Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Across the Great Divide (epilogue)

I will be honest: this is not the essay series I’d intended to write.  My original intent, which you can no doubt see evidenced in the first part, was to present an argument for the use of “the language of reverence,” as Rev. Bill Sinkford called it.  I was inspired in part by an incident that occurred at the church I serve as Lead Minister.  The setting was a Sunday worship service celebrating the decision that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

I’d placed on the altar two placards I’d had made previously to bring with me to the courthouse to join other clergy performing the first legally recognized same-sex marriages in our state.  (I was not, unfortunately, ultimately able to be there that day.)  One sign, referencing our Universalist ancestors, and countering the religious opponents of marriage equality, said, “God is love; God is here.”  The other, recognizing that theistic language is not the only language of religion, said, “All love is equal.”  Both had images of joined wedding rings as well as a rainbow flag.  These two placards were on the altar together, next to each other, reflecting the diversity of religious expression in our congregations.

After the service was over I was told by some that the sign with the word “God” on it was deeply offensive and that, in fact, at least one member walked out of the sanctuary before the service began because simply seeing the word “God” on our altar was so disturbing.  The fact that there was an equivalent statement in support of marriage equality that did not include “God-talk” was, apparently, of no comfort.

I do not, for a moment, doubt that the discomfort and distress these people felt was real.  I do wonder, however, what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist and not be able to at least tolerate the appearance of the word “God.”   Along with the statement of Principles that our Association affirms there is also a list of six “sources” which are said to nourish our “living tradition.” There is an affirmation of Humanism:  “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”  Yet there are also these two: “Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life; and, “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”  It seems quite valid to ask how one can affirm these later two sources while refusing to allow even the word “God” into our sanctuaries.

This essay series, then, was originally intended to be a defense of the appropriateness of “God-talk” in our communities.  As I wrote, though, I began to see that such a defense – while arguably still worth raising – really fundamentally misses the point.  There is an even bigger demand – both a challenge and an opportunity – to which we are called by our Unitarian Universalist faith. 

In his book Many MansionsA Christian's Encounters With Other Faiths, the Protestant theologian Harvey Cox wrote about the conversion, in the late 1700s, of Boston’s King’s Chapel from Anglicanism to Unitarianism, saying, “They teach us something important about the future of religion not by what they did but by the courage and initiative they showed in daring to do it.  We now have the chance to do the same thing,” he wrote, “— not to wait and see what religious forms will emerge in the next century, but to use our imaginations to shape them.”  Universalist preacher and teacher Clinton Lee Scott said, “We may set our hands to the task of building a new kind of church adapted to the new age, thus creating a demonstration center that will prove what can be done by a radical reconstruction.” 

We are called, through this grand experiment of Unitarian Universalism, to demonstrate to the world a new way of being religious.  We are called on to use our imaginations to shape the religious forms needed in this new age.  If we are to fulfill this calling, we must actively and creatively find ways to avoid being too tied to either the acceptance or the rejection of any particular religious identity or expression.  We must find ways to transcend – as individuals, as congregations, and as a movement – the more parochial perspectives of the previous paradigm and both discover and develop new means of discourse. 

I have come to realize that it is not a question of whether or not to use the "language of reverence," whether or not "God-talk" is to be acceptable in our communal discourse.  The question that really needs to be explore is how to find and make real the both/and that is essential to any real diverse inclusion.  This a question to which I will freely admit having no answers.  Yet I know that it's a good question. It's one  we can chew on and in the exploration of which we will find much benefit.  Through the writing of this essay series, attempting to answer one of the most long-standing and irksome questions with which our movement has wrestled, I believe I have discovered what E. E. Cummings described as, "the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question."

Pax tecum,


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