Monday, June 13, 2005

Thumping


biblethumper
Originally uploaded by Peacebang.
My friend the Professor called the other day to tell me about the incorrigible Bible-thumping student he has in one of his classes, who takes every opportunity possible (like every time she opens her mouth) to witness to the saving power of her Lord Jesus Christ. Even the Nazarene youth pastor in his class rolls his eyes and sighs heavily when this gal starts in.

We were laughing about it, but I could certainly tell that my friend, who is a devoted and saintly enough professor that he actually ENCOURAGED this girl not to drop his class, is irritated and frustrated. He has every right to be. Such an insistent personality, whatever their particular obsession, all too easily hijacks the learning process for all participants in the class, and he has a real challenge ahead of him.
How could she so NOT GET IT? What kind of emotional limitations cause someone to think they must examine every single intellectual idea and statement through the lens of the salvation story of "Mr. Jesus of the Christ family" (thank you, Eddie Izzard)?

As we were talking about this young fundamentalist's rote responses to every conceivable question put to her faith, it occurred to me that Unitarian Universalists often do the same, exact thing, only in reverse.

Immediate, obligatory disdain for the idea of the virgin birth? Check.

Mocking, insulting cliches shared every time someone mentions the idea of being "born again" or "saved?" Check.

Knee-jerk reaction when someone begins a prayer with an invocation of the Deity, followed by the protest "That word/concept doesn't have any meaning to me/offends me!!" Check.

Eye-rolling expressions of superior logic and maturity when exposed to the Triune God? Check.

And so on and on. World without end, amen.

It seems to me there's quite a sermon or sermon series in the danger of Rote Religion: a quality religious liberals love to accuse and condemn the conservatives for, but which they do pretty derned well with themselves, now that I think about it.

17 Comments:

Blogger fausto said...

Oh, my.

You really must join me in the "Lord" is not PC thread over at Beliefnet's Christian-to-Christian Debate board. It seems that I, the heterodox, apostate Unitarian, have received a sudden and unexpected call to teach a handful of those Bible-thumpers the right way to proselytize.

Which is especially funny, because I have been known to argue just the opposite position among UUs!

At least my spiritual problem, whatever it may be, does not seem to be inflexibility.

12:20  
Anonymous martinet said...

I had one of these thumpers in the first college intro-to-lit class that I taught--coincidentally, just as I was settling into UUism at age 24--and certainly spotted similar eye-rolling among his classmates. I perceived it as a real challenge, however: wanted to honor his "inherent worth and dignity" (my first challenge to such as a UU) while also honoring the right of other students to learn without being constantly proselytized.

To be honest, I don't think I did too badly. It helped that I actually liked this student--he was sunny and cheerful and usually more interested and engaged in his work than many of his cohort (also slightly older--which often helps the interest/engagement level, because older students are often more ready and willing to be in college rather than just doing it because they're "supposed to.") Privately, I leveled with him that I was new to my own faith and interested in religion and how folks approached it in general, so I was interested in what he had to say, but I had to keep a good balance for the rest of the class to contribute AND to teach the literary basics that I was really there to teach! I think that helped--he got the sense that he was valued but wasn't allowed to take over. He talked to me about religion during my office hours and I didn't mind, as long as nobody else was waiting outside to talk about their papers.

As for the similar reactions in UUs, that's been a hot-button issue for me lately. I did a commentary (my word for "sermon," which, despite my best efforts, still raises red flags for me) on UUs and fundamentalists and the strikingly similar dangers of self-righteousness that can befall both groups. Apparently it's a hot-button issue for quite a few UU ministers--I did a lot of web research and read at least 30 sermons on UUs and fundamentalists. Couple of my favorites:

http://www.ipt.com/uuf/serm8-29-04.htm
http://www.uuventura.org/sermon020104.htm
http://home.att.net/~usnh/sermon02.html

13:30  
Anonymous Jason Pitzl-Waters said...

I'm wondering if this problem of rote religion on the left is a generational one? I know that many of my peers that I know (I'm 32) and younger don't have as many knee-jerk reactions to different forms of religious expression (not that rote thinking doesn't happen, just less so) than the older congregants.

I'm fairly new to the UU culture, so maybe the youth groups are riddled with this "rote" behavior as well?

It just seems from my limited experience that it is mostly the "boomer" demographic who are exihbiting the most "rote" thinking. In regards to faith claims that fall outside their liberal "safe zone".

14:36  
Blogger Chalicechick said...

