Monthly Archives: August 2009

Appropriation and Tradition

There’s much talk at the moment about how covenants, sin, baptism, God, and other aspects of religion typically associated in the West with Christianity (especially, in this context, North American Puritan Protestant Christianity and its descendants) may or may not have an organic connection with Unitarian-Universalism.  One argument says that these things are Christian, and UUism is not Christian, so UU use (and especially transformation or redefinition) of such things risks misappropriation.  Another argument says that UUism is a direct descendant of Puritan Christianity and thus it legitimately “owns” these things, such that UUs are empowered to use them and to alter them as they see fit.

One thing that doesn’t seem to be discussed yet in the conversation is the ambiguous “ownership” of a convert faith.  But this seems to be an important part of the issue.  Perhaps 90%+ of Unitarian-Universalists currently active in the congregations did not grow up in the religion–they are adult converts who came into it at some later point.  Thus the question should be discussed: while Unitarian-Universalism as a denomination may have inherited these things (or at least the right to these things), do the vast majority of UUs who have no original connection via UUism to Puritanism themselves have the same level of “legitimate ownership” of such aspects?  And are they more at risk for instances of misappropriation?  Let’s imagine that someone grows up in a non-religious household.  As an adult, they decide to join a local UU congregation.  Eventually they decide to start bringing in Protestant elements that have been absent at their local congregation, along the way redefining sin and covenant in ways that better suit their spiritual orientation.  Is the justifiable nature of what this person is doing affected by the fact that they are only just now encountering Protestantism for the first time, perhaps with a thin understanding of it, even though they joined a non-Christian congregation whose denominational roots were once Puritan (perhaps well before the founding of this particular hypothetical congregation)?  What if the person grew up Protestant, quit, came into UUism, and wishes now to use such things, some of which they are familiar with and others of which they didn’t really have exposure to?

These are not meant as rhetorical questions, or to have an implicit judgment one way or another.  It seems like an issue worth discussing, because there is a tendency to treat UUism and UUs as monolithic in this regard, when in fact particular UU congregations vary widely as to how much Protestantism they have truly inherited, and UUs themselves are widely divergent in their personal histories, level of knowledge of older traditions, and theological orientations.  If we are a nearly entirely convert faith, with the majority of our congregations founded after the end of Puritanism, just how much claim does UUism have to the tradition, and how much do particular UUs with different amounts of past history with UUism have?  There isn’t likely to be consensus here, but there probably out to be some hashing out of the aspects of this issue.

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What are the Most Liberal Denominations in North America?

Unitarian-Universalism arose from the consolidation of two of the most liberal denominations in North America, and continues to push the boundaries of liberalism, to the point that it is arguably no longer a denomination of Christianity but a small liberal religion unto itself.  If we thus bracket out the UUs, who is the genuine liberal edge of North American Christianity?  Some would argue for the United Church of Christ (the Congregationalists).  An argument can be made for the Episcopalians; and we ought to note the historic vote yesterday of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America to allow non-celibate gay ministers. Many other answers are also possible, but then again many are not–it’s unlikely anyone would nominate the Southern Baptists or the Missouri Synod Lutherans.

Of course, the answer is somewhat determined by how we choose to define “liberal.”  So what do you think: which are the most liberal denominations in North America today?  How do you come to that conclusion?  Note that while the emphasis here is on Christianity, it may be legitimate to talk about Judaism and other religions as well.

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Musing on the Quality of Music in UU Services

Music–especially hymn singing, closing songs, and instrumental interludes–in UU churches is often intended to provide a more “emotional” content to balance the intellectual content of lecture-type sermons, announcements, and the general Low Church atmosphere of such gatherings.  There are congregations that provide fantastic music, and often there is a particularly gifted musical director behind this happy phenomenon.

But probably more often, UU music is limp and off-tune, even forced.  This is particularly so for hymn singing.  What are the reasons for this?  Some speculate that is because the dominant upper middle class white demographic of UUism doesn’t have natural rhythm or soul.  Certainly many a minister has tried in vain to get UUs in the pews to clap along, sway, or even smile or show any emotion at all while standing like uncomfortable statues waiting to see when they get to sit back down again.  Another possibility is that UUs are unused to many of the hymns they are asked to perform: they are mostly converts who grew up with hymns other than the ones popular in UU congregations (or, no hymns at all), and even if the tune may be familiar in some cases, the words have often changed from what they knew.  This is compounded by the large number of hymns in the current hymnals, many of which are unfamiliar outside the denomination and come up infrequently even within UU circles.  It’s possible too that some hymns are simply unsingable, at least by non-professionals.

