Prepared for UUA.org by Doug Muder
I can sense a theme developing, but I can't tell if it's a GA theme or just a theme in the workshops I choose to attend. It goes like this: The religious left is finally waking up and realizing that it needs to be a counterweight to the religious right. And that puts a challenge to Unitarian Universalists. To what extent are we willing to make common cause with progressive Christians like Jim Wallis?
If there's going to be a sizable movement on the religious left, the language it speaks is going to be Christian. "You're not going to change the world on your own," the Rev. Bill Sinkford told us in a workshop Thursday. That movement is going to talk about emulating Jesus, and it's going to quote the Sermon on the Mount as if no one questioned that sermon's authority. Are you down with that? Should you be?
Friday I listened to the Rev. Bill McKinney, president of the Pacific School of Religion and a United Church of Christ minister. The main subject of his talk was to follow up on his 1987 book American Mainline Religion and tell us about the challenges that all national denominations are facing. But he also followed up on a sermon he gave at about the same time to the UU church in Berkeley: " Why I am not a Unitarian Universalist." His charge in that sermon was that UUs had "left Main Street " and retreated into sectarianism, that we were no longer trying to influence the larger culture, but were instead turning into "a sanctuary for over-educated liberals."
A lot of that charge seemed to me to revolve around language. He saw UUs of the 1980s as speaking their own language, and if the larger cultural discussion was happening in a different (i.e., more Christian) language, they'd walk away from it. If you're going to talk about God, in other words, don't talk to me.
Now McKinney sees UUs returning to Main Street , and he gave us a hearty "Welcome back!" The audience—he drew a large one, the room was filled—seemed to have mixed feelings about this assessment. Many applauded or otherwise expressed appreciation, but some of the questions were challenging.
In response to the final question, McKinney talked about how his own UCC denomination was being torn up by hot-button issues like homosexuality, which we seem to be handling much better. But he told a story about attending a UU event with three other UCC ministers. Each of them reported having the same experience: Someone walked up to each of them and "outed themselves" as Christians. The people who approached them were all gays who couldn't be fully accepted as gays in even the most liberal Christian churches, but who had found a place among UUs. Now, however, they seemed to be in a different closet as Christians.
McKinney raised the issue of how much acceptance Christians could expect in UU circles. He said there are entire UCC churches that would be happier in the UUA, if only they could be sure they could keep a cross on their steeples.
As the meeting was breaking up, the guy next to me—somebody I'd never met—just had to comment to somebody. So he turned to me and said, "If there were a cross on the roof, I'd be out of here."
That's just one guy. But I suspect he represents a lot more than one guy.
I just got done with my last assigned task for this GA—writing a report on the Starr King President's Lecture by the Revs. Rebecca Parker and Robert Hardies. The event was a promotion for the new book of Parker's essays that Hardies put together, Blessing the World. (You can find my report on the Saturday schedule, event 4031. I won't repeat my summary of what was said.)
I bought the book, and the small part of it I have read so far looks pretty good. But here's what struck me: The book, and hence the event that publicized it, is a celebration of Parker's career and thought. Hardies and Starr King Professor Alma Crawford (who introduced Hardies) just couldn't say enough about their admiration. If that happened to me, my ego would blow up until it popped like a balloon. I don't know how Parker maintained her composure through the whole thing.
While I was listening to Hardies and Parker talk about a theology based on confronting suffering and pushing past denial, I started reflecting on a strange divide I've been noticing among UUs, both here and at home. When we're talking about the macrocosm, many of us are pessimists. Global warming, peak oil, unsustainable levels of debt, the housing bubble, bird flu, and the overall drift of our government towards fascism—you get the idea. Talks on these issues are all over schedule here at GA.
But when you get UUs talking about their personal lives, maybe just thirty seconds after they got done telling you that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, it's as if we're on some other planet entirely. They have plans and ambitions that couldn't possibly succeed in a global environment anything like the one they just got done predicting.
I mean, if the American Empire is about to collapse under a pile of IOUs and our coasts are about to be flooded by the melting polar icecaps, what sense does it make to start a new business or go to grad school or buy a new house? Shouldn't there at least be a Plan B?
I'd love to hear somebody explain this. I can already predict the conservative explanation: They'll say we aren't serious. They'll say we're just over-dramatizing our criticism of the Bush administration by making a bunch of wild predictions we don't really believe. If we did believe them, we'd be organizing our personal lives to brace for the coming disaster.
I don't think that's it, but I don't have a compelling rival explanation. If you've got one, post a comment after we all get home and I raise this issue on my Free and Responsible Search blog.
Somewhat unfairly, I sprung this issue on Parker during the question period. She misinterpreted and answered some other question entirely, which was probably the best thing to do under the circumstances. (I left this exchange out of my report, because I think it's incestuous to report on yourself. But it'll be there on the video.)
So anyway, I've discharged all my responsibilities. Now I'm going to go watch a dance festival on the riverfront until it's time for Mary Oliver to give the Ware lecture.
In spite of having once stood on the same stage as Christine Lavin, I'm afraid I'll have to forfeit my credentials as a sensitive new-age guy after I write this next line: Mary Oliver doesn't read Mary Oliver's poems particularly well.
For a lot of people, I'm sure, it didn't matter. I know how they feel. Years ago at an engineering conference, I heard Claude Shannon give a talk. He was in his seventies then, well past his prime, and to be honest he didn't have a lot to say. But I didn't care. He was Claude Shannon, the founder of information theory, and I felt privileged to be in the same room with him.
Nonetheless, about a half hour into Oliver's Ware Lecture, I figured I had already gotten as much out of the experience as I was going to. So I went down to the Morgan Street Brewery, had a beer, and watched the highlights of the Cardinal game. They lost to Detroit, and the honey wheat is excellent.
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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.
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