I'm 26, and I have always blamed the snotty non-Christians problem on people raised conservative Christian reacting against their upbringing.

But generation could be a factor, too. Surely the angrier ones I've known have been older.

CC

15:20  
Blogger Matthew said...

"Knee-jerk reaction when someone begins a prayer with an invocation of the Deity, followed by the protest 'That word/concept doesn't have any meaning to me/offends me!!'"

I wonder. Your criticism of these Unitarian Universalists raises a reasonable question: To what extent should members of a congregation expect worship services to reflect what they actually believe?

Because of the theological diversity of our congregations, I'd guess that we'd have greater latitude for pulpit/pew dissonance, but I don't think that means there is no relationship between the two. I imagine that, although it is a difference of degree, most UUs still have high expectations that they will agree with the religious message presented to them, especially since newcomers generally join a UU congregation because they identify with something they already approve--like a consumer product--rather than convert to new beliefs and practices--like a religion.

Tapped in the right place, most UUs would have so-called knee-jerk reactions to religious language. ("Knee-jerk" is not a term I like to use because it seems to imply that the person we disagree with is unreasonable or unthinking. In my experience, UUs have honest differences over religious language precisely because they have thought about the issue.) Would you offer a similar criticism of "knee-jerk" feminists and neo-Pagans who have objected that patriarchal religious language doesn't have meaning for them and is offensive? I wouldn't. I'd say that they have helped me to find new ways and new words for describing the Deity.

To what extent, if any, do you think a worship service should reflect the theology of the congregation? In a diverse congregation, do you think UU theology calls us to…

…encourage pluralism by sticking to language and practices with which all agree?
…encourage parallelism by serving up exclusive language in rotation?
…something else altogether?

16:44  
Blogger chutney said...

At the risk of unleashing a firestorm, I'll agree with Jason about boomers. As a generation, they seem particularly predisposed to ideologuery, whatever their religious stripe. There are exceptions of course, but that's what I've seen much more than not.

Then there are the "dry fundamentalists." Usually they're speaking out of pain, but their speech is all the more strident for it.

God help us all when the dry fundamentalist is a boomer! ;-)

16:45  
Blogger Matthew said...

"Knee-jerk reaction when someone begins a prayer with an invocation of the Deity, followed by the protest 'That word/concept doesn't have any meaning to me/offends me!!'"

I wonder. Your criticism of these Unitarian Universalists raises a reasonable question: To what extent should members of a congregation expect worship services to reflect what they actually believe?

Because of the theological diversity of our congregations, I'd guess that we'd have greater latitude for pulpit/pew dissonance, but I don't think that means there is no relationship between the two. I imagine that, although it is a difference of degree, most UUs still have high expectations that they will agree with the religious message presented to them, especially since newcomers generally join a UU congregation because they identify with something they already approve--like a consumer product--rather than convert to new beliefs and practices--like a religion.

Tapped in the right place, most UUs would have so-called knee-jerk reactions to religious language. What Deity are you invoking? To what end? ("Knee-jerk" is not a term I like to use because it seems to imply that the person we disagree with is unreasonable or unthinking. In my experience, UUs have honest differences over religious language precisely because they have thought about the issue.) Would you offer a similar criticism of "knee-jerk" feminists and neo-Pagans who have objected that patriarchal religious language doesn't have meaning for them and is offensive?

To what extent, if any, do you think a worship service should reflect the theology of the congregation? In a diverse congregation, do you think UU theology calls us to…

…encourage pluralism by sticking to language and practices with which all agree?
…encourage parallelism by serving up exclusive language in rotation?
…something else altogether?

16:46  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Matthew, it's interesting that when I wrote that comment about being offended by an invocation of the/a Deity, I was actually thinking of a situation that wasn't a UU worship service. I was thinking of an interfaith Thanksgiving service in my past, and by a Memorial Day observance... but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen all the time in our worship services.

I don't think UUs should nurture a primary expectation that worship services ought to "reflect" what they believe (I'm not sure what you really mean by "reflect." Concur with? Affirm and promote?).
That's problematic because it encourages a kind of critical listening, where the worshiper is listening FOR rather than being present TO.

In other words, if I come to church and expect to hear my own theological beliefs mirrored back to me, I am therefore much more ticked off or disappointed(even when ostensibly respecting the context of theological pluralism)when I hear things that don't resonate with me. There is very little maturity in that stance, and certainly no religious unity beneath the pluralism. This foundational expectation is the chief contributor to what I think of as Especially UU Narcissism.

