A Language Of Reverence

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

A year ago, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, The Rev. William R. Sinkford, preached a sermon in a Fort Worth, Texas church that started something. It was picked up by the local press and supplemented with remarks from an interview and became a conversation in several venues, including the New York Times, and especially at the General Assembly last summer in Boston.

His sermon expressed his concern about our lack of a language of reverence.
He began by positing that our association is maturing:

“I believe that Unitarian Universalism is growing up. Growing out of a cranky and contentious adolescence into a more confident maturity. A maturity in which we can not only claim our Good News, the value we have found in this free faith, but also begin to offer that Good News to the world outside these beautiful sanctuary walls. There is a new willingness on our part to come in from the margins.”

Some of us are not completely comfortable with this characterization of our association. (Including me.) Sinkford closes with this:

“My growing belief is that, as a religious community and as individuals, we may be secure enough, mature enough to find a language of reverence, a language that can acknowledge the presence of the holy in our lives…Perhaps, this faith we love is ready to stop calling itself a movement, and call itself a religion. ”

In the March/April, 2003 issue of the UU World, Sinkford reiterated that he was reading our seven principles and was struck that they contained not a single word of “traditional religious language.”

Your order of service has the principles and our sources printed on one side. When the Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961 they were able to agree on six principles. The second original principle read “To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man.” This was the extent of “traditional religious language” included at that time.

The seven principles that we affirm and promote today are part of our covenant as UU congregations. They were drafted by women in 1981 to incorporate nonsexist language and in the process the reference to God was moved down to the sources. A controversy erupted and a committee was formed to get input from many in our association in order to create a revision that was less divisive.
The committee worked diligently collecting input for several years and presented the current format at General Assembly in 1984, where it was accepted by a large majority. By-laws changes for the UUA require a vote in two consecutive General Assemblies and in 1985 there was only one dissenting vote.

Warren Ross wrote about the Principles and Purposes in the Nov/Dec 2000 issue of the UU World. Ross quoted Walter Royal Jones, who had been on the committee to revise the principles.

“[After 15 years] we should not be surprised at some restiveness. On the one hand, some are uneasy with what they see as a kind of creeping creedalism in the way we use [the principles]. On the other hand, there is a perception of incompleteness, with important, arguably necessary empowering assumptions about cosmic reality and our particular place in it that ‘P and P’ leave unsaid. Still others…are dissatisfied with what they see as excessive emphasis on the individual, so that ‘the creative nature of community and interdependence are only tardily and inadequately acknowledged.”

One thread has continued to run through our association since 1805 and the Unitarian controversy. This thread can be identified by its many colors twisted as one, strong enough to continue to hold us together, but appearing different as you examine the garment of Unitarian Universalism in different contexts.
This thread is our agreement to disagree. Even something as basic as our principles and purposes threatens some of our ministers and many of our members. And the complaints against them range widely as mentioned above.

Bill Sinkford asks that we find a common language of reverence.He is concerned that our principles do not contain traditional religious language. He has begun another controversy with widely differing views expressed among our ministers and on email conversations between our members and friends. Sinkford wrote an email to all the ministers right after the news article came out (in Texas) that it was not his intention to rewrite the principles.
He also reported we do not have to recycle Christian vocabulary. My question is what is he looking for that he does not find in the association he leads.

Before we go any further, let’s look at the word “reverence” and try to come up with an idea of what it means, as far as any of us can understand the meaning of any particular word. Paul Woodruff, in his book, Reverence: a Forgotten Virtue, defines reverence as “being linked to a sense that there is something larger than a human being, than self. It is accompanied by the capacity for awe, respect, what I would call humility.” Professor David Bumbaugh describes the vocabulary of reverence as “the ability to speak of that which is sacred, holy, of ultimate importance to us, the language which would allow us to enter into critical dialogue with the rest of the religious community.” The dictionary’s first definition of reverence is “a feeling of profound awe and respect and often of love.”

Searching for a language of reverence is a controversial issue today, but it is a new version of an old concern. In 1979 when The Rev. Eugene Pickett assumed the UUA presidency he wrote:

“The deeper malaise lies in our confusion as to what word we have to spread. The old watchwords of liberalism—freedom, reason, tolerance—worthy though they may be, are simply not catching the imagination of the contemporary world. They describe a process for approaching the religious depths, but they testify to no intimate acquaintance with the depths themselves. If we are ever to speak to a new age, we must supplement our seeking with some profound religious finds.”

Since 1979, we have experienced growth, at a slow pace, but nevertheless we are the only so-called “mainline denomination” to be consistently welcoming and keeping new members. We still have not found the “word” we want to spread, nor have we overcome our hesitancy to evangelize. Do we speak to the new age?
How would any one of us increase our religious seeking in terms of profound religious finds? Perhaps our unspoken goal is to be an oasis for the seeker, an island of acceptance in the sea of judgment, a welcoming community for those who want to join us in our search rather than to receive whatever word we might have to spread.

Another voice in the mix is the Rev. David Bumbaugh, a humanist teaching at Meadville Lombard, our seminary in Chicago, who gave a talk in Boulder, Colorado a year ago entitled “Toward A Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence.”
I heard Bumbaugh give an updated version of this talk in Boston last June for a workshop on Humanism at General Assembly.

He opened his talk with a review of the Humanist Manifesto signed in 1933 by many Unitarian ministers. This document was not intended to do away with religion but to create a new religious vision, more adequate to the challenges and the opportunities of the twentieth century. The Manifesto was the result of about 75 years of work beginning with the Unitarian Transcendentalist thinkers of New England. The Manifesto affirms the ongoing importance of religion for human life.
The signers hoped to overcome a number of dualisms that still divide the human community – sacred-secular, mind-body, knowledge-faith, and reason-revelation, and the most recent science-religion.

