(This post is the second section of Choosing to Wound: Why A Chosen Faith Harms Unitarian Universalism, my response to Forrest Church and John A. Buehrens’ best-selling “Introduction to Unitarian Universalism.” To read my essay starting with the introduction, please click here. You may use either the internal “Previous section”/“Next section” links or the forward arrow/backward arrow LiveJournal buttons (above) to navigate the essay.)
Previous section (Rieux’s introduction)
[Rev. Church’s] Introduction
Page xxii (Church)
[Quoting from a list of “beliefs we hold in common” formulated by UU Rev. David Rankin of Grand Rapids, Michigan:]We [Unitarian Universalists] believe in the unity of experience. There is no fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge; religion and the world; the sacred and the secular.This elides a considerable disagreement, both inside and outside of Unitarian Universalism, over what exactly “faith” is. (There is similar, if less widespread, discord about the scope of “the sacred.”) Certainly a large number of people, and a large number of UUs (myself included), believe that there is in fact a “fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge,” based largely on the fact that “faith” means something different to us than it does to Rankin, Church and others. Readers who are new to UUism will never learn any of this from A Chosen Faith.
The broad notion of “faith” relied upon by Rankin and Church is certainly not in itself objectionable; but Rankin’s statement is obviously a response to those of us who see a conflict, and I’m uncomfortable with it. It seems to me unfair to hear people like me claim that “A conflicts with B,” to redefine A so that there is no conflict, and then to attack the proposition that there is one. It’s little more than trying to win an argument by changing the ground rules halfway through.
I. “Direct Experience” Source
Pages 5-6 (Church)
2. ExperienceReligion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. Knowing we are going to die not only places an acknowledged limit upon our lives, it also gives a special intensity and poignancy to the time we are given to live and love. The fact that death is inevitable gives meaning to our love, for the more we love the more we risk losing. Love’s power comes in part from the courage required to give ourselves to that which is not ours to keep: our spouses, children, parents, dear and cherished friends, even life itself. It also comes from the faith required to sustain that courage, the faith that life, howsoever limited and mysterious, contains within its margins, often at their very edges, a meaning that is redemptive.The initial statement (italicized above as it was in the original) is Church’s liberal definition of religion—and again, I don’t find it problematic in and of itself. I would have no objection to this if Church stuck to it consistently later on in the book (he doesn’t) and if he recognized that many other people and many UUs who use the word “religion” don’t have the same thing in mind (this appears not to occur to him).
With Jesus, resurrection or no resurrection, that was demonstrably the case: He lived in such a way that his life proved to be worth dying for. ...
The power of [Jesus’] love, the penetrating simplicity of his teachings, and the force of his example of service on behalf of the disenfranchised and downtrodden are what is crucial.
The rest of the first paragraph states an interesting form of existentialism; I wouldn’t go quite so far as saying that “the fact that death is inevitable gives meaning to our love,” but again (as with the above definition) this is well within the bounds of a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
The remaining material contains, however, a few clear allegations of fact—not to mention rather controversial ones. To quote Mark Twain:It is believed by everybody that while [the Christian god] was in heaven he was stern, hard, resentful, jealous, and cruel; but that when he came down to earth and assumed the name Jesus Christ, he became the opposite of what he was before: that is to say, he became sweet, and gentle, merciful, forgiving, and all harshness disappeared from his nature and a deep and yearning love for his poor human children took its place. Whereas it was as Jesus Christ that he devised hell and proclaimed it!Many UUs are, as Twain was, unconvinced that Jesus was “demonstrably” a good person at all. And as for what is “crucial,” I find it hard to ignore the amount of screeching Jesus does in the Gospels regarding Hell. Like Twain, I am not convinced that love or “service on behalf of the disenfranchised and downtrodden” are the central elements of Jesus’ character.
Which is to say, that as the meek and gentle Savior he was a thousand billion times crueler than ever he was in the Old Testament—oh, incomparably more atrocious than ever he was when he was at his very worst in those old days!
Meek and gentle? By and by we will examine this popular sarcasm by the light of the hell which he invented.
To be sure, Church has no obligation to agree with Twain or me, or to explain our concerns in any significant detail—but it would be nice if, in statements like these (and in an introduction to Unitarian Universalism), he did not abjectly ignore the existence of different UU viewpoints on the question. Not all UUs revere Jesus Christ.
