Theological Dispute and Institutional Distrust

Image by UU Media Works

The image above was on a UU Holiday card sent out en masse through social media.  It has come under a lot of criticism for being classist and ableist. Much commenting has gone on, including the escalation to the argument about who is too easily offended and who is being defensive.

My comment on Facebook:
Leaving aside the question of offense, inclusion and exclusion; is the sentiment a transformative spiritual message? There is a strain of liberal spirituality which is argues that what already is is good enough, and that our spiritual work is to unlearn dissatisfaction -- to wake up to the wonder that is, and let ourselves be happy. Think of that Julian of Norwich fragment that says "all will be well." Julian placed her trust in God, but the humanist variety is that WE humans have all that we need to do whatever we define as our "salvation." But in the late 20thC, liberals also asserted that oppression/privilege was pervasive to the human condition. The two thoughts are in contradiction, and it takes very careful wordsmithing to avoid the gap. Our personal disputes over who is legitimately offended and who should lighten up are actually signs of a deeper theological disagreement.
I should be clear: I don't think that these contradictory spiritual impulses are, in fact, bridgeable by careful wordsmithing.  It's just that wordsmithing is all that we have at the time, just as we are now practiced at wordsmithing our way between the theological proposition that there is a God, and the opposing view.  Just as the Council of Chalcedon managed to wordsmith its way between the proposition that Jesus was divine and that Jesus was human.

But wordsmithing aside, we should recognize this as a real live theological issue, about which we disagree. And none of us know with any certainty where "we", meaning the Unitarian Universalist movement, is eventually going to come down on it. So we read the signs.

When the UUA sends out a holiday card with such an image and such a quotation, it seems a signal of a deeper theological position: that the barrier to happiness is our habits of unhappiness and acquisitive desire -- that the Universe is ultimately OK; we're ultimately OK, but are blind to the vast cosmic OKness that surrounds us.  It doesn't say that whatever one thinks of the Universe, human beings are not OK because we oppress/exclude/disrespect and that we ought to temper our gratitude with that understanding.

I have written elsewhere, (just today), my sense that our religious movement is tentative, amorphous, enervated and uncommitted.  More or less, I think we are all jammed into a waiting room, waiting for something to happen.  In the meantime, we don't really know where each other is at, and what each other are, in fact, waiting for. It's nerve-wracking, isn't it.


  1. Thanks very much for this reflection, Tom. As usual, thoughtful and concise.
    Your comment about the waiting room reminded me of the Sartre play, No Exit. Indeed...Buffy Boke

  2. I think the bridge is to say, "I (and you), as a person, have a fundamental ok-ness--no original sin, no part of myself beyond redemption" and also to say, in the very same breath, "and I am caught in a web of powers and principalities that burden my life with the sins of racism, classism, violence and human need, and that my spiritual struggle is to work to overcome them in myself and in society." This is the work of our churches--to affirm human dignity and worth while also saying that we have work to do, and we might need some help from one another and even from a source beyond our individual selves in order to do it. The holiday message, which does seem a little saccharine, even admits that we have to "build a peaceful world," acknowledging that it isn't here yet.

  3. The image that comes to me is of a bunch of us as tightrope walkers on a continuum representing the dichotomy lifted up by E.B. White when he said he awakes each day torn between the desire to save and to savor the world -- which makes it hard to plan the day.

    In my imagination, each of us is walking that tightrope between "all shall be well and all is well" AND there is injustice and ugliness in the world that needs our attention and engagement because without tending to it we're complicit in it.

    And sometimes on that tightrope we lean one way, and sometimes another; some of us are more consistently at one end of that continuum than the other; sometimes we fall off and we need to be caught by our spiritual companions, and/or urged to be more one way than the other, i.e. more balanced -- and we're not very adept either at balance or at catching each other. Something like that.

    The exchanges I saw about the holiday words and image were very painful. Many cringes.

  4. Hi Tom,

    I really enjoy reading your posts. I can't seem to see the image on this one that you're discussing though.

  5. Relieved to know that I am not isolated in my waiting.

  6. This ableism thing is tricky. What I read here -- and I am caregiver to a person with a disability, and have had my own disabilities over time -- is that the message lists multiply avenues of sensory reception. A person might have any one or any combination thereof.

    I admit, however, that the use of the word "and" instead of something ambiguous, or, preferably, the connector "or" does not bear out my generous interpretation. However, my guess is that whoever assembled this was trying to avoid the appearance of relying on any one form of ability. And the message about perception is pretty good.

    That said, I didn't like the ad because for some of us, getting presents is how we meet some basic needs. I got a coat and some kitchen knives. Pricey, yet, but not a week on a beach.


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