Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lecture #7: "Unitarian Universalist Approaches to World Religions"

[This lecture is number 7 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

We’ve come very far in this lecture series. We’ve considered our Puritan roots; we’ve trampled the tulips; we’ve seen the ways in which Universalism constructed a faith free from the fears of Hell and how our beloved Transcendentalists played a jazz riff on the history they inherited, taking unsurpassed spiritual risks. We come now to the late 1800s. We are about to roll over into a new century, the century in which every single person in this room was born. This century would turn out to be one of unparalleled scientific achievement and the century in which humankind would succeed in sending a man to the moon. This century would also be scarred by wars of unparalleled magnitude. It would be a century in which the horrors of genocide would be felt by Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Kurds, Croats, Rwandans, and Sudanese.

We are at a turning point in these lectures. We’ve moved from something that is so clearly history to something that seems we can reach back and touch. This morning we are going to begin in 1893 but then we are going to quickly come closer to the present. I want to invite us into a place of intimacy. This morning and tomorrow morning, I might speak to some things that hit close. I warn you that I am going to be opinionated and that I may say some things that challenge the Unitarian Universalism that we know and love.

Our own lives are full of struggles, tensions, uncertainties, and yearnings. I am convinced that the greater understanding that we have of our history and of the history of our theology—the history not only of our actions but of our thoughts as well—the more able we will be to make some sense of our lives and our movement today. Even if we do not succeed at resolving our tensions, then at least we can hope to understand the long view of history and the struggles, tensions, uncertainties, and yearnings that have led up to the ones that we may face today.

Yesterday I mentioned that one of the many, many contributions that the Transcendentalists made to our movement was that they were among the first to translate many of the texts of Eastern religions into English. Emerson, as far as I know, did not know Sanskrit. The man had at least a couple of limitations. But he did know German so he did translate the Hindu Vedas from German to English. Then, in 1871, Emerson’s close friend and fellow Transcendentalist James Freeman Clarke published the first volume of his two volume work of comparative religions: 10 Great Religions.

Just by perusing the table of contents, two things stand out. First, the chapters indicate that his book considers eleven great religions, not ten. If you are interested, the eleven religions are: Catholicism & Orthodoxy, Confucianism, Brahmanism (by which he means Hinduism), Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Egyptian mythology, Greek mythology, Roman mythology, Scandinavian and German mythology, Judaism, and Islam. Secondly, what is noticeably absent from this list is Protestant Christianity. In fact, most chapters end with a comparison between the “great” religion and Protestant Christianity, which for Clarke included Unitarianism which he found superior to the rest. Clarke published the second volume of his work in 1883, a year after Emerson’s death.

Finally, we come to Chicago in 1893. That year, Chicago hosted The World Columbian Exposition, a precursor to the World’s Fair, which claims to have attracted some 27 million people to the city that year. As part of the festivities related to the Expo, Chicago also hosted the first gathering of the Parliament of World Religions. In world history this was the first formal meeting to include both Eastern and Western religious traditions. It was also the first example of what we would come to know later as interfaith dialogue. The event included many firsts. This was the first time the Baha’i faith was mentioned in America. Swami Vivekananda stole the show with a wonderful speech that decried sectarianism, bigotry, and fanaticism in terms that would be no less valid today. 7,000 people heard Swami Vivekananda speak; this marked the beginning of Hinduism being taken seriously in the West as a world religion.

The event was not without its mistakes. No Native American traditions or earth based traditions were represented and somebody forgot to invite the Sikhs. We all make mistakes. Unitarians were there in force. The sixteen member planning committee included one Unitarian, Jenkin Lloyd Jones. Jones also served as the Executive Secretary of the parliament. Two Unitarian women, Julia Ward Howe and Ida Hultin, delivered addresses. One internet source refers to the Unitarians and Universalists of the Free Religious Association (a grouping of Western churches that preceded our current district structure) as the sponsors of the entire Parliament, though I could find no confirmation that this was the case.

