Recovering a Language of Reverence

Today, I want to talk about words.

I know. You’re shocked. Me? Words? Any UU, much less a UU minister, talking about words is a bit like a duck talking about water, Carl Sagan talking about stars, Senator Mitch McConnell talking about obstruction.

We UUs do like words, don’t we? There’s this old joke, goes like this: for Christians, The Word became flesh, and then UUs turned that Flesh back into The Word. I’m pretty sure that joke is dirtier in Ancient Greek.

So, today, I want to talk about words. Old, dusty, dirty words. You know, words that many UUs are uncomfortable using. Words that those “other people” use. Words like “sin” and “evil”, “grace” and “salvation”.

“God Talk” words.

I can see a few of you squirming. Don’t worry. I’m not going to refurbish a traditional lexicon this morning – if you’re interested in that project, I would recommend my Tuesday night class, “God Talk” — your Order of Service has more details. Today, we’re going to talk at a high level about why that project is important. We’re going to do a little UU history, a little critique of UU culture, and suggest that there is some work that we are uniquely able to do. Whether we choose to do that work, is, of course, up to us. Up to you.

Ready? Good. Then let us begin.

In the spirit of my friend, the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, I invite you now to turn to your neighbor. Yes, that neighbor. You know that I can see you? Yes, turn to your neighbor and say to that neighbor: “Neighbor! Oh, neighbor! Language is our superpower.”

Amen and thank you.

There’s nothing like the language of faith. Fire and brimstone? Human depravity? The infallibility of the Bible? Stirring stuff. But what if I told you that, 100 years ago, chances were good that, on any given Sunday, you probably would not hear about any of this. Surprised? Until recently, I would have been.

But 100 years ago, science and invention and industrialization were transforming our world, our understanding of the world, and our relationship to it. And that carried over directly into the pulpit. Liberal, modernist religion had emerged out of the 19th century with new tools to examine faith, tradition, and scripture, and the struggle to reconcile faith with science and the industrial age was hugely secularizing. For those of you keeping track, this is when Religious Humanism was born.

So. What happened?

Me? I blame Niebuhr. Any fans?

Reinhold Niebuhr, President Obama’s favorite theologian, is the one who said: “the purpose of the church is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” It’s a good phrase. Maybe you’ve heard Rev. Carl use it.

Niebuhr enters our story because of World War I. Like many preachers, Niebuhr couldn’t make sense of the war. What was clear to him was that liberal religion had failed to save humanity from this new, devastating, kind of war. And modernist, progressive, liberal religion, with its visions of human progress as “onward, upward, forever”, could not explain or capture the magnitude of his horror. And nowhere were there words to adequately condemn those that had so cheerfully, so foolishly, so blithely unleashed “world war”. So, in what became a relentless indictment of American complacency, arrogance, and exceptionalism, Niebuhr reached for old words, words like “evil” and “sin”.

Niebuhr was devastatingly good at his job and liberal religion in the United States never recovered. Humanism, born between the two wars, singing its gospel of human progress, never had the chance to soar before it was pounded out of the sky by Niebuhr and his followers.

In many ways, I think we are still in this old debate about words. Our faith, one of the few that today still unabashedly advocates for liberal religion, has had a devil of a time (if you’ll pardon the phrase) promoting an alternative language of awe and reverence, one that could capture hearts and minds. Religious Humanism, that doctrine that centers the goal of human flourishing alongside a profound respect for scientific inquiry, was itself remarkably intolerant of “God Talk”. The 1933 Humanist Manifesto, the founding document that boldly sets out the principles and the project of Religious Humanism, specifically rejects prayer and worship and theism, even as it affirms that a “manly attitude” is how to best to meet the sorrows of life.

Now, I should confess something. I am a Religious Humanist. That worldview informs my life and it’s why I’m a UU minister. And it’s worth stressing that my affinity isn’t odd in UU churches — since the 1960’s, Humanism has been a dominant theology in UU churches – and it still is.

As many of you know, I’m currently in Search – I graduated Seminary last May and was welcomed into Preliminary Fellowship by the UUA in September. [Pause] You’re allowed to applaud. Thank you. As part of the process of finding a job, I have been reading Congregational Records. Anyone from our Search Team here this morning? Yes. You’ll recall, I’m sure, the endless documents we had to put together that describes who we are, what we want, and what we believe. These Records are a kind of “get to know us” document, and when congregations go into Search, they share them with prospective ministers. I’ve read a lot of these documents in the last month, and something like 9 out of 10 of them make a specific reference to Humanism as a “dominant theology” in their church. Many also mention that “God Talk” from the pulpit is problematic, and that, quote, “too much” of it would, quote, “make people uncomfortable”.