Perhaps another possibility, one that hasn’t been often mentioned, originates in that alleged opposition between music/emotion and sermon/intellect.  After basting silently in an intellectual atmosphere for most of a UU service, it may be hard for people to suddenly shift gears into a few minutes of emotive singing.  If that is the case, then greater attention to emotional balance throughout the service would likely yield greater singing.  The point here is not just to make UU singing sound aesthetically pleasing, but to make it more effective (for instance, as an emotional expression) by making it more natural and comfortable.  The emotion many get out of current UU singing seems to be embarrassment, which is certainly not the intention.

What factors do you think go into poor UU singing?  Are there hymns that simply shouldn’t be chosen, no matter how appealing their lyrics are?  And if your congregation or one you know of has managed to display an unusually good level of musical aptitude in services, what do you think is being done right in such circumstances?  Here’s a chance to compare notes and perhaps raise the level of UU services over a broad area.

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Universalist Quote of the Day #264

“I was brought up strictly a Methodist, commenced preaching Universalism in 1842, have contended earnestly for the faith ever since then, never wavering or halting; and now, in my old age, I have the extreme pleasure of seeing its glorious truths embraced and cherished by many of the brightest scholars and best men of the age.  ‘Bless the Lord, oh, my soul.'”

–Rev. D.P. Bunn

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Journal of Unitarian Universalist History Seeks Editor

After many years of service, Dean Grodzins is stepping down as editor of the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History.  Do you know someone who would make a good replacement?  The editor receives a stipend and travel expenses to important meetings.  Responsibilities include soliciting new articles on Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian-Universalist history; editing articles and working with proofreaders, reviewers, etc; participation in Unitarian Universalist Historical Society meetings; some grantwriting work; and management of the volunteer editorial board.

Here is how the application is described:

“Those who wish to be considered for this position should submit a curriculum vita or resume as well as an extended letter of application describing the skills and vision you would bring to the editorial task. Be sure to address your editorial experience and philosophy, your historical training and expertise, and your vision for how to advance the study of Unitarian Universalist history.  Discuss as well your ideas for how you might integrate, in a single publication, high level historical scholarship with accessible presentations of Unitarian Universalist heritage, and how you might help broaden the community of those interested in and doing scholarly work on UU history.  If you have computer, grantwriting, and administrative experience or skills, please let us know. Please keep in mind that no one person can be a consummate expert in every area; we are most interested in knowing the particular strengths you would bring to the editorial task.”

Applications can be sent to Dan McKanan,  Harvard Divinity School, 45 Francis Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138.  THey can also be emailed to at dmckanan [at] hds.harvard.edu (replace the [at] with @).  Review of applications begins on September 1st.

The journal is not online, but more information about it can be found here at the UUHS website.

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Universalist Quote of the Day #263

“That which God’s judgement decrees, his power effects.  That which love demands, justice commends.  As the best possible expression of this perfect nature, Christ uses the term ‘Our Father.’  Take the noblest earthly parent, strong and beautiful in body, with acute and well balanced mind, a soul pure and upright, give him the utmost patience, the exactest justice, the holiest love, and then increase these virtues infinitely, and you have the best suggestion of the God of Christ and the gospel.”

–Rev. Charles Eaton

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Universalist Quote of the Day #262

“Home is where the heart is.  But we cannot keep our dear ones there; our arms cannot hold them.  There are empty chairs in the home; and voices we have loved to hear are silent.  We shall find them all in heaven.  In the churchyard, by gray headstones, in graves fragrant with flowers, and dewy with tears–do you think they sleep there?  No, no.  The body to dust, the spirit to God who gave it.  The home circles will be filled again.  We shall meet our friends there.  And the circle shall not be broken.  With arms extended wide, they will meet us.  Beyond the rushing waters shall we not catch the gleaming of their white robes, as they beckon to us from the other shore?  Shall we not hear them singing the old songs–song of welcome?  Lo!  they crowd to the river’s bank, and watch us with joy as we cross.”

–Rev. G.H. Vibbert

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