Christianity for non-Christian clergy, part one

James Field of Left Coast Unitarian writes in “Christianities, christologies and me”:

Scott’s comment about Romans 8 in response to my earlier post and some of what he has been saying (along with Peacebang and others) about UU dabbling in world religion raises an issue for me.

That deserves a reply, or more than one. I’d like to stretch this out a bit — both so I don’t overstate what I believe and to leave some room for people to comment. (Again, remember I’ve had to put the blog on comment moderation lockdown, so you’re comments won’t show immediately.)

So what’s fair use and what’s abuse? Both are possible — despite what certain theological hedonists might say — but where to draw the line is a judgement call. Here’s a first go.

First, Christianity is a universal, missionary religion like Islam and Buddhism. Universal in that it isn’t linked to a national group (like Judaism or Shinto) and missionary in that it has the incorporation of others is a basic quality.

It seems to me that universal, missionary religions benefits from a “holy curiosity” from non-adherents because there’s the opportunity for conversion. I’ll present myself as an example of this. (National religions might be tolerant towards outsiders’ inquiries, but it wouldn’t ordinarily benefit from the inquiry except to the degree that religious minorities might get popular relief.) Non-Christian Unitarian Universalists — being a part of everyone — are certainly entitled to read the sources, meditate on the issues, and publically comment on the merits and failings (in a fair, polite manner, thank you) of a universal, missionary religion because it is “out there.”

Now, there’s a difference between each of these actions and claiming to know something of the religion. That is, viscerally know the religion from the inside, and that’s where I think a lot of Unitarian Universalists get into trouble.

Yours comments, please.

Author: Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

28 thoughts on “Christianity for non-Christian clergy, part one”

  1. It is an important distiction, knowing about something, and knowing it by living it.

    Can one know another person “from the inside?” Not really, but we can emphatically identify. Thus the good counselor doesn’t just know about the person, but listens deeply to the persons story, and brings their personal knowledge of themselves to the experience. In some cases the leap to empathy is more difficult than others, and the counselor is advised to know their own “transference” and “counter transference.” (To use the language of psychotherapy, a whole different religion.)

    I think we can know something of another’s religiious experience, empathically. That assumes that we are open to the other persons experience, and willing to learn their language and story. It also assumes that we have some kind of comparable experience. A lot to ask. But empathy is a kind of “visceral” knowing of the other, that doesn’t require the more radical step of “visceral” identification.

  2. Field’s comment is well stated, but actually it is understated. In terms of scholarship, reproducible knowledge about religion is usually shared, both in its production and in its use. When a Lutheran scholar needed someone to carry out a scholarly project which required thorough knowledge of Hellenistic Greek and Old Bulgarian for a study of a particular text of the intertestamental literature, he was not concerned that I was a UU, but simply asked me to write a chapter based on that knowledge for a book for the Society of Biblical Literature, which I did. Most of the scholarly world has moved past the periods when a number of Christian scholars who made excellent scholarly contributions have been persecuted because their studies led to unorthodox conclusions, or when knowledge was branded in terms of the religious stream from which it emerged. Even the Catholic Church, which in the 19th century obstructed access of non-Catholic scholars to its materials, such as the Codex Vaticanus of the Greek Bible, has joined the mainstream, at least in its scholarly aspect, even while it has regressed sadly in other respects. [In both Catholic and Protestant venues, this progress is not always recognized in publications intended for the wide public. I recently noticed that the name of Tischendorf, the Evangelical German scholar who did most for the establishment of the correct Greek text of the NT in the 19th century, was not present in an Evangelical encyclopedia which extensively listed scholars’ names. Presumably this is because he undermined faith in the traditional late Byzantine text of the Greek NT which underlies the Authorized (King James) Version.]
    On the other hand, it is regrettable that both Christians and UUs (partly, to be sure, overlapping terms) are usually poorly informed about the history of Christianity and Christian texts. A year ago I had words with a UU minister who had presented an outdated statement of the late character of the Gospel of John, claiming that it was not earlier than the late 2nd century. He was unaware that John is the first text of the NT attested in written form, in a papyrus (p52) which on paleographic grounds is usually considered to be from not later than 125 AD. Occasionally, to be sure, particular parts of the world, including the scholarly world, are behind in the stage of their recognition that scholarship rather than orthodoxy is primary. When during the last century the distinguished NT scholar Kirsopp Lake, who published a classic photographic edition of the great Codex Sinaiticus of the Bible, was divorced and lost his position at Harvard Divinity School, he was hired by Harvard University as a professor of history.
    One could take many examples from the study of other religions. Although the archaic Sanskrit text of the Rig Veda was preserved in oral transmission by Indians, the most distinguished scholarship of this language and text have been European (German, French, English, American), not by Hindus, and Indian publishers routinely translate or reprint many of the European works. It is not required to be a Hindu to comment on the significance of these texts, or to compare them to the historically related Old Iranian religion which indirectly affected the Christian religion (the Greek word “paradise”,for instance, first attested in Xenophon’s Anabasis, is borrowed from Old Persian).
    What I have assumed here is that such discussions are best stated when they are of such a nature that they can be followed by any UU, Christian, Jew, Moslem, Buddhist, etc. who is in possession of the necessary factual knowledge and logical framework for using it. Where that is not the case, it is unlikely that the discussion will be productive. To take an example from the heart of Christian tradition, it has nothing to do with whether one is a Christian to recognize that the Lord’s Prayer, found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, is probably from a source (Q?) not found in Mark, where it does not appear. It is of interest that Christians have fixed on the probably later longer form of the prayer found in Matthew, not the shorter form found in Luke. The Lord’s Prayer is also found in the Didakhe or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (perhaps also as early as the 1st century, although attested late) which is a very early guide to Christian worship, where oddly enough the text of the Lord’s Prayer appears in the form in which it appears in Matthew. This raises the possibility that in both Matthew and Luke the text of the Lord’s Prayer came not from Q but from use in current worship. But, in either case, the content of the Lord’s Prayer is basically Jewish, in every detail, as one can see from any scholarly commentary, for instance in Marshall’s commentary on the Greek text of Luke. These facts affect how one thinks about Christian tradition; they provide a telescope through which one can look back into the formation of Christian thinking. But the establishment of these facts does not depend on the religion of the scholar who studies them.