Now, where things get interesting is that a great many congregations also mention two aspirational goals. The first is around growth. It seems that every congregation wants to grow, and I think that’s normal and good. UUs talk a great deal about how ours is a message that many would find good and wholesome, helpful and meaningful, and that finding others to share that message with is something that we all want to do. Admit it. We are pretty awesome. And it would be awesome if our awesomeness was seen and taken up by more people – clearly, there are a great number of folks out there that are UUs and don’t even know it yet, am I right? I am right.

The second aspiration many congregations have is around diversity. As many of you know, the typical UU church is not terribly diverse. There are some very notable exceptions – including All Souls in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which my wife, the amazing Julia Jones, will be preaching about next month – make sure to mark your calendars for that. But aside from a handful of churches, POC – as a whole — take up less than 10% of the seats in our pews nationwide.

So. Growth and diversity. That’s what we say we want. And we want it without any of that “God Talk” stuff.

I’m going to suggest today that these two expectations may sit a bit at odds with each other. That there may be a great many people out there that love like we do, they just don’t think – or talk – like we do. And that if we want to reach them, connect with them, then perhaps we have a bit of work to do, here at home, before our home may feel like home to those who might one day choose to join us.

There are good reasons to take up this work, and “being more welcoming” is only one of them. In the spirit of foreshadowing, I’ll mention both “engagement” and “storytelling”, and we’ll get to them shortly.

Welcoming

To talk about welcoming, however, I want to first talk about “code switching”. Has anyone heard of this? At a high level, code-switching describes the way people of a non-dominant culture can transition between a more familiar grammar and lexicon and the grammar and lexicon of the dominant culture. More simply, this is like the difference between how one might talk at home vs school, the bar vs the office, a job interview vs a town hall meeting with Mitch McConnell. Many POC codeswitch between “white speech” and “POC speech”. “Black English” is an example. Code-switching is how someone can successfully navigate between two different affinity groups, or better, successfully connect and communicate with people that are not exactly like them.

If I’m a code-switcher, and I would submit that we all are, or to some extent, can be, the burden falls on me. If I know who you are, what group you belong to, it’s up to me to respond to you in a way that will affirm you, that builds connection, that creates understanding, that creates welcome.

Think about it: what could be more welcoming than being heard? What could be more comforting to the afflicted than being able speak their truths, in their own words, using their own stories and metaphors and images, and having one of us, a Stranger, say, “I hear you,” and “all of you is welcome here”? Not much.

We UUs are intelligent people. It’s true. Literally every survey tells us this. So, here’s the hope: by being a bit more adept at the language used by others, by outsiders, by people who don’t look like us, by those would-be friends and neighbors we hope to build and expand our beloved community with, maybe we can remove at least one of the barriers to homecoming. And – again, just maybe – we can even grow larger and more diverse.

[Pause]

Engagement

Okay. About engagement. Did anyone catch the Golden Globe Awards last week? Comedian Ricky Gervais was widely condemned for calling out Hollywood. In short, he noted that most of them work for huge media conglomerates with troubled track records around labor rights, so any social justice critique from these wealthy and beautiful people would be hypocritical. He has a point, one that columnist Megan McArdle celebrated — not surprising given her conservative leaning — but in her comments, McArdle also asked, quote “is there anything less brave than supporting a liberal cause in a room full of fervent liberals?”

I’ll confess: this comment landed on me. I spend way too much time on Facebook posting articles and memes that support my wildly liberal viewpoint. Maybe some of you do, too. But as we should all know by now, Facebook filters what each of us sees in order to present us with things that we will engage with, and therefore, keep scrolling. Turns out, we usually engage with things we like. The stuff we don’t like? Facebook hides it. For liberals, that means they see liberal stuff. For conservatives, that means they see conservative stuff. For independents, I suppose that means they see photos about food. The point I want to highlight today is this: do we only testify to our beliefs in front of other fervent believers?

A Language of Reverence, ed. Dean Grodzins
Most of the essays mentioned in this sermon can be found in “A Language of Reverence”, ed. Dean Grodzins.

I was reminded of a 2001 sermon titled “Toward a Humanist Language of Reverence”, where Rev. David Bumbaugh saw something similar. He wrote:

“How has it happened that we, who once seemed to set the agenda for religious discourse, now find ourselves increasingly on the defensive, if not engaged in a monologue? …. We have manned the ramparts of reason and are prepared to defend the citadel of the mind against a renewal of superstition until the very end. But in the process of defending, we have lost the vocabulary of reverence, the ability to speak of that which is sacred, holy, of ultimate importance to us, the language that would allow us to enter once more into critical dialog with others.”