It works far better when UUs attend worship hoping to hear a message that supports, challenges, ministers to, heals, etc. -- in a variety of ways, and with a rich panoply of images, myths, sacred stories and linguistic references -- and finds him or herself able to be moved, thrilled, healed, inspired, etc. by -- if not all -- at least much, of it.

Eventually, the worshiper learns enough, opens their heart enough, and feels secure and clear enough in their own theological orientation to truly cherish and appreciate this variety of expression. When they hear "Lord" or "Goddess" or "Ground of Being" or entirely non-theistic expressions of ultimate meaning, they still feel deeply loved and loving, deeply responsible for the creation of a just and compassionate society, and deeply religious. They learn not to listen for what offends, but rather to be ministered to by what is offered. In the spirit of true hospitality, they trust that the service that didn't so much sing for *them* might have touched the very soul of someone else. And in this way they actually grow in spirit and in love.

(I said "panoply!")

17:10  
Blogger Matthew said...

(I'm not sure what you really mean by "reflect." Concur with? Affirm and promote?)

Well, to use the light metaphor…

Do we take the Buddha's advice and be lamps unto ourselves? Or is the minister's lamp supposed to be an especially bright light? Are the spiritual discoveries of the members of the congregation part of communal campfire we all sit around, which reflects its light back onto all who have gathered in community? If so, does a minister have not only the freedom of the pulpit, but some kind of responsibility to the pew, a responsibility to take seriously the concerns and objections of those with whom they may not agree?


I'm having a kind of "Yes…but" response to your post. Yes, I have experienced a shrill demand for theological conformity that stifles honest religious expression. I am certainly not an advocate for theological police squads roaming our churches. But I have also witnessed a widespread tendency on the part of UU leaders to dismiss as worthless, needlessly obstructive, or spiritually immature, the needs of people with a different theological perspective than their own. In the seminary, there is a lot of emphasis placed upon the reform of congregations, as if the default position is that there is something wrong with lay people that ministers are going to fix. I've never heard anyone advocate a minister approaching a congregation with the expectation that they might be the *recipient* of wisdom. That bugs me. I've attended large church meetings where ministers rail against having to cater to the remaining old humanists in the pews. That bugs me, too. I choked on my cupcake to hear a district exec decry the "fellowship mentality" which, when I asked, was the heresy of congregations thinking they are in charge of everything. (I'd always thought that had something to do with congregational polity.) I'm not saying that your point is wrong, but it just doesn't seem to account for the whole story. There are some other ways of looking at this issue, too.

I identified with Unitarianism because Duncan Howlett convinced me of the exciting prospect of being part of a religious community with a loyalty to truth, a "critical way in religion" that is in constant self-examination and reformation. When you promote "being present to" over "critical listening", I'm not sure we're still talking about the same religion and frankly, that scares me a bit. I thought critical listening was part of the method of liberal religion. Will there be room for me in this new faith we are creating? My anxiety only increases when I consider how, from the Unitarian Controversy forward, our religious community doesn't have a great track record of accommodation. Again and again, we have redefined ourselves not through persuasion, but through pushing the minority out of our midst.

I'm a UU because I really agreed with Sophia Lyon Fahs' poem that starts, "It matters what we believe…" Like many UUs, I've made a painful journey out of another religious tradition into UUism precisely because matters of belief are important to me and I didn't want to accept the consequences of living a religious life under false pretences. It would be hard, therefore, to be told that beliefs were important enough to get me here, but that I'm somehow spiritually immature if beliefs still matter enough to me that I'm uncomfortable with religious language I cannot, in good faith, affirm.

"Eventually, the worshiper learns enough, opens their heart enough, and feels secure and clear enough in their own theological orientation to truly cherish and appreciate this variety of expression." Certainly, this is the attitude I cultivate when I am a guest in the worship service of another faith tradition or in an inter-faith service, but I'm not sure it is a reasonable expectation for one's own religious home. Is UU worship essentially an inter-faith experience, or are we participants in a shared faith?

