Reclaiming a “vocabulary of reverence”

04.02.04 | 8 Comments

A while back, Unitarian Universalist president Bill Sinkford called for UUs to reclaim a “vocabulary of reverence.” Starr King seminary president Rebecca Ann Parker has responded (some time later) to Sinkford’s call. (Hat tip to Philocrites for the news.) What follows are some off-the-cuff reflections.

1. On page two of her letter, Parker writes,

Over the course of the past 200 years, in the name of justice and liberation, religious liberals have hastened the death of God. We have presided at the funeral of God the King, God the Father, God the Unmoved Mover, God the Old White Man in the Sky, the Able-Bodied God, the Straight God, the All-Knowing God, the Leave-It-All-to-Me-I’ll-Take-Care-of-It God, and more. In place of God,
we have emphasized human responsibility. We know it is in our hands to create justice, equity, compassion and peace.

To quote Melanie’s comment at Philocrites, Parker’s declaration is “both theologically ignorant and self-involved.” The “death of God” theme’s two century history involves such notables as Hegel, Nietzsche and Moltmann. While it certainly involves greater human responsibility, post-theism mourns God’s death as a loss. No where is “justice, equity, compassion, and peace” a motive or outcome. As Nietzsche says in Gay Science, “what is now decisive against Christianity is our taste, no longer our reasons.” And there is no funeral, much less one presided over by religious liberals. What’s sad about the death of God, says Nietzsche, is that we killed God without knowing it and continue to worship God in ignorance of this fact.

2. Parker’s letter is littered with a typically white liberal concern for incorporating the experiences of the oppressed into the vocabulary of reverence. Along this line she asks Sinkford, “Are there aspects of your experience as an African American man that inform your call for a renewed language of reverence?” If this doesn’t cross the line into demeaning tokenism, it dances along it. She wants UUism to move beyond “benevolent paternalism” toward “an embodied covenant of compassion and justice that surpasses old dichotomies of oppresor and oppressed,” but her entire letter seems to assume an elitist standpoint that endorses just such a benevolent paternalism.

3. Parker seems to assume that we can, in fact, realize just such a “covenant of compassion.” Theologically, this might be called a “realizable eschatology.” Generationally, it’s baby boomer eschatology. Affirming inherent worth and dignity and denying the doctrine of original sin (UU hallmarks) does not have to lead to Parker’s eschatology here. There’s nothing “threatening” about her hopes, but I hope she doesn’t expect everyone to buy into her assumptions.

4. Parker cites her student Preston Moore for his concern that UUism is too individualistic, too tied to American civil religion. Moore wonders if a new vocabulary of reverence will lead to a more communitarian ecclesiology and more critical relationship with civil religion. My own credo certainly leads in this direction. And if a more communitarian ecclesiology and more critical relationship to civil religion, I would hope a more ironic appreciation of both. A theologically adept friend of mine who is both a unitarian and a universalist refuses to join UUism and instead refers to my fellow UUs as “your people.” To the ironically inclined, there is nothing less appealing than cause-ism, even when you agree with the causes. Settle down first. Then we can talk.

5. Am I wrong to ask if Parker’s and Sinkford’s letters are baby boomers’ belated attempts to displace the generation before them and their pronounced secularism?

6. Parker asks Sinkford if his call for a vocabulary of reverence might be postmodern. The most quoted short definitions of postmodernism are “incredulity of metanarratives” and “a hermeneutic of suspicion.” I would challenge both Parker and Sinkford to directly and thoughtfully engage postmodernism and its implications for a vocabulary of reverence. But they should know that a postmodern vocabulary of reverence is always already suspicious of itself and always already incomplete. Is this what they truly want? If so, they should sit at the feet of postmodern giants. If not, they should leave the trendy term alone.

7. Both Sinkford’s and Parker’s letters lead me to believe, again, that the typical UU imagines the individuative-reflective stage of faith development to be the end-all-be-all of theological evolution. While I know I should learn more compassion toward my fellow UUs who believe this, I expect more from a seminary president and denominational president. Again, Melanie reminds us that “Becky’s little letter shows her to be both theologically ignorant and self-involved, while Bill’s was superficial.” To return to Parker’s letter again, “The ‘strange return of God’ to the center of Unitarian Universalism, if it happens, will be a sign to me that we have moved not only from adolescence to maturity.”


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