'Your maxims are proverbs of ashes'

What to do when experience challenges tradition.


Many Unitarian Universalists can point to a religious impasse in their own lives: a point where experience collides with an inherited world view or core beliefs. In an interview, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker—theologians and authors of Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us—explore the dangers of this experience and explain why their book draws so heavily on the story of Job.

UU World: Why Job?

Brock: Studying Job was a turning point for me in college. I really came up against my own religious upbringing and how it had given me a false picture of Job as a pious person who never protested—a martyr, basically. That was my own socialization as a Japanese woman, and as a woman in the U.S. I didn't think of Job as a possible model. Then I took this course and was stunned to discover that I'd been lied to about Job. This Job was furious! He was furious with the people with their pious theology that wasn't true. He was also furious at God for being a bully.

We took the title Proverbs of Ashes from Job, and Job features so prominently because it's a story of how traditional theology harms. Because that's Job's problem. His friends are telling him, "You must have done something wrong because God wouldn't be punishing you if you hadn't, so even if you don't know what it is, why don't you just confess and get it over with?" And Job partly believes this.

Parker: Instead of giving up what his life has taught him, what he knows about himself, in order to keep the theological ideas, he argues with those ideas. "Your maxims are proverbs of ashes," he says. When your inherited theological ideas or the cultural notions that have shaped how you view the world come up against what you're actually experiencing of life, you have to argue with your culture and your religious tradition—and you have to go back to God. Job does two things: he argues with his friends, and then he confronts God. This is what you have to do when your inherited religious ideas or world view falls apart because it's not adequate to your life. You have to argue with God. If you're not a theist, you have to argue with whatever it is that has been ultimate for you. This kind of religious impasse happens in a lot of lives. It's at this point that human beings have to become theologians. You have to become your own interpreter of life.

Brock: The other option is to give up your own life. It's a moment when chaos threatens. People respond to that in different ways. One option is the one that Job's friends have chosen: to fall back on the safe ideas that make you feel protected.

Parker: Most Unitarian Universalists are people who in one way or another have come to a religious impasse. We can look at the history of Unitarian Universalism itself as a history of moments of religious crisis in which the inherited tradition didn't work. Hosea Ballou—one of our heroes in the early 19th century—was one of the early critics of the doctrine of the atonement as it appears in the Calvinist tradition. Unitarian Christians came to a religious impasse with the limits of Calvinism and reformulated it. Those of us who have come from some other place into Unitarian Universalism have experienced the limits of the religious ideas we were raised with, or we've experienced the limits of secularism. One of the most important things about Unitarian Universalism is that it provides a space that holds people in those experiences of religious impasse or opens a space beyond that religious impasse.

Brock: It's also a dangerous space. We make a point in the book of saying that when you hit that impasse and you're carrying a tradition, you just can't walk away from it.

UU World: A lot of Unitarian Universalists believe they have discarded Christianity. What would you hope to offer them through a book like this?

Brock: The New Testament and the early church tradition have been misread through the eyes of Anselm, Luther, and Calvin—misread through the lens of atonement. When I was in Europe in September I took a trip to Ravenna because Rebecca told me I had to go see the mosaics in the churches there. This is early Christian art, third- to seventh-century art, showing what major traditions in early Christianity thought were important. I visited churches, mausoleums, baptisteries, and I looked at the mosaics. There is not a single image of Jesus' crucifixion or death. Even in the church of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, which has 26 scenes from the life of Jesus—his birth, the wedding at Cana, the Samaritan woman at the well, the garden of Gethsemane, his betrayal, standing before Pilate—there is no crucifixion! There are images of salvation, like those showing doves and deer drinking water, always in pairs, never alone. It was a symbol of how Jesus was the living water that refreshed the eternal soul.

Parker: In Eastern Orthodox Christianity there's this notion of salvation as the experience of coming to see the whole of creation interfused, or transfused, with the beauty of God's presence. That's how I read this early Christian art. In the interior of those churches you have these incredible mosaics in brilliant emerald greens, sapphire blues, and gold. They depict the same world you see outside the church—the same wildlife, the sandy beaches, the pine trees, the dolphins, the ducks, the pelicans—only more brilliant. One important part of the Biblical vision of the world is that the world—this life—is good. And beautiful. Salvation is the experience of freedom and joy on this earth. In the midst of violence, hunger, injustice, and betrayal, this world can be the place in which one stands in the presence of God, of glory, beauty, and goodness.

Brock: This is what four centuries of Christian art in Ravenna shows. It does not show the dying martyr; it doesn't show death as salvific. The only image I could find of any kind of threatened violence is a depiction of Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac. It shows Abraham holding the knife—and the hand of God dipping down from the sky to stop him. A clear, divine "no."

UU World: Since September 11, everyone has been wrestling with how religion is related to violence.

Parker: We're living now in the aftermath of violence. The most important theological questions are the questions about how life is lived in the aftermath of violence.

Brock: There is an implicit subtext in Christianity that you save through violence. There's a fairly common idea in this culture that justice is served when bad is punished, that violence is necessary to save the world, if it's done for the right reasons.

For witnesses and survivors of violence, there's a way in which violence creates an emotional bond. So many boundaries have been broken and the trauma is so great. We are now emotionally bound to Osama bin Laden, and we are bound to him in a way that makes us who we are now. Getting rid of him won't fix this. Killing a person to whom one is related through trauma isn't closure. It may feel like closure but it doesn't make that emotional bond go away.

Parker: The last section of the book is in my voice. It is a narrative of what it was like to be bound to a sexual abuser. Recovering from the sexual violence that was done to me as a child required breaking that bond between me and the abuser. The route to freedom from the consequences of violence is different.

UU World: What would you offer the American people as an alternative?

Parker: There's no single answer. One thing that will make a difference for the whole nation and for all who were directly affected are relationships of trustworthy presence and care, and communities with those qualities.

Brock: But there's also a danger that communities of care will turn into exclusive enclaves that regard other communities with suspicion. We have to be deliberate and intentional about reaching across lines of difference. One of the really tragic results of September 11 is the harassment of anyone who looks Middle Eastern. The terrorists will succeed if we turn on each other with suspicion.

Parker: When we revert to the systems of war, instead of looking towards more adequate systems of justice, we're in a reactive mode that itself is in some ways a sign of trauma rather than recovery from trauma.

One means for restoring life in the aftermath of violence is for the perpetrators to be called to account. That means finding the people responsible and bringing them to trial. We don't write a lot about this in the book, but I think the notions of restorative justice and the possibilities of restorative justice are directions we need to be moving in.

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