  3. I’m having a hard time grasping Donald’s comment, aside from the accurate assertion that a person of one faith can have excellent knowledge of a different faith’s literature, rituals, history, etc.. But where I draw the line is in terms of practice. Just because I know alot about Bahai’s, down to facts about their worship, prayer, meditation, and fasting practices; does not allow me to claim being a Bahai, or a practioner of their faith.

    Academic knowledge of a religion seems very different to me from the practice of that religion. Anybody who has spent time in a secular religious studies department (eg. Indiana University’s excellent program) know that it is VERY different from experiencing a school that handles the faith formation of those who practice a particular religion (eg. the Church of the Brethren’s Bethany Theological School). Knowledge of a faith is not equivallent to practice of a faith.

    Where UU’s get into trouble is when we / they do things like… (1) claiming to be Buddhist because we use Buddhist based meditation techniques, while having no devotion to the sangha, and no interest in dharma teachings, (2) use Native American religious rituals outside of their appropriate context because we like the “natural” aesthetics of the rite, (3) and so on and so forth from my earlier postings.

    Our lack of a shared center of religious practice makes this kind of spiritual theft / abuse a particular temptation. The diversity of Episcopalians share their common practice of prayer and eucharist stemming from the Book of Common Prayer. Quakers in all their dizzying diversity hold together through their common practice of “silent waiting on the Spirit”. Reform Judaism has shared practices of Torah study, and observance of a sacred calendar of holy days and their corresponding ritual observances. Bahais forge a unity in their diversity through a shared cycle of fasting, prayers, feast days, and reform ministries (mostly race unity and peace making stemming from a theology of humanity’s oneness).

    What then is our shared UU religious practice? I’m not sure. Although at times it seems to be a shared practice of social reform, and cultivation of the ethical self. But today this social reform lacks a theological underpinning, and I don’t believe we give alot of thought about the METHODS for cultivating the ethical self. Quakers (for the sake of comparison) ground their peace and justice ministries in a theology of God’s pressence in every person.

    I’m rambling again, but I hope this proves constructive. –Derek

  4. While I agree with Donald Cooper in matters of academic religion — not much of a concession really — it doesn’t speak to my point in the context of applied religion.

    Clyde Grubbs’s use of a psychological metaphor doesn’t jibe with me since applied religion is interpersonal: even hermits have to inherit a tradition to be within a tradition, and not forgetting a personal deity, where applicable. I’m less concerned with empathy than identity (among Unitarian Unversalists) if for no other reason than religious boundaries have become so porous and the mechanisms for resolving differences devolve to “withdrawing fellowship” writ large.

    To use another metaphor, we look less like religious communities than religious suburbs: a land of freeholds and pride of place, but no sidewalks or shared civic space. And borrowing someone else’s civic space for personal pleasure — as someone who lives intown Washington DC, I know of what I speak — is a fairly apt definition of tourism.

  5. I was actually going to make a similar comment to Derek’s. It seems a pretty significant understatement to say that what works for scholarship cannot be universally applied and I don’t think that Don’s comments, while true of scholarship, apply to the full scope of this question.

    Really, this is two questions:

    1. Can Jfield talk Christianity if he’s not a Christian?

    (Answered better than I could by BITB and Don here and Fausto and Clyde on Jfield’s blog.)

    2. What constitutes misappropriation of Christianity?

    It’s there I think the scholarly approach breaks down. Being a biologist with expertise in turtles is not the same thing as putting on a turtle costume and trying to fully experience ones turtleness on “Turtle Sunday,” after all. (You know some UU church has tried it.)

