Kenotic Religion in a Branded World.

Jake Morrill, who thinks I am a blogging jukebox, writes:
Here's a blog post request: how does your read of UU-ism as a kenotic tradition inform your expectations for any shared symbols--logos or otherwise--going forward? I agree with the need for a brand; I agree with your diagnosis of kenosis; but they seem at odds. Related: George Tyger says the double-circle chalice will continue to go on gravestones of military UU's, as the new logo goes on UUA letterhead, etc. what does this suggest about the function of each in our faith?
In an earlier post, I suggested that Unitarianism and Universalism, especially here in North America, was an unarticulated experiment in kenotic Christianity, a Christianity that claimed no special access to God's divine power.

I am generally in tune with the whole notion of kenosis, the theological term for the self-emptying of Christ, who emptied himself of all divinity in order to suffer and die on the cross. Kenosis answers the question, "If Jesus was God, why didn't he save himself from death through his divine powers?"

I connect kenosis with the general decline of religion as such, even though there is a rise in spiritual interests and an evolution to a more comprehensive ethics.  The river of Religion is emptying itself into the Secular sea. Any claim that a particular religious teaching is the exclusive key to having a right relationship to the Universe is no longer valid. Any claim that an ethical life depends on adhering to a particular religion's teachings has also been rejected.

The Kenotic impulse revives ancient teachings, especially Micah 6:8, "What is it that the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God." Walking humbly with our God takes on new meaning in a secularizing, multi-faith world. Humility is carrying the signs and symbols of one's God, one's connection to the Divine, with respect for those who do not share those beliefs.

Because I see Unitarian Universalism as born out of a trend toward Kenosis in Christianity, I am critical of our sectarianism: our constant self-promotion, the assertion that we ourselves are the answer to humanity's woes. We should not be in the business of shouting to the world that we exist, and that there is a nearby UU congregation. We should be sending messages that extend justice and mercy to all who need it.

Howard Thurman says this well in Jesus and the Disinherited:
"The masses of men [sic] live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life."
In our self-promotion, we forget sometimes that our message is a large part of our ministry. We affirm the worth and dignity of every person. We remind ourselves of that regularly. Once in a while, we urge others to make the same affirmation. But how often do we tell that person whose back is against the wall that no matter how worthless the indignities that they are enduring may make them feel, they deserve respect and that we affirm them.

Learning how to communicate love, mercy and justice to those who are afraid that they are worthless, or who suspect that the social order counts them as worthless, is perhaps the most important religious quest of our times.

So Jake is perceptive in pointing out that my attraction to kenosis and my generally favorable response to the new UUA logo are somewhat contradictory.

We need to have logos and a visual style. That's just the reality of the world we live in. We communicate with words and not-words. And so the UUA national staff has to create this stuff. I think the new logo is acceptable, even attractive. And I am so over the kinds of responses that some UU's made to the work: snickering, superior and condescending. There's a strange kind of reverse sectarianism out there, that UUism is some sort of particularly cursed religious organization that can never do anything right.

But our new logo and visual style doesn't answer the question that Howard Thurman raises. We are struggling to find the words for that message, much less the non-words.

Re: George Tyger's concern.

We have a symbol, officially an "emblem of belief" that can be included in a government-provided headstone for veterans. There are some 50-60 such emblems of belief, a testament to our multi-faith nation. That's not a logo. No one suggested petitioning the government to change it to the current logo.

The flaming chalice started out as a logo -- a way for the UUSC to identify itself without words in the context of World War 2. No one decided it would become a symbol of our faith, except everyone did. Petitioning the government to recognize it as one of "emblems of faith" for the graves of veterans may have cemented it as the symbol of our faith for quite a while. It also means that most other marks will only be logos, lesser and temporary, for quite a while too.


  1. I remember from my long-ago seminary days the feminist argument against kenosis--that it's a message for those in power, not those who experience oppression.

    I prefer the dance of the apophatic & kataphatic, the negative and the positive, the building up and the tearing down. They each need each other. Together they are the living god; the kataphatic alone becomes the golden calf.

  2. Anonymous11:07 PM

    I just want to thank you for this. When I read things like this I think, "Ah, this is the faith I was drawn to," and remember the very best of our tradition and why it was so powerful for me.

  3. Heather, could you say a little more about that?


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