The Minister’s Reflections
To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens: If you care about the points of agreement and civility, then you had better be well-equipped to engage in conflict with points of persuasive argument and compelling criticisms, because if you are not, then the center of shared understanding will be occupied and defined without your helping to decide it, or determine what and where it is. In this spirit we gathered for our Fireside Chat to discuss our experience of common worship on Sunday mornings. We shared with one another what aspects of Sunday services we liked and those we found disagreeable. The discussion revealed what previous congregational gatherings, surveys and questionnaires have disclosed. Our congregation is religiously diverse with the majority of our church members identifying as theists and humanists, both groups evenly divided.
By and large, the majority expressed an appreciation for the balanced manner in which the Sunday services reflected the religious sensibilities of the congregation as a whole. Notwithstanding, for some anti-theists any reference to God was experienced as personally disagreeable. After many years of observing UU congregation’s attempts to address the challenge of religious language, specifically, “God-talk.” I have come to accept the fact that there are some people who are simply allergic to "God-talk," regardless of the concept of God being expressed. There is for some no distinction to be drawn between a humanistic-naturalistic theology and that of a narrow-minded irrational fundamentalism. I can appreciate how for some, who may have had the language of God pounded into them as a child in an authoritarian and dogmatic fashion, the reference to God carries disturbing memories of authoritarian religious abuse, spiritually, psychologically and intellectually. Despite the great pains to which I go to distinguish our liberal theology, grounded in science and critical intellectual thought, the distinctions I draw are oftentimes unheard. It has become my practice, when a member of the congregation complains about too many references to God in a sermon or worship service, to suggest a closer reading of the sermon text or the liturgy to reveal what references were actually made and the theological meaning of those that were expressed.
During the gathering one church member asked me, "What is more important to you? What you have intended to say or what was heard?" I responded both were equally important. And for mutual accountability, what the text actually did say as well. I shared the experience of being intimately familiar with the sermon I have written and delivered and frequently being confronted after the service with the "sermon" that a church member has "heard." Very often they are quite different, especially with those who have an aversion or allergic reaction to any and all expressions of "God talk."
My pastoral response to such a situation is to be sympathetic while at the same time being mindful that there may be a need for therapeutically unpacking the personal religious experience of the one who easily falls into a negative projection upon the minister and his or her use of the word God. That is to say, the focus of change needs to shift, from a presumed need to make changes in the liturgy or sermon, to examining the undisclosed experience of a church member’s hearing the sermon that has given rise to negative projections and misperceptions.
How we address this issue in our congregation is very important. This conflict can be either a creative catalyst for a revitalization of our free church tradition with its staunch defense of freedom of religious conscience, or it can become a force that leads to the impoverishment of our religious reflection and communication, stripping it of powerful symbols and an expressed relation to the eternal – ground of being – ultimate reality.
A. Powell Davies, one of the great Unitarian preachers of our denomination in the 1950's and 60's, when confronted with the secularism of many of his parishioners, responded that to "jettison the language of religion was to cut oneself off from the world's literature of faith, the most urgent writings, the poetry, the music of the human race. It is therefore to impoverish oneself."
While in seminary, a professor of mine, a scholar in the study of the Old Testament, once remarked that in the religious community there were two kinds of fundamentalists. Those who literalize biblical scripture and then adopt it as God's law, and the fundamentalists of the left, the liberal secular humanists who, in similar fashion, literalize scripture and religious language so that it can be summarily disregarded and discarded. With pseudo-intellectual sleight-of-hand they reduce all religious communication to the least rational denominator and then discard it for its having been proven trite and meaningless. The consequence of both of these fundamentalist positions is the impoverishment of our religious discourse with its use of symbol and metaphor.
I have never forgotten the professor's comments, they deflated much of the hubris of my own narrow-minded religious skepticism. The truth is we need both traditionalists and thoughtful iconoclasts in our church. Those who embrace the heritage of our religious history sustain us in caring for the roots of our living tradition. They help to bring a stability and continuity with our past, that past which has created us in our present and effects the direction of our future. But we also need our iconoclasts to sustain our living tradition in its dialogue with the modern world. They ask of us that our language be in keeping with modern times and its critical intellectual disciplines. The iconoclast and the traditionalist are both welcomed in our church. It is fundamentalism and dogmatism that we must guard against in all of its expressions.
Our Unitarian Universalist faith is a living tradition. It is both the living faith of the dead extending from time before memory and the living faith of the present extending to time beyond imagining. Our task in sustaining our living tradition is twofold, requiring both the renewal of our tradition's religious language so that we do not sever ourselves from our heritage, and the creation of new words and images for those who no longer find themselves spoken to with the words of the past.
It is in the spirit of gathering the words of faith together, both the old and the new, and then, following Emerson's admonition, to sift them through the fire of our own lives, we can begin to deepen and enrich our religious communication. Let this be a celebration and affirmation of the integrity and unity present in our differences. In this way we will renew our worship on Sunday mornings while authentically proclaiming the gospel (the good news) of the Free Church, where we harbor no form of expression of religious dogmatism, bigotry and intolerance.