Damn Yankees and UU morality tales

10.02.06 | 17 Comments

I want to take some time out to discuss at length a Unitarian Universalist sacred story which Fausto recently proposed in comments over at Philocrites.

First of all, I want to thank Fausto. The story is beautifully written and thoughtful. And I want to thank Philocrites for calling attention to it. It’s an excellent start for discussion. Fausto’s story was written as a blog comment and was probably not written in hopes of a fisking. I mean this post to fall into the “saving hermaneutics” that Mike Hogue has called for, and I hope that it has.

Before I chew the meat of Fausto’s story line by line, I want to talk about the whole. It is, on the whole, a morality tale. It starts with something of a Pauline sin list, albeit a Unitarian Universalist one. It then goes on to say what we should be about. It closes by saying we would be better off if only we would return to what we should be about. There is a prescription, an implied fall, and exhortation to return to the true path.

As such, it mimics a typical form of prophetic discourse, so Fausto is in good company here. But we don’t need a morality tale. Morality tales don’t have good plots. They are mere-stories, not plot-stories. We don’t need a Unitarian Universalist version of the Prodigal Son, a story that says it will all be alright if we will just come home. We need a sacred story that compels us to risk harm for the sake of another, to venture new, bold things that embody our message to the world.

Now on to the meat:

What we are is what we have always been: the liberal Puritans. We are the First (literally!) Churches in Plymouth, Salem and Boston, and their hundreds of affiliated daughter congregations, still alive and still offering the same vibrant and valid witness that we have for almost 400 years.

I have to be honest: this ex-pat Oklahoman just doesn’t give a damn. And I won’t convert to Yankee.

This isn’t a Southern thing: Oklahomans are not Southerners (thank you very much). But it wouldn’t matter if we were. Yankeeism is a religion unto itself. I still shake my head at a poster I saw at the Harvard Coop. It was a map of the world according to the “New England mindset.” The great bulk of the planet fell between the Massachusetts Bay and the Hudson River. In the far distance stood LA and San Francisco, with a whole lot of nothing in between.

Fausto’s story fall into this trap of New England specialness. Further, it ignores Universalist contributions to our history and European and Roman contributions that go back to Origen and Pelagius. Unitarian Universalism didn’t start in New England. The world doesn’t need Yankeeism.1 It needs Unitarian Universalism.

We stand for redemption by the unlimited power of love rather than a selective gift of grace…

Fair enough, though this former Wesleyan would prefer the “unlimited abundance of grace” over the “unlimited power of love.” Grace grounds the world, makes all things possible, whether we choose to love or not. Besides, the cultural baggage of “love” is good reason to set that word aside theology-wise until it cools off some.

…by the power of self-improvement rather than the magic of special doctrines…

The unlimited abundance of grace meets Pelagius‘ teaching that we each have been gifted with the power to do good.

…by the diligent nurture of righteous character rather than the passive acceptance of God’s favor…

I’m wary of a Pietism that I fear lurks behind this line, but it is good all the same. I’d prefer “through the active acceptance of god’s unlimited favor to all” over “rather than the passive acceptance of god’s favor.” I want it to tell me what makes the dilligent nurture of righteous character possible.

…by the unceasing search for knowledge, because there is no divine principle which can be contrary to truth…

Change “knowledge” to “wisdom” and I’m on board.

…by diligent and selfless service to society, especially its least fortunate members, in humble gratitude for and stewardship of whatever earthly blessings and privileges we may enjoy.

The liberation theologian in me screams in pain at the fortunate/humble/blessed/privileged terminology. We are rich, by global standards, because we benefit from systems of oppression we ourselves did not create. I’d be more in tune with a UU version of the “preferential option for the poor” here.

Our history repeatedly shows that the farther away we wander from this, our core identity, the weaker and more enervated we become. But by the same token, in each generation we discover anew that this core is what makes us who we are, and who we have always been, and that when we return to it, we find renewed strength.

Here the morality tale comes to a close. I see nothing here of the theological ruptures in our theological history—Channing, Parker, Emerson, the Humanist Manifesto. Our core identity has grown and changed with time, in fits and starts. It is a bold, dangerous history as often as it is a comforting, reassuring one. Our sacred story must remind us of that and push us to renew Unitarian Universalism again and again.

  1. Full disclosure: If memory serves, Fausto lives in Tennessee.[]


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