Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Language of reverence

At the risk of sounding terribly out of date (this conversation started three years ago in the States)...

I never though that the 'language of reverence' conversation applied much to Unitarians in the UK, but now I think it does.

I've just been looking again at a post-GA edition of The Inquirer. I've come to the conclusion that there is hardly any religious language in any of the articles reporting on events at GA. There are sometimes vague words like 'spiritual' and 'values' but that's about it. There is no sense of us naming the sacred or even having any sense of connection to the sacred. I sometimes think Unitarians look like a sort of pseudo-religious organisation like the Women's Institute, an organisation that has some connections to religion, sings hymns and may say the occasional prayer, but it does not see religious reality as it's raison d'etre. But we do not exist as an organisation for ourselves, we exist as a manifestation of something deep and universal, something related to the very meaning of the universe. We need (as I think Gene Pickett said) to have some acquaintance with the Depths. I've always maintained that the language of reverence will come when we have some experience of reverence.

It is not enough that our values reflect the values of British society better than most religions (they do). Seekers want a religion that is religious. We need to be offer a life-changing relationship with the divine, with the unnameable God beyond our partial gods. Our invitation cannot be 'come to us, we share your values' it has to be 'come to us to be called to a higher way of life in relation to the deepest realities of the universe, the Ground of all Being.'


Anonymous mike killingworth said...

So I take it there'll be a Letter to the Editor in the next edition?

10:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Rather than rewrite all of this to the group, I would like to share what I sent with Reverend sinkford.

Dear Reverend Sinkford,

I belong to the UU-JA, Unitarian-Universalists for Jewish Awareness. Our list-serve has been talking about the importance of language, almost exclusively, for the last six months. We acknowledge that language has enormous literal, metaphorical, and even metaphysical power over our subconscious thoughts and actions. We started with the idea that many of us feel very uncomfortable with the word, "church" (defined primarily by all of the dictionaries we checked as something like a "Christian house of worship"), and our belief that the word keeps hundreds of thousands of Jews and other non-Christians from visiting and joining UU congregations.

Lately, a number of people have written to me, both on-line and privately, expressing their concerns about the UUA sounding more culturally Christian. Speeches about "reverential language" from the most recent GA are very troubling. Words like "grace", "salvation", "Good News", "fellowship", "gospel", "mission", "ministry" etc., are "reverential words" are directly from the Christian tradition. Words such as "tikkun olam", "chadesh", "torah", "Shabbat", "shalom", "chavurah", "chasadim", and "tzedakah" are examples of Jewish reverential words. Buddhist and Hindu reverential words include "dharma", "upayah", "right action", "sangha", "ahimsa", etc. These words and many more from other cultural groups within the UUA are "reverential" and could be used in addition to, and instead of, some of the Christian words. However, your recent emphasis is only on words from the Christian sub-culture of our faith.

How would the Christian UUs feel if you used only Hindu reverential words? Or Jewish words? I believe these Christian words alienate and marginalize many of the UU Jews, Pagans, Buddhists, Atheists, Humanists, Native Americans, and others who do not share a common Christian culture with the UU Christians and former Christians. (I think some of these words may also offend some former Christians as well, who feel they escaped dogmatic literalist Christianity in favor of a creedless faith. One of my friends said to me, "If I wanted progressive Christianity, I could have joined the UCC, but I didn't want that. I wanted what I thought was the American interfaith faith.")

I have also surfed the net, and found a number of blogs with conversations between UUs where people state their fear and disapproval of exclusive Christian language in our faith. I invite you to eavesdrop on the UUJA and other non-Christian list-serves and surf the UU-related blogs to see what I mean. Here is just one of the many sites which is discussing this change in emphasis: http://www.coffeehour.org/archives/002105.html

Let me clarify, please, three things. First, I do know the basic History of the UU faith (I am an outgoing DRE and I have been teaching it for two years). As we say in Judaism, "History gets a vote, not a veto".

Second, I am not criticizing Christianity. I grew up in a Protestant household and converted in my late teens. I still enjoy church services, but I do not share my family's faith. I am a UU-Jew by identity, not a Christian. My concern is not that the UUA is specifically becoming more Christian, but that it is losing its commitment to interfaith peace, harmony and respect. It is losing its sensitivity to minority groups within our faith. I grieve its loss of inclusiveness. I grieve the alienation I am sensing and hearing about from so many of my UU friends.

Third, I do not believe anyone is deliberately trying to alienate and/or marginalize non-Christian UUs. However, I do agree with one of our members who said, "A fish does not know it lives in water". In other words, the lack of cultural insensitivity to non-Christians within the UUA is only obvious to people who realize how much Christian culture is embedded in UU ritual and language, a perspective available almost exclusively to "outsiders". If I had not spent years outside of the Christian culture myself, I would not "know any different". It would not show up on my personal radar. But it does.

I am hoping the UUA will remember its Principles and Purposes, as well as Sources, which imply a commitment to an interfaith mission and vision. Many people like me, I believe, joined the UU faith since the current Principles and Purposes were adopted because of their interfaith quality, not because of UU Christian history. In fact, many of us struggle every week with the Christian service structure, passing the offering basket, mostly Christian hymns, the word "church", the title of "minister", etc. However, for many of us, the UU Principles and Purposes have brought us back again, week after week, despite our discomfort with all of the Christian cultural trappings. These Principles and Purposes, as well as our sources, make the UUA faith the unique and dynamic faith that it is. However, the latest round of increased Christian-cultural language has been troubling, and difficult to overlook. I fear many non-Christian UUs are leaving because of it.

The Baha'i faith went through a similar identity crisis at one time. Having emerged from an Islamic cultural base, at some point, it had to decide if it was a modern, independent world faith, or the most radical branch of Islam. After choosing to embrace Baha'ullah as the latest prophet, and thus separating itself from Islam, it grew, and became one of the largest world faiths. I think the UUA has a similar potential (to grow rapidly), if only, as one of our members said, "it had the courage to take it's Principles and Purposes and run with them."

I think it would be a tragedy if the UUA lost of its members from a non-Christian cultural background in an effort just to entice new, unaffiliated Christian members to join, when the interfaith direction we were going in at one time had so much potential. The only things the Baha'i's have that we do not, in my opinion, are cinematically beautiful, multi-culural tv commercials touting themselves as "the interfaith faith". What we are lacking is not vision, in my opinion. We are lacking television.

I hope you will seriously consider my point of view. I believe I speak for thousands of non-Christian UUs who are very concerned who will not write to you, but will simply leave the UUA. I applaud your sense of direction toward a renewed spirituality, but I believe it needs to be one that includes UU Atheists, Humanists, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, Pagans and so many others on our membership lists.

I am looking forward to your response.

Yours in inter-faith and multi-cultural peace,

Nancy J. Cronk

My favorite quote, "God is too big for just one religion."

9:47 am  

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