    Mostly, I believe in trying to figure out what we can learn from Christianity (or turtles) and apply it best to our own lives. (Katy-the-wise has a great sermon on this.) Must like one needn’t be a “Shakesperian” who attributes divine inspiration to the works of Shakespere to find that they hold universal truths, one needn’t be a Christian or Jew to find truths in the bible. As long as we approach thigns from this direction, I think we can look at all cultures and religious traditions, even the ones we fear misappropriating the most. What can Islam teach us about submission before God? What can Paganism teach us about the interconnectedness of things? What can Mormonism teach us about having one’s faith central to one’s lifestyle?

    But I think to do this, one needs to distance oneself from the trappings a bit. Seeking the truths of Christianity does not mean dying eggs and exchanging Easter baskets. (At this point, Christmas is functionally a secular holiday, so I tend to think we should just allow ourselves that, but not kid ourselves that we are actually performing ritual.)

    So basically, my view on this one is that we can discuss Christianity and try to learn from Christianity’s ideas. Jfield is in the clear with me, and I’m pretty sensitive on the misappropriating topic.

    But to look at the larger question, I think when we do try to take Christian ritual for our own, we are misappropriating.

    CC
    who will probably give Derek’s “shared center of UU religious practice” question a shot on her blog at some point soon, but a. doesn’t want to derail the conversation here and b. is headed to the bar in like five minutes.

  6. I think CC does a good job of breaking down my question. On the first point, I was thining in particular about a way I have used The Acts of Paul and Thecla (and a close look at what problems Paul is talking about in Corinthians) to help a more Christian colleague have a braoder view of Pauline thought about women.

    On the second point, I went to the UU Christian Fellowship communion service at GA and am not really sure how I felt about it. I wasn’t really sure if I should just not participate as if I were visiting a Catholic church. The ritual itself did not really speak to me. But I think that was as much a matter of style/aesthetics as theology.

    I don’t think it would be wrong for me to perform a Christian wedding service if Christian friends asked me, and I will certainly give a Christian table grace when my relatives ask (even if it is politely Unitarian and Universalist) When I use the lectionary in a sermon and do some exegesis I think, much as Clyde said in a comment to my original post, that I am just participating in the Christian roots of the UU tradition. I would not however try to tell any “real” Christians that they are wrong in their exegesis even when I disagree.

    On some level, I wonder what the line is between being an oddball atypical Christian with a low christology and being a Buddhist influenced panentheist inspired by Tillich and Paul.

  7. I agree with Donald’s statement concerning the academic knowledge of religion. I sincerely believe that an objective academic can posses more knowledge regarding a faith tradition than a person who actually practices the tradition. However, as Scott said, the question here concerns applied Christianity (religion).

    I am a former Christian. I was a very, very dedicated evangelical Christian who was “on fire for the Lord,” and knew all the good cliches. If you wanted to find me back then, you needed only look between the church platform (stage) and the first rows of seats. I was usually somewhere between these “dancing in the spirit.” If I wasn’t there I was roaming the streets of Phoenixville, PA trying to get people “saved.” I was as Christian as one could be. In fact, I was so over-zealous for the “Gospel” people often had to ‘reel me back in.’

    So, now, after 10 years of theological study, I am no longer that Christian. I am a Unitarian. I am not ashamed to say that I know more than average believers about Christianity itself. I am very familiar with the original language, the primary texts, and the historical developments (Donald’s academics). I also am not ashamed to say that I really have “been there,” as a willing devotee, who experienced Christianity as an applied tradition. I earned my Theology B.A. from a private evangelical Christian College, with a heavy faith formation concern (Scott’s applied).

    That being said, I feel as though I can respectfully comment, write, read, and/or observe Christianity from the outside in an authentic manner, without misappropriation. What is to be said, in the conversation, about those of us who have lived applied Christianity and have left it behind? We can speak about it without misappropriation, can’t we?

  8. It’s never misappropriation if it’s authentic.

    In my UU congregation, which was founded in 1678, we still take Communion from a silver chalice given to us over 300 years ago for that purpose by a prishioner who also happened to be a justice at the Salem witch trials. We have more naming ceremonies than we have baptisms these days, but we still do have baptisms on occasion. (Did you know that the proper form for a Unitarian baptism is, as everywhere else in Christendom, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”? I didn’t until I saw it done, and only then did I realize that the invoking of those three archetypes does not necessarily also constitute an affirmation that they comprise a triune Godhead. Duh.)

    Our newly ordained UU ministers of today stand in a direct, unbroken line of succession from past Christian stalwarts such as the Pilgrims, John Cotton, John Winthrop, John Eliot, the Mathers, Charles Chauncy, John Murray, the Ballous, and Frederic Hedge, and not only the more frequently named boundary-stretchers such as Channing, Parker, Emerson and Frothingham. In fact, few other contemporary Protestant denominational traditions are older or more authentic than ours. Our Christian authenticity, however orthodox or heterodox, is there for the claiming by any UU minister willing to own and practice it to whatever degree seems appropriate to the circumstances.

