Wednesday, July 8, 2009

thin gruel...

Yesterday, Peacebang posted a massive and passionate missive to Unitarian Universalists. The post (and the responders to it) make several points, many of which come down to the fact that institutional UUism can be pretty "thin gruel" to use an old term. A mile wide and an inch deep. Among the many points that PB makes are the importance of the local congregation and the need for depth in the worship experience. I couldn't agree more.

For me, it comes down to our need (both as individuals and as a denomination) for a little more Piety. Piety, that love of God or if you prefer, the Universal, the Higher Power-in short whatever we find greater than ourselves...) is often thought of in conjunction with self flagellating ascetics of one stripe or another. It need not be so.

Reading Peacebang yesterday, I was reminded of Henry Adams' take on the Unitarian establishment in the Boston of his day. "Nothing," he wrote in his 'Education', "quieted doubt so completely as the mental calm of the Unitarian clergy. In uniform excellence of life and character, moral and intellectual, the score of Unitarian clergymen about Boston, who controlled society and Harvard College, were never excelled. They proclaimed as their merit that they insisted on no doctrine, but taught, or tried to teach, the means of leading a virtuous, useful, unselfish life, which they held to be sufficient for salvation. For them, difficulties might be ignored; doubts were waste of thought; nothing exacted solution. Boston had solved the universe; or had offered and realized the best solution yet tried. The problem was worked out."

Of course there is some justice in this rather backhanded compliment, but what he does not report is the element of piety so important to the understanding of the Boston Unitarians. I have long wanted to write about Unitarian piety-its practical, quiet, yet deep reverence. Maybe someday...for now, I plan a series of posts on Unitarian Piety from Channing to Parker (Parker wrote much about piety and it is fascinating work)



Scott Prinster said...

A mile wide and an inch deep.

I know that you're not making the claim that breadth and depth are mutually exclusive, but this phrase jumped out at me, and reminded me that this is one of the ways I sometimes hear us criticizing our lack of depth. I don't believe that our membership's lack of engagement with our historical and theological identity is actually that unusual among the American religious, but the way you phrased this raised a little red flag for me: that we try to explain our shallowness as a result of our being too broad. I'll have to chew on this one some more.

ogre said...

Since the metaphor's been nit-picked at already, I'll just add my own.

It's a bizarre criticism.

Wide rivers are rivers that flow through alluvial (alluvial because of the river) flatland, keeping them rich, fertile, abundant and alive--the Nile, the Mississippi, the Yangtze, the Amazon, the Congo, the Danube... and before it was dammed (or as the late Ed Abbey often insisted--damned), the Colorado.

The Colorado makes the point--the Grand Canyon is glorious and inspiring, but supports only the thinnest ribbon of live on its margins. Pent up in that stunning gorge, the river feeds little. The Colorado delta was verdant and rich--and now that the damned river is no longer wide (and, relatively speaking, shallow)... now that it no longer even reaches the delta, what remains is wasteland.

The adulation of depth is, I think, a will o' the wisp--it's not a bad thing, but the width is important. It's the width, the spread, that shares life and renews fertility.

Australia's Murray-Darling river basin makes the point again--very wide, very shallow, and life giving. And like the Colorado, sucked into ill-considered, often greedy, utilitarian projects... what threatens to be left is wasteland where once there was verdance.

Having beaten that poor metaphor within an inch of its life, I'll just observe that institutional UUism is largely--first and foremost--the infrastructure weaving 1000+ congregations together. It's not supposed to be the well of UU depth, the seat of a guru or a conclave of them. Nor would it be tolerated if it started to be set up as such.

The depth is almost entirely out in the congregations and is sometimes a deep river scour... and sometimes a sandbar. It all depends on when and where and how the floods have run.

Robin Edgar said...

"self flagellating ascetics of one stripe or another"

Pun intended? ;-)

Kari said...

I admit that I ranted for a good hour to my poor (non-UU) husband about yesterday's post by Peacebang. But I appreciate your take on it. Maybe I'll calm down enough to post some sort of calm comment to P.B. later.

Happy Piety Posting!

slt said...

Hello all and many thanks for the insightful comments. First I want to say that I am not criticizing breadth-in fact I quite love it. I personally am nourished by at least two schools of Buddhism and by "Christianities" from evangelicalism to liberationism. And, of course, transcendentalism...
I do not feel we are shallow because we are wide. In fact, maybe we are not wide at all but, instead, a wide collection of fairly narrow views. I do not mean this as a criticism-we all need expression. I think, however, that the “depth” I refer to is a depth that comes when we realize that we as humans are not the be all and end all of existence. I like Theodore Parker’s view (following Schleiermacher) that we all have a religious nature and it is based on our sense of dependence. Piety comes from that sense of dependence and, without it, we are left with the shallowness I speak of.
Anyway, I will go back to my old pious Unitarians tomorrow-enough controversy for me! Thanks again to all and many blessings, BU

ogre said...

"I like Theodore Parker’s view (following Schleiermacher) that we all have a religious nature and it is based on our sense of dependence"

And there we are in perfect agreement.

Robin Edgar said...

I dare say that this may well be the first time I have received any blessings from a U*U in a long time Boston Unitarian. Quite possibly the first time ever. . . Allow me to return the favor. Your blog is a blessing to the U*U World AFA*I*AC.

"I do not feel we are shallow because we are wide. In fact, maybe we are not wide at all but, instead, a wide collection of fairly narrow views."

I have to agree very much with what you said above BU and, from where I stand, it is criticism meant as criticism. :-) It seems that, regardless of the cause of U*U shallowness, there is *some* agreement here that U*Uism, at least as it is practiced these days, is none-the-less shallow and provides rather thin gruel for the nourishment of the spiritually hungry. . .