Thursday, December 05, 2013

Equations


A recent Facebook interaction caught my eye.

Robin Bartlett Also, if the top ten factors that millennials cite that help make up their spiritual identities include prayer, the Bible, and their relationships with Jesus, perhaps it is time we started including prayer, scripture, and ways to have a stronger relationship with Jesus in our UU churches.
Aimee Stubbs Goodson For me, "prayer, the Bible, and their relationships with Jesus" would translate into UU terms as ritual or spiritual practice, our multiples sources of wisdom, and opportunities for spiritual deepening, like small group ministry.
(To be clear, I know Robin,  but don't know Aimee personally.)

What struck me was this process of "translating".  Prayer, the Bible and relationship with Jesus "translate" into UU terms as ritual etc.

Translation is something done with words and at its most primitive level is assumes a set of equivalences: "this equates to that".   

My impression is that UU's like to conceive of theological and religious differences as "languages" and that "translation" is an important ministerial skill.

But religious experiences are not equivalent; they are the phenomena of entirely ways of being in the world.

Unitarianism, Universalism and post-merger UUism are very different ways of being in the world than contemporary Protestantism.  Yes, they have their roots in 19th century Protestantism, which was a very different thing before the rise of fundamentalism (@1900), pentecostalism (@1925) and evangelicalism (@1950).  

I think we need to understand those differences, not as oppositions, but as contemporaneous paths of development.  By which I mean that we ought to step back and just be amazed that one trunk has resulted in such different branches.  

I am reading in Robin's comment a wish to go back somehow. But there is no road back to a time when our understandings of Jesus, the Bible and Prayer would be meaningful to the most Christian-identifying young people that the survey being discussed refers to. Too much Tillich hath been spilleth.  The task is, (and I think that Robin gets this) is bring them forward into the existential realities of today.  It is unfortunate that for most of conventional Protestantism, Jesus, Prayer and the Bible are pleasant alternatives to reality, and not entries into the reality in which we actually live.

But at the same time, "Jesus, Pray and the Bible" do not translate into the UU terms of small group ministry, undefined ritual and world scripture.  It's not like that UUism is the blank and empty ideal forms of religious practice into which anyone can pour whatever content they like.

In Singing the Living Tradition #113 (Where is Our Holy Church?), a system that equated the pillar concepts of 19th century Protestantism in laid out.

Church = that point of unity where diverse races and classes unite as equals
Scripture = wherever human hearts are inspired by truth
the Holy One (Jesus?) = everyone who rise to set the captives free
the Holy Land = the human soul
Paradise = our aspirational vision of justice.

Another set of equations is laid out in the most commonly used covenant of our churches:

Doctrine = Love
Prayer = Service
Sacrament = Seeking Truth

Instead "translating" traditional religious concepts in broader, more sterile generalizations (Prayer=Ritual), these historic documents specify and humanize religious concepts in contemporary realities.  They move "religion" out of the church and into the street.  This move was the signature move of 20th century humanism, and it cannot be undone, nor should it be.



8 comments:

Paul Beedle said...

Oh, I don't know, Tom. Prayer, in Christian tradition is contemplation. The Bible is better understood not as a source of wisdom but as an object of contemplation. The relationship to Jesus piece has to do with the goal of contemplation. Now, while it's not the same contemplation to make it, say, meditation, self, and one's relationship to the Buddha, still it is fair to speak of a functional equivalence. So "translating" into spiritual practice (eg, ritual) where that is contemplative and a choice of objects of contemplation isn't so far out. But small group ministry is another example of a spiritual practice, not anything that sheds light on the goal of contemplation (unless your particular small group ministry circle functions for you as a symbol the way that Jesus or the Buddha might - not impossible, I suppose, but difficult for me to imagine). There is a language problem in our movement - symbol illiteracy: few have much skill in reading symbols, which makes it harder to engage in contemplation (not impossible, just harder). People run out in the streets and try to do good deeds sometimes in order to avoid the struggles of spiritual practice and spiritual growth. Which means that changing the world becomes intentional, but not one's own growth. Many engage the struggle in the world and find their spiritual growth through that experience, but that's only one human temperament. And the church has to offer more, which is what these traditions (represented by prayer-Bible-Jesus or meditation-self-Buddha or others). As you say, it's a way of being in the world, not an intellectual exercise (like mathematical equivalence or literary translation). It is a practice, with skills and competencies that help.

Clyde Grubbs said...

Episcopalans, UCCs, ECLA, PCUSA, do Buddhist sittings, learn stuff from American Indians, and are informed by the social sciences and understand that the Creator is working still in an evolutionary universe. So are they very different from Protestantism as well?

Tom Schade said...