  9. And, I should add, Shawn’s personal spiritual journey is a reflection in miniature of our denominational journey over the past 300 years, so his individual experience is just as authentic as our collective experience.

  10. Actually we should start by having a better grasp of our own tradition of dissent. For example, it is still too common in UU sermons to mention both Sabellianism and Arianism among our theological forebears as if the latter was a derivation from the first, when they were actually two very different approaches, having in common only that both insisted on the oneness of God, but from opposing sides of the theological spectrum of early Christianity. Now we tend to think that they were similar or even two aspects of a same theological opinion, which is far from the truth.

  11. Jaume, would you really consider the early heresies part of “our own tradition”?

    I would say they shared some theological concepts, but our “tradition” really only began during the Enlightenment.

    Despite my chosen moniker, I would even say that the Reformation-era antitrinitarian theologians like Servetus, Socinus and David were unrelated to English-speaking Unitarianism, except perhaps in the sense of providing some intellectual fertilizer. Servetus was an idiosyncratic loner whose lousy political and social instincts got himself universally shunned and eventually killed, Socinus founded a Protestant church in Poland that the Catholics promptly wiped out, and David’s Transylvanian church survived alone in obscure isolation until long after the English-speaking movement had found its head of steam. (Does modern UUism resemble Servetus more than the other two? That could be an interesting discussion.)

  12. Something I see left out of this discussion so far is power. I have a right to comment on Christianity, including to criticize it or appropriate it, because of the grossly uneven power dynamic involved in American religion. From birth, Christians have (at times aggressively) attempted to push me into the Christian fold, and Christianity has been omnipresent, imbibed via all forms of media and in many social settings. Participation in Christian ceremonies and rituals is virtually inescapable unless you are a particularly isolated hermit or insulated ethnic religionist (think Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn), especially during one’s pre-18 years. Heck, I grew up in a non-Christian UU family and was nevertheless made to attend countless Christian baptisms, weddings, and funerals, as well as a great many church services when I was foisted on relatives during vacation time. I can’t count how many times I’ve said the Lord’s Prayer, taken communion, sung hymns, etc in Christian churches. Saying the pledge of allegiance always seemed clearly Christian to me (“under God”)–in fact, it always seemed like a “f*ck you, we’re in power and we’re gonna make you remember it every morning.” Likewise the Scouts were always making me participate in pledges and other things that seemed clearly Christian, ditto summer camp, and some after-school programs, and many sporting events, and graduation ceremonies . . . I can go on this way with many, many more examples of Christianity’s constant presence in my life, as I’m sure most Americans could, including my unvolunteered participation in Christian rituals.

    None of this comes by choice. I didn’t seek Christianity out, and have never explicitly identified myself with Christianity. But to be an average American is to be Christianized by the culture, even if one doesn’t “own the covenant.” Therefore, I feel perfectly entitled to do whatever I want with Christianity. I can take communion with milk and cookies; I can write Biblical porn; I can cherry-pick quotations from scriptures to support my own interpretations of religion; I can argue about what the Holy Spirit is or what “I am that I am” means; I can claim that Paul was a misogynist who distorted the true teachings of Jesus. Not that I necessarily do any of these things, but I would feel comfortably within my rights. I could also call myself Christian if I wished, without making much more in the way of committment to Christianity. That I don’t tend to do such things comes from a combination of lack of interest and a desire to respect the feelings of others, even those who haven’t respected my own.

    I feel this same way about other religions, not just the so-called “world religions.” Someone who grows up in Israel is entitled to do whatever they want with Judaism, whether they are Jewish or not. A non-Buddhist from Thailand can appropriate and change whatever bits of Buddhism she wants to. If you were raised on the reservation you are entitled to whatever you want from the community beliefs, even if your personal orientation is Islam.

    The analogy of appropriation of Native religions and Christianity is false. I haven’t been surrounded by a sea of Native religion for my entire life; no Native American has tried to convert me or used his/her religion to adversely affect my political/legal rights; I haven’t been dragged to Native ceremonies dozens of times a year; I don’t have Native stories and mythology projected at me on TV, movies, radio, newspaper, novels, English lit class, and as the crypto-basis of innummerable “non-religious” stories told in these media (everything from Lord of the Rings to The Matrix); I haven’t been made to pledge myself repeatedly to the Corn Mothers; there aren’t glowing neon dream-catchers atop hills nearby; no one passes out Native literature on the street corner; shops are open and I can buy alcohol on the Native Sabbath; my school or workplace never shut down for Lakota holidays; etc, etc, etc. Thus when I decide that my totem animal is a fox and I set up a sweat lodge and especially when I start claiming to speak for Native Americans, I am unjustly appropriating the sacred ways of a foreign minority group who has been systematically exploited by people of my ethnicity and nationality (we’ll leave aside that I actually have some Native ancestors, since I didn’t learn of this until I was an adult and no discernable cultural influence came down to me). On the other hand, when I appropriate Christianity I am only using the cultural tools provided by my own society, thrust into my hands (and down my throat, literally) at every stage of my development. Just as I can do whatever I want with the story of Jonny Appleseed or the singing of the National Anthemn, I feel that Christianity is part of my heritage and therefore something I own sufficiently to change or use as I see fit. I extend this same right to virtually all Americans at the same time that I decry the plundering of other religions which results in piracy and hurt feelings.

