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.



Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism

5 responses to “Appropriation and Tradition

  1. “Ownership” is exactly the wrong model to bring to this issue. No one owns culture. No one owns religious truth. No one owns ceremony and ritual. No more than one owns the air one breathes.

    As for “thin” understandings of things that someone brings into their own thought and practice, my comment is a shrug. Is there some testable level of understanding that authorizes one’s incorporation of various elements into one’s life? If so, I can’t imagine that many Christians could pass a “Christian test.”

    People incorporate some things into their lives and exclude others either because they don’t think about it or because they do. Levels of thought or non-thought are meaningless to the question of legitimacy. I will not privilege non-thought over thought. Nor will I privilege “deep” understanding over “thin” understanding.

  2. Actually, to “own the covenant” is itself a term with an ancient and distiguished heritage of use in our denomination. We have religious ancestors who were martyred for “owning the covenant”. It is in this sense a synonym for claiming religious freedom — a value that all UUs of any theological orientation still strongly affirm.

    To address the OP’s question, I don’t think any distinction can be drawn between cradle UUs and later arrivals in this regard. Regardless of whether we assumed our UU identity earlier in life or later, we became equal heirs to its heritage whenever we did so. We may bring different awarenesses and presuppositions to the discussion because of our different past experiences, but I would argue that once we voluntarily assume covenantal obligations to one another within this tradition, we bear an equal obligation to afford that authentic heritage both individual and collective honor and respect.

    One thing that newcomers from more static traditions may fail to appreciate, however, is that openness to change rather than defense of the status quo has always been an integral element of that heritage. It is, for example, from the original covenant of the Mayflower Pilgrims and of their parent church in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, that we first drew our devotion to truths “known, or to be made known”.

  3. What matters is the engagement, the process of ongoing appropriation and reappropriation. Once congregation I now serve took on an annual Sunday service called “The Thanksgiving Seder” which was meant to honor our Unitarian, Puritan, heritage. A cry arose from ex and ethnic Jewish UUs in the church saying that service was an act of misappropriation. To honor their discomfort the service was changed to “The Harvest Feast.” Yet, I have spoken with Rabbis and actively faithful Jews who don’t have any problem with the use of the word Seder (‘ordered’), or the ritual of a symbolic meal, as long as it includes an honoring of the Jewish people and tradition. Thus the service has created a dialogue of various sorts. It created dialogue about the inclusion of African American spirituals, Native American elements, and so forth in the service. All in all this very “traditional” service in this church has undergone nearly fifteen revisions in twenty years. That is how I think UUs should work with ‘sin,’ ‘baptism,’ ‘covenant,’ and other religious elements: to create dialogue between traditions and need, to create a journey of faith development.

  4. 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?

    More directly to approach this portion of the post:

    When a child is adopted, some families will completely accept them as one of the family while others will not, forever viewing the adoptee as some outsider they took pity on. The law, however, makes no distinction between the adopted child and the natural child. Each has equal inheritance rights. Each has equal rights to care and support until adulthood.

    Similarly, a convert is no less a member than a born UU. The full inheritance is available to both equally. (Mis)appropriation is a non-issue here.

  5. DairyStateDad

    I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that the whole fear of (or claims of) “appropriation” risks becoming sterile and exclusive.

    The cavalier adoption of traditions to which one has no links is, arguably, a concern. But to cling too rigidly to an ethic of “no appropriation” becomes reductive.

    I’ve asked this question elsewhere: Is the Protestant practice of communion, lacking the belief in transubstantiation, an inappropriate “appropriation” of the Mass? For that matter, is the practice of communion in UU Christian circles an “appropriation” from a tradition that may believe different things about Jesus or Christian identity than UU Christians do? That’s where the logic of this rigid claim of appropriation leads.

    A far more helpful yardstick is the degree of respect the so-called “appropriator” brings to the practice or terminology in question. I like what Paul Oakley says in the first comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s