Clyde, I don't think that our interfaith interests are the source of whatever is unique and distinctive about Unitarian Universalism. For the most part, they have been diversion into more shallow waters. They are interests and curiosities rather than deep engagement, especially engagements with difference rather than similarity.
Where we diverged from most Protestants was the explosive confrontation by humanism against our more traditional Protestantism. Among no one else was Christianity subjected to as searching a questioning or as withering a critique. It was very destabilizing. You can identify most of what is going on among us now as efforts to escape from or soften that contradiction. But your vision of us as a radical universalizing spiritual/cultural movement also emerged. It gives me hope.

Rev Parisa said...

It seems to me that the thing that is often missed in our churches that have been built around boomer allergies to "organized religion" (irony notwithstanding) is that younger folks who have been raised unchurched or in churches that are taking political/social stands that don't match their convictions are coming hungry to explore it all, without the baggage or negative associations that have kept us, too often, theologically shallow. So they are looking to explore the Bible, a relationship with Jesus, prayer and spiritual deepening on the whole with a hunger for spiritual depth. If we offer that depth, and use the vocabulary that best helps our people reach it (which may be different for different folks), we will not only grow, we will become more relevant culturally and politically.

Rev Parisa said...

It seems to me that the thing that is often missed in our churches that have been built around boomer allergies to "organized religion" (irony notwithstanding) is that younger folks who have been raised unchurched or in churches that are taking political/social stands that don't match their convictions are coming hungry to explore it all, without the baggage or negative associations that have kept us, too often, theologically shallow. So they are looking to explore the Bible, a relationship with Jesus, prayer and spiritual deepening on the whole with a hunger for spiritual depth. If we offer that depth, and use the vocabulary that best helps our people reach it (which may be different for different folks), we will not only grow, we will become more relevant culturally and politically.

fausto said...

It may be a quibble, but I think Unitarianism and Universalism do still share a position under the liberal/progressive Protestant canopy and its "way of being in the world" that "post-merger UUism" (as you call it) does not. There is an authentic von Harnack/Schleiermacher/Rauschenbusch/Fosdick/Tillich/Bultmann corner of the tent that is of one piece with Channing and Emerson and Parker and Clarke and even Frothingham. The dilemma that I think Robin (whom I also know personally) speaks to has to do whether the post-merger UU denomination still retains any will to preserve and evangelize those authentic elements of its own tradition as a genuinely living tradition, or whether it is determined to sever all connection and consign it to the trunk in the attic where dead traditions and outworn tropes are stored.

Elz said...

When I was in seminary, we were taught a developmental process that you cite here: that protestantism came to this country as one thing, and became something different after the rise of fundamentalism. More thorough scholarship of both the English and continental reformations describe Protestantism as a family of quarreling siblings right from the start. Of special importance to Unitarian Universalists is the co-existnce within English Puritanism of evangelical Baptists vs evangelical Presbyterians -- quarreling not over fundamentalism but about polity -- and then the liberal congregationalists and Friends, as well as a smaller number of liberal Baptists and Presbyterians. Anglicanism, with its royalty and Parliament, unkindly lumped all of us into a single term -- Dissenters -- and treated us as one. Hence, what appears to be developmental change is actually just altering and transient successes, as these groups continue our longterm competition over how to build the kingdom of heaven in this world and define the civil religion.

Anonymous said...

I've been pondering your comments on translation since you first posted this.

I think translation gets thrown out with the proverbial bathwater in this post, and I want to revisit that with you.

Translation as "equates to" doesn't work any better in the learning of languages as it does in meaningful religious exchange.

When I learned Spanish as a young person, I learned it with the "equates to" message. I never really got any good at it, but this served me well enough for the purposes of getting around in basic ways in a community with a large number of Spanish-only speakers. I had a general idea of some of what Spanish-speakers were talking about some of the time. Likewise, some of the time I could express myself well enough to be understood in basic terms.

I could never been hired as a translator, however, as translation is not just a matter of "equates to." The nuances of the language were lost on me.

As an adult, before traveling to a Spanish-speaking country for the first time just a couple years ago, someone gave me life-changing advice. He said, "If you want to understand and be understood there, you have to *think* in Spanish." I tried experimenting with this while there, and he was right. As long as I thought in English, I was stuck in the "equates to" mode, and it prevented real communication. When I forced myself to think in Spanish, real communication was possible and I thrived.

This is real translation: the ability to be fully present as a visitor such that a culture's very thinking can organically arise out of you, even if it will never be your "native tongue." People who can do that can get paid for it. It's a real skill, and it requires actual cultural competency.

Your point is well taken. "Equates to" is disingenuous at best. But when I say that translation is an important religious skill, I am going far beyond "equates to" in my conjuring of what that means.

SMG