    I say all of this without bringing up the heavily Christian elements of my home UU church, which probably entitle me to Christianity in a simple direct way, because my point is that power can’t be left out of these discussions. Isn’t our queasiness at the stealing of Native culture due primarily to the awful power disparity that has always existed in these cases? So why hasn’t power been raised before in this conversation? I don’t feel like Christians are victimized by anything I choose to do with Christianity; I couldn’t say the same about what I might choose to do with Amerindian culture/religion.

  13. Hi Fausto. Not really, I am not one of those who like to go back in time to 1st century AD to justify the existence of Unitarianism or to say that James’s group was Unitarian (and of course I was appalled by former CLF minister George Marshall’s comment that “Akhenaton was the first Unitarian Universalist” in his “Challenge of a Liberal Faith” classic. But it is a fact that many U+U history books and sermons like to start with the early theological debates and particularly the Arian controversy of the 4th century. So if we do it, at least we should do it right.

    I can prove with texts that many of the ideas that are prevalent now in contemporary UUism, such as individual freedom of conscience and independent investigation of truth, diversity of opinions in the church which must be openly and freely confronted to reach a higher understanding in religious matters, positive evaluation of and interest in non-Christian faiths, tolerance to differing theological views, etc. may be traced back to Servetus. My Religious Studies thesis is around Servetus’s influence in both Poland and Transylvania, which is undeniable and more present than it was previously thought. The Polish Socinian connection with the beginnings of dissenting Unitarianism in England through Locke and Biddle has already been shown by other authors. And the link from Socinianism to American Unitarianism comes from England and through Deists and freethinkers such as Jefferson, as Dr. Marian Hillar has recently shown in his books (see his website http://www.socinian.org). So yes, there is a connection. But if American Unitarians prefer to be related to the New England Puritans rather than to the Enlightenment, it’s up to them and their interpretation of history (or their interest in underscoring covenantal theology rather than individual freedom and the use of reason in religion).

  14. Jeff, I cannot disagree with you more. You want it both ways: to be free from Christianity and to claim authority over it, which is to be entangled with it. Take your pick, but I note that those in religious minorities practice their religion (and I imagine would decline to take part in observances that might compromise their faith.)

    This isn’t just a discipline over simple willfulness; there’s a serious social and church-state issue here. Treating a majority religion as if it were a public service (“I can do what I want with it”) is hand-and-hand with its public establishment. There’s also a whiff of vanity, too, because Unitarian Universalism is immune to outside influence becuase it is so small.

    This is getting into my second installment, but I think there are good reasons to treat religions that one does not belong to with distanced respect.

  15. Whether I want to be free of Christianity is completely irrelevant: as an American I have no choice about being free of Christianity, that is a simple impossibility. To participate in this culture is to rub shoulders with Christianity at every turn; to survive in this society requires a certain level of familiarity with Christianity for many if not most people (I don’t consider that statement hyperbole). I don’t get to choose whether Christianity impacts my life, just as I don’t get to choose whether gravity or the sun impact my life. That is to say, I cannot help but to be entangled with it, as virtually all Americans, especially those with a religious streak (of whatever kind) are made to be. That’s why I claim a certain authority over Christianity: I’ve been steeping in it for decades. But of course, I only claim a certain authority over Christianity: I can’t say that I speak as a Christian, only as someone who has been intimately involved in Christianity by reason of the time and place I was born; I can’t say what any given Christian should do or believe, only what I do and believe as a person shaped in part by Christian culture. Because I was made to read the Bible, willingly and otherwise, I claim the right to use the Bible for my own ends. Because I was made to swear allegiance to God, I claim the right to define God as I see fit and to argue against the concept if I so choose. Because I was made to take communion and pray and sit through Christian sermons, I feel entitled to use such things in my life whether or not I use them as those who compelled me intended. I claim the same right with Shakespeare, Mother Goose, the Dallas Cowboys, the Constitution, Star Wars, and all the other things that were poured into my head, for better or for worse.

    I agree that I’m treating the majority religion as if it were part of the public culture: it is. Christianity isn’t a universal religion in America, it is an ethnic one. By being ethnically American, I’ve been immersed in the ethnic religion, as any foreigner who comes to America can tell you we have (even foreign Christians will readily point you to the ethnic peculiarities of our local brand of Christianity). Heck, even the idea that we could opt out of the ethnic national religion is just one tenet of our local, shared version of ethnic Christianity: a great many Christian societies would consider the possibility of such an opting out absurd. It is part of the American (especially Protestant) Christian way of thinking to believe that religion has to do with whether one somewhere deep inside individually believes in certain core tenets of a religion; many others might argue that participation in the rituals and myths of a religion (voluntarily or otherwise) demonstrates the fact of shared owner/membership on some level.