What I hear is this: if social justice is one expression of our faith – and I believe it is – we might need to talk to someone other than ourselves. To afflict the comfortable, to tell the truth to power, to be in meaningful and, quote, “critical dialog with others”, if we’re going beyond those who violently agree with us, if we’re going to create change by engaging with those who do not agree with us, well, wouldn’t it help us to know the language?

Storytelling

Storytelling. As the Native author Thomas King writes: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” And if that’s true, how we write those stories matters a great deal.

In 2003, UUA president Bill Sinkford talks about this in a rather famous sermon he delivered in Dallas, titled “A Language of Faith”. He writes: “Religious language doesn’t have to mean ‘God Talk’. I’m not suggesting that we return to traditional Christian language. But I do feel that we need some language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name the holy, to talk about human agency in theological terms—the ability of humans to shape and frame our world guided by what we find to be of ultimate importance.”

Ultimate importance. As a Humanist, I believe that if there is salvation being offered to humanity, I believe that it will come from human hands and human minds. We may not be all there is in the Universe, but we are all we have – and I believe that we are all we need.

That’s a good story. The Seven Principles affirms that story. But is it the whole story? Maybe not. Rev. Sinkford writes that the Principles, quote, “frame a broad ethic, but not a theology. They contain no hint of the holy.”

No hint of the holy in our Seven Principles. That’s provocative, isn’t it? I’m pleased to tell you that I have been asked to write the forward to Rev. Carl’s forthcoming book on that very topic, due to be published this summer.

But the question stands: Are the principles the whole of our story? Is there more, or not? Have we UUs, in our quest for justice and inclusion, for welcome and brave engagement, have we hollowed ourselves out?

The Rev. Tandi Roberts, one of my seminary professors, reframed this for me by pointing to, quote, “the holy question mark at the center of our faith”. She said: We are Seekers, are we not? Searching for truth and meaning. UUs draw a wide circle around that question mark, one with space for many seekers, and ready to be filled in many different ways. We are UUs. Atheists, Humanists, Agnostics. Pagans. Christians. Jews. Muslims. Buddhists. These stories are our stories, and even if they are different, they are the stories we can use to fill in our empty circle.

The Buddha said that there are 84,000 doors to the Dharma, and all of them different. The Rev. Forrest Church preferred the metaphor of “the cathedral of the world”, one filled with windows, each window with its own view on Truth, each creating its own pool of light. He wrote, quote, “But the windows are not the light. They are where the light shines through.”

And language is a very special kind of window, isn’t it? Even if it is not the light itself.

New Language?

The End of God-Talk, Anthony Pinn
The End of God-Talk, by Dr. Anthony Pinn

As we turn to the close, I want to acknowledge those who have suggested that we UUs could instead use a different, new language. One without the history, the baggage, the damage and the harm that comes with words like ‘sin’ and ‘evil’, ‘God’ and ‘atonement’, ‘salvation’ and ‘sacrament’. Maybe we could. Maybe this appeals to you. Theologian and activist Sharon Welch in her essay “Return to Laughter”, says that this is exactly what we should do. Theologian Anthony Pinn agrees; he wrote a whole book arguing for just such a project, titled The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology.

But while that window is certainly open, I will also offer that crafting a new language of reverence feels very much like “taking my ball and going home”. There already is a language of reverence, and one in wide use. Our refusing to use it, to reclaim it, to frame our stories with it, to use it as a tool to bend the arc of justice toward human flourishing, that is not engagement. Refusing means starting another monologue. Is that what we want?

Niebuhr tells us that the purpose of church is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. I believe that we can comfort those that have been afflicted by life and faith, and welcome them in their diversity of thought and experience – because we UUs know and live the truth that “we don’t have to think alike to love alike”.

I believe that we can leave here and testify to our faith bravely, in safe and dangerous places, to afflict those that are comfortable in their wealth and privilege and hold them accountable to their own values, to their own stories.

I believe that we must tell our stories, using whatever tools we can, whatever Sources we that call to us, because the truth is, our stories are all we are.

In our faith, we celebrate the power of The Word. We praise its power to heal. We are wary of its power to harm. We champion its power to forge connection, to frame aspiration, to name oppression, to create meaningful change in ourselves and our world.

Language is also a sacred treasure and a gift beyond measure. Language is our superpower. And as Uncle Ben tells us, with great power, comes great responsibility.

May we use it responsibly. Wield it boldly. And receive it joyfully.

Amen.

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