Besides, this attitude would seem to imply that Unitarian Universalism has no distinctive theological content of its own and that, rather than working together to create new and authentic religious language, we should passively accept the rich panoply presented to us. If that is true, why bother to be a UU at all? Why not just sample the rich panoply from its various sources? Furthermore, it minimizes the real differences between religious perspectives. "Lord" and "Goddess" and "Ground of Being" are not equivalent metaphors to describe a single ultimate reality. They are different realities. If I wanted to accept Jesus as my Lord, I'd have remained an evangelical Christian. I believe that Jesus is one of a number of great religious teachers whose moral truths are not dependant upon miraculous claims. That's one of the reasons I identified with Unitarianism. Hearing Jesus referred to as Lord or King or Savior does not, as you seem to suggest, make me feel loved and loving. It makes me feel like I am being asked to accept a theological perspective I have already rejected. Worse, I'm being asked to do so in the place I though was a refuge for theological freedom. That isn't a good feeling.

22:48  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Um, who said anything about "Lord Jesus?"
Matthew, with all due respect and concern, I think you read a lot of things from an anxious place, which leads you to many erroneous assumptions.

22:53  
Blogger Matthew said...

Sorry, I'm just looking for dialog. I was using examples of the kind of words I though might elicit the response you described: "That word/concept doesn't have any meaning to me/offends me." I think virgin birth, invoking a Deity, and the kind of theology that requires fallen humans to be "born again" and "saved" fall into that category, too.

00:02  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And a positive note from the woebegone professor, himself:

I think I had a breakthrough with this fundamentalist student in my last class, and it was with the simplest thing of all.

I asked her, if she were a minister and had to go into a hospital room to comfort a family member, knowing that the deceased had never accepted Jesus as their Lord and personal savior, what would she say to comfort the bereaved?

Would she tell a grieving person that their loved one is now roasting in hell? Or would she share a message of love and hope?

She chose love and hope!

Somehow this rock solid fundamentalist Christian suddenly realized that compassion was more important than dogma.

I'm not sure her epiphany relates to UU ministry? But I thought I'd pass it along anyway.

00:39  
Blogger Chalicechick said...

I vote that we revive Sermion Talkback.

CC

07:03  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Matthew, no need to apologize at all. I'm going to write to you off-line so that we can talk unencumbered by the blog comment limitations. You raise many interesting points and you're a seminarian I'd like to support in any way possible.

Re sermon talk-back. Again: contingent on the maturity and health of the congregation. My early years as a UU, watching "talk-backers" furiously scribble notes like lawyers at trial, and then use the "talk back" time as a "slap-back," ruined the phrase "Talk-back" for me. This isn't to say that we don't do sermon conversations at my own church -- we do sometimes (mostly in the parlor after church), but I still have PTSD about "talk back" from the old years.

Hey professor, hallelujah!!

08:39  
Blogger Matthew said...

"... you're a seminarian I'd like to support in any way possible."

Please send the check directly to Meadville Lombard, 5701 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL 60637. Mark it "tuition: Gatheringwater" :)

I'm looking forward to hearing more from you. Your blog has been fun to read.

09:20  
Anonymous Kim said...

I'm one of those "boomers" and in my experience, it's UUs older than boomers who are the staunch atheists and Humanists who have trouble with the G-word. I am quite comfortable with adjusting meanings in my head as necessary.

But, maybe I'm unusual? I have some pretty clear ideas about The Mystery, which a lot of people don't.

02:08  
Blogger fausto said...

A day ot two ago, I was going to say just what Kim said. However, I decided not to, because I wasn't sure it told the whole story.

Even though fewer UU boomers than older UUs seem to get upset at theistic propositions in the abstract, they can still throw quite a conniption when traditional but masculine-tinged God language like "Lord" or "King" or "Father" gets trotted out. Feminist theology seems to be an especially precious dogma in some corners of the UU baby boom cohort, even among UUs who otherwise don't care that much about theism.

I mean, if I haven't myself ever been treated like a land-bonded underclass serf by a cruel feudal overlord, and if worshipers who like to use those words don't understand them to mean that, do I really need to agree with Mary Daly when she says the implicit meaning of such language is unacceptably sexist and oppressive?

It's as if our parents were saying, "We don't want any phony, invented God-images around here," while we boomers were saying, "Invented God-images, especially novel feminine and neo-pagan ones, are permissible because we'll agree to understand them metaphorically, but we won't tolerate 'patriarchal' ones, no matter how time-honored they are and how much they may still mean to other people."

We boomers shouldn't consider that a display of our superior open-mindedness and non-dogmatism. It isn't. It's still hubris born of an overly-exalted sense of self; it's just a different way of expressing it. (Incidentally, this is the issue at beliefnet on which I've been arguing the opposite side, and defending the anti-oppression position.)

11:07  

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