    Although my list might look like a lament at vicitimization at the hands of a Christian culture, it isn’t. I’m not claiming victim status here. I’m just calling things as I see them: Christians are everywhere in America and Christianity oozes from every aspect of the culture; I grew up in this culture; therefore I have a certain right to Christian things, a right that personally I don’t intend to abuse. I don’t hate America for making me grow up in constant contact with Christianity–I don’t even feel afronted. Maybe a little inconvenienced at times? But then I’ve benefitted greatly from my contact with Christianity. If I harp on its faults sometimes that doesn’t mean I don’t have a deep abiding affection for much of it, that I don’t feel grateful for the gifts I’ve received from it, that I wish I hadn’t grown in the shadow of such a beautiful tradition. I’m not perfect but overall I like myself, and if you could somehow magically remove all the Christian culture from me I just simply wouldn’t be who I am, I’d be someone else entirely.

    I’m not sure what you mean by your comment on UUism and vanity, so I can’t reply to that one.

  16. As a frequent visitor to America since 1997, I have to agree with Jeff about a “national component” in the American Christian experience. The Evangelical subculture is just amazing for someone who was not used to it like me, and a constant source of wonder sometimes, of threat or intimidation sometimes too. Even the US Catholic Church looks Protestant to me! :-) OTOH globalization is Americanized, so these ways and approaches are already being exported (as it happens with American football, American Evangelicalism is not successful in Europe, but things will change in the long run if they keep the proselytizing pressure.) Sorry that I don’t comment on so-called “mainstream Protestants” –they are quite invisible to a foreign visitor.

  17. I think Jeff may have reached at least a partially valid conclusion, but through an invalid line of reasoning. Yes, he is free to “do what he wants to” with Christianity, up to a certain point. However, his freedom does not derive from Christianity being foisted upon him involuntarily. Rather, his freedom derives from his voluntary self-association with a religious tradition whose roots are firmly grounded in Christianity, and which has a long tradition of both “free and responsible” wrestling with those roots to bring forth meaning.

    Note that “free” is only half the charge; the other half is “responsible”. I don’t hear Jeff honoring that obligation of responsibility when he says things like “I feel perfectly entitled to do whatever I want with Christianity; I can take communion with milk and cookies; I can write Biblical porn; I can cherry-pick quotations from scriptures to support my own interpretations of religion.”

    There are some elements of both orthodox traditional Christianity and of more recent evangelical conservatism that we UUs have never embraced, nor do we now. However, we have always dissented respectfully from those aspects of Christianity that we do reject, and observed respectfully those aspects that we choose to retain. We UUs may have no duty to embrace those aspects of Christianity we find meaningless, but actively mocking and corrupting Christian sacraments, and debasing or abusing Christian holy scripture, are inauthentic practices within both the broader Christian and narrower denominational UU traditions, and therefore do constitute misappropriation.

  18. Hi Jaume. You say, “the Polish Socinian connection with the beginnings of dissenting Unitarianism in England through Locke and Biddle has already been shown … and the link from Socinianism to American Unitarianism comes from England and through Deists and freethinkers such as Jefferson”.

    That’s all true, but the influence of the early antitrinitarian Reformers on English-speaking Unitarians in both Britain and America was indirect only. Through the lens of Enlightenment rationalism the English speakers revived and expanded upon earlier ideas, but they were never the heirs to an older, unbroken religious tradition. Servetus never founded a church, Socinus’s church was suppressed and extinguished before “Unitarianism” was ever preached in England or America, and David’s church never exerted its influence beyond Transylvania and Hungary.

  19. Fausto, you’re going in a direction I wasn’t heading, but I think you’re right that being a UU suggests a need to engage with Christianity. Whether or not we as individual UUs are Christian, Christianity gave birth to this denomination and personally I think a basic “literacy” with regards to our Christian heritage should be part of the education of every UU. As I hinted above, my own UU upbringing was in a rather Christianish church–I think it would shock many UUs to see just how much Christian content there was (and is still) to my historically New England Universalist church. Despite my carping about being force-fed Christianity by America, I have a RSV Bible on my shelf because I earned it as part of my Fifth Grade UU Sunday School education, not because some evangelical boogeyman compelled me to take it. So some of my remarks should be taken with a grain of salt, I’m being partially facetious here.

    I’m not going to back down from saying that Christianity is a cultural commodity foisted on most Americans, and therefore it’s in play as a resource for them to appropriate as they see fit. I don’t think anyone can call it misappropriation: you can’t misappropriate what you yourself own. Christianity’s omnipresence in this culture has made us all its heirs; if contemporary Christians don’t like that, they’ll need to build a time machine and go have some stern conversations with the Puritans. The day that Christianity and Christian-derived influence ceases to be a basic part of the education and experience of the average American will be the day I stop believing that Americans are entitled to use it as they see fit.

