covenant they made between them during the English Civil War.

Then there's the Ulster Covenant signed by nearly a quarter million men (and the supporting Declaration signed by a similar number of women... and no, I don't know why women didn't sign the covenant directly) in 1912, and the Natal Covenant signed in 1955 objecting to the Afrikaner intention to declare South Africa a Republic.

The term's got a long and deep history of being a profound commitment or undertaking.

David Jackoway said...

"We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote...As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support." So do we need a bylaws change?

DairyStateDad said...

@Jess in particular: I don't think one has to even concede that an anthropomorphic God is a human invention to see that PB's narrow definition of covenant is a non-starter. For the sake of discussion, let's stipulate that a personal God is real. Unless he/she/it shouts down from the heavens (or wherever) and EVERYBODY hears it, we have to rely on other human proxies to relate God's covenant. So who's to say that the covenant is really with God, rather than with someone claiming to represent him/her/it? To declare that a covenant must be initiated by God is a faith statement that presupposes God's existence and definition.

It is absolutely clear, although PB has chosen to ignore repeated evidence of same, that covenant has (and has had for some time now, as CC points out) multiple meanings, including for secular agreements among various contractual parties of human beings in which God is not a participant.

OK, I really probably should shut up about this now.

Philocrites said...

I confess that I think my friend PeaceBang seemed to be treating an act of theological interpretation as if it were a historical or political assessment. I don't think it makes much sense, certainly from a religious liberal perspective, to say that *historically* a covenant was initiated by God. ("Did God write the Ten Commandments with His finger?" is the sort of question very few Unitarians would ever have answered with a historical "Yes.") Instead, I'd say what happens (and what has always happened) is that people establish a covenant and then theologians, in interpreting the meaning and validity of the covenant, show how the promises people are making have a transcendent dimension.

Different liberal theologians will describe that transcendent dimension differently. A Humanist interpretation might point to the way our particular covenant affirms universal values or commits us to purposes greater than our individual needs. A theist might explain how those values are rooted in divine purposes. The self-transcending and community-transcending qualities of a promise can be interpreted in many ways without the covenant falling to pieces, or we wouldn't have UU congregations at all.

I can't think of a good reason to treat the UU use of "covenant" as appropriation. We have a history of interpretation and definition of terms that continues to evolve, and simply need to offer our own persuasive case for the way we understand the terms that people in our tradition have been using for centuries.

bluish said...

I just want to lift up the question of "appropriation" vs. "misappropriation". IMHO, one is inevitablly the way the world works, and one is something to be avoided. Sussing out the difference in a postcolonial society can be damned difficult, though. Religions are constantly appropriating things, and to try to stop doing so is like trying to stop time. If no one gets hurts, what's the problem? Is Christianity harmed by UU's having a different definition of covenant? In an overwhelmingly Christian society, who has the power? Sometimes subversion (another word for some kinds of appropriation) is a GOOD thing!

The reason I try to avoid misappropriation is not because I don't have "the right" to use something, but because my use of it is based on a power imbalance that harms the person/culture from which it comes. Tribal Indian mascots at schools hurt people. UU's forming covenants, as far as I can tell, don't.

fausto said...

I think that where the conversation went off the rails is that PB was describing the theology that led to the practice (which we inherit) of covenanting churches in the first place, while her critics were (incorrectly, IMHO) assuming that she meant our covenanted churches today still must necessarily covenant themselves under the same terms with the same theology.

I don't think it is necessary to abandon the language and tradition of "covenant" entirely. In fact, I think it would be a tremendous loss. Rather, I think we should be honest enouogh with ourselves to be able to affirm that (a) PB is correct about the origin and original meaning of the covenated tradition, but also that (b) the expansion of our theological breadth and diversity that began in the 19th century can warrant, for any congregation, a reinterpretation of the tradition and its meaning in order to remain relevant to the contemporary needs of the congregation, and that (c) such reinterpretations are valid if done with integrity and conscious intent. In fact, an integral part of the older tradition that PB defends is continually re-evaluating and re-affirming the covenant. For example, First Church in Salem, Mass., our second-oldest congregation, adopted its first covenant in 1629, supplemented and restated it in 1636, and at some point afterward reverted to the 1629 version (which it still affirms today, BTW). The covenant of the church in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, which was the parent church of the daughter congregation that moved to Plymouth, Mass., and became our oldest congregation, pledged its members' devotion to truths both "known, and to be made known".

So it is possible (I think) for covenants of recent vintage that lack a more traditional "vertical dimension" to be valid even within the context of our covenanted tradition. What is not valid is to say that covenants in our tradition did not originally mean exactly what PB says they meant, or that if we reject a "vertical dimension" we do not significantly alter the original meaning.

Eve said...

I don't read Peacebang as saying, "don't ever, ever use the word covenant in anything but the religious sense." I read her as saying, "if we're going to use the word in a different sense, we need to back it up in a scholarly, theological way, with an awareness of history and how we are shaping it."

I agree that as UU evolves, thoughtful reasoning should support each stage in that evolution. But saying, "don't make a change until you have a fully developed, widely agreed upon justification for that change," puts the cart before the horse. Change happens organically. Our guts start to lead us one direction or another; we reason it out in retrospect, after we feel the tug toward change.

fausto said...

On a different point: All analogies to legal covenants in English common or American statutory law are inapposite. The religious covenanted tradition from which we descend was not English and legal but Hebrew and Biblical. It derives originally from God's covenant with Adam upon banishing him from Eden, and his similar subsequent covenants with Noah, Abram, Moses, and the primitive Christian Church. The English law of contracts and property is (arguably) of common origin but separate descent. The sense of the term "covenant" to mean a particular obligation in a legal contract is a separate sense.

(Note, however, that the English legal tradition and its daughter American civil constitutional tradition do have the same historic "vertical dimension" as the eccesiastical covenant tradition. For example, the Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, many colonial charters, and the Declaration of Independence all explicitly invoke the same "transcendent referent" that PB attributes to church covenants. English law was originally premised upon the "divine right of kings". Whether the transcendent dimension is still necessary to the validity of contemporary law is, it seems to me, an analogous but not apposite question.)