Page 19 (Buehrens)
[Describing his experience at a 1968 memorial service for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:]Page 35 (Buehrens)A prophet had been killed again. But as someone said that day, the prophets can only really die, or lose their influence, if we stop asking the tough questions they pose—questions God might be asking of us. Instead, we avoid such uncomfortable ideas by focusing on what we might require—in a faith, a cause, a tradition, a God.To my mind, the sentiments of the first paragraph (disparaging the questions of “what we might require”) directly contradict the subsequent comment about the “existential” failures of religion. It seems to me that “individual questions and doubts” and resistance to a religious “predetermined pattern” are precisely what Buehrens is actually attacking when he berates seekers who are not easy sells for “a faith, a cause, a tradition, a God.” Either we have the right to “individual questions and doubts” or we don’t; in the space of two paragraphs, Buehrens is on both sides of this fence.
At the age of twenty-one, like many people, I had grown away from conventional religion. My mother had raised me a nominal Roman Catholic. My father, a former Protestant, had little use for religion at all. The failures of religion were clear to me. It fails existentially when it suppresses our individual questions and doubts and when it implies that our experience must fit some predetermined pattern. It fails socially when it becomes superficial, pleasingly aesthetic, or fashionably political. Yet I also knew that mere secular existence often does little better. I had a yearning for community and transcendent values.
The final sentence above is the first of several instances in this book where “secular” is used to mean “dull,” “meaningless,” “joyless,” etc. (“Mere secular” is a redundancy in A Chosen Faith.) Meanwhile, “secular” is never a positive word in this book; surely all this is troubling.
Page 36 (Buehrens)“I’m not religious,” people sometimes claim. “Then tell me about your experience,” I say in return. We may not be conventionally pious, but we all experience life, and there are religious dimensions to explore within that experience.This is the first instance of a related trope: the need for people who say things like “I’m not religious,” “I don’t believe in God,” “The Bible is not a source of meaning to me,” etc., to be corrected or reeducated by the far superior and more knowledgeable (not to mention patronizing) authors of this book. The strong implication of the above passage is that there is something wrong, at least terminologically, with a person who dares to say “I’m not religious.” The authors make no effort to figure out if there might be a good reason for this person to consider herself irreligious; ignorance and victimization are the only causes of this attitude that occur to Buehrens and Church.
“[T]here are religious dimensions to explore”—again, this is a far more controversial statement (what, precisely, does “religious” mean?) than either author would like to admit. Again, there are UUs aplenty who do not understand “religion” in the broad sense presumed by Buehrens’ claim. I have no problem with honest advocacy on either side of that issue—but this book ignores the existence of dissenting opinions on “religion,” “faith” and several other pieces of terminology entirely.
That controversy aside, consider the implication of the “religious dimensions to explore” statement on Buehrens’ earlier dismissal of “mere secular existence.” Doesn’t it follow from the comment here (he makes a similar point much more clearly in Chapter 10) that “mere secular existence” is impossible? So what exactly is he criticizing on page 19?
I make the same point to those who tell me, “I don’t believe in God.” “Tell me about the God that you don’t believe in,” I often reply. “The chances are that I don’t believe in ‘Him’ either.” I believe, as Dag Hammarskjöld did, that “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity. But we die on the day when our lives cease to be illuminated by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”The first two sentences above are merely a more egregious form of the same patronization from the previous passage. I find the smugness of the “Tell me” tactic galling. It sends the all-too-clear message that this benighted atheist is either too stupid or too ignorant to realize that her discomfort with the idea of “God” is utterly groundless; all she needs to do is realize that “God” really means something far different than her current contemptible misconception (oh, the utter, unspeakable foolishness of thinking that “God” is a “Him”!), and her mistaken beliefs will be corrected. (Notably, the “Tell me” gambit is a favorite of fundamentalist Christian proselytizers; the frequent similarity between their barbs at nonbelievers and A Chosen Faith’s attacks is disturbing.)
In my experience, UUs who forthrightly understand that they don’t believe in God are well aware that liberal theologians have formulated notions of the divine that differ from mainstream theism. That’s fine, but Rev. Buehrens needs to learn that we UU atheists don’t accept those, either. With such liberal god-ideas we usually either (a) suspect they don’t exist or (b) don’t find it meaningful to apply the term “God” to them. Buehrens says not a word that demonstrates he understands that such a perspective is even possible.
By quoting Hammarskjöld in this context, Buehrens ties spiritual “death” to those same backward “I don’t believe in God” rubes—which is pretty offensive. Nearly as dehumanizing is the forthright assertion that any person who does not see her life as being “illuminated by ... a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason” has “die[d].” (By the way, in the passage Buehrens quotes, Hammarskjöld actually used the word "illumined," not "illuminated." As becomes much more evident later on in the book, the authors of A Chosen Faith are strikingly lazy researchers.)
This passage gets the first red flag of the book because it is the first personal insult directed specifically at persons within UUism. This is the first clear sign from the authors that they find certain UUs’ belief systems entirely unacceptable, the Fourth UU Principle notwithstanding.
Next section (Chapters 5-6)