    That said, I’m hardly advocating disrespectful behavior. It’s not like I have Biblical porn on my shelf (heck, unless there’s something out there I don’t know about, I just made this concept up a couple of hours ago). Most of my blog posts at Transient and Permanent seem to have been about how we UUs need to more intentionally engage with our Christian roots, something that I definitely think requires both respect and responsibility. But I do think that one can’t answer the question which Scott was asking without dealing with the stark power dynamics of American religion and culture, and I didn’t see anyone else bringing it up. He suggested that we’re entitled as UUs to a little careful dabbling in Christianity because the nature of that religion invites us to check it out for ourselves (if I’m mischaracterizing you position, Scott, please call me on it). I’m suggesting another side of the issue, that many of can’t escape engaging in Christianity because it’s practically in the food and water. I don’t have to viscerally know Christianity as a Christian: I know a hell of a lot of it by the simple fact that I was made to know it and participate in it by all the freaking Christians around these parts. Again, I feel the Native American thing is a red herring, because there could hardly be a situation of more different power dynamics. Engagement with Christianity by Americans isn’t optional–the privilege of a majority is that it gets to set the agenda and doesn’t have to learn about minorities if it doesn’t want to.

  20. Fausto, Servetus did not found a church because he had no prince or city that protected him. Dávid founded a church because he had a prince on his side, not because of the truth of his opinions. Likewise the Polish Brethren existed as long as there was a nobleman who protected them in his lands. If there had not been a League of Smalkalda or a free city of Geneva, neither Luther nor Calvin would have been “church-builders.” So the problem with Servetus was really that he did not make friendships with the powerful. Great!! So when Servetus is blamed by UUs for not having been a “church-builder”, I always sigh and roll my eyes, because the accusation is so inconsistent with our beliefs about separation and free religion.

    You are right that there is only institutional continuity in Transylvania. But, since when are we institutionalists? :-) Is a religious tradition defined by institutions? There was no Christian Church until the 4th century, and there was no Unitarian denomination in the US until the 20th century (being the original AUA just an association of individuals). Religious currents of thought exist beyond organizations. But yes, you are certainly right. The connection is feeble, even unlikely. It seems like a miracle to me! Several times the Churches thought that they had destroyed Unitarianism. They burnt a person and his books in Geneva and thought they had won. They exiled and forced conversion on thousands in Poland and thought they had won. And Unitarianism always survived under the most unlikely circumstances and reappearing always as a stronger and more vital religion, easily adapting to new places and new eras because it did not depend upon an organization or a leadership, but upon a spirit. I call it the “golden thread of Untiarianism”, the incredibly thin but surprisingly enduring line that connects different peoples, times, and places together. And 500 years later, here we are, still standing!

    And finally, if there is really no connection at all between American UUism and Transylvania, why is there a Partner Church program? Just because of a name? A big misunderstanding? A mistake? Should it be reconsidered? I mean, if there is nothing in common but a name, why keep it? Why caring about those guys when there are so many who need us more?

  21. Jaume, we’re quibbling over minor nuances only. I agree with you that Unitarian thought as we tend to recognize it begins during the Reformation rather than prior to Nicea.

    My point is only that the English and American Unitarian movements — the strongest ones surviving today — were primarily products of the Enlightenment rather than of the first wave of the Reformation. They revived ideas from the earlier Reformation-era antitrinitarians, and developed them further, but they did so de novo and did not belong to or descend from any older Reformation-era church or tradition.

    The Partner Church program is a dialogue between two independent denominations with a shared theological orientation, not unlike the relationship among the Reformed and Presbyterian and UCC churches, or the relationship between the Episcopalian and Lutheran churches, in the US. It is not a relationship between a mother church and her dependent daughter, as is (for example) the one between the Church of England and American Episcopalians. The Unitarian denominational identity and doctrinal character in England and America had been long established before any meaningful direct dialogue with the church in Transylvania began.

  22. Jeff, you’re right about Americans being necessarily saturated with cultural Christianity. I agree. And therefore, we all end up with some kind of acquaintance with Christianity, for better or for worse, and are entitled (or as you say, “have the right”) to engage with Christianity in the public conversation, arts, education, government, etc. However, I vehemently disagree that this gives us the right to pervert Christian rites and rituals in sloppy, ignorant manner in our congregations. Free AND responsible, as Fausto reminds us.

    Why? Because we have more integrity than to do otherwise. And because when you talk about power — and I appreciate that you raised the issue — I had hoped that you might conclude that Unitarian Universalists, while well “outside” the power structure of orthodox (or even “state-approved”) Christianities, nevertheless have access to the greatest power source of all: Freedom. Personal and institutional freedom.

    What greater power is there?

    Who has more power: the one who holds the prison key and the torturing implements and wields the blazing torch over the bound heretic and his books, or the one who holds the freedom of their conviction that what God has granted each human person by virtue of their birth can never be destoyed by the captor’s threats and torments?