The second statement of the original manifesto was “Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as the result of a continuous process.” The current version, Humanist Manifesto III, reads: “Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.” This second statement is where Bumbaugh thinks modern humanists can recover a language of reverence. He writes:

“We now understand that the heavy elements–iron, carbon, oxygen, and all the others–were not present in the earliest stages of the evolving universe. In fact, all of those heavy elements were created in the incredible heat and unimaginable pressures at the heart of massive stars. As those stars died in gigantic super-nova explosions, all of these elements so essential to the creation of our planet and to our own existence were scattered as dust across vast reaches of space. Eventually that dust coalesced under the force of gravity, and planets were born. And on some of those planets, life emerged and evolved into more and more complex forms. The history of the universe is our history; we are all of us recycled stardust. ..Our very existence is rooted in the fundamental processes of the universe itself. How can we not stand in awe before the fact of our emergence as a consequence of those same vast processes that created galaxies and suns and stars and planets?”

Bumbaugh’s argument is that our knowledge about life and the cosmos inevitably brings about a reverence for the amazing complexity of it all. He refers to the unfolding story of the universe as a religious story – a “vision of reality that contains within it the sources of a moral, ethical, transcendent self-understanding.”

The religious story for our time is the “Universe Story” and Bumbaugh asserts that the human story and the universe story are the same tale. He closes his talk by saying:

“We are children of, expressions of a universe that is not only ‘stranger than we know, but stranger than we can know.’ It is incumbent upon us to challenge the parochial and limited claims of traditional religions with the enlarging and enriching and reverent story that is our story and their story: the Universe Story.”

Millions of our fellow Americans cannot integrate the Universe Story into their religious lives, which depend upon the inerrancy of scripture. A frightening disregard and distrust of science is growing among the ranks of conservative and fundamental religious people. Is the Universe Story the tale we must share with those who find it threatening? This would be a daunting task.

Our language of reverence for the interdependent web of existence will be difficult to present if we are speaking out of our experience. For we will be talking about what we remember about our lives and what is currently happening to us. We will be sharing our awe for the discoveries of the past century in astronomy, earth sciences, and biology. The difficulty in using a religious language of this nature is that most people in other churches use language that does not usually reflect their own experiences, but reflects what is found in scripture and their interpretations of these concepts.

Frederic Muir, (one of the people who support Sinkford) Unitarian Universalist minister and author of “Heretic’s Faith” suggests that we translate our experience of “beloved community” into the Christian term “Kingdom of God.” When we speak of our experience of brokenness and alienation we can call it “sin.” Our ideas of transformation can be spoken of as “salvation.” He suggests that we can translate in order to engage with others in the faith community.

Who will translate for the listener from a different church what it means to us if we use language that they understand in an entirely different way. I believe most of us don’t want to talk of the “Kingdom of God or sin or salvation. Our goal is to create and sustain a beloved community, an inclusive community. We come together to overcome and heal our brokenness and alienation and through this process many of us experience transformation. Beloved community, brokenness, alienation and transformation are powerful religious words.

My sense of our congregations is that no matter how careful we are, there are words that cause someone pain each Sunday. I believe our goal as a diverse liberal religious community is to attempt to communicate in a way that draws us together as much as is possible. While Sinkford asks us to move in from the margins, I say let those in the center come to us. I suggest that the conservative religious people expand their horizons and find a “language of reverence” that would include us. We are part of the picture, in the margins or not, and bridges between religions should be two way structures. We are open and inclusive.
What is on the other side of the bridge?

It is my belief that we Unitarian Universalists have a language of reverence and it is expressed quite well in our principles and purposes and the sources. Religious language after all is the vocabulary a particular group uses to reflect upon and share their lives as individuals and community. Our principles and purposes reflect the language we use to do this. They do not contain all the thinking of any individual person or congregation, but serve as the place from which we depart on our faith journeys, adding to our personal and communal lexicons as we go along.

I consider the language of the principles extremely reverent. I can imagine few statements that match our affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of each person. Nor can I imagine a more powerful covenant than our respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

A year ago, Bill Sinkford looked up the Principles and Purposes. He apologized to the Fort Worth church for not knowing them. Then he pronounced them deficient. Sheila Schuh, the director of Religious Education at May Memorial UU Society of Syracuse, N. Y. had a very interesting response to this. She wrote:

“The problem is not a lexical one that we need a language of reverence, more religious language, the problem is for me that we lack a reverence for language we already have. It is exactly the fact that these words don’t mean enough to …[Sinkford] that he would know them. And I mean also in the biblical or religious sort of way…that he would love them, be intimate with them, take them into his heart and dare I suggest it- want to incarnate all they hold.
What a trap, (a typical UU one nonetheless!), to think that if we only had more verbiage- more spiritually sophisticated words, if we only had better words, that we would better know who we are, what we believe, and be able to express it more fully to other faiths! I don’t think we need any more words right now. We need an experience of our words. We need more living of our words so we might better hold their meanings in common.”

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from this current controversy is that we have an opportunity to reconsider our relationship to our covenant. Live the principles, love them, take them into your hearts as Sheila Schuh passionately suggests.
Our task is to put some weight on the sources that are of great importance to help people live in relationship to themselves, each other and the earth. The principles and sources answer the call of our time. I want to be responsible for living and upholding the principles that flow from my religion, especially when I look around and see how few of them are being followed by the people around me. They are reverent words, beautiful words, challenging words. Please read them with me.

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the rights of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”