This moment at the end of the 19th century marked a turning in how our faith approached other traditions. For the remainder of this lecture I plan to talk about our relationship with religions of the world.

For those of us who have either come to Unitarian Universalist in the past 25 years or grew up in UUism during that time period, it was basically taken for granted that learning about and experiencing world religions was a part of our tradition. Our present day Principles & Purposes were written in 1984 and '85. Originally they contained 7 Principles and 5 Sources. The third source of our faith is, “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” In the early 1990s our Principles & Purposes were amended to include a sixth source: “The spiritual teachings of earth-centered religions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”

Those of you who grew up in our faith or who have taught religious education may be familiar with one of our most popular classes, The Church Across the Street. This class took middle-school aged children and brought them to experience the worship traditions of various faiths. Later, this curriculum was updated and renamed Neighboring Faiths because we realized that it was problematic to refer to the local synagogue or mosque as a church across the street.

Though Unitarian Universalists continued to visit communities of faith across the street and to engage in important interfaith work in our communities, UUs also brought the spiritual practices, texts, and ritual of other religious groups into our worship services. This posed questions of legitimacy, authority, “spiritual property,” respect, oppression, and cultural sensitivity.

When these questions were elevated to the level of conflict, this became known as “The Cultural Misappropriation Debate.” It is a debate that is extremely current. As I deliver this lecture, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association is in the process of rewriting its code of professional practice for ministers. There has been debate about inclusion of language about “cultural misappropriation” and whether it is a standard of professionalism that is enforceable. At the General Assembly that took place a month ago, delegates defeated by the narrowest of margins a massive re-write of Article II of the UUA By-laws, the document that contains the Principles & Purposes. At least one proposed version of Article II contained language about “cultural misappropriation.”

Now, I must confess that for a number of years I was fairly dismissive of this debate. My criticisms of it were based on at least three factors. First, my extensive training in religious studies caused me to weigh in on this question as a historian. My approach was informed by the work of Marshall Sahlins, whose book Islands of History argued that there are no islands of history. That is to say that all traditions are formed in conversation with other traditions, thus calling the notion of ownership into question. That many Native American creation stories were developed after contact with Europeans makes problematic the concept of ownership. Second, I thought these debates had become far too legalistic. As a minister, I felt it was the job of seminaries to equip us with an integrity-based approach to diverse traditions. I saw this as a debate about the arts of ministry and not something that rises to the level of a “hanging offense.” Finally, I saw the amount of energy being poured into this debate as a concern. I thought there were many more justice issues that deserved the kind of outrage and energy that was being poured into this debate.

I still hold these positions, yet there is much in our current practice that drives me nuts and makes me roll my eyes. I question our selectivity. When we use wisdom from Islam, the wisdom almost always comes from Sufism, a mystical branch of a much larger tradition. Still, we have no problem reimagining these texts to serve our own purposes. Hymn #188 is extremely popular in many of our churches. The words come from the great Sufi mystic Rumi. However, when we sing “Come, Come Whoever You Are,” we never think of the original intent of the lyrics. Rumi understood the voice in the song to be the voice of Allah. Allah is inviting us to Him. We really don’t understand this hymn in these terms when we sing it in congregational life.

Such selectivity is nothing new. When Thomas Jefferson organized the Jefferson Bible, he used his own criteria to excerpt passages from the four Gospels and to dispense with the rest. In describing this project, Jefferson spoke of separating the gold from the dross, the wheat from the chaff, and the diamonds from the dunghill. Let me translate that last bit for you: “Your religion is a pile of shit. However, there are some bits of wisdom inside. Let me tell you what those bits of wisdom are.”

A few years ago I was at the UUA General Assembly before one of the big events held in the cavernous plenary hall. While time passed waiting for the event, musicians and a song leader on stage tried to build the energy in the room by having us sing upbeat hymns. A number of their selections were African-American spirituals. I happened to be sitting close to a group of youth, a demographic within our movement that has deeply embraced this concept of “cultural misappropriation.” This group of youth turned their backs on the song leader believing that we, a predominantly white group, have no business singing these songs of struggle and survival.

I disagree with this stance, but there is one hymn in our hymnal that never ceases to horrify me. Hymn #154 is entitled “No More Auction Block for Me” and its lyrics declare that there shall be no more auction block and no more driver’s lash for me. I once attended a UU church on a Sunday when this selection was sung. Looking around the room at the mostly white faces I could not help but wonder if this group was foreswearing the selling, buying, and lashing of other human beings. I found the moment very awkward.

It is one thing to see people in our movement lift elements of other religious traditions and reshape or bowdlerize those liturgical works for our own purposes. It is another thing when we edit the liturgical creations of one of our own. Let me call your attention to one more hymn. Depending on the publication date of your version of the Singing the Living Tradition hymnal that you have, hymn #391 has different words. The words to “Voice Still and Small” by UU minister Rev. John Corrado were changed before the hymnal went to press. He fought to have them changed back in subsequent printings. If your congregation possesses hymnals from multiple printings, it makes the hymn a little challenging to sing as a group

If your hymnal is older, hymn #391 reads, “Voice still and small, deep inside all, I hear you call, singing. In storm and rain, sorrow and pain, still we’ll remain singing.” Rev. Corrado’s original lyrics used the word “dark” instead of “storm” and “you” instead of “we’ll.” The word “dark” was eliminated because of racial sensitivities that worried about equating goodness with light and negativity with dark. By changing “you” to “we’ll,” the theology of the hymn was altered. For Corrado, the still, small voice was a thou in the sense that Martin Buber would understand it. By inserting the word “we’ll” in its place, the theology of the hymn was changed to indicate that it is the community alone that has the power to calm fears and quench tears (through all the years.)

I want to conclude my talk by juxtaposing two different images that I equate with two different approaches to world religions. One approach I’ve named “The Chalice in the Center.” The other approach can be called, “The Cathedral of the World.”

During my years at Harvard Divinity School, the UU student group had a small bulletin board on which to display our activities. One year, a poster appeared on the board that depicted a flaming chalice symbol surrounded by various symbols of the various world religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. One day, an index card was found thumb-tacked to the poster. It was clearly written by a member of our UU student group. The writing on the index card pointed to the chalice and said something to the effect of, “I think the poster mistakenly locates our religious symbol.”

The rendering of a chalice in the center surrounded by the symbols of various world religions is widely popular in Unitarian Universalism today. Several congregations use a variation of this theme as their logo. You can buy UU jewelry (click on jewelry and then on pendants) or T-shirts with this logo on it. I know several members of the congregation I serve who wear this symbol on a necklace. I don’t mean to disparage any congregations or individuals who display this symbol; but there is something about it that makes me a little bit uncomfortable. Is there a kind of arrogance in making us the center of things? Is the chalice in the center the religious version of Ptolemaic astronomy? What does it mean to make our very small religion the center and to place religions of the world, at least two of which claim more than one billion adherents, at the margins?

In the book co-authored with John Buehrens, A Chosen Faith, Forrest Church presents an image of the religions of the world that is quite a bit more Copernican. Church’s image of the “cathedral of the world” holds that all religious people—and, I would argue, all people—stand under the majestic ceiling of an enormous cathedral. Around the room there are various stained glass windows. Each religion looks through its own particular stained glass window to glimpse the universal truth that lies outside that cannot be seen directly. In Church’s concept of the cathedral of the world, each religion sees only a part of the whole. As Unitarian Universalists, we do not look through a window that is transparent (despite the architectural proclivities of our Puritan forebears.) We also look through the window of our own biases. I find this view refreshingly humble.

Reflection Questions
If you attend a Unitarian Universalist church, which traditions does your congregation draw from the most during worship?
Have you ever felt awkward participating in a worship experience that has been adapted from another culture or tradition?
How do you feel about "cultural misappropriation"? Is it an issue or a non-issue?
If you take part in any traditions that are a part of your ethnic or cultural heritage, how would you feel about others borrowing and reimagining those traditions?