    I think most UUs would heartily agree with Mr. Jesus of the Christ Family that the latter is true (while disagreeing about the source of freedom, but that’s beside the point). And yet the ostensibly Christian power-brokers in our culturally Christian nation behave as though the former is true. It is for this reason among others that we owe Christian religion more respect than Oreos communions.

    In short, I rail against and scorn cultural Christianity all I want, but when it comes to the church, a different ethic is in play. While we are in the church, a community of memory, hope and reverence, we hold to the vision of what ought to be; we do not merely succumb to the despair of what is.

    And… Biblical porn!!!?? LOL!

  23. Fausto, I agree that English and American Unitarianism are not direct descendants from continental European Unitarianism. What I am saying is that they all (we all) belong to the same religious family, not separate Smiths who have no relationship but a name.

    I have to disagree with you when you say the the Partner Church is cooperation (not really dialogue, at least I’ve seen scarce dialog at work) between denominations “with a shared theological orientation.” That sharing is only with UUCF at most, or would have been with pre-Humanist American Unitarianism, but certainly not with the current UUA. Transylvanian Unitarianism is 100% Christian and Bible-based, no mistakes about it. But certainly it is not a mother-daughter connection It is more of a sister-sister connection –and that was the original name of the program, if you remember this. However, despite all that and that theological orientations are widely different nowadays, cooperation is still there and there are more and more UUs who travel for tourism or pilgrimage to Transylvania. So there is more than a name in this connection, and that was my point all the time.

  24. Glad I finally got a laugh on that one, I was beginning to wonder if people were taking some of my comments which were meant to be flip way too seriously. I really thought the idea of Biblical porn would be the obvious giveaway here. I mean, come on. But then again, I wrote that comment before I knew this existed (WARNING: don’t click on that link unless you want to read explicit sexual material). [I zapped the link. Ick. Scott ]

    Peacebang, you made a good distinction I didn’t make clear in my comments. You differentiated between the public forum and our congregations. I 100% agree with this forumlation and definitely feel that our congregations should not be places where ANY religion is actively mocked. If I hear or see Christianity being rudely mocked in church I will loudly state my displeasure. We should be better than that. If I didn’t bring up the idea of free AND responsible, it’s because I thought that was just obviously understood. I would hope that anyone old enough to drive themselves to church in the first place would understand the need for respect and responsibility in religious conversation and exploration.

    What I am asserting here is a particular cultural right to alter and interpret Christianity that derives not from being a professing Christian, but from Christianity being an inescapable part of our cultural heritage and everyday experiences. When religion is pushed into the realm of common culture, it becomes the property of every member of that culture, for better or for worse. Christianity in America isn’t just religion, it is also literature, cinema, politics, law, architecture, music, comedy, food, business, language, and so much more. It is too omnipresent and exerts too much power to be a sacred cow. This isn’t the same as saying that we should be rude toward Christianity or Christians.

    What I’m really looking for here is an acknowledgement that the “UUs dabble in other religions and that’s troubling” debate needs to be more complicated than it has been. There is Christianity, and then there are all the other religions of the world. American UUs have a right to dabble in Christianity not simply because Christianity is by nature universally inclined as Scott suggested, but because a) our roots are directly Christian and b) we are force-fed Christianity and made to actually participate in Christianity anyway. Like it or not, Christianity is a special case. It’s far more troubling when UUs appropriate non-Christian religions that a) are not part of our heritage and b) are not directly impacting our lives with serious social and legal consequences. We fundamentally can’t misappropriate Christianity in the same way that we can misapporiate religions that lie outside our common experiences, especially religions that our society has historically held exploitative power over. I don’t think we can work through these issues without dealing with this fact of the basic difference between UU interactions with Christianity and UU interactions with non-Christian religions.

    And let me say one more time for the record: I’m not encouraging anyone to diss Christianity nor personally intending to do anything disrespectful with Christian theology or ritual. I hope that those who know me realize how unlikely such behavior would be, and that those who don’t know me can tell that I’m not writing a manifesto about how yucky it is to be made to participate in Christianity because I’m an American. That’s not how I feel. Plus, it would be really tacky to do that on a Christian’s blog, and I’m taste-challenged enough as it is that I can’t afford to go flouncing about being actively tacky.

  25. I’m an atheist. I took a comprehensive career assessment today. It suggested that my personality is best suited for work in the clergy. This is MOST puzzling. The closest thing that I can imagine having, in terms of faith, would be sun worship. Without it we’re dead. With it we live. That makes sense. I can’t touch the sun. I can pray to it, if I choose. I can attribute changes in my life to those prayers, but it doesn’t mean it’s true. But I do know that without the sun, there is no life. This is a fact, here on earth. So, again, the question? How could a non-christian like me fit the profile of a clergy member? What could I possibly choose for a career option, if this assessment is correct? lol non-religious clergy?

  26. Consider: how will you make a vocaion (much less a livelihood) from this? You might want to look to number 2 on the list. I would be hard pressed to commend the ministry to anyone today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *