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Talking about reverence

Documentary history of the 'vocabulary of reverence' debate.
By Christopher L. Walton
March/April 2005 3.1.05

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Whether Unitarian Universalists have responded to President William G. Sinkford’s call for a renewed “language of reverence” with appreciation or anger, the subject has generated a rousing and enduring conversation. [See “Our Calling,” March/April 2003.] Two General Assemblies have dedicated programs to the subject, countless sermons have taken up the theme, and newspapers have covered the denominational dispute. But until quite recently, a newcomer to the conversation might have felt unsure about the source of all the commotion; there was no single collection of primary documents under discussion. A Language of Reverence, a brief collection of key speeches, answers that need.

In January 2003 Sinkford preached a sermon in Fort Worth, Texas, in which he said: “I would like to see us become better acquainted with the depths, both so that we are more grounded in our personal faith, and so that we can effectively communicate that faith-and what we believe it demands of us-to others. For this, I think we need to cultivate what UU minister David Bumbaugh calls a ‘vocabulary of reverence.’” Sinkford explained that “‘religious language’ doesn’t have to mean ‘God talk,’” and added, “I’m not suggesting that Unitarian Universalism return to traditional Christian language.” His own 45-second “elevator speech” about Unitarian Universalism, however, upset some UUs because it did use God talk. “The Unitarian side of our family tree tells us that there is only one God, one Spirit of Life, one Power of Love,” Sinkford said. “The Universalist side tells us that God is a loving God, condemning none of us, and valuing the spark of divinity that is in every human being. So Unitarian Universalism stands for: one God, no one left behind.”

Sinkford’s sermon appears in this book alongside two addresses by the Rev. David E. Bumbaugh, who teaches at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. One of these, “Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence,” was the source of Sinkford’s controversial phrase. (First published in Religious Humanism, a portion of that address appeared in UU World in November/December 2001.) In the other, Bumbaugh expresses frustration that Sinkford used his words “in support of his argument for a reengagement with traditional religious language and concepts.” Bumbaugh proposes instead a humanist language of reverence “rooted in the vision of reality and of humanity’s place in the world that is emerging from the natural sciences.”

Editor Dean Grodzins also includes a marvelous address by the Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman, senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Dallas, about the place of metaphors in religious life. She says that poetry has given her new ways to break through “the hardened blocks of calcified religion” by juxtaposing words and images—including scriptural and traditional religious words—to create “cognitive dissonances that keep my life open and fresh.”

Two academic essays round out the collection. A jargon-laced but riveting essay by University of Missouri philosopher Sharon Welch argues that religion is amoral. “It is disconcerting to acknowledge that our ecstasy in connection, whether political or conceptual, is simply the energy of connection, an energy that may be used in amoral, immoral, or moral ways. We so want the energy we experience in connection, the affirmation we encounter in ‘being-seen’ or ‘being-loved’ to be an affirmation of the rightness of our choices, actions, beliefs, and desires.” Acknowledging that she is an atheist who hopes to marshal “the religious” for ethical purposes, she embraces “an ironic spirituality.”

The Rev. Dr. Thandeka, a visiting scholar at Harvard this year, concludes the book by suggesting that “we have been looking inside our minds for the right foundational idea for liberal religion.” She argues instead that “our foundation is an actual living fact of our lives, which is felt affectively and then displayed rationally through articulation of these affective personal experiences.” Drawing on the nineteenth-century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, she proposes an “Affect Theology.” Although it is by no means clear how her affect theology differs substantially from the Romantic assertion that what one feels must be true, Thandeka draws on the Unitarian William Ellery Channing and his Universalist contemporary, Hosea Ballou, in a provocative theological dialogue within our own tradition.

This book offers the opening chapters of a conversation that will